Tiny Writing: Boosting Opportunities for Frequent Student Publication

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

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

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

Tiny Writing Study Logistics

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

Day 1  – Introduction & Mentor Text Immersion

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

Day 2 – Noticings

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

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

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

Day 3 – Try one

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

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

Day 4 – Revise

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

Day 5 – Publication

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

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

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

Four Tiny Writing Studies That Have Worked for Me

Ready to try this with your students next week?

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

Two-Sentence Horror Stories 

 

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

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

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Haiku

 

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

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

Humans of …

 

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

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

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Buzzfeed Lists

 

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

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

Two More Ideas I will Try This Year 

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

Letter to My Younger Self

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

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

Crowdsourcing Pitches

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

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

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

Making Writing with Mentor Texts

Teaching is no longer the lonely profession it often seemed to be when I entered the classroom. Thanks to social learning tools like Facebook and Twitter, professionals are able to create and sustain lasting learning networks with kindred spirits all over globe. Whenever I design a new instructional approach, lesson, or unit, I reach out to other teachers in my tribe for feedback. I invite them to use my work in their own classrooms, too. They tell me how it’s helping the writers they support. More importantly, they help me make it better. This has been my experience with Peter Anderson, a seventh grade teacher from Thomas Jefferson Middle School in Arlington, Virginia.

Peter recently read Rebekah and Allison’s book, Writing with Mentors beside the draft of something new I’ve been playing with on the heels of Make Writing, and he reached out to me on Twitter to process his thinking. Over the last several weeks, we’ve enjoyed an easy email exchange which has helped him synthesize varied approaches while refining my own work a great deal.

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Breaking Rules Like a Pro

Last week I participated in a Twitter chat hosted by @TalksWTeachers and this blog’s creators: @AllisonMarchett and @RebekahODell1. It was a fast-paced flurry of awesome ideas and thought-provoking questions, but one question in particular kept me thinking the next day.  Allison posed the following question:

What do you struggle to teach and how might mentor texts enable that?

I struggle with all kinds of things, but the one that popped into my head first was my struggle to wrestle kids away from formulaic writing. I thought about formulaic writing a lot this summer. In June I was a reader for the AP Language exam and read hundreds of formulaic essays. The brave essays that abandoned tired, overused formats were almost always more engaging to read. Later in the summer I read this lovely take-down of the 5 paragraph “monster” by Kathleen Duddan Rowlands in NCTE’s English Journal. So, when asked the question about struggles, my immediate response was this:

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Okay. If #mentortexts show them that the pros do it, which ones will I use? Time to tackle this struggle. Continue reading

Writing Floats on Talk: Pitching Our Ideas

screen-shot-2016-09-14-at-9-27-41-pmMy word-of-the-year, the thought on which I want to focus my energies and instructional experimentation, is “talk”. James Britton famously wrote that “writing floats on a sea of talk.” I want my students’ writing to float … and then to fly.

So, yes, I want them to write five times as much as I can possibly read and grade.  And I want them to talk about their writing ten times more than that.

You and I know this truth.  Allison and I talk about our writing for at least five hours for every one hour that we actually commit words to paper.  We know how our ideas grow and evolve when we share them aloud. We know that something changes as we hear our writing read aloud to someone else. We know that talking is a critical part of the writing process.

I’ve been searching for ways for my students to talk more about writing this year. With my seniors, we started by formally pitching their ideas for writing.

After a few days of mentor text immersion, my students had a general, fuzzy idea what they wanted to write about.  When they arrived in class, I gave them these instructions:

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Students immediately perked up, asking so many follow up questions about the world of publishing that I could hardly settle them to write. Why? This was real. They saw the relevance because real writers have to pitch their work, and in our class we act like real writers.

After spending 5-ish minutes jotting down a pitch in their notebooks, students had to pitch their ideas to their editorial board (their tablemates).  The rules were:

  • Each person shares his or her pitch.

  • The Editorial Board should listen attentively and then flood the pitch with questions — gently poke holes in it, ask follow-up questions, point out potential problems. Good editors don’t let you run with a weak idea.

  • This conversation should continue until either A) the Editorial Board reaches unanimous approval or B) the writer realizes that substantial reworking needs to happen before their idea is ready for the Editorial Board. Either answer is a WIN.

Students were initially excited-but-trepidatious about pitching their ideas to their peers, and I had to provoke some editorial boards into serious questioning lest they default into, “Cool. Good idea”-rubber-stamping. After talking it out — a process that took between 15-20 minutes total — students had this to say:

“This was helpful because there were some areas where I needed to patch up a bit, and I didn’t even realize it but my tablemates helped me figure it out. Go team.”

“I made my ideas more concrete by talking about it. Other people gave me ideas and asked questions that I’m going to need to answer and build off of.”

“I came up with a better idea with help from my tablemates.”

“Hearing my friend’s pitches made me inspired for other essays I could write in the future!”

“We should do this more often.”

Through this process of real-life pitching, students gained confidence in ideas they already loved, refined existing concepts, and tossed out duds.  Students walked into their writing with buy-in from others.  As we reflected together, students realized that spending time talking out their ideas on the front end led to revelations they previously had only after completing a piece of writing (usually moments before it was due).

Do your students pitch their ideas to the class? How do you make it work? In what other ways do you use talk to make writing float? Leave a comment below, find me on Twitter (@RebekahODell1), or comment on Facebook.

First Day of School: Six Word Stories with a Twist

Today’s guest post is from one of Rebekah & Allison’s colleagues, Maria Bartz. Maria  is an English teacher at Trinity Episcopal School in Richmond, VA.  She loves a clean white board for spontaneous think tank sessions with her inspiring colleagues, a fully charged laptop to explore the ever-growing world of educational technology, and  big circle of passionate teenagers engaged in thought-provoking discussion.

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First-day six word memoirs from Maria’s students

Planning for the first day is a balancing act.  I want it to be fun, unique, and a truthful preview of what the school year will look like in my room.  For the past six years of teaching, plans for the first day were a mix of icebreakers, quick review of the syllabus, and writing some sort of introduction letter, which they would finish for homework.  It just never felt genuine or much like my classroom.  

This year, I decided to make it truer to my class: I wanted them writing.  And not just an introduction letter that skims the surface of who they are and what they like to do. Still, it’s tough to get students studying mentor texts and writing a finished piece in only 25 minutes.  I was up for the challenge.

My secret weapon came in the form of six word stories….with a twist.  In past years, I have used Ernest Hemingway’s famous six word story to open the conversation about intentional word choice: “For sale: baby shoes, never worn.”  While this is still one of the most heart-wrenching stories I have ever read, I wanted this activity to act as an introduction to the process of studying mentor texts as well as a gateway into the students writing about themselves in a personal way.

So instead of asking them to create a fictional six word story, it had to be a six word memoir.  Here’s how the class went:

  • Define “memoir”

I define the word “memoir” for my students and explain that memoirs can come in all lengths–a couple pages or an entire book.  I then tell them that they are going to write their memoir in only six words (listen for the gasps!).

  • Study  one six-word memoir together.

I preface the reading by saying, “This writer was asked, ‘If you had to tell me about your life in six words, what would you say?’ This is the memoirist’s response: ‘Ask me again in a month.’”

Independently, students respond to these questions: What is the tone, the feeling exuding from the sentence? How do you know?

I let students share with their group and then share to the class. Students notice that the word “month” is an indicator of hopefulness or despair, depending on how they perceive the length of a month to be.  Students note that the word “ask” is friendly or intrusive, depending on how they interpret being asked personal questions. We only spend a few minutes discussing this, as they quickly grasp the power of each word in the sentence.

  • Study more mentor texts

Next, we read ten examples of six word memoirs (amazing examples here). I chose IMG_1531examples that varied in topic, tone, and style and that resonated with high school students. Here are some of my favorites: this and this and this and this  They are unintimidating and clever; students have even commented, “I like these” or “This is cool.”

Students choose their favorites from the list of ten and work through the same questions about tone–what is the tone?  How do you know?  To that question, I add “What makes that sentence special–is there a play on words? Is there a creative use of punctuation?”  Some circle or highlight words, others don’t. Since this is a 25 minute class, I will save that discussion for another day.  My goal today is just to have them read sentences thoughtfully.  Due to my time constraints, we don’t share our thoughts on our favorite sentences; although, if the class was longer, I would ask for volunteers to share their findings.

  • Students take a turn

I then tell the students that it’s their turn–that they will be writing their own six word memoirs.  Some eyes widen, some let out a groan for having to do more work on the first day of school, but most are already spinning the wheels in their heads.  

For the sake of those who are not as eager to write, I offer up myself as tribute and share the drafts of my own six word memoir.  I explain why I made any major or minor adjustments in each draft and show my final draft written cleanly on a sentence strip.  This is intended to ease their anxieties, allow them to get to know me personally, and illustrate the power of revision.

At this point, there is about five minutes left in class.  I coach them along, asking rhetorical questions that could spark an idea–”What is going on in your life right now?  What is your life motto?  What are your hopes for the future?”  Some students will write six words immediately.  Others reread the mentor sentences and have zero words written when the dismissal bell rings.  Homework is to finish the first draft of their six word memoirs.

Without much dawdling, this took one 25-minute class period.

The next class, as the warm up, I ask the students to reread their original six word memoirs–does it reflect the tone you intended?  Does anything need tweaking?  Once they are satisfied, they will write their final drafts on sentence strips–no names required.

IMG_1532That afternoon, I staple all the memoirs on our bulletin board to publish their writing.  When students return to class, they are given three votes (pencil hash marks) for their favorite ones; we applaud those who got the most votes but keep the winners anonymous.

Students love reading each other’s memoirs and seeing their own work displayed.  I’ve even had a few students submit a new six word memoir, feeling the inspiration of their peers’ and their own writing.  We will refer to this activity throughout the year when I introduce the concepts of mentor texts, word choice, and taking risks.

It is my favorite first day yet.  

(For another beginning-of-the-year writing idea using six word memoirs, check out Stefanie’s post from last week!)

What new experiments are you trying on the first day this year? What are your tried-and-true favorite ways to getting students writing from day one? Comment below, find us on Facebook, or Tweet Maria @MsBartz.

Pedagogical Documentation: How Writing Teachers Learn From Their Students

thefirstthing

When Allison and Rebekah asked me to begin a new year of blogging by considering the first thing I would want the writers I teach to understand, this post nearly began writing itself. You see, I’ve spent this summer learning more about the power and practice of pedagogical documentation, and this has inspired some unexpected shifts in my thinking about what matters most inside of writing classrooms.

Writers do.

Of course they do. This is a simple fact. So simple that we tend to take it for granted. It’s easy to assume that the curriculum we design is intended for our students, but when I look hard at many lessons and units, it’s clear that they were designed to meet the needs of teachers and systems, not kids. It’s easy to assume that our assessments are intended to serve learners well, but if we’re disrupting learning in order to assess it, I’m not sure we’re doing it right just yet. And when we position ourselves at the front of the classroom, we’re typically taking ownership of instruction, aren’t we?

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Coaching Writers to Provide Quality Feedback

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Image via Angela Stockman, WNY Young Writers’ Studio

When writers trust that they can consistently receive high quality feedback from their peers, everything changes.

Rather than relying on the teacher, kids begin turning to one another for support. They begin knowing and naming their expertise and soon, they grow hungry for cool feedback. Rather than hearing it as criticism, they take it for what it is: a gift. Quality feedback is timely, criteria specific, and of service to the writer.

Criticism isn’t the same as feedback, and neither are compliments.

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Discovering a Writing Process that Works

One of my favorites things about the end of the school year—aside from summer vacation, of course—is the opportunity to reflect on another year gone by. And as I look back on this particular year, I see many bumps in the road: lessons gone awry, students I didn’t quite reach, and material I didn’t get a chance to cover. That said, I also see my students, and I think about the relationships I was able to build, the times we’ve learned and laughed together this year—and I feel lucky to be their teacher.

As I look back at this year and the last fifteen years—I think crystal is the traditional gift for a 15 year anniversary, right?—one truth stands out. When we give students choices in their reading and writing lives, our teaching becomes more powerful. Giving students choice, in other words, doesn’t relinquish teacher control so much as it empowers student learning.

When I first started teaching, the only writing that my students ever did was literary analysis. I spent those early years, and too many subsequent ones, teaching with a 4×4 type approach, described by Kelly Gallagher as 4 major works, one each quarter, and each followed by a major (literary analysis) essay. As Gallagher points out, such an approach simply doesn’t allow for the volume of reading and writing that students need to do in order to substantially improve as readers and writers.

I’d say it also doesn’t allow us to get to know our students very well, either.  Continue reading

Could You Please Repeat That? Showing Students the Effect of Repetition in Writing

Remember that Family Guy bit where Stewie is begging to get Lois’s attention by doing that lovable and annoying and relentless thing children do? “Lois! Lois! Lois! Lois! Lois! Mom! Mom! Mom! Mommy! Mommy! Mommy! Mama! Mama! Mama! Ma! Ma! Ma! Ma! Mum! Mum! Mum! Mum! Mummy! Mummy! Mumma! Mumma! Mumma!”

Of course, Lois replies, “WHAT?!”

Repetition is, no doubt, effective.

Stewie-Lois

Image via barfblog.com

I tell my students often that carefully and intentionally placed repetition can elevate your writing like that (*snaps fingers).

Something I’ve done that pushes students towards this type of intentional and elevated writing is to zoom in on the sentence level and examine the writer’s choices in repetition.

The upshot is that this is a two-birds, one stone approach. Students are required to both analyze the writing, which could tilt towards either literary or rhetorical analysis, and imitate the structure in their own writing.

Take for example these mentor sentences and passages:

I think it would be well, and proper, and obedient, and pure, to grasp your one necessity and not let it go, to dangle from it limp wherever it takes you.

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Coaching the Overwhelmed Writer

I stumbled upon Austin Kleon’s work a few years ago while struggling to support writers through the process of creative theft. They were working on fan fiction, and many of them were having a hard time distinguishing stealing with integrity from…..well….simply stealing.

Over the years, I’ve come to view plagiarism as something of a developmental phase, so when I encounter it in my work with students, I try to work them through it and beyond it by providing specific strategies. This is how I fell in love with Kleon’s book, Steal Like an Artist. Here, he shares a list of ten things he wished he had learned when he was starting out:

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