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.

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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.

Continue reading

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:

Continue reading

Ask Moving Writers: Information Writing That’s NOT “The Research Paper”

AMW Karla (1)

Dear Larken,

On a recent trip back from Texas, we sat behind a couple of teenagers who were having the most incredibly mature, well-rounded, rich conversation about everything from politics to travel to education. As the plane prepared to land, and their conversation came to a close, the 15-year-old boy said to his new plane mate: All education needs to do is teach kids to love learning.

Our hearts leapt out of our chests and sunk at the same time. This statement was so hopeful and profound and somehow freeing, yet it also implied a failure on our part as educators…

How do we teach kids to love learning?

In three words: keep it real.

Make it authentic.

Less like school.

More like life. Continue reading

Ask Moving Writers!

Ask

As we all head into our summer vacations, we are full of reflection about this year (“Boy, that was the worst lesson I’ve ever taught” and “I can’t believe that worked so well!”) and dreams for next school year.

We are also full of questions! We bet you are, too.

This summer, the Moving Writers team will be answering your burning questions about secondary writing instruction! What do you want to know? What do you need to know more about before fall? How can we help?

Leave your question here! We will start answering them on the blog in July!

A Definition-Essay Study: Definition is More Than a Line in a Dictionary

Melissa Surber teaches 11th grade Junior and Senior College Prep English and AP Literature and Composition at Troy Buchanan High School in Troy, Missouri, an hour north of St. Louis. She is in her 18th year of teaching and just recently became National Board Certified. Connect with her at @ELAWordsmith.

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Mentor Texts:

Patton Oswalt Facebook Post

Paper Towns by John Green, excerpt

The Book of Qualities by Ruth Gendler

Writing Techniques:

  • Ezra Pound Imagery–”An “Image” is that which presents an intellectual and emotional complex in an instant of time.”
  • Personification
  • Narrative
  • Definition
  • Simile/Metaphor

Background:

My commitment to the definition essay is a holdover from my failure on a Comp 2 assignment in college. The definition essay was the one piece of writing that left me flailing. Throughout high school and college, I had mastered the five paragraph essay and could weave snippets of voice into my writing just enough to create a false confidence and make instructors feel like I had a handle on the essay’s subject. Then came the definition essay grinding my writing life to a halt. I wrote about “beauty,” an overused and somewhat trite concept in the first place. For the first time, my thesis, preview, body paragraphs, review, conclusion style of writing utterly failed me. I turned in a modge podge of anecdotes and proverbs. The message from my professor was something like, “I didn’t grade this in order to preserve your well-being.” I went back to the drawing board with definition. In my rewrite, I examined the evolution of beauty over the centuries, still not definition writing, but my professor took pity on me and gave me a C- so I could end my torture.

The definition essay has remained that pest lurking in my past and reminding me of my failure. I went on to try to teach this essay form to Comp 1 students in a four hour night class, which offered me a bit more clarity. Only recently, though, did I begin to discover tools that brought the definition idea into focus and allowed students to explore a concept in a meaningful way.

Over the years, I have made it my mission to help students navigate the perilous world of definition. I don’t want any student to find herself as confounded and unsuccessful in a writing experience as I did my sophomore year of college.

How I Use Mentor Texts:

Getting Started:

When we begin writing, we have just finished 1984 and have discussed how Newspeak was used to redefine and eliminate meaning, so students have already had discussion about the complexity of concepts in our language. I begin by giving students a list of abstract concepts and simply having them quickwrite their definition of the word because “the dictionary never does a word’s meaning justice,” I explain. I direct them to consider their personal definitions. We actually spend an entire class exploring the word and its meaning in society. This year, they shared with me a google slide presentation where they researched and found the following:

  • The definition of the word
  • Three quotations about the word (from well-known people)
  • Three people who exemplify the word (celebrities and fictional)
  • Three memes
  • Three songs/poems about the word

Once they have found all of the above, they analyze the information and write a paragraph or two detailing how they believe society defines the word.

Defining their Understanding:

Now students have their first impression of the word’s meaning and the stereotypical way it is depicted. With this basis, we begin to expand their ideas by using short writing spurts that offer various perspectives.

  • What are the typical examples/situations associated with your word?
    • I encourage students to ask people around them. They make a list of 3-5 typical ideas.
  • With what is your word typically confused? In what ways is your word misused?
    • I give them the typical example of love: I love your shoes vs. I love my son.
  • What would be missing in the world if your word did not exist?

With each writing spurt, students’ understandings of their words grow. This is already way more consideration than I gave the word “beauty” when I first attempted definition writing.

Tapping into Imagination:

I am a huge fan of Tom Newkirk and his book The Art of Slow Reading. While his book is mostly about engaging in the act of reading, he points out time and time again that the beauty of writing, whether in a biology textbook or a novel, rests in the narrative. Story, the narrative, is an integral part of ALL writing. This is a principle I repeat to my students. We will never abandon writing technique, i.e. narrative, imagery, figurative language. Given that, we take their ever expanding definition of their chosen concept and begin to explore it in various other imaginative ways. Enter mentor texts!

  • First, students think about a time in their lives when this concept was the center of a moment. They hone in on the most intense part of that moment and tell the story. I remind them they can’t create a whole personal narrative because this narrative will only be part of a whole piece of writing.
  • Then I give them Patton Oswalt’s Facebook post. He posted this 102 days after his wife unexpectedly died. It’s beautiful and sad (and riddled with profanity so edit at your discretion) and describes grief in real, raw, and vivid detail. We read it and discuss his tone and format.

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Most students recognize that talking directly to the concept intensifies the emotion of the passage. Then I challenge them to create writing that directly reflects Patton’s piece. Here’s what I wrote with them:

Thanks, wonder.

Thanks for making curiosity look like the Hatchimal cast haphazardly in the corner. Curiosity is the newest fad toy causing desperate parents to trample store employees to snatch it from the shelf only to watch their child play with it for five minutes before growing bored.

But wonder? Wonder is the refrigerator cardboard box destined for the trashcan that caused the kid to stomp on his Hatchimal as he raced to rescue it from its impending doom. Wonder makes curiosity the thrift store toy some child no longer wanted.

If you spend a moment concentrating, you discover. The lyrics to a catchy tune, the humor in a viral meme, the horror of the latest terror attack, the excitement of the ending of a novel, the warmth of an “I love you” text message. The flutter of new beginnings. The warmth of a steady relationship.

But spend a moment with wonder and it feels like resuscitation and you have breath and oxygen. You will see vibrance. You will not feel content. You will not feel normal. You will not be bored or tired or “wishing you were somewhere else.” You will have a rejuvenation, renewal and a new appreciation for the beauty of nature and the sky. And you’ll also realize that one moment of wonder will begin an addiction that will need to be fed continuously.

You can see how great this form is for creating definition. I didn’t end up using all of the above in my final product, but I used quite a bit of it. Students loved what they wrote using Oswalt’s format.

  • From there, we move to John Green’s excerpt from Paper Towns. Green is a beautiful writer and highly accessible to teenagers, so I often travel to him when guiding students’ writing. In the excerpt below, he describes fear.

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We discuss how John Green is describing his definition of fear and distinguishing it from other beliefs about it. I suggest that this could be an excellent way for students to segue into their narratives in their definition paper. Then we do what has become commonplace in my class, we write using Green’s excerpt as a guide. Here’s what came of my attempt:

Sitting there holding that baby, I realized something about wonder. I realized it is not the far-fetched dreams of riches and luxury, even if these items may cause excitement. It is not the anxiousness of the first day of school, and not the relief of the last day of school. Wonder cannot be confined to a schedule. It bore no resemblance to any excitement I knew before. It was the purest of all emotions, the feeling that accompanies us in our happiest memories. This is the wonder that steals one’s breath for a brief moment, that suspends time, the wonder that makes people freeze in astonishment.

  • Finally, and probably the biggest stretch for students to make, I share with students excerpts for Ruth Gendler’s book, The Book of Qualities. Gendler describes concepts as full fledged people with clothes, actions, and personalities. She manages to delve into the intricacies of a concept by attributing human characteristics to it. I suspect I first stumbled upon her book somewhere on the Moving Writers website. Students and I read Gendler’s personifications together and then work to create our own. These have come to be some of the most thoughtful and entertaining parts of the definition piece. Mine turned out this way:

When Wonder appears, she wears gauzy dresses that whisper to the wind; her skirt twirls in fantastic swirls as she spins to view the world around her. Her eyes shine and reflect the beauty of the vistas around her. Her voice murmurs in trills and hums, compelling people to lean in, to focus solely on her. It draws others close, and when she smiles, her red lips twist into curly cues of question marks, making people long to be with her longer, to discover more about her. She gestures in large sweeping motions, as if every conversation is an invitation to dance and frolic in a fantasy world of her making. Wonder’s visits are brief, and most who know her are left only to plan their next encounter with her.

Turning Parts into a Whole:

Once students have created all of these parts, they have to figure out how to put them together in a meaningful way. I explain that a definition essay should do the following: provide a multi-faceted approach to the word, have a personal/emotional connection, and offer readers ideas they can relate to in an intriguing way. Students then have to choose which of the parts to include (the narrative portion is required) and what order to include them. This approach has influenced students to produce thoughtful writing, and I feel confident that the definition essay will not blindside them if and when they encounter it.

 

Have you tried writing definition essays with your students? What tips can you share? How might students explore this genre in your class or in other content areas? Tweet Melissa @elawordsmith or leave a comment below !

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.