Creating Book Buzz: Using Memes for Book Talks

We are eight days into a new school year and already I’m in awe of how hard teachers have been working to get books in kids’ hands. Our amazing media specialist has gotten kids into the space earlier than ever and it’s been fun book-talking and matchmaking. 

Last week a pink-haired sprite of a student stood with a book in her hands, looking puzzled. “What kind of books do you like to read?” I asked her. She shrugged and turned over the book she was holding. It was Blue Lily, Lily Blue by Maggie Stiefvater and though I hadn’t read the book yet, I knew enough about the author to know this could be a match. “I think this book found you,” I told the student. She smiled and carried it over to the check out desk. 

It feels like that sometimes, doesn’t it? Like books just find a student. There are other times, though, when kids get in a rut. Or when students don’t even know enough about what they like to read to help figure out where they might start, or what to read next. While there’s excitement and urgency around the reading now, how do we carry that energy past October, the point where it feels like everything gets harder to sustain?

My colleague Tiffany Walters is amazing at sustaining reading energy. When students finish a book in her room, they immediately book talk it. There’s no schedule or deadline. She just creates spontaneous space for kids to share and they do it all year. I’ve been thinking about additional ways we might leverage the other readers in the room to keep the momentum going.

Tiffany turned me on to the Instagram account for a book store in St. Louis called The Novel Neighbor because they make creative recommendations. I was delighted and spent an embarrassing amount of time reading back through past posts. I even put several titles on hold as a result of the memes.

That got me thinking, how might we use these memes as mentor texts for the kinds of conversations we want to kids to be having about books?

The first step might be to flood students with examples of the mentor text. This is a padlet I created with a variety of the memes. Invite students to peruse, to craft a list of what they notice about how the memes are put together. Which ones appeal to them? What do they notice about form? About content? About structure?

Students might say:

  • each meme has an image of the book. 
  • colors are bold and the words strategically placed. 
  • The creator uses an If…Then structure
  • I read Survive the Night by Riley Sager, so I notice that the bullet points are important plot points. 

I imagine after we do this with students, they’ll need a nudge, something Ohio Writing Project co-director Beth Rimer calls “nurturing an idea”. It’s not enough to just show the mentor text and then tell students “okay, go do that.” We have to create a little more runway. 

Here’s where Gretchen Bernabei’s quicklists come in. This is the quicklist I used when I shared this idea with a group of teachers earlier this school year.

After we generated a list, we talked to each other about the lists, adding more ideas. Then I invited them to consider what kind of connection they could make between the book and one of the items on their quicklist. 

And then we messed around. In fewer than 10 minutes, we created memes on google slides full of book recommendations.

As we move further into the school year, we might post these memes along the hallway outside the media center. We might share the google slides the week we head to the library so kids can gather ideas. We might even see if admin will let us put the slideshow on the TVs in the cafeteria.

What are some ways you might have students share their If…Then reviews?

Angela Faulhaber is a secondary literacy coach at West Clermont Schools in the Cincinnati area. Working with teachers in grades 6-12. If you like the Netflix series All American, you might like the latest book Angela read Blackout by Dhonielle Clayton, Tiffany Jackson, Nic Stone, Angie Thomas, Ashely Woodfolk, and Nicole Yoon.

Things I Learned in August

One of my favorite podcasters/writers/self-help gurus is Emily P. Freeman. She has such a soothing voice and some really great advice. Her podcast is “The Next Right Thing,” and she also has a book by that title. The podcast has everything to do with decision-making, reflecting, and taking the next right step. It helped me a great deal during the 2021-2022 school year when I couldn’t look past the next day without having a total breakdown.

One of her reflective practices is to write what you have learned “within a season.” She encourages you to define “season” however that feels right to you. For me, back to school, a.k.a. August, is a whole season in itself. Here are the things I learned in August:

  • What a panic attack feels like
  • That taking the summer off, really off, probably kept me in this career field
  • That changing schools is hard and uncomfortable, but also challenging in the best way
  • That it’s very difficult to keep up with your blog responsibilities when you are working 10+ hour days and collapsing once you get home (sorry!)
  • What PTSE is and how it makes so much sense
  • To use “good readers…” and “good writers…” when developing objectives/teaching points

For today’s post, I am going to pull out one of those learnings to expound on in hopes it helps you the way it has helped me.

PTSE

In August, I started reading Tarana Burke’s and Brene Brown’s new anthology You Are Your Best Thing: Vulnerability, Shame, and the Black Experience. In one of the pieces, “The Blues of Vulnerability: Love and Healing Black Youth” by Shawn A Ginwright, he writes about the term PTSD being “inadequate to capture the depth, scope, and frequency of trauma” in the environments of Black youth. Instead, he proposes the term “persistent traumatic stress environments,” or PTSE’s, to demonstrate the constant fear, trauma, or sadness that comes with food insecurity, lack of housing, and more. These are not things that live in the past and haunt our present; they are current stressors that affect these kids everyday.

After reading this piece, I had many epiphanies about my students’ experiences and some of the roadblocks they may have to learning. There is an urgency in front of us to both rid communities of these constant stressors by building better living conditions and also to meet students’ mental health needs now. We have to always stay in front of it because it is present, not past.

I also had a realization about my own experience. I have been grappling to find the words to describe how I feel to my husband, my parents and all the other non-educators around me. I am not feeling PTSD from last year. I am also not sure I am feeling burnt out because I took a true break over the summer and have felt that it really helped me recover. I think I am living in a persistent traumatic stress environment. Now, please hear me clearly when I say that I am a middle-class, white, cisgender, heterosexual female and I in no way think my experience is equal to the youth that Ginwright speaks of. However, he did give me some new language to clarify how I am feeling. I am so happy to not be teaching hybrid and to be able to be more interactive with my students this year. But I am also feeling extreme amounts of stress that I haven’t experienced before (see “learning what a panic attack feels like” above). I am feeling pressure to “get things back to how they were before” and to “close learning gaps.” I am also feeling pressure to keep my students safe because my state has done nothing to do so, and we have a massive amount of cases. My mind is always going, I am always feeling like I can’t possibly get it all done, and I am always aware that we are not doing enough for what these kids need. These feelings came as a major disappointment to me because I was expecting this year to be better for a lot of reasons. It was confusing and upsetting that I was still feeling the 100-pound weight of stress digging into my chest everyday.

With this new clarity around my feelings with PTSE’s, I have been able to offer myself some grace. I understand now that I won’t just be rid of the stress after I just get past this hurdle or that deadline. I will still have to think about how best to set up my room/do activities to keep kids as safe from COVID as possible. I will still have to find every avenue of creativity to help these students get back on track. With this knowledge, I made the decision to work some longer days than normal but to also create a work-home boundary to prioritize real rest in the evenings and on the weekends. There may be no end to this PTSE in sight, but with understanding of the problem and some strategies I can handle it better than I was when I was just trying to make it to a new day expecting it to be better. Because I have put on my own oxygen mask, as they say, and done the work to take care of myself, I am better equipped to help my kids through this extremely stressful time.

For example, I understand that many of my students are also living in these environments- because of mental health situations, race, economic status, living as a teenager in a pandemic, etc. I can use this knowledge to help them also find similar boundaries and grace for themselves, too. I really enjoyed the advice in the reflective piece “Two Weeks In…” and think these are great ways to get students through their own PTSE’s.

Rebecca Riggs is in her 5th year of teaching. She has moved to a different school in the Houston, TX area and is teaching ELA II. She is surviving these times by throwing caution to the wind and eating/drinking all the Fall things even though it’s still 90 degrees and not technically Fall yet. She is reading You Are Your Best Thing and The Tattooist of Auschwitz. She and her husband will celebrate 10 years together this month, which makes her giggle because they met when she was her students’ age.

Expanding the writing workshop feedback loop

In my previous post one of the questions that was guiding my thinking about writing instruction this year was how to personalize it more, how to open up more choice during workshop time in similar ways that we have with reading. One of the things I’m hoping to experiment more with this year is pacing. All students doing the same paper (even if they choices of prompts) at the same time with the same deadline is efficient for the process but not for the feedback. Especially this year as it’s the first time I’ve ever had one prep–6 sections of English III, 169 students. Collecting anything sounds and feels overwhelming, let alone a longer piece of writing that I can get meaningful feedback on in a timely manner. 

My longer term vision is that students would have individual writing goals and plans that they work on that include a variety types of pieces in varied numbers with genuinely staggered deadlines within the class. I’m not nearly there yet and may not get there this year. But my first step has been a good one so far. I’ve set up a feedback rotation system for our first three “laps” (as Penny Kittle and Kelly Gallagher call them in 180 days) so that on one lap students self-assess, on one lap they get peer feedback, and on one lap they get my feedback. This enables me to closely read two sets of papers on each lap instead of 6, still getting to each class by the final lap. I will still give a quick read to the other four sets to look for any significant issues (partial completion, red flags in structure or minimum basics) or significant praises (amazing efforts, great sentences, or surprise improvements). I will also do some reading and feedback during class and amid the writing process (as we always do) via conferencing.

my ugly plan

In all three scenarios the feedback is framed with essentially the same questions:

  • What’s one strength of the piece? (or, for those doing self-reflection: What’s one thing you’re proud of in this piece?)
  • What’s one idea for the piece? It could be an improvement that’s needed or an addition to make.

I have students and peers make these comments on the bottom of the doc they submit, and my gradebook allows me to include (via copy/paste) those comments/feedback. So a student’s “grade” in writing from each bell set looks like this right now:

Eventually students will see each type of feedback for their writing feedback in my gradebook. This makes a more narrative-based grade and helps tell a more accurate story of the writer’s progress.

The next step will be some reflection on those first three pieces where students will identify some of their best work toward our 4 writing targets (specificity, complexity, structure, style) and do some inventory of their strengths and weaknesses, which the feedback should prime them to consider. That will enable us to set some more targeted, personalized goals for the next round of writing.

The main challenge I had to confront to take this baby step is guilt. I feel guilty not interacting more on every doc they submit, so it has taken a lot for me to turn over some of the responsibility for feedback. But hopefully this will enable us to write more, to acknowledge the value of other readers, and empower more self-assessment.

Nathan Coates teaches junior English at Mason High School, a large suburban district near Cincinnati, Ohio. He’s excited to finally have some meaningful Reds baseball in September.

Two weeks in…

I have been reflecting a lot on my teaching and my students in these first two weeks of class. We are back in school, all 2200 students, and wearing masks all day long. When I read Sarah Krajewski’s post, Control What You Can, the other day I felt like she was reading my mind. This year I am teaching a freshman reading support class and my students have challenged me in ways that I haven’t seen since I first started teaching twenty four years ago. They are pushing me to be a better teacher every day. Here are a few things I have already learned:

Students are out of school sync. For many of our students, they have not set foot in a school in over 18 months. My biggest worry was that they would be muted and quiet coming into the classroom. That was not the case! They haven’t seen many of their friends in person or on screen so they are so excited to be around each other. They LOVE to talk. That being said, they needed some reminders of what is sometimes okay to do/say in school and what might be better outside of school. We have had many conversations in my class already about the different expectations between remote learning and in person learning.

Vulnerability with students is more important than control. The first week we spent a lot of time on community building and setting expectations in our class. Our class spent two days creating our class norms, which were what I had hoped they would say without me writing them myself. But I realized right after doing this activity that their definition of respect was not the same as mine. They knew what they were “expected to do in school” but application of those norms was NOT as easy for them and I lost my cool the first week of school. So embarrassed, I reflected right away with colleagues and later in the evening came across the article, “Reframing Classroom Management: A Toolkit for Teachers,” on the Learning for Justice website and the paragraph below hit me. I wanted my students to be compliant, but that isn’t what respect is to them. They really just want their teachers to get to know them. The next day I started class with an apology for my actions and shared what I reflected on. We had an honest discussion about how hard it is to be back in school after 18 months and what they need from me. The most common response: belief in them, positivity, and encouragement even when they do things that I think are better suited for hanging out with friends.

Students need structures and routines. My students thrive on structure and organization which wasn’t as easy to do via Zoom. So each day when they come in I remind them to grab their binders from our cabinet, plug in their phones to charge, take out their independent reading book, etc. I use timers to hold myself accountable and to make sure that the routines go long because I get distracted. We start with a simple attendance question or a quick “how are you?” and go right into word study when the bell rings. I book talk a book and we then read before moving on to our main lesson. When given structure over chaos, they choose structure any day.

Listen to your students and be flexibile. I started the year with with a two week plan for what I thought we would accomplish in our class. I learned quickly that flexibility is key in my class. Certain activities just took us longer than other support classes and I needed to adjust. They also didn’t have the stamina to work for as long as I thought they would so we are doing things like a gradual build in independent reading and take breaks as needed. By listening to my students and observing their behaviors, I am really trying to adjust and meet their needs, emotionally and academically, where they are at right now.

Please focus on joy! Sarah was 100% spot on when she said focus on the positive and control what you can. There is so much negative in the world around us and even through the rough moments look for the bright spots in your day. Compliment students when you see them doing something right, even if it is as simple as putting their phone off to the side during independent reading. Ask them about their lives, their routines, their families. Celebrate successes and look for those smiles underneath their masks.

Find your marigolds. Find your people who will support you and have your back no matter what. Find those who will build you up and help you reflect and grow during this transition back to “normal”. Without my “people” I wouldn’t be in an emotional space to write this post.

While this wasn’t exactly the way I had hoped to start my year, I will say that I am so grateful to be back in school full time. Being in the presence of students and not behind black screens rejuvinates and inspires me to do better.

Wishing you all a healthy and happy start to the school year.

Control What You Can

It’s my last full week of summer vacation, so of course my mind is on the coming school year. I’ll admit, I’m a bit nervous. I still don’t know what school will look like. However, instead of focusing on what could be, I’m going to focus on what I can control.

I can listen. From Day One, I will get to know my students as best I can. My first goal: learn at least 5-10 things about each one of them within the first few weeks. When they share something personal, I’ll be there.

I can be flexible. When students sound overwhelmed, I’ll extend deadlines. When I see reteaching is necessary, I’ll make time for it. I won’t put pressure on myself to complete a unit by a certain date. Instead, I’ll let whatever is needed, happen.

I can put my mistakes out there. I won’t assert the “teacher power” I have, but instead prove I am just like them: a reader/writer/human being that makes mistakes. I’ll allow myself to be vulnerable by sharing my own blunders with classes and how I attempt to fix them. I’ll share personal learning experiences, and how we can unpack tough topics that often make some of us uncomfortable.

I can speak my truth, which is one of the four agreements I learned from Glenn E. Singleton’s book, Courageous Conversations About Race. I’ll speak honestly about the various pieces we read, including many that are about races and cultures different from my own. By modeling this first, my students will hopefully to do the same. We’ll explore our own identities throughout the year by reading various poems and excerpts one day, and sketching our thoughts the next. I’ll introduce “radical empathy” (from Isabel Wilkerson’s book Caste), and we’ll discuss how to find humanity within ourselves and others so we can face problems together, be better informed about the world, and listen to each other with love (#IREL21).

I can write with my students. Writing is so much more than just following a task or completing a worksheet. We’ll write everyday to build stamina, trying out new moves, studying mentor texts, and revising consistently to make our writing better and our voices heard.

I can focus on joy. There are so many different forms of joy. By getting to know my students, I’ll learn what brings them joy. I’ll share pieces of writing that bring me joy, and ask students to share some of their own. We can focus on our accomplishments to push ourselves to do more.

By focusing on what I can control, we can become communities that thrive.

Texts that inspired this post (besides those that were already mentioned above):

  • The Antiracist Writing Workshop: How to Decolonize the Creative Classroom by Felicia Rose Chavez
  • Being the Change by Sara K. Ahmed
  • Black Boy Joy edited by Kwame Mbalia
  • Risk. Fail. Rise. by M. Colleen Cruz

Sarah Krajewski teaches high school English and Journalism near Buffalo, New York.  She is about to begin her 20th year of teaching, and is always looking for new, creative ways to encourage her students to read and write. At school, she is known for helping students become lifelong readers, and for being a devoted reader herself who “knows her books.” You can follow Sarah on Twitter @shkrajewski

Field of Dreams: Film Study in Writing Workshop

by Elizabeth Oosterheert

Kevin Costner and Gabby Hoffmann in Field of Dreams.

If you build it, they will come…

For Iowans like me, last week the iconic line from 1989’s classic Field of Dreams came true  as our state hosted its first ever Major League Baseball game between the White Sox and the Yankees on a field adjacent to the Dyersville site used in the famous film. 

Eight thousand fans welcomed the teams, and Kevin Costner walked through a cornfield onto the new diamond, giving a sparkling speech referencing his love for baseball and the movie. Thirty years ago, on the other side of that corn, we filmed a movie that stood the test of time,” he said. “Tonight, thanks to that enduring impact that little movie had, it’s allowed us to come here again. But now we’re on a field that Major League Baseball made.

We’ve kept our promise, Major League Baseball has kept its promise, the dream is still alive. There is probably just one more question to answer – is this Heaven? Yes it is,” he added, a nod to one of the film’s famous quotes.

 (Speech excerpt courtesy of People.com.)

Reading the multitude of articles about the new field and the iconic movie reminds me of how films become woven into our cultural identity, and how vital it is for us as teachers  to invite our students into studying, interpreting and responding to visual text.

Field of Dreams is a perfect example of a sports themed movie that is about much more than a baseball game. It’s a story of regret, redemption, and relationships between fathers and sons.

For eighth graders, analyzing an entire film is a daunting task, so I’ve learned that one of the best ways to welcome them into film study is through analysis of ONE scene, giving attention to nonverbal elements such as the actors’ positioning, facial expressions, costumes, use of props, and more.

Film study also exemplifies how bias informs writing. When we read a film review with our writers’ eyes, we can infer within a sentence or two what the author intends to communicate. We can also use the reading of critical reviews to teach sophisticated craft moves.

My favorite mentor texts for film study include:

The New York Times Anatomy of a Scene Videos

How I Use This Mentor:

  • These videos are excellent tools for demonstrating how much thought goes into a movie. What’s even better is that directors narrate them, so students know this is expert analysis rather than another school “hoop.” One of my favorite videos is this one for Kenneth Branagh’s 2015 live action Cinderella. Branagh explains that every detail of the first meeting between Cinderella and Prince Charming is critical, from the Shakespearean trees in the background to the horses’ genders. This video is also helpful if you have a student who chooses to write about the rash of live action remakes studios like Disney have released, from The Lion King to Mulan. And speaking of Mulan, there’s an Anatomy of a Scene video for that film as well! The Times continually updates this collection, recently adding videos for summer hits such as Black Widow and In the Heights.

Film Analysis and Prompts from Scott Myers (@GoIntoTheStory) on Medium.com

How I Use This Mentor:

  • Myers is a screenwriter, professor and blogger. His work is an outstanding mentor text since he leaves NO writing stone unturned. Whether your students are engaged in film study, writing narrative snapshots, or responding to their independent reading, studying Myers’ writing will inspire them to delve beneath the surface of setting, characterization and more to produce writing that is truly empathetic.  Recently, Myers wrote a piece for Medium.com called “The Writer as Psychologist.” In it, he discusses how often shame motivates fictional characters, and invites readers to explore Red’s development in The Shawshank Redemption. Myers concludes by saying that “it is our responsibility to understand each of our characters to the core of their emotional, spiritual, and psychological being. That process not only enables us to write complex, multilayered characters, it also informs us as to how each character ties into the overall narrative as well as the shape of the story’s structure.” It’s awesome to aspire to this analytical depth in writing workshop.

What evidence of learning do I ask students to share?

  • Students take notes with a partner on cinematic scenes and techniques.
  • Students view and comment on videos from the NYT Anatomy of a Scene series.
  • We discuss professional and student written mentor texts for writing about visual texts. 
  • Students write their own Anatomy of a Scene. This may be in response to a film OR an episode from a series.
  • Students compose an original scene individually or collaboratively.
  • Students read a variety of professional film reviews and we comment on craft moves such as writing a lead for a review and how those leads often show the writer’s bias. Discussion of bias is critical to future argumentative writing that we will do later in the year.

What are your favorite ways to invite students into writing critical commentary? Share your ideas in the comments, or email me at oosterheerte@pellachristian.net.

Elizabeth Oosterheert is a middle school language arts teacher and theatre troupe director in central Iowa. She loves writing, and sharing the stage with seventh and eighth graders. Her favorite stories are Peter Pan, The Outsiders, & Our Town. She recently finished writing an adaptation of Arabian Nights for performance in November 2021.

Some thoughts on bringing more choice to writing

When I read Readicide I was, like many English teachers, really affected by the argument Kelly Gallagher made about how reading instruction was destroying the love of reading in our classrooms. It helped spark myself and many I know to adopt a workshop approach that placed greater value on independent reading than our curriculum had allowed for in the past. 

Going into the 2021-22 school year, I’ve decided to focus on doing something similar with writing. Like most English teachers I know, I use a derivative of the writing workshop model and offer choice in the prompts I give. But I haven’t felt like the writing we do is truly personalized yet, or that students see it as vital. For many students I encounter writing is something they do to answer school questions. So in this post I’m going to try to organize the questions I’ve been mulling and offer some ideas for offering a more personalized approach to writing instruction.

This year’s vision: 

I always start with the big, overly idealistic picture of what I’d love to see in my classroom. Then I try to wrap my mind around what steps might enable it. So when I think about my students as writers, what I really want to foster within them is the academic independence and agility to make choices. Choices about genre, structure, word choice, syntax, etc. that befit their audiences and purposes. I’m not interested in teaching them how to write an argumentative essay, having them practice that, and then submitting one to be scored. I’m interested in finding ways for them to be always writing, always exploring, always engaging with a form that suits their content. Like I said, overly idealistic but it helps me know which way to move. 

Some guiding questions for me this year:

  • How can I provide more choice but still make sure each student covers the needed skills?
  • Can more choice lead to more staggered deadlines and a more manageable paper load (which facilitates more writing)? How would that work?
  • Are units a help or hindrance to writing instruction, writing volume, and learning to be a good writer? Do units help facilitate meaningful writing experiences?
  • Which writing skills transcend genre and stock assignments?

Some first steps:

Work to co-create student writing goals. I’m hoping that the goal-setting and progress-monitoring model that Sarah Zerwin outlines in Point-Less will help me tackle guiding question 1. Sarah Krajewski wrote two excellent posts (part 1 ; part 2) about Zerwin’s approach if you’d like more context. Zerwin has several resources posted at the Heinemann site you can explore as well. These co-created goals form the backbone of the accountability in a more personalized setup. This will mean more conferencing and feedback during workshop time, which is the real work of building writers.

Begin with some menus before advancing to fully student-driven tasks. Here I envision offering a couple of writing options during first semester. For example, during the early weeks of the semester we do an activity about the ship of Theseus. I’ve tentatively set up the following prompts for a short writing response:

  • Argue: Does A = B? Prove it using interesting examples.
  • Tell a Story: Have you changed since you started HS (or JH)? In what ways are you the same, different?
  • Analyze: Critique the argument you heard in class that was least convincing. What made it un-persuasive?

I envision giving students feedback based on which approach they chose, then working them to track what they tend to write and which types they tend to avoid. Since students may choose different modes, this will prevent me from slapping an “argument rubric” on it and force me (and hopefully them!) to think more about the traits that make an argument or an analysis good writing. For example: specificity and complexity.

Let some content topics, questions, and articles dictate topics, then allow them to explore forms and structures and approaches. This is my attempt to break free from units. Instead of blocking off four weeks to focus on argument while we discuss school shootings, for example, I want to bring a new or different mentor text that is responding to current events and move forward from there. 

I feel good about the general direction and basic first steps to get the ball rolling. Figuring out if it’s working will be an ongoing struggle. It’s the question we always have no matter the method: are my students become better writers?

Nathan Coates teaches junior English at Mason High School, a large suburban district near Cincinnati, Ohio. He highly recommends checking out John Green’s The Anthropocene Reviewed for a great collection of mentor texts.

Friday Night Quickwrite 7/23

It is hard to believe that we are heading into the final days of July. I just came from a week at the beach, and this time away is just what I needed to relax and find some time for myself. I hope you are finding some time just for you and also some time to write.

Today I read a Facebook post from Nanci Steveson, one of my favorite middle-grade authors. She asks us to remember that we have so many important and wonderful things that happen outside of our “daily grind.” Like “skies to gaze at, ponies to pet, stories to write, children to hug…ice cream to savor, music to dance to…toasted marshmallow, letters from home, and dancing naked in the rain.”

Although this is part of Nanci’s personal list, I think we could all make a list of those important things. Today I wrote about buying a dress. I have not bought or worn a dress in many years, so buying one was a huge step for me. I worked hard this summer on taking care of me, and buying this dress was a little reward for my accomplishments and an act of bravery.

I invite you to take some time this weekend to explore those important things in your life. Or maybe something on Nanci’s list has sparked writing idea for you. Whatever you write, I hope you come back and share your thoughts with us.

Leigh Anne is about to start her 15th year of teaching, her 8th year as a middle school language arts teacher. As her summer winds down, she is looking forward to meeting and sharing books with her new students.

The Language of Flowers: Characters in Bloom

by Elizabeth Oosterheert

Image courtesy of Posterspy.com

In an unparalleled school year…

One of the books that spoke profoundly to my students was Patrick Ness’ award winning story of love and loss, A Monster Calls. If you’ve never read it, this book would be an excellent addition to your summer reading list. I promise you’ll be moved by the story’s symmetry, truth, and Jim Kay’s breathtaking illustrations. In addition, the book is framed around four tales of life and death that are anything but average, all available on YouTube as short videos excerpted from the feature film starring Louis MacDougall, Liam Neeson and Felicity Jones.

One of the main characters in A Monster Calls is an ancient monster formed from a yew tree who comes to bring truth through stories and healing. Since much of the narrative is framed around a massive tree, it was natural to invite my students to analyze characters using the language of flowers or “floriography,” the Victorian era’s version of sending a snap or a text message. Thanks to Michael W. Smith & Jeffrey D. Wilhelm’s Fresh Takes on Teaching Literary Elements for introducing me to this approach!

In Victorian society, one could express admiration or disdain for another person by sending a particular floral arrangement. Each flower had its own meaning, and in the context of our classrooms, this transfers seamlessly to literary studies. The beauty of this kind of response is that it works with any book study in which one of our goals is to challenge students to cultivate their knowledge of characterization and metaphorical thinking.

As Kate Roberts wisely suggests in her book A Novel Approach, one of the best things we can do as teachers of English language arts is give our students the books they need, and then use those books to teach them skills that can be applied to multiple texts, rather than teaching one book for weeks on end, plowing through every line and extracting all of the joy from the novel in the process.

A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness

Floriography is a creative way to invite students into analysis and inference. It begins by giving students access to charts (readily available online from a variety of sites) that link flowers with different meanings. For example, heliotrope means devotion, while a yellow carnation represents rejection. I use different charts to give students a guide for creating character “bouquets” composed of flowers that represent traits (both qualities and flaws) of principal or supporting characters in a whole class text, or a novel that a student has chosen to read independently or as part of a book club.

Usually, I will ask students to choose three flowers for a character, and then provide rationales for each of their choices. Often, students will end up choosing more than three flowers once they get into the “rhythm” of this type of response. Floriography also works well as a way of inviting students to compare and contrast characters.

While I was skeptical the first time I tried this approach, I learned that students appreciated having the tangible floral “frame” to explore metaphor and construct meaning. Soon, when we read together, they were asking if they could create character bouquets as a way of expressing important elements they noticed such as character motivation and relationships. 

A copy of the job sheet that I shared with students the first time we tried character bouquets with A Monster Calls is linked here.  Students enjoy creating character bouquets collaboratively as well as individually. My students Chloe and Josie wrote character bouquets linked here.

Character bouquets are also an excellent way to analyze character development in short stories when there is a particular character who changes dramatically in a short time, such as in Shirley Jackson’s “Louisa, Please Come Home,” a thriller that my eighth graders enjoy reading when we study Jackson’s iconic works.

What are your favorite ways to invite students into deeper thinking about story and characters?

Share your ideas in the comments, or email me at oosterheerte@pellachristian.net.

Elizabeth Oosterheert is a middle school language arts teacher and theatre troupe director in central Iowa. She loves writing, and sharing the stage with seventh and eighth graders. Her favorite stories are Peter Pan, The Outsiders, & Our Town. She is currently writing an adaptation of Arabian Nights for performance in November 2021.

The Yearning to Learn Carries On

Just like Nathan Coates in his post last week, I have been thinking about the conversation surrounding Critical Race Theory in schools. From what I have seen in my area, fear is playing a huge role: fear of the unknown, fear of discomfort, fear of hard conversations. Now, I firmly believe that many of the things coming up for CRT are misguided. Too many terms are becoming synonymous that aren’t- “anti-racism” is equated with “white fragility” is equated with “race-baiting” is equated with “critical race theory.” It seems to go on and on, but each of these things is so different from the next.

As I took my first vacation with my husband alone since our honeymoon four years ago to Atlanta, Georgia last week, I had an epiphany. I mentioned in a post a few weeks ago that nature is where I come up with my best writing ideas. While exploring Georgia, specifically Sweetwater Creek State Park, I took a moment to sit on a big swath of metamorphic rock (I originally wrote “granite,” but my geologist husband corrected me) lodged into the hill on the riverside to watch the whitewater flow. Lots of things came up for me: this water kept flowing amidst a worldwide pandemic, this water kept ceaselessly eroding away the rock beneath it while we struggled to figure out what school looked like this year and what was best for students, and this water kept finding the path of least resistance while fear was being brandished after racial reckoning, insurrection, and the fallout. I got emotional as I realized that our kids kept going, too. It was different from all the years before, but they still had an obvious ache inside of them for learning. Just like that water, their natural human tendency to want knowledge and want to understand kept flowing. I think I forgot that at times this year.

If you ever go to the state park, this can be seen on the red trail.

While I was stuck in my mindset about how learning has looked for decades and how that was so different this year, I missed some amazing moments that I am just realizing right now. Together, my students and I processed a pandemic, the politics that raged around that pandemic, the racial reckoning, the history-making insurrection, and the movement toward a more “normal” return to life. They created powerful “America to Me” videos to start off the year so we could see our country through their eyes (using this video as a mentor text). They taught me new things about how to look at texts during their book clubs. They took on big topics that they felt passionate about and researched them to create a website for publishing (adapted from an idea from Kelly Gallagher using this site as a mentor text). We may have read less texts and written less formal essays than in years past, but these kids learned. Not because of me, but because of their instinctive will as human-beings to make meaning. No one could have stopped their learning no matter how hard they tried.

With this epiphany and the war against CRT gnawing at the back of my mind, I realized that the kids are going to be alright. I am hoping for some more nuanced conversations between politicians and adults about what CRT actually is and what free speech/true inquiry in the classroom should look like, but even if all those adults let these kids down by not having those tough but necessary conversations, I know my kids will keep talking about it. They will keep asking questions and not stopping until they get an answer. They have a deep yearning to learn that can’t be thwarted by misguided laws, just like that body of water won’t be stopped by rocks or trees. My hope lies in the fact that the kids will always find a way to make meaning, no matter what we do or don’t do. However, our job is to remove the obstacles to learning to make it flow easier, not add more resistance to their path.

*Many of our curriculum ideas mentioned here were created in large part due to my colleague, Deanna Hinnant’s, amazing mind. You can find her at @DAHinnant on Twitter.

Rebecca is moving into her 5th year of teaching at a new school, Conroe High School. She is looking forward to a fresh start and all the ways this move is getting her out of her comfort zone. In the meantime before school starts up again, she is resting hard by bingeing TV, reading tons of books, and relaxing in the pool. She is currently reading Sanctuary by Paola Mendoza and Abby Sher. You can find Rebecca @riggsreaders on Instagram or @rebeccalriggs on Twitter.

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