A Little Learning with Big Outcomes

Last week was tough. If you teach in TX, you probably know what I mean.

December means STAAR/EOC testing, and while I teach readers and writers in 11th and 12th grade English classes at a large senior high school, many of my students carry the label of “re-tester.” (It’s an ugly label; isn’t it?)

All week students who have yet to successfully pass all five exams required to graduate filed into testing rooms to try again. This meant many disruptions for students not testing.

All week the English hall, along with other rooms, became the testing center. Classes displaced. Students out of comfort zones. Just a bit of chaos.

We know how well this works for learning.

In an effort to get my students settled in, back in our classroom and back in our routine

Julian shares his haiku

Julian sharing his haiku

of workshop, we played with words.

Testing disrupted our writing project, a series of letters in a variety of forms with a variety of tones, all related to a self-selected thematic link. We needed a revision workshop, but my seniors were not having it. With just 10.5 days until winter break, plus 8.5 until the end of term, many are already playing XBox and watching Netflix in their heads. (Me, too, but at least I’m fighting it.)

Since we read our choice books at the beginning of every class period, and I work daily to hold students who have not read a book on their own throughout high school accountable, I am constantly trying something new.  Today the new turned pretty cool.

We wrote book reviews in the form of haiku.

The tremendous thinking about word choice — well, it was kind of magical. (If only students would always think about word choice with such care.) Here’s a sampling of our book review poetry:

A book can contain

many life lessons that we

can use in our lives.

~Cesar Perez

The Playbook by Kwame Alexander

Are her thoughts her own

or does the tightening coil

control her whole being?

~Maria Cruz

Turtles all the Way Down by John Green

my life was stolen

but after 18 years I

got to hug my mom

~Grace Foust

A Stolen Life by Jaycee Dugard

being arrested

for helping his ex-girlfriend

Being black is hard.

~Di’Myrius Owens

Dear Martin by Nic Stone

her eyes captured me

I lost myself in her heart

Owned me from the start

~Axel Ibarra

The Oxygen Thief by Anonymous

Looking for a path

Twisted and in need of help

How do I escape?

~Jesse Borjas

Dark Dude  by Oscar Hijuelos

Running for freedom

Garret escapes boot camp

Fear, risk run with him

~Cris Velasquez

Boot Camp by Todd Strasser

Black lives do matter.

Police brutality sucks.

assume all black steal

~Alondra Rosales

All American Boys by Jason Reynolds & Brendan Kiely

The first hand account

No excuses for mistakes

Kill Osama Bin

~McKenzie Bowie

No Easy Day by Mark Owen

This simple activity led to a complex discussion about the power of words and why we need to revise our writing in order to craft with purpose. We discussed adding figurative language, creating imagery, using complex sentences. I taught how to write appositive phrases, a grammar move my students did not know.

And as students moved into their writing groups, they talked about their plans for revision. Teaching writers does not get much better than that.

When our students take on the identify of writers, they talk like writers, and they write with purpose — choosing words and phrases and making moves like real writers do.

Side note:  Some of my students produces haikus that revealed needs in their reading lives. For example, one student wrote that Fahrenheit 451 was set in WWII, and another showed confusion in the change of point of view in All American Boys. Their book review haikus gave me an action plan for reading conferences. Bonus!

Amy Rasmussen teaches senior English and AP English Lang & Comp in North TX. She loves to get her students talking about the things that matter to them. She also loves to get them talking about the things that matter to us all:  books and words and poetry and writing and serving people everywhere. Follow her @amyrass and @3TeachersTalk.

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