Listening Matters: Writing Profiles

by Elizabeth Oosterheert, contributing writer

Recently, the New York Times Learning Network offered teachers the opportunity to invite their students into a profile writing contest. The idea behind this was sheer genius: Find a captivating individual, interview the person, and spin those notes into gold: Write that person’s thoughts in the form of a CBS Sunday Morning sort of interview, take a photo of the person–and voila–a fantastic profile is born from an authentic conversation and active listening.

Sadly, I didn’t learn about the contest until after it was closed, but I loved the idea of asking my students to listen well to one another and then process it through writing. I began our profile study with a few visual mentor texts. First, we listened to a portion of Andrew Garfield’s very moving interview about the loss of his mother and acting as an art form with Stephen Colbert, linked here. I asked students to write down a few quick notes sharing what they noticed about the questions being asked AND the depth and integrity of Garfield’s responses. Secondly, we viewed a portion of this profile about Olympic pairs figure skating champion Katia Gordeeva. Though it doesn’t follow a Q&A format, it’s an excellent example of a profile of an athlete’s journey and resilience in the midst of tragedy.

Ekaterina Goordeva and Sergei Grinkov

Following our look at these mentor texts, we moved to written mentors from the New York Times. Several helpful Q&A mentors were posted on the Learning Network. My favorites were actually articles that I discovered on my own: This profile of James McAvoy that first captivated me because of the title referencing a purer form of storytelling, and theatrical performance as a sacrificial act, and this one about Mike Faist, who recently starred as Riff in Steven Spielberg’s brilliant reimagining of West Side Story. I loved using this mentor since my students will be viewing segments of the film when we discuss bias and oppression as part of our study of Romeo and Juliet.

Mike Faist as Riff in West Side Story

What did we notice about writing craft in these mentors?

  • We noted the Q&A format, and the open-ended nature of the questions that left ample room for creative replies, as well as the importance of asking follow up questions.
  • New York Times profiles are edited for length and clarity. Ours should be, too!
  • We agreed that excellent writers make choices about thoughtful doorways into writing, from physical descriptions of people and places, to interesting quotes.
  • We discussed the importance of ending well, but also noted that an effective conclusion when writing a profile doesn’t need to be lengthy, it simply needs to serve its purpose.
  • We had a conversation about playing with formatting to increase visual appeal and to make our questions stand out from the rest of our text.
  • We talked through the importance of naming compositions. I shared that I probably wouldn’t have read the piece about James McAvoy if the title hadn’t intrigued me.
  • Sentence variety is vital. We noted that the questions weren’t all worded the same way, and that there was also a considerable amount of variation in the way interviewees’ responses were recorded.
  • We discussed the importance of checking back with our interviewees during our drafting process to make sure that we represented them accurately.
  • We talked through the difference between paraphrasing and directly quoting someone, and how good writers do both.
  • Finally, we talked about the power of images and how to use them as writers to add appeal to our well chosen words. Students were required to include at least one photo with their profiles.

What other supports did I give my student writers?

It was more difficult than I imagined it would be for my student authors to craft good questions. We had a discussion about the difference between writing a closed ended question and an open ended question, and then students posted questions on a class discussion thread that they might ask during their interviews. I shared this list of suggestions with students, and then gave them time to conduct their interviews and take the important step of moving from what they transcribed to writing their actual profiles. As with writing a screenplay adapted from a book, authors of profiles need to make choices about what is vital and what is not when moving from their rough notes to a best draft. Along the way, I shared profiles that I had written as well since I always write alongside my students. I wrote this profile about my son Shaun, and this one about one of my student actors, Riley. One of the interesting talking points from both of these profiles was that it’s possible to incorporate poetry into a Q&A.

End Result: Student Written Profiles

I asked students what their takeaways were from profile writing, and several of them said that though in many cases they’ve had the same classmates throughout their grade school and middle school experiences, taking the time to do these interviews and write profiles invited them to learn things about one another that they didn’t know, and many of them shared that their classmates’ replies to the questions posed surprised them. One of my student writer’s profiles is linked here. I’m so grateful that we took time in the busy weeks leading up to Spring Break to listen well and to create these mini time capsules of students’ eighth grade lives before they transition to high school.

Next up for our writing workshop is more composing with the New York Times, as we prepare to write argumentative pieces for the Learning Network’s latest writing contest.

What are your favorite ways to invite students into speaking and listening? Share your ideas in the comments or write to me at oosterheerte@pellachristian.net.

Elizabeth Oosterheert is a middle school language and theatre arts teacher in central Iowa. She loves writing with her students, and recently composed adaptations of Arabian Nights and The Three Musketeers.

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