Category Archives: AP English

Managing the Paperload with Essay Edit Rotations

IMPORTANT NOTE:  I went to a session about managing the paper load in AP courses at the convention in Las Vegas in 2013, and a presenter shared different strategies for having students write more, but grade less.  This session was packed, and rightfully so. We all left with a wealth of ideas, and I  wish I could find the handouts to provide proper credit–I believe they were safely stored in my AP school box that went missing between our Houston to Chicago move.  If this was your session, you are a goddess! (Also, please message me!).

Right about now, the stretch after spring break into AP exams, I find myself wanting to provide students with as much practice writing as they feel they need to be confident in transferring their skills to the exam in May, but not bog myself down with essays upon essays to review as the weather becomes warmer and the days are longer.

Enter “Essay Edit Rotations,” a way to include timed practice but not grade every piece.  There are two simple components to this instructional pacing. Part 1: Students write. Part 2:  Students learn more about how they write.  

Here is how the rotations work:  Set aside one day a week for a timed writing session.  Students come in and write, then those timed drafts are collected and reviewed for trends/misunderstandings, but not scored.  Repeat this over the course of four weeks, so students have four essays in total to edit. That is Part 1: students are practice writing without grades.

Part 2 involves editing those drafts from Part 1.  I provide students with the same number of options for how to study their writing as they have timed writings and typically set aside 3-4 class days to dig in.  Students select which edit to apply to each one of their essays, “rotating” through their pieces, with one of the timed writings is always revised and typed to be scored by me for a stand-alone AP grade.

You can tailor the prompts/essays to what your students need practice on, just as you can create as many different edits as you need and scaffold over the course of the year.

I have utilized a variety of editing strategies over the years, including:

  • Scored Second Draft:  Students edit, revise, and rewrite one essay to be submitted as a stand-alone AP  score, graded by me. I typically always ask students to complete this edit.
  • Peer Editing/Conferencing:  This unfolds so organically as students grow in their writing–they’re able to help their peers assess and improve their writing based on experience and mentor texts/exemplars
  • Reflective Annotating or Writing:  Students can utilize a rubric or create a +/delta chart based on their noticings. Often, I ask students to assign themselves a score based only off the adjectives used on the AP scoring (see below).

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  • Analyze the Components:  Students color code and highlight each element of their essay (i.e.: Claim, Evidence, Analysis, Transition) to understand how they are layering their ideas by reflecting on the visual structure, as well as the ratio of evidence to analysis.
  • Oral Editing with a Peer:  Have students pair up and read their essay, verbatim, to one another.  Students can hear what sounds inconsistent or where a thought trails off.  Students then revise these murky areas with
  • Grammarly:  Students can upload their essay (requires typing) and receive feedback.  I typically have students reflect over the commentary and identify trends and next steps for implementations.
  • Focused Revisions: I am pinpoint a specific area we have been playing with, such as varying our syntax for emphasis or upgrading our diction, and ask students to only revise those elements.

 

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Bella used one of her Book Club prompt responses to complete an edit focused on diction and syntax. Students are asked to highlight every other sentence, list the first word of each sentence to note repetition, count the number of words in each sentence, determine their evidence to commentary ratio, find transitions, and a myriad of other tasks to understand how they craft their responses.  While tedious, this edit creates discussion points for amazing conversations!

 

You can browse a wealth of recent Three Teachers Talk ideas around editing herehere, and here! Oh, and earlier this week, too!

Rounds of Essay Edit Rotations support the foundational ideas, practices, and benefits of a workshop-based classroom:

  • Low stakes writing practice:  Students practice in a timed environment, but know they will have a chance to review and edit their essays.  This workshop approach to the timed writings becomes about the edits and what students learn from their writing versus what is produced within 40 minutes.
  • Students are writing more than we are grading:  As only one of the essays will be graded by the teacher, after revision, students are benefitting from writing practice yet we are not grading each one (I do complete a quick review the essays after each writing period and provide feedback, usually in a +/delta format, before they write again).
  • Students understand themselves as writers:  Test writing is different from regular writing.  There is a rubric, yes, and a goal, but there is also pressure.  With the opportunity to edit, students can gain insight into their habits when they write for this purpose and make improvements accordingly.  Students also have the autonomy to select what edit to apply to their writing, curating their learning.
  • Builds skills for test transference:  Timing is often the most anxiety-inducing component of any standardized test.  Students can practice writing coherent, intriguing ideas within 40 minutes safely so they can find their rhythm before exam day.
  • Creates space for writing conversations and conferences:  I typically have students do their editing in class over 3-4 days so students can ask questions, work with their peers, and meet with me.  It feels like a true writer’s workshop with students tinkering away, shuffling through multiple colored pens, highlighting, adding post-it notes, and conversing with peers.

In the past, I have had students practice Part 1 with the same style of open response question, mixed up the questions, given students choice over what question they practice with each week, and have done a full exam using the three prompts over the weeks.  After that round, students assigned themselves a formative score to use as a conference conversation to set goals for moving forward. I have also implemented this during the fall when AP writing seems scary to students, in the middle of the year for review, and in the spring for low-stakes practices.

Every time, these Essay Edit Rotations work like a charm.

So thank you to the amazing writing teacher who presented in 2013.  You have saved me hours upon hours and fostered conversations around writing in my classrooms around the country.  Thank you.

 

Maggie Lopez is saying goodbye to ski season and hello to spring in Salt Lake City while keeping her juniors focused with choice reading, low stakes writing, and student-driven conversations as we build to the end of the year.  She just finished Everybody’s Son by Thirty Umrigar, an NCTE conference find, and began Tayari Jones’ Silver Sparrow yesterday.  You can find her on Twitter @meg_lopez0.

 

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Fine, Let’s talk Anchor Charts!

As she dropped her backpack onto her desk during a recent passing period, a student asked, “Mr. Moore, where are the walls?”

“I don’t know. I haven’t seen them in ages,” I replied, as I tidied up my library shelves, shoving books back into their alphabetical order.

“But they used to be right there, and there, and two more, there and there,” she pressed, a hint of confusion sneaking into her voice.

I paused for a moment, thinking, before saying, “When was the last time you saw them?”

“I can’t remember.” she replied, slumping down in her desk, reaching for her book.

Finishing up my book shelving task, I took a second to consider what she was trying to tell me. Surveying the panorama of my classroom all I saw were giant white sticky notes.  I thought I heard a faint intake, a gasp for air, as if the old walls were struggling to breath, suffocated by their new decoration. Hardly any of the burgundy paint showed through. Instead, the walls were decorated with the tapestries of learning, covered by curtains of craft and content; literacy lessons.

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This is just the front of my room.

These new walls are better than the old walls. They aren’t frozen in place; a testament to tax dollars. These new walls are mobile – the kids carry them, accessing their information wherever they read and write. Earthquakes can’t wrench these walls from the foundation, nor can they be melted by flame.

I catch a lot of flack for the appearance of my anchor charts. I mix up the colors, try to use shapes, and squiggle my lines. My chart-writing improves daily, yet still my “man handwriting” is criticized by my colleagues and the kids make me re-write words until they are perfectly legible from the moon.

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Please consider my feelings. I tried to use fun letters at the top.

Not all charts are created equally.

First of all, the chart paper can’t be some namby-pamby (made up words) semi-stick, off brand, weak-sauce chart paper.  I want the super adhesive, never fall off the wall paper that I can move around, frantically pointing from one chart to another, connecting ideas, pulling their thinking from a previous lesson to connect to a new one.

Some charts find themselves arrayed with other, like-minded charts, like a file folder.  Others are stacked together to save space. Oftentimes, the students ask amazing questions that I answer, not by re-teaching something we’ve already covered, but by pointing to the appropriate anchor chart and then analyzing the looks on their faces to determine if I need to drill deeper or leave them be.

I’m not the only one doing the pointing.  Anchor charts multiply the number of teachers in the room.  Maybe one kid elbows another, confused.  The elbowed victim points to the board, or the wall, before refocusing on their work.

The universal usefulness of anchor charts helps all of our learners. Inclusion teachers are masters at using our anchor charts. My English learners lean on them frequently.  Don’t, however, think that the GT/Pre-AP kids don’t use them.  They do, almost as much as anyone.

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Somehow, I’ve assumed the mantle of “Anchor Chart Guy.” This means that whenever I bop (stroll? strut?) into the classrooms of other teachers, they demand I cast my gaze upon their anchor chart collections, beaming with teacher pride.  For me, anchor charts have become a shibboleth.  You either know how important they are or you don’t, and I pity those who fall in the “don’t” category.

We share anchor charts on our team.  Often times, we will do each other the favor of snapping a picture of a chart and uploading it to our team planning pages in OneNote. I’ve walked into my teammates classrooms and noticed specific, amazing anchor charts, only to have he or she tell me it was stolen…from me!!! Conversely, I might see one of hers (or his) that appears particularly useful, and I’ll snap a picture of it with my phone, storing that idea for later.

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We even started an Anchor Chart Hall of Fame in our OneNote planning notebook. Mostly as a joke…mostly.

I counted my anchor charts on Friday.  There were forty.  I wasn’t surprised. Those who know me won’t be either.


Charles Moore wants to learn more anchor charts. If you know of a book that is particularly insightful to this idea, please let him know.  He’s also looking forward to the weather, and therefore his pool, heating up. And crawfish. Always crawfish.  One last note, if you run into him, ask him about the Saga of the Lost Charm Bracelet.  You won’t be disappointed.  Check out his twitter feed at @ctcoach.

No Accountability Book Clubs

Prior to starting a round of Book Clubs with my AP Lit students, I questioned what would be a “just right” accountability fit for my very different first and fourth periods.  Third quarter always hits juniors hard.  It is a reality check that changes are ahead.  It seems to be the time students are in full swing with clubs, theater, sports, and other projects.  My students are invested in their independent reading, with many switching between texts they can use on the exam and fun YA selections, and developing reading identities.  My students are also chatty and friendly–Book Clubs seemed like a perfect fit at this point in the year.

But how to keep students accountable in a non-punitive way when they’re already overbooked.  I thought about my goals for the Book Clubs, which extended far beyond adding another text of literary merit to their tool belts for question three.  I wanted them to read, to engage, to think.  For students to have fun meeting together to discuss books like adult readers do.

For some, a bit of accountability helps spur their reading and processing.  I have many students who like to document their thinking with annotations or dialectical journals and be rewarded for their visual thinking.  I understand that. For others, a bit of accountability becomes a chore that interferes with their engagement. Students have reflected that tasks associated with reading pull their focus away from the text and onto the assignment.  I get that, too.

I have been ruminating over my grading practices this year, taking notes on what is helpful and what can change next year as we progress, seeking practices which keep students accountable in non-intrusive, authentic ways.  Letter grades in the English classroom can be tricky. Our content lends to subjectivity when grading. Add in the pressure for college-acceptable GPAs and authentic learning can be lost in the quest for an “A.” It can be difficult to accurately measure understanding, as well as the more essential habits for success beyond our classrooms–effort, improvement, depth of thought and questioning–with five letters.  I am trying to shift from grades and points to accountability, effort, revision, second-laps, and reflection as tools for building skills and taking risks. I want anything I evaluate to have meaning and to be balanced by a lot of low stakes participation, effort, and reflection.

Book Clubs are like independent reading, just a bit more social.  Why grade it with check-listy parameters?  I wanted students to read, engage, and think with one another.  To come to the table with questions, thoughts, and connections, like a college student would.  To process challenging books together, like an adult book club would.

So I decided I would assign no accountability checks.  Nothing. I only asked students to be accountable to one another, as adults would be in a “real” book club each week, with the schedule they set.

Knowing they wouldn’t be receiving a tangible grade or reward, I was concerned students would see this as an invitation not to read deeply, or that some wouldn’t feel invested in the payoff. However, my hope that our months of community building and sharing in reading experiences as readers outweighed my tinges of fear.  Why not step aside and set them free?

I gave Thursday’s class period over to the Book Clubs and student-driven conversations with the ask that students use the class period to process together.

Students owned it.  

There wasn’t a lull in conversation on Thursdays.  Student groups chatted with each other while I circulated and enjoyed their voices and insights.  I wasn’t roaming the classroom with a clipboard or checking an assignment in while half listening. I was a floating member of each club (hence why there are no pictures accompanying this post!).

I noticed there were discussions about the gray areas of the books, like what is the Combine Chief Bromden references and what the heck happened to Nurse Ratched to make her the adult she is in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.  I noticed the crew reading Ceremony worked to make sense of the non-linear structure and researched the myths of the Laguna Pueblo people. Readers of Brave New World connected the text to Oryx and Crake, a summer read, as well as our world.  Readers of The Road hypothesized on the events before the book begins.  Many students annotated their books, kept a notecard of questions to ask one another, took notes during the meetings, and referenced the text throughout their discussions.

There was no need to dangle a carrot in front of their noses or keep track of data to issue a grade.  Students did the work because the elements were there:  choice, time, conversation.  They made meaning together, employing the habits developed throughout the year while practicing being adult readers–readers who read, engage, and think in a realm where there isn’t official accountability to turn in.

I’m not sure what my digital gradebook categories will look like next year, what practices and procedures I will put into place to promote authentic accountability, but I know I will challenge myself to step aside more often, to trust students will do the work if the environment is right.

 

Maggie Lopez is entering the fourth quarter in Salt Lake City upon returning from spring break.  She is currently reading Hitler’s Furies by Wendy Lower. You can find her at @meg_lopez0.

A Happy Little Lesson

Screen Shot 2019-03-11 at 2.12.33 PMOkay, I stole the inspiration for this post’s title from the late, great Bob Ross, but if the tree (or daffodil) fits, then I’m good with sappy wordplay. AP Literature can feel dark at times because many of the texts we read deal with death, loss, and desire. That’s why I look forward to the beauty and humor found in our texts and with each other in our class. The Romantic literary era provides wonderfully rich, dark, gothic themes, but it also provides opportunities for students to think about how they connect with nature and beauty. Often, it reminds them that they’re not taking time to relax, reflect on beauty, or enjoy some downtime away from small screens.

  1. We began by reading William Wordsworth’s “I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud” – a wonderful poem for traditional analysis. More importantly, it serves as a great mentor text to think about those places upon which we reflect when we’re feeling down. Here’s Wordsworth’s poem:

I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud,” by William Wordsworth:

I wandered lonely as a cloud

That floats on high o’er vales and hills,

When all at once I saw a crowd,

A host, of golden daffodils;

Beside the lake, beneath the trees,

Fluttering and dancing in the breeze.

Continuous as the stars that shine

And twinkle on the milky way,

They stretched in never-ending line

Along the margin of a bay:

Ten thousand saw I at a glance,

Tossing their heads in sprightly dance.

The waves beside them danced; but they

Out-did the sparkling waves in glee:

A poet could not but be gay,

In such a jocund company:

I gazed—and gazed—but little thought

What wealth the show to me had brought:

For oft, when on my couch I lie

In vacant or in pensive mood,

They flash upon that inward eye

Which is the bliss of solitude;

And then my heart with pleasure fills,

And dances with the daffodils.

  1. We analyzed the poem together, noting its craft and themes. We discussed a variety of ideas: the few visible stars in our city’s night sky compared the multitude of stars that can be seen in the country, how the simple experiences in life can be the most profound, and the importance of having a “happy” or safe place.
  2. We talked about the genre of poetry as a vessel for this beautiful message, and we discussed how we might capture the same beauty in prose. The word “prose” still scares many of my students, so we talked about what that meant. One student asked if prose is similar to the personal narratives they wrote for standardized tests when they were younger, so we also talked about the test-genre and its relationship to more authentic writing. (Incidentally, there’s an idea for a whole other blog post!)
  3. I shared two prose pieces about happy places of my own, and the students analyzed the craft in those. We discussed the literary devices present and their effects in the piece. They talked about the song lyrics woven into “Funkytown” and how the diction becomes darker as I leave my “happy place” – the roller rink. They talked about the sibilance in “Whither Thou Goest” that correlates with the river that winds like a snake below the mountain, the color imagery, and biblical allusions. It is always magical when we write with our students, and the fact that I shared myself with them made them feel more comfortable to write honest pieces of their own.
  4. Ultimately, I challenged them to write about a literal or figurative “happy place” of their own. It could be a physical place or a state of mind. I challenged them to play with language. There was no length requirement, but they were to label 5 different literary devices they employed.
  5. Just as I weaved song lyrics through one of my pieces, some students incorporated poetry, lyrics from a musical, and even lines from a movie into theirs. Others preferred more straight-forward, concise prose. Some wrote very poetic prose. In every case, however, their voices shone! The results were some of the best writing I’ve read from them all semester.
  6. The next step is to discuss how they can use their voice and their writing strengths in their academic writing. I once heard an AP Literature teacher say that there was “no time to have students write their own poetry in the course” and that worse yet, he’d “have to read it.” I have always felt sorry for that man. In my experience, it is the best way for students to find and hone their writing voices, learn about literary devices in an authentic way, and for teachers to foster a love of writing in their students. With the next mentor-inspired text, I will have them analyze their own writing.

Here are a couple of student samples from this assignment, unaltered by me, used with their consent:

By Jake (3/3/2019)

            I do not feel at home in Texas. The land is flat, the weather is tourettic; these gargantuan skies transmogrify from benevolent baker to dekiltered, frenetic assailant mile by mile, hour by hour, even. I take it back: I appreciate the tumult above the flats of Texas. It compensates for the, well, flatness. I could go on and on about how I would rather adore the rapturous peaks of my birth state, Colorado, how each and every inch stirs within a kindred connection that I experience nowhere else in the country. I could go on and on about how the saltine winds along the coasts of Washington corrode my worries into a whelming paste, yet these are, regrettably, far away places. I frequent these happy places, sure, but my memories elapse more time than that which I have spent in these places. Music allows me to carry these places around with me, wherever I may roam.

          “Bat Out Of Hell” by Meat Loaf forever holds a motorcycle to Colorado, as I was truly deafened by Meat’s foghorn vocals and personality for the first time in a balmy summer night’s drive through some valley whose name escapes me. Led Zeppelin’s “D’yer Mak’er” speaks to me of foot-slicing clamshell beachfronts, Dad trying his damndest to deafen me with Led Zeppelin in the rental car, and whiling hours drowned on that driftwood deck. I find the King in me whenever I pick up that there hairbrush in the bathroom and belt, belt as freely as the mighty Mississippi River flows. “Patch It Up,” “Blue Suede Shoes,” “Steamroller Blues,” and “Fever” purr and yelp around the room, terminally ill with suave, when I’m feeling up. “If I Can Dream,” “Bridge Over Troubled Water,” “American Trilogy,” and “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin’” croon and boom through the hallways when I’m feeling like the sky above. I am as much myself while belting Elvis to pictures on the wall and motes of dust as I am writing poetry to no one in particular.

            However, if my musical mind is a mountain, Elvis Presley makes up little more than the babbling brook rushing between the rocks that I scrub off my worries in. Meat Loaf is the foothills, the base upon which rests my musical perspective. Sturgill Simpson is the renegade wind that whistles through the hills, tossing me hither and thither as I make my merry way up the mountain path. In the forest of rock n’ roll, the wind takes on more of a Led Zeppelin flavor, rustling the Beatle pine needles. The rocks upon which I scrape my hiking boots are the bones of the bands that built the tastes I enjoy today. Bands like Nirvana, Styx, and Deep Purple, which once shone me the colors with which I view the forest today, yet get trampled nowadays in my search for the more exotic indie elixirs. If my musical mind is truly a mountain, then surely for every stone this metaphor turns over lie another taunting ten.

            Then music, unlike any physical happy place, must surely forever evolve, must be at the whim of the beholder and drive the behest of the spirit, must sculpt the mountains of the mind and scythe paths for one to meander, to sprint, to cower, praise, sleep upon, to stray from. Well, it holds this precedent to me, at least. Music has also upheld the standard upon which I interact with other people. What sets music apart from any happy place is that music builds the places into the palaces of peace that they are in my mind.

By Lung (3/4/2019) *Lung is an English-language Learner!

          On Jan. 20th, 2019, I experienced a phenomenon when the world stopped spinning, and the universe halted to a finite. I have had many perfect memories in my life, but not as unrivaled as this one. I’ve never felt more desperate for time to stand still and for picture-perfect moments to last. I lived only in that moment: cherished and content and peaceful.

            It was my two year anniversary with my boyfriend who is more like my partner in crime than a lover. He took me to Gussie Field Watterworth Park in Farmers Branch, Texas to share a “treasure” that he found. Although I was skeptical about going to a park on an evening when the weather dropped as low as 32 degrees, I still followed him, ready for an adventure. When we arrived at our destination, I opened the passenger door only for the harsh wintry breeze to slap me into regret. I scanned the scenery to recognize that we were the only people insane enough to occupy a park when the weather could freeze a person whole. The flowers have wilted into brown garments, and even sheets of ice were floating lazily on the pond. I was soon disrupted of my thoughts, when he grabbed my hand and pulled me into the middle of one of the many trails toward what looked like a box from afar. As he stopped and let go of my hand, I was face to face with a tiny wooden cabinet covered in a peeling paint of baby blue. It contained many books of different genres on its mini shelves, and I looked up at him in surprise. Knowing he wasn’t one to read but to kick soccer balls, I was even more astonished when I saw how his eyes twinkled like stars by the sight of books. After we both grabbed a book, we sat down on one of the wooden benches to enjoy each other’s presence and read silently as I drowned in peace.

            Soon after, when the sun began to set, the sky was tinted with an array of pink, orange, and yellow. The clouds boasted with mystical colors and the pale glow of the moon was beginning to show. Hand in hand, we walked back to the wooden box to return the books to their shelter. As we placed them onto a shelf, he pulled my shivering body into his jacket and wrapped his arms around me. As I placed my head onto his chest, from deep inside my chest, through every cell of my body, the warmth welcomed me like an old friend. There we stood, under the glorious paint, two kids ready to face the world. Then I realized, it really was a treasure.

Polysyndeton

Personification

Hyperbole

Imagery

Simile

Amber Counts teaches AP English Literature & Composition and Academic Decathlon at Lewisville High School. She believes in the power of choice and promotes thinking at every opportunity. She is married to her high school sweetheart and knows love is what makes the world go around. Someday she will write her story. Follow Amber @mrscounts.

No More American Dream Essays, Please.

Qualifier for this post: It is not about RWW per se. Through my own fault, my AP Language & Comp students rarely have any choice about what they read and write (next year. sigh.) But I think what I describe in this post could be adapted pretty easily for the RWW classroom.

I’m teaching The Great Gatsby for the 17th time. Over the years, I’ve gone the route of color imagery analysis, character analysis, stylistic analysis, and yes, the novel’s commentary on the American Dream. The latter option, this year, fills me with nothing but dread for political reasons I probably don’t have to explain to anyone reading this blog. But my dread is also based in an ongoing (and growing) sense of complex arguments becoming grossly oversimplified: We either “Like” something, or we “Unfollow” it. Ceither-or-fallacy-with-examplesharacters are either “normal” (Nick), or they are psychopaths (George Wilson). You’re either with us, or you’re with the terrorists. Me Tarzan, You Jane.

Most ideas or issues are more complicated than simply “either” one thing “or” another. Obv, right? My AP students are learning the importance of making complex meaning from what they read and expressing their understanding of an issue in complex ways by qualifying their own or their understanding of others’ arguments. To that end, I’d like to recommend the process of “iterative collaging,” which I learned about at NCTE last fall from a session given by Andrea Avery, Nishta Mehra, and Courtney Rath.

As we’re reading, we’re discussing themes of capitalism and class structure, freedom and collage_stage1oppression, and the omnipresent concept of the American Dream. We’ve examined images from media as well as the writing of Ta-Nehisi Coates surrounding these issues. Right now, ideas are plentiful and scattered. Ultimately, though, by arranging these images and passages in certain ways, students will compose a visual argument about the interaction of these issues in the America they know. But here’s the cool part — and the iterative part: Using some magic in the form of repositionable glue sticks (yes, those are a thing — see photo!), students can arrange and rearrange the items in their collage to explore the ways various juxtapositions can reveal new understandings.  AND — Maguire hopes — discover complex meanings beyond the reductive arguments that plague so much of our current discourse.

We’re in the early stages of this work — hence, the in-progress photo — but I will surely let you know how it goes. Has anyone out there ever used collage for argument (or, any other fun reason)?

Are You Doing Quick Writes in Your Classroom? Why You Should Be (Especially in an AP Language and Composition Class)

Grief is a house. We were using this quick write from Linda Reif’s The Quickwrite Handbook since in AP Language and Composition we were beginning an analogy essay (For this essay, students extend compare/contrast form and write an extended analogy.). As I wrote my quick write about how grief is like a black hole, I soon discovered that while I could produce words like point of no return, event horizon, gravitational pull, I wasn’t confident in my use of them. AHA. Impromptu mini lesson: after we “[rode] the wave of someone else’s words” (Ralph Fletcher wisdom at its finest) and experimented with analogy writing, shared our best line or idea with someone in the room, and revised some part of that quick write, I shared my writing and explained how I realized I needed to research my known (black hole) more if I was going to write about it accurately. Quickly, I directed students to share their topics at their table groups and ping pong ideas off each other until they had ideas for further research for improved development. Undoubtedly, this quick write was just-in-time for us as writers. In Linda Reif’s words, it gave my students “frames and ideas for their own writing”; it encouraged them “to take risks in a non-threatening, informal situation”; it offered “ongoing practice for writing in sensible, realistic, and meaningful ways on demand”; and it provided an example of “fine, compelling writing.”

From that moment, I began to reflect through the lens of my AP classroom on all the other ways my students benefited from quick writes this year. While quick writes serve so many of our novice writers (and less-so-novice writers like me!) well, they partner well with the aims of an AP Language and Composition course. Moreover, they serve many of the students with whom I work in this course, students who tend to be advanced learners (with labels like gifted, talented, twice exceptional, high achieving, college bound, etc.), students who tend to be highly self-critical, perfectionists .

Slaying the Beast That Is Perfectionism (or at least wounding it)

Some of my students in this course maintain a distorted or unrealistic perception of self, believing, as Sal Mendaglio writes in “Gifted Sensitivity to Criticism,” that  “knowing everything and doing everything right–perfectly–the first time” is actually realistic. Of course, it’s not. And, in a high intensity course like AP Language, where students must write, write, write, it’s important to address these perceptions of writing: writing doesn’t have to be perfect. It rarely is in general, let alone on a first stab.

Quick writes arm my students again and again with opportunities to slay this mindset. These short, ungraded bursts of writing get pen to the page–with urgency. There’s no time for second-guessing or trying to compose just-right language or–common with gifted and high achievers– avoidance. There is only writing. Quick writes have not completely destroyed this mindset, but they’ve poked holes in it, particularly useful when students later face the high pressure of the on-demand writing of the AP exam. I wonder: how many of my students who struggled to get words to the page or to finish an on demand writing might have been helped had I employed quick writes sooner? If thinking, on demand, and getting words to the page had been a routine?

Sky Diving But With Language

Within my population of gifted and talented learners and high achievers, there is the potential for their creativity to soar in their writing. But for many of them, unless I optimize conditions for jumping, keeping them safe while they take risks as a writer, they won’t. They won’t jump because it might mean a spiralling-out-of-control, fall-flat-on-your-face, splat kind of failure (to them), which is precisely what so many of my students want to avoid. They’ll cling tight to five paragraph essays and divided thesis statements. They’ll grasp on to worn topics and expressions. Why? Because they maintain image this way; they can’t look stupid or inferior.

But the quick writes give them parachutes–a controlled way to jump into the possibilities of language because they offer that “non-threatening, informal” and mostly private opportunity to jump into possibility. This semester in particular (teaching on a block schedule sure accelerates my learning as a teacher–this is my second lap through AP Language this year!), I see my students jumping, taking risks in form and expression.  I wonder: with so much beautiful, powerful meaning to explore in these micro bursts, why wasn’t I giving them this opportunity to dive before?

 

Paper, Paper, on My Desk, What Line Is Fairest of Them All? THIS ONE!

With the students I serve in this course, quick writes–in addition to serving as a way to dispel assumptions about writing and encourage risks–also help address tendencies toward self-criticism. For some of my learners in this course, self-criticism debilitates. It is not enough that the teacher or peers recognize writing that is good; the learner needs to as well. For the exceptional learner, this tiny shift in perspective may reflect in their self-talk.

Quick writes afford this, a glimpse at a time. Routinely, I ask students to highlight or underline an idea or a move they feel good about or they feel successful with. This trains them to look for what went well. We then affirm these successes by finding a partner to share with. And, as Penny Kittle would recommend, we try to share those ideas and words of beauty with the class. There’s affirmation from self and others, which is critical for ALL learners (even I need this when I  model writing in front of my students or in front of peers) but especially for those who expect so, so much of themselves. I wonder: how might quick writes–had I implemented them sooner–have improved the self-efficacy of my writers?

Sneaking Vegetables In–Mini Lesson in Disguise

Of course, one of the more known attributes of gifted learners (and often high achievers and definitely creative thinkers) is their propensity for learning, transferring their learning, and applying their learning.  

For my learners in this course, quick writes serve as a way to scaffold toward mini lessons, as Lisa writes about here (or for more on 3TT about quick writes, here; herehere ; here); however, I can also sneak in a mini lesson, serving up a particular skill I want to see them absorb and then apply into their own writing. The element of novelty, too, as Noah Waspe writes about here, nurtures these learners. Hungry, they consume the mentor texts used in these quick writes and find ways to fuel their writing, often benefiting them in wholly unanticipated ways. I wonder: if I had implemented quick writes sooner, would I have nourished my writers more?

The value of quick writes abound for my AP Language and Composition learners: finding topics (and themselves), practicing revision (another way to counteract perfectionism), further rhetorical analysis practice. And more. Linda Reif’s rationale lays it out beautifully (please purchase The Quickwrite Handbook if you have not yet!). I know: in the ever-expanding universe of workshop moves, quick writes, for me right now, have the greatest gravitational pull.

Kristin Jeschke teaches AP Language and Composition and College Prep English at Waukee High School in Waukee, Iowa. She knows the force of quick writes personally: they’ve helped her own writing and her own self-talk. She’s at a point of no return–no return to the days in AP without quick writes. Follow her on Twitter @kajeschke. 

“A Sea of Talk”

“Writing floats on a sea of talk.” – James Britton.

ocean waves

Photo by Artem Saranin on Pexels.com

If you’re an avid 3TT reader, I’m sure that’s not the first time you’ve read that phrase. In fact, Amy mentioned it here just a few short days ago, and we’ve definitely discussed how to get students to talk to each other on this website before. For me, I didn’t hear of James Britton or this idea of a “sea of talk” until I joined my local Writing Project. (As always, I can not speak highly enough of how the Middle Tennessee Writing Project changed the trajectory of my career and the practices within my classroom. If you aren’t involved with your local Writing Project, I wholeheartedly encourage you to seek out those groups and immerse yourself into that community.)

Shameless plug for WP over… I found myself for two weeks straight during my Writing Project ISI starting each day with a little bit of writing, then some variation of turn and talk before returning to our writing. That process – write, share, write some more, share some more, write some more – was presented to us in multiple ways over that two weeks but all of those activities at their core were some variation of that process. And it’s one I’ve taken to heart.

Of course, our ideas are stronger after we spend some time with them in conversation, after we hear feedback from our peers. Of course, just the simple act of speaking out loud is sometimes  enough to jumpstart an idea or solve a problem. In the programming world, this process is called Rubber-ducking. Of course, it would be ridiculous to assume that our students should only ever write in isolation when they have so much to say and share. So, it’s our responsibility to just get out of the way in the classroom and allow that “sea of talk” to rise and fall, ebb and flow. A former sage on the stage teacher, I had to realize that my voice alone wasn’t enough to create a “sea.”

The latest iteration of this rising and falling in my class literally involves rising. In doing some research on how to make argumentation a more natural and low-stakes part of the classroom, I stumbled upon Dave Stuart Jr.’s blog where he discusses Pop-up Debates. I fell into a deep rabbit hole of links upon links, occasionally shouting at the dog, “This is great!” and “Oh, man! This is going to be good.” B was just as enthused as I was. He’s supportive like that.

The Pop-up Debate works like this: Explain the concept of the pop-up shop and relate it to the pop-up debate. Encourage everyone to participate. Students command the floor by ‘popping-up’ at their desks and beginning to speak. If multiple people pop-up, students politely yield the floor. There are no declared winners because everyone wins when the conversation is lively and intelligent. Encourage students to debate all sides – nothing is so boring as a circle of agreement and repetition.

And that’s it. It’s a simple practice, highly adaptable and extremely engaging.

For our first pop-up, I asked students to respond to a question about honor codes that I pulled from an old AP Language synthesis prompt. They wrote on their own for about ten minutes before test-running their ideas with a partner. Then, they popped for about 17 minutes. I found it fascinating to hear how their conversation grew and moved and evolved as they examined new facets of the conversation. Students who are reluctant to raise their hands stepped up to discuss with no prompting from me at all. Students questioned their peers’ assumptions, asked clarifying questions, raised new points, offered counterarguments, moved from specific evidence to social implications, made their points passionately. In short, as a class, we practiced several of the skills required for good writing collectively in a very low-stakes environment.

Then, we turned back to our notebooks and wrote again before debriefing as a class about how the conversation changed or added to their thinking. Simple and powerful.

Pop-ups can easily be used as a means to practice all manner of writing skills while also working on speaking skills. For example, for our second pop-up, we discussed the extent to which the study of philosophy was useful in modern society. Here, we focused on using accountable talk at the beginning of statements to show relationships between ideas – a skill we’re practicing in other ways for the synthesis portion of the AP exam. This week, when we pop-up, students will track the flow of the conversation in their WNs, and we’ll use this to jumpstart mini-lessons on counterarguments.

I hope that this method is one that you can take to your classroom and use right away. I’m always interested in how others keep that “sea” churning in their classrooms. Please share in the comments or on Twitter.

Sarah Morris teaches AP Language & Composition and Film as Literature in Murfreesboro, Tn. She is reading Mary Oliver for the first time and considering what being a “bride married to amazement…[a] bridegroom, taking the world into my arms” will look like for herself. She tweets at @marahsorris_cms.

 

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