Category Archives: Common Core Writing

Better Teaching: Please tell me your story

I already knew they were hard workers. This group of girls spent a lot of time in my classroom after school. They huddled together at the far table, speaking in a language I did not understand. They asked questions occasionally, afraid of being wrong.  

“Is this right?” one would say, timidly showing me her iPad where she’d written a few sentences in the Docs app. Returning to her table, she’d share my response with her friends.

They held on in AP English by decimal points as each grading period ticked by. Lucky for them, I scored on improvement, not on the AP writing rubric.

In class we watched the documentary “A Place to Stand,” based on the book by the same name by Jimmy Santiago Baca who became a poet while serving time in prison. Baca’s story captivated my students. They identified and analyzed the argument: “Education matters. Fight for it. Words matter. Learn them. Write them. They empower you..”

Some students understood that more than others. These girls, for sure.

We read several of Baca’s poems. Although mine is primarily a non-fiction course by nature of AP Language and my syllabus, I know that it’s through poetry that my students more easily grasp the beauty and intention in an author’s craft.

The task was to re-read Baca’s poem “As Life Was Five” and to write a reflective piece in response to it.

These girls were struggling, so I finally joined them at their table.

“Tell me what’s going on,” I said.

“We just aren’t sure,” Biak said. She spoke more often than the others, although her English was only a little better.

“Can I see what you’ve written?” I asked, and she timidly passed me her writing, carefully penned on notebook paper.

She quickly broke into explanation:  “I wanted to write my own poem. I don’t know how, and I don’t know…” Words tumbled out, and she lowered her head, waiting for me to read the page.

I looked, and before I could read anything, the words “Burmese!! STUPID and CRAZY!” shouted at me.

“Wait,” I said, “I thought you were from Burma.”

Five voices rose in chorus:  “Yes, yes, we are from Burma, but we are not Burmese. We are Chin.”

I needed them to teach me. I’d never heard of Chin, and my knowledge of Burma was limited to the first few chapters of Saving Fish From Drowning by Amy Tan I’d tried to read and abandoned years ago.

“Will you tell me your story?” I asked, looking closely into the small faces of these beautiful young women, similar yet so different in features and personality.

Biak began to talk.

“We are from the state of Chin in Burma. The Chin are the mountain people. The Christians. The Burmese hate the Christians.”

And then they all talk and tell me their story:

They fled Burma with their families, leaving grandparents and loved ones behind. Sometimes not getting to say goodbye for fear the secret of their journey would be told. They traveled in groups, mostly at night, walking, walking, walking, they said. Often barely eating food, and even then, mostly rice balls or an egg stirred into water.

Bawi told of a Buddhist monk who acted as their guide. “He wouldn’t let us pray,” she said. “Every time we tried to pray, he would knock away our food. ‘Pray to me,’ he’d say, ‘I’m the one who gave you food, not God.’ He was so scary!”

“I lost my shoes,” Biak said, “I walked for miles and miles with no shoes, and the.. What are those things?” she turned to her friends, motioning with her hands like claws, “…those things that stuck to my feets?”

“Thorns,” they said.

“Yes, thorns stuck in my feets, but I had to walk. Walk and walk.”

“Walk quickly and don’t let go,” Kimi said.

“There was a pregnant woman with us. She could not keep up. When we reached the border of Malaysia, she could not run. I do not know what happened to her.”

“I remember we heard the POW POW POW. We had to run as fast as we can to cross the border. I was so little. My legs short. I was so scared.”

Biak begins to cry. She bows her head and covers her face with her hands, “I don’t like to think about it. I remember my grandmother’s face. We barely got to tell goodbye. She cried so much.”

I look around the table. Their eyes shine with memories.

“You all left family behind, didn’t you?”

They nod, and I see Van’s chocolate eyes pool with tears.

“Did you travel together?”

“No! But we all have same stories. All Chin students do,” Duh says.

“Wow,” I say, “Just wow.” My heart throbs in my chest, heavy with the weight of these stories. Resilience takes on new meaning.

“So you must think it’s pretty lame when your classmates whine about having to work a three hour shift and that’s the reason they cannot do their homework.”

The tension breaks, and they laugh.

“What an amazing gift you’ve given me,” I say, “You need to write your stories.”

“I wanted to write a book,” Kimi says, “but I don’t know how.”

I smile. “We can work on that.”

My heart changed after that chat with my girls from Chin. I also felt chagrin. I waited three months into the school year to extend the important invitation:  “Tell me your story.”

I can come up with fourteen different reasons why. None of them matter.

Throughout the fall, I struggled with my classes because I focused on the skills needed to be successful in AP English instead of focusing on the individuals who needed to learn the skills to be successful in life. I forgot why I wanted to teach teenagers in the first place.

Perspective matters.

The most important conversation is the one that invites our students to tell us their stories.

Those young women from the state of Chin grew to trust me because I asked, and I listened. They told me later that I was the first teacher who asked them to tell me their stories — they had all attended U.S. public schools for at least four years.

I am sure other teachers assumed they knew. I thought I knew until I saw the emotion in five pairs of eyes. “We all have same stories,” Duh had said, but that is not true. They all have similar experiences. Their stories are uniquely personal, and they serve as cardinal prerequisites to the identities of each individual.

Identity matters.

How our students see themselves — as teenagers, thinkers, readers, writers, friends, students — matters, and to instruct the individual we must know what she believes about her abilities and her capabilities, both of which have been shaped in one way or another before she ever steps through our door.

Peter Johnston helped me understand the importance of identity in his book Choice Words. He reminds us, “[Children] narrate their lives, identifying themselves and the circumstances, acting and explaining events in ways they see as consistent with the person they take themselves to be” (23).

 

 

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Trust and esteem are imperative to effective conferring. They are imperative to effective teaching. They are two cornerstones of conferences that allow for the relationships students need with their teachers, the relationships students need to learn.

If our goal is to help our students incorporate reader and writer into their identities, we must build foundations that allow them to take on the behaviors of those who read and write. Equity and autonomy create balance in this foundation and become the other cornerstones.

All students must feel that we meet with them fairly and without judgment. They must know our goal is to inspire independence as they become more effective readers and writers — and of course, literate citizens.

Really, it all begins with the invitation:  “Please, tell me your story.”

my-chin-girls

Graduates Lewisville High School Class of 2016


THAT DAY  THAT DAY
by Biak Par
Far from my Home, my Family
When looking at the sky they seem so happy
But me,
Thinking about that day
Every word they speaks, every looks, every smiles, every laugh
They tear me apart, the soul sing Be Strong
That day
Every word they talk, it burn my ears like Hell
Its torture me every night, in intimidate me every day
When I see those similar faces
That day
Those word, those eyes         
Tear my heart into two pieces.
Those words are as sharp as a razor
They call me foolish, Yea, I don’t know them
Burmese!
That day
My body fills with wound and remorse.
It like drawing into the water, I could not breathe nor talk,
Walking to class
All eyes on me,
Looking down with hope that there is a place I can conceal
But the room seems so small
As I take a step to the room, the room seems colder
Like I was at Antarctica,
Very Cold
Looking at the room I was isolated for this people,
This entire people are strangers.
That day
Standing still
People examine me, like I am from the others planet
That day…
My tremble body, drum in my blood
Eyes fill with water,
That day
The word of Burmese, such as STUPID, CRAZY echoed through my ears
Stupid, crazy,
My mouth wants to shout, but my mouth feels numb
And makes my throat feels tight like I am being choked,
Almost tearful
Wanting to run away can’t bear the exposes of feeling being hunted.
That day
Eyeing for a place to seat
But none of them invites me or speak,
It like I am walking into a room full of a babies Dolls,
They do not talks
But their EYES,
Their evil eyes talk, its say get out of this room
That day
Head down, looking at the floors as I walk toward to the edge of the room,
Seat alone,
The room feels so dark, so lonely and scary
Even, I was surrounding by those people
That day
My silent cry, wishing I can revisit to where I’ll be safe
Because every second, every minute, every hours this place seems so hazardous
That day…
Hopes and dreams are fading away like the wave of the cloud fade, little by little.
From that day the world is never the same
That day, change my life
Made me feels like a woman, made me realize
That because I am different from them (Burmese) and I only speak
CHIN,
They destroy and killed my hopes, my thought, my believe,
The thought of what might come next. I am Scared.
But,
My soul sing to me, be strong. BE Strong Biak Par. Be STRONG.

 

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Mini-Lesson Monday: Friendly Competition

Having just watched my beloved Green Bay Packers hand the game to the Atlanta Falcons, my belly is full of delicious chili, but my heart is heavy. Now, I’m watching the Cubs possibly beat Cleveland and getting an odd thrill over a game I have absolutely no stake in. I’m not usually such a sports enthusiast, but all the excitement has me thinking.

img_6450The thrill of competition, win or lose, can make the ordinary far more fun. This typical Sunday night, for example, involved good friends, good food, and a good amount of jawing about a sport none of us have ever played, but still feel the need to critique. Any other Sunday night would find me waist deep in student papers. A different kind of fun, for sure.

Competition in the classroom puts a spin on the ordinary as well. It’s been my experience that a little friendly competition can turn the most aloof high students into passionate, enthusiastic, albeit candy-crazed participants. When the “prize” is stickers, watch out. The stakes are suddenly cutthroat.

For this relatively ordinary mini lesson on narrative techniques, I took advantage of the fact that I have a class of 28 students. While there are countless techniques that a writer can use in order to advance the chronology of his or her piece, my sophomores were going to be focusing on the basic idea that chronology can be linear or nonlinear, utilizing techniques like foreshadowing, flashback, building suspense, and reflection.

One of my collaborative team members came up with the idea to have the kids make the anchor charts for the lesson (thanks, Weston!), and I ran with that img_6454idea for the active engagement section of the class.

Objective: After researching in small groups, students create anchor charts for narrative techniques related to chronology and use them to determine which techniques could apply to their own stories during revision of their current draft.

Lesson: Having researched their randomly chosen terms in small groups, students pooled their findings and created an anchor chart that included the name of the technique, a definition, a purpose for using the narrative tool, and an example or two. 

With a larger class, I was able to have two groups work with each term, meaning we could have a little friendly competition.

img_6448Students completed their charts and we distributed them around the room. With their small groups, students traveled to each poster pairing and took notes on the techniques, discussing with their classmates places in their own stories they could utilize the technique. In addition, students were deciding which poster they felt more accurately covered the technique and would fit in well with the logical detail needed for our classroom anchor chart wall.

There was a lot of great talk that followed and students writing notes and ideas down in their notebooks too. I loved listening to their ideas of how the technique could be incorporated in their stories and where/how it might best fit.

The voting process even made me smile. The class suggested that they should have an official delegate from each group come forward to vote and then hang the winning poster on the wall. It was very…democratic.

Follow-Up: Students worked during workshop time to identify the chronological steps taken in their papers already and then strengthen the purposeful inclusion of chronological techniques in their pieces. Next class period, we’ll be doing some peer editing involving the specific inclusion of these elements. That exercise and their final submissions will both involve assessment of the writing (peer assessment and self assessment) using the same rubric I will use to grade this portion of their papers.


Proficient Level Narrative Chronology:
The text creates a logical progression of experiences or events using some techniques—such as chronology, flashback, foreshadowing, suspense, etc.—to sequence events so that they build on one another to create a coherent whole.

How do you utilize friendly competition to engage students? Please feel free to share in the comments below. 


Mini-Lesson Monday: Narrative Analysis with StoryCorps

We all have a story to tell.

In fact as writers, we have countless stories to tell. We tell of our experiences, fears, hopes, dreams, and even those trivial events that sometimes add up to more “life” than we could have imagined.

We tell the stories of others too. Real and imagined people that speak to us in words we’ve heard and sometimes, in the words we long to hear.

I wax poetic with my students like this often, but especially early in the school year. I want them to feel my passion for the power of stories and encourage them to develop their own passion for expression. As Morris (protagonist from one of my daughter’s favorite children’s books The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore) beautifully states, “Everyone’s story matters.” 

With this in mind, my American Literature collaborative team (Shout out to Brandon, Catherine, and Erin!) worked this year to develop a unit of narrative writing that asks students to look at the stories they tell and how those stories can be interconnected. Everyone’s story matters, and in this case, they get to have even more meaning as students craft individual tales that relate to their chosen thematic focus.

Students, having already selected, listened to, and analyzed an episode of This American Life for elements of author craft in a narrative (hook, chronological/detail choices, and word choice), partnered up or formed a group of three, and selected a theme out of a hat (dangers of conformity, vanity as downfall, the power of choice, etc.) they would explore, both individually and in their groups.

The overarching assignment is to craft an individual narrative that fits the theme and ultimately orally record the stories in a podcast that highlights the interconnectedness of the individual work. Students are graded individually on their narratives, but the podcasts are a group effort and will be played for the class.

storycorps


Objectives — Students will listen to several examples of 2-3 minute stories from NPR’s StoryCorp in order to practice narrative technique identification and analysis one more time before drafting their own stories. Students will discuss and share their insights on narrative impact of what they heard in an effort to purposefully craft their own narratives.

Lesson  — According to their website the initiative of StoryCorp is to “preserve and share humanity’s stories in order to build connections between people and create a more just and compassionate world.” 

In class, we had spoken already about the power and purpose of stories and students had come up with some wonderful ways stories enrich and fulfill us. Stories:

  • explain, or attempt to explain, where we come from and/or why we are here.
  • allow us to express what we believe or hope.
  • reveal who we are or who we want to be.

I shared with students that we were going to listen to some short pieces that told unrelated stories on the surface, but each would link back to some of the reasons we tell stories at all. Students were asked to record what they heard in the hook, insights on which details were included and why, and word choice (all elements they will be scored on when writing their own narratives).

I started by playing a sample story and then walking them through my own analysis. “Traffic Stop” is a piece that details police brutality in 2009 against a black man who was raised by white parents. The piece pretty brutally (I did have to mute three or four seconds of the piece where a police allegedly uses a racial slur that is inappropriate for the classroom) relates the story of a young man who is pulled over by police, searched but cleared, and then is assaulted by police when he questions why the officers are searching his car.

After I played the piece, I projected some of my own analysis. The hook involved the young man’s mother saying that she never would have thought skin color would make a difference for her son, but she painfully learned she was wrong. Word choice vividly captured the pain, fear, and confusion of the young man who was beaten by police. The chronology includes context for the horror of the event, a play by play of the few moments of the traffic stop, and details about the young man’s mother seeing his injuries in the hospital. My analysis was that the elements chosen were specifically selected and organized to convey the disbelief that something like this could happen to an innocent person and the role that race played in the event.

We then listened to two more stories. Students wrote down their take-aways in their writer’s notebooks and discussed after each piece. We shared out ideas and pulled insights back to those class generated elements of why we tell stories.

Finally, I had students listen to one last piece, detail their analysis on a half sheet of paper and turn it in to me for some formative feedback.

Follow-Up — We are about to start mini-lessons on hook, chronology, word choice, and parallelism (thank you Common Core) in drafting these narratives. I plan to reach back to the insights shared during this class in order to help students make purposeful choices in crafting and revising their narratives.

Everyone’s story matters. 

What tools do you use to get students thinking intentionally about their writing craft? Please share your ideas in the comment section below! 

Try It Tuesday: Red Thread Notebooks

img_3173-1So much of a workshop philosophy centers on the assumption that reading and writing are forever intertwined.  Vocabulary, grammar, poetry–they’re all pieces of the puzzle that make up literacy and a passion for words, too.  It was with this in mind that I created Red Thread Notebooks.

The idea came from two places–one was Penny Kittle’s “big idea books” (found on page 8-9 of those handouts), which are reading response notebooks  centered around themes in literature.  The other was Tom Romano‘s “red thread” assignment, in which teachers had to write about which parts of our teaching philosophy would run through all of our teaching, like a red thread.

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This student booktalks The Selection in the “STRUGGLE” notebook.

So, when composition notebooks are just a nickel in the summer, I buy 60 of them each year.  My students and I begin the year by brainstorming themes and topics that are important to us–love, cell phones, faith, music, family, video games, death, high school, forgiveness, four wheelers.  We label our notebooks and use them all year long.

There are a variety of ways I invite students to write in these notebooks:

  • Vocabulary practice: list related words, synonyms, word associations, etc. similar to the notebook title
  • Skill practice: write dialogue, revise sentence structure, practice figurative language, craft descriptive writing, about the notebook’s title
  • Book talks: write about how the book you’re currently reading might add to a conversation about the notebook’s title
  • Grammar instruction: revise a sentence, imitate a paragraph, tinker with style, while writing about the notebook title
  • Free writing: write your thoughts and musings on the notebook title
  • Poetry: find an existing poem, craft your own poem, or create a found poem about the notebook’s title
img_3179

Hailey and Ryan practice dialogue in the “VIDEO GAMES” notebook after I teach a mini-lesson on its conventions.

Because these are shared notebooks, I ask students to refrain from using profanity in them or writing about any of their peers.  I don’t require names, but many students like to sign their writing.  Those are the only rules.

Once the notebooks have begun to fill up, students can refer to them to find book recommendations, writing topic ideas, or vocabulary words to add to their personal dictionaries.  They can also look for examples of skills practice, craft studies, or grammar lessons that we’ve done for additional guidance.  One year students even selected multigenre topics based on our red thread notebooks.

These notebooks are a lovely way to make permanent a yearlong conversation about literacy.  The topics change every year–Michael Jackson had his own notebook my first year of teaching, and this year Lebron James had one–but the opportunities to write, reflect, and make connections remain the same.

Do you think you’ll try Red Thread Notebooks next year?  Do you do something similar?  Please share in the comments!

Try it Tuesday: 44 Songs for Quickwrites

My students and I start writing on the first day of school. Our first quickwrite might be in response to a video or a poem or a short passage. For the past few years, I’ve shown To This Day by Shane Koyczan. I pass out notecards and ask students to listen to the message and then either write their thoughts to the whole of the video, or perhaps to a line in it.

I learn a lot about my students on the first day of school.

Then, three or four times a week, we write in response to other videos, poems, or passages throughout the year. Sometimes we return to these quick writing pieces, choose topics, and take the writing into full processed works. (Shana shares how she leads students into this mining his mini-lesson.) Sometimes we stop at just sharing our thinking with our table mates. Sometimes we use our thinking a springboards into texts we read together or in book clubs.

Writing responses is one of the best thinking strategies I know for engaging students in writer’s workshop. (Actually, I think asking students to write responses in any content area is good for thinking — I wish math and science teachers gave students more opportunities to write. I’m sure they wish I did more with math and science, but somehow I don’t think that’s really apples for apples. Is it?)

 

As this year winds down, I think of a million things to ask my students that might help me

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Lovelyn’s suggestions for songs to inspire writing.

reach more readers and writers the following year. This week I asked them to give me ideas on the songs they listen to — songs that might work well to get students thinking and responding in their notebooks.

They sent me lots. Some sent me lists.

(Disclaimer:  I have not listening to all of these songs yet, but I did start watching the music videos. Some have lyrics that might work well, but videos that might not. Some are a little too much… others are just weird. Some would work if we think of thought-provoking questions to include with the lyrics/videos. Should’ve had kids come up with those, too.)

Here’s a list of songs my students suggest would make for good quickwrites:

“Alive” by Kehlani

“Clarity” by Zedd

“Bright” by Kehlani

“Halo” by Beyonce

“Someone Like You” by Adele

“Be Alright” by Kehlani

“Lean On” by Major Lazer & DJ Snake

“Shark” by Oh Wonder

“Lights” by Vexents

“Thinking Out Loud” by Ed Sheeren

“Imagine” by John Lennon

“Run Away” by Kanye West

“Brother” by Need to Breathe

“Love Yourself” by Justin Beiber

“7 Years” by Lukas Graham  (I found this one before my students mentioned it. I actually saved the title to this song in my notebook after I heard it on the radio. It’s a great song for thinking about Our Stories.)

“Stronger” by Kelly Clarkson

“Humble and Kind” by Tim McGraw (Another song I already love and am tickled that a student suggested it. This is a message I know we all hope our students internalize. Studying the humanities makes the world –and the classroom — a better place.)

“50 Ways to Say Goodbye” by Train

“Apple Tree” by Erykah Badu

“Ain’t No Rest for the Wicked” by Cage the Elephant

“The Light That Never Fades” by Andra Day

“Rise Up” by Andra Day

“Hall of Fame” by the Script

“Cornerstone” by Hillsong

“Don’t Stop Believing” by Journey (Ohhh, Journey. I remember you well. Another student suggestion that made me smile.)

“The Middle” by Jimmy Eat World

“Heroes” by David Bowie

“What Would You Do” by Bastille

“Youth” by Troye Sivan

“Locked Inside” by Janelle Monae

“I Don’t Want to Be” by Gavin DeGraw

“Became” by Atmosphere

“Battle Scars” by Lupe Fiasco

“Not the Only One” by Sam Smith

“The Moon – The Swell Season, It Will Rain” by Bruno Mars

“Talking to the Moon” by Bruno Mars

“See You Again” by Charlie Puth

“Only One” by Kanye West

“Beautiful” by Eminem

“Heaven” by Troye Sivan

“Lose It” by Oh Wonder

“Don’t Let Me Down” by The Chainsmokers

“Never Forget You” by Zara Larson

First” by Laura Daigle

What about you — do you have some great songs you use to inspire your writers? Please share in the comments.

 

 

 

Mini-lesson Monday: All Good Writing Begins with a Good Question

One of the hardest things I ask my students to do all year is choose their own topics. We start generating ideas on the first day of school. We watch video clips, read quotes and short passages, listen to poems, look at cartoons — and we write responses. We create various versions of writing territories in our writer’s notebooks. We have many ideas stored in our well-used notebooks by this time each year.

But with every writing task, students seems to always start the topic journey right back at square one, even when I remind them that they have a mine of ideas sitting in the pages of their composition books. I’ve decided that just like me they like the process of discovery.

My goal is to get them to move past topic discovery into writing discovery. Too often, students think they have to know what they want to say before they ever start writing. No wonder so many kids have a hard time approaching the blank page. (See NCTE’s 10 Myths of Learning to Write #4)

The last writing assignment my students complete each year is a multi-genre type piece wherein they show they’ve improved in the various writing modes we’ve practiced throughout the year. They have almost total choice in terms of what they write, and they have most of the choice in terms of the forms they write in.

I have just two mandatory suggestions (oxymoron intended):  one piece must be a Rogerian argument, and somewhere in their master piece, students must show they know how to use an academic database to find valid sources, and then they must use the sources in the correct context, and cite the sources correctly.

We look at a few mentor texts that use multiple genres within the same piece. Narrative, informative, persuasive — plus images and info-graphics, or other types of forms that present information, including videos and interviews. My favorite is the award-winning feature article, Snowfall: Avalanche at Tunnel Creek by John Branch.

Once students know their end-goal: the creation of their own multi-genre writing piece that shows off their writing journey for the year, they must choose a topic. Some will want to stick with a topic they’ve written about multiple times this year. Depending on the topic, and the student, I may be oaky with that.

This mini-lesson came about in an attempt to help students figure out a topic that they know enough about to ask questions but not so much about that they could answer all of them.

Objective:  Using the language of the Depth of Knowledge Levels, students will construct a list of things that make them wonder; they will formulate questions about a self-selected topic derived from their wonderings. They will then categorize the questions in sets that make sense. Finally, they will determine which questions may best be answered through a specific genre or form of writing.

Lesson:  I tell students that we are about to play in our notebooks. “Turn to a new page, and write a list of all the things you wonder about,” I say. They usually sit there writing nothing, so I get them started:  “I wonder if teens got paid to go to school if they would want to learn more.”

Most students start to write, but I keep wandering the room, stating things that make me wonder as students list their own wonderings in their notebooks.

“I wonder when the state of Texas will get wise to the lack of wisdom in state testing. I wonder why students choose to do their APUSH homework over AP English. I wonder if the Dallas Cowboys will ever win the Superbowl again.”

Once students have at least a half a page of wonderings, I ask them to talk with one another in their small groups. “Perhaps your peers will remind you of something else you wonder about. Add it to your list.”

“Okay, look at your list and zero in on one topic that you think you can find the answer to with a little bit of research. Now, let’s think all the way around this topic.”

I ask students which of my wonderings I should use as a model for their next step, and they tell me the one about the Cowboys. I write it on the board. “Okay, help me come up with questions that look at this from every perspective possible — like who has a stake in whether the Cowboys win the Superbowl again.”

When was the last time the Cowboys won the Superbowl?

Who led the Cowboys to the Superbowl in the past?

How many times have the Cowboys been in the Superbowl?

Is the Cowboys coach as good as the coaches in the past? Are the players as good as the players in the past?

What is different or the same about the NFL?

What do the Cowboys need to do to win more games?

Who would be a better quarterback than Tony Romo?

Does the current team consist of Superbowl quality players?

Which teams are in the way of the Cowboys going all the way again?

Some questions get silly — pretty sure the Dallas Cowboy Cheerleaders don’t matter all that much to the reality of getting to the Superbowl. Sorry, girls — but students get a hang of the idea. “Ask as many questions as you can think of. After you write a list of your own, ask your peers for help in writing others.”

Next, we need to put our questions in categories. I ask students to talk with one another and determine which of our questions about the Cowboys might go together. We decide we’ve got questions about 1. the history of winning the Superbowl, 2. similarities and differences in the game, the coach, the players, 3. current Cowboys, 4. the opponents.

We talk about what genres and forms might work to convey the best answers to our questions.

“Compare and contrast the differences. That’d be easy,” someone says.

“The history of the Cowboys’ past wins would be information, right?” another student says.

“What could be the topic of a persuasive piece?” I ask.

“The question about the ability of the current players. Easy.”

I tell students that they get the idea, and I charge them with reading through their questions and categorizing them into groups that seem to go together.

I remind them:  “All good writing begins with a good question.” And they’re off.

Follow up:  Students should use their questions and their categories to guide the choices they make as they write their end-of year multi-genre pieces. In conferences, I read through questions, helping students add to and clarify. I remind them that form helps determine meaning, so as they make choices, they need to think about the best way to share meaning with their intended audiences. Students will present their writing projects as their final exams.

Try it Tuesday: Thesis Statement Dissection

Buttering someone up is an idiom that has long made me smile. Perhaps it is my deeply rooted devotion to butter (the dairy state doesn’t play…you can’t live here if you dislike butter) or the visual of someone taking a stick of butter and applying it like deodorant, but either way, I buttered up my students the other day and it worked deliciously.

Basically, I slathered it on like this:

  • Remind students of how awesome they are at writing thesis statements because they have been doing it for years.
  • Have students apply their reviewed knowledge of quality thesis statements to their own papers in order to double check their awesomeness at this skill.
  • Elevate them to the role of “expert” in the area of thesis writing in order to have them make suggestions to their peers about clarity and depth of their awesome thesis statements. 

Underlying all of this was my firm knowledge, butter in hand, that many of their thesis statements were currently far from awesome. However, this certainly wasn’t because my students lacked the skills to clearly convey their ideas, it was most likely because they had procrastinated in writing their drafts, checked out to the warmer temperatures and sunshine, or hadn’t taken the time to really carefully reflect on what they had written in favor of working on something for just about any other class.

So basically, the issues of every paper written by a high school student in May.

In order to encourage some honest reflection and move their work forward, I employed the following strategy:

1. First, I shared with students a thesis statement I wrote to accompany an informative paper I was writing along with them. We talked about the different elements present in my sample and how they matched up with what students knew of writing complex thesis statements. One area we worked through together was my struggle with a negatively connotated word that was pushing my informative thesis statement in the direction of argument. Having students help me change the word, demonstrated what I was going to ask them to do in small groups shortly. (Much praise here and reminders of how awesome they already are at writing thesis statements.)

IMG_0611

Students work on their thesis statements in small groups, under the projection of the sample paper I wrote along with them

2.  Next, we reviewed the non-negotiable elements of effective thesis statements. I asked students to highlight their inclusion of those elements and/or comment on their papers with what was missing so they could return and revise. We included that an informative thesis statement needed to present non-debatable facts, organization of those facts into a logical roadmap for the paper, and inclusion of a “so what?” element to clarify purpose for their audience on the specific elements of the topic the paper would cover.  At this point, we circled back to my thesis statement and looked one more time with theses specific elements in mind. (Again, more buttering up in the form of high praise to their identification skills and encouragement to now apply that thinking to their own work)

3. I then asked students to spend ten minutes or so, writing their thesis statements on our mini whiteboards, revising as they went. They were to write notes on the side to indicate areas they needed help on or questions they had about the effectiveness of their statements.

4. With markers in hand, students then gathered in small groups, “presented” their thesis statements to their group members by reading aloud and asking questions, and then worked collaboratively to strengthen their sentences. (Before they got to work, I reminded them of how highly qualified they all were to assist others and how as a classroom of writers, each student could provide insight to his/her peers on improving the work)

Honest conversations around the room included such statements as:

“I see what you mean. That part made sense in my head, but it needs to move over here.”

“I like it, but I’m still asking ‘so what?’ Like, what’s your point about stereotypes?”

And my personal favorite, “Dude. That thesis is awesome. Can I steal that idea to have a dependent clause first? My audience needs to think about historical examples of Congressional corruption before they can really understand how bad it’s gotten.”

Dude. Did you just reference syntactical choices to more appropriately orient your audience for your paper? Mic drop.

 

While students worked in small groups, I was able to conference with several members of the class one-on-one. In addition, I noted a few kids I would need to pull into a small group during the following class period to continue guiding their work on these statements.

With the messiest looking whiteboards I have seen in quite some time, students returned to their seats and kept working on both their thesis statements and the necessary adjustments to their papers to reflect their revisions.

I could have easily reviewed the parts of an effective thesis statement and walked around to take a look at what kids had already written. But by helping students see each other and themselves as resources, most of the class improved their clarity and complexity significantly and my involvement was minimal.

In a community of writers, everyone is a resource. Sometimes it just takes a little grease, er butter, to get the parts moving and the collaboration started.

What are your ideas for helping students see themselves as writing resources in the classroom? Please leave your comments below! And, Happy Teacher’s Day! 

 

 

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