Category Archives: Readers Writers Workshop

Unsung Heroes

“The soul of the brave warrior rising slowly with the smoke…” Taylor Mali

For the last several years, my first writing study in January with eighth graders has consisted of what I refer to as food narratives. Many thanks to Karla Hilliard for inspiring me with this idea originally!

Over time, I’ve learned that food writing is a love language of sorts for teenagers.

Students soon discover that in writing about food, though meals are significant, it’s the memories evoked that matter. We’re remembering not only the Christmas cheesy potatoes, but the person who made them and the conversations that we savored around the table. Meals are like lighthouses on the shorelines of our lives, and writing about food ignites the light and spreads it as we choose sensory details that give our writing color and meaning.

On Martin Luther King Jr., Day,  a day that memorializes a man who crossed racial and religious divides by speaking the common language of love, I’m reflecting on how often teenagers are marginalized, how frequently they are overlooked by a culture that tags them as unmotivated, relationally awkward, shackled to their phones, and the list goes on. I’ve been thinking about what it means to be an unsung hero. Webster’s definition of “unsung” is as follows:

unsung adjective

un·​sung |  \ ˌən-ˈsəŋ   \

Definition of unsung

1.not sung

2. not sung meaning not celebrated or praised (as in song or verse)

an unsung hero

Last week, I wrote the following narrative for my students about a season in my life when a high risk pregnancy required bed rest, and I found myself confined to a hospital room for months. On one level, it’s a story of struggling to consume the number of calories required to support multiple babies–but it’s also about the endurance of love, and what a difference a visit from my theatre students made. They were my unsung heroes, and my current students are also givers of courage and hope in a world that is often forbidding and constantly changing.

Unsung Heroes

March 29th, 2004

 9 AM: I wake up thinking: “Today is going to be awful.” Dr. Rightmeier invades my room, perfectly clinical in his long white coat, stethoscope hanging loosely around his neck like a lifeguard’s whistle. He’s pacing, frustrated. 

“You can’t possibly overindulge.”.

“Eat whatever you want. Eat THIS,” he says, holding up a supersized Hershey bar. “You should be taking in more calories.”

I CAN’T!  That’s what my mutinous mind is thinking. My doctors increased my dosage of magnesium sulfate, a drug intended to prevent early labor, causing constant nausea and dizziness. How could I eat when the room was turning like a carousel?

Twenty-four hours later, I’m propped up against a snowy mountain of pillows with a full breakfast tray. Waffles swimming in maple syrup, a covered bowl of oatmeal, two packets of brown sugar, a plate of toast that I hadn’t even ordered…

My stomach churns in protest. The babies, butterflies waiting to emerge, flutter under my hands. 

Tears hurry down my face as I contemplate the overloaded tray. Suzi, one of my nurses, sweeps into the room, smiling a good morning. “I’ve come to get your vitals,” she announces, wheeling the blood pressure cart up to my bed.

Her smile softens as her eyes read my tearstained face.

“Still feeling sick?” she asks.

I nod, embarrassed that I’m crying. 

“This is too much with your stomach doing somersaults, How about a protein shake instead?” she asks.

“Yes, please..” 

 She grabs my hand and holds it for a moment before disappearing with the tray. 

10 AM: I drink half of a vanilla protein shake. It isn’t nearly enough, but it’s a start.  My laptop is open. I’m trying to write my final paper for my last Masters Class at Calvin University.

My mind wanders from my blank screen to a conversation with my lead physician, Dr. Cook, the day before.
“This is such an important week, Elizabeth. The threshold of viability. If you can press on until Friday, everything looks brighter. Your babies’ chances of survival skyrocket.”

He prays with me, and writes Romans 12:12 on a notecard. “Be joyful in hope, patient in affliction, faithful in prayer.”

Joyful. Patient. Faithful. Am I any of those?

Why am I writing about middle school theatre? Will I ever direct a play again? I’m only allowed out of bed to take a shower.

1 PM:  Saltine crackers. That’s all I’ve been able to eat since the protein shake. Loneliness lingers like an old friend, My mind seems as closed as the books scattered on the end of my bed.

 I  rewrite a paragraph for the fifth time, and then, I see familiar faces in the doorway.  It’s Steven, Paul, Josh, Shelley and Staci,  principal cast members from the production of Peter Pan that I directed before a doctor’s orders changed everything.

“Mrs. O.! It’s so good to see you…” Steven’s words fill the semi-dark room with light, and in his voice I’m reliving scenes from the play. I hear him saying, “To die will be an awfully big adventure!” All he needs is some glitter in his hair and an epee. In my mind, he’s soaring across the stage, flying over the audience throwing pixie dust like confetti.  Ageless. 

“The rumor is that you need to get outside,” said Paul.

“That sounds awesome, but you would have to get me past several nurses.”

“We already have permission,” Staci insists.  Shelley and Josh go into the hallway and return with a wheelchair-the chariot of 4th Floor.

Within minutes, I’m outside of my room for the first time in weeks. Steven, the Prince of the Never Land, gently pushes the chair into the elevator , while Paul and Josh complain about writing workshop without me. Piles of grammar worksheets. Homework overload.

Out in the hospital courtyard, we’re all tasting blue skies, savoring the flavor of hope.

In March, Michigan clouds rarely part, but that day, the sun glints through the trees like a cutlass. We talk about our shared memories of Peter Pan.  I ask them what I could have done better. I think about how often God works through teenagers, unsung heroes that the rest of the world overlooks.

“We’ll never forget it, Mrs. O. The flying rehearsals especially,” Steven muses.

“You need to be on stage again,” I said. “You still have stories to tell.”

“When will you be back?” asks Paul. After that, no one says anything for a while, because we don’t know when that will be.

4 PM: As the sun melts lower in the sky, I know it’s time for them to go, and for me to go back. I will forever remember them as I see them that day. Beams of spring sunlight. I don’t need to tell them how much I miss them, or that I don’t want the day to end. With the unique wisdom of eighth graders, they already know.

January 2022: Unsung Heroes Still Surround Me

I remember that visit as if it just happened, because those students were unsung heroes, givers of hope and courage. So are you. You are life giving in the same way.

Thank you for being a gift.

Reading Like Writers:

Always, I ask my students what they notice about a mentor text, whether it’s professionally written, a draft that I’m working on, or an eighth grade writer’s work. What ideas did they take away from my narrative?

  1. One way to write a food narrative is to approach it as a Day in the Life sort of food journal, with time stamps and short bursts of descriptive language.
  2. Dialogue helps to advance any piece of writing, whether it’s a food narrative or something else.
  3. Sometimes writers use intentional sentence fragments to emphasize words that they want their readers to notice.
  4. Writers may choose to use prologues or epilogues to set the stage for a composition OR to bring a piece to completion.

What Options Do Students Have During Our Food Writing Study?

Autonomy is a vital component of writing workshop, and I love to give students as many choices as possible around whatever our focal point–in this case food writing-is. 

Here are a few of the options that I give them, including links to the professional mentor texts that they may explore as they think about what they would like to write, and what the best path into that writing is:

  1. A Food Themed Letter of Recommendation–With Thanks to The New York Times. We read this article entitled “I Recommend Eating Chips” as a way to explore excellent descriptive writing. This piece also illustrates that a good writer can write about food while at the same time cleverly expressing commentary on different cultural elements. I invited my students to write imitations of passages they admired.
  2. A Widow Takes the Helm at Blackberry Farm: Once again, The New York Times provided an outstanding example of a food narrative that is about SO much more than food. This is a story of tragedy, grief and resilience. The narrative is filled with beautifully structured complex sentences for students to use as mentors in their own compositions, as well as breathtaking photos of one of the most exquisite resorts in the United States. 
  3. The Story of a Recipe: This idea came both from my own life experiences, since my great grandmother passed down incredible recipes to the next generations, and also from an NPR feature that I read about high school students sharing their recipe stories and compiling them in a cookbook. My students have the opportunity to record a recipe that they love and share why it’s important to them. The NPR feature is linked here

We also enjoyed watching this CBS News feature about a world famous chef who is revolutionizing school lunches. Earlier this year, we wrote menus filled with our ideal entrees, beverages, sides and desserts.

Happy Martin Luther King, Jr. Day! I hope that today is a day filled with celebrations of Dr. King’s life and legacy, and of the unsung heroes in your life, including those in your classrooms.

Elizabeth Oosterheert is a middle school language and theatre arts teacher in central Iowa. Her favorite stories are The Outsiders, Peter Pan and Our Town. Recently, she wrote a script for a production of Arabian Nights. Share your amazing ideas for writing workshop in the comments below, or email Elizabeth at oosterheerte@pellachristian.net.

Taking stock at the midway point

As we launch into the second semester I imagine everyone is facing a different scenario when it comes to returning to the classroom or establishing what’s “normal” again. Regardless of the tumult, it’s a pretty natural time to pause and look backward, to take stock of where we’ve been and to look ahead at where we’ll go next in the classroom. 

I wanted to think about three ways of looking back and offer a couple of tools and resources that I’ve found helpful with my junior English classes.

3 ways to reflect

Below is just an attempt to break down some different ways we tend to ask students to think about their work and their learning journey. Clarifying this helps me to fine-tune the reflection questions or task. I think each has its place, but lately I’ve really been thinking about how to add more space for self-discovery to units. Without the self-discovery component, I find that my students can lack direction when given choice or feel more disconnected from a unit and its focus. I find that having some time for this at the beginning of units is really important– a chance to bring their passions and curiosities into focus.

Hattie link; Zmuda and Kallick link

A couple of reflection resources

These are a few quick things I’ve tried or found useful at junctures like this:

  • BuzzFeed quiz generator:  BuzzFeed has their own quiz generator, but I like the free version of Opinion Stage. This is a quiz I gave my students in December about their “reading diet” that tried to help them think about their tendencies over the course of the semester. Then I simply asked them to reflect on the quiz results and to think about next steps. It generates some interesting aggregate pictures for me, too. Below is the composite response to the question, “Which best describes your reading volume?”
  • “Burning the Old Year”, a poem by Naomi Shihab Nye: I love using this poem in January because it asks us to look backward and think about three things from the previous year: the things that are “flammable” (disposable, temporary), the things that are “stone” (permanent, lasting), and “the things that I didn’t do” (the unfinished). These can be framed as academic or as personal questions. We use it to launch into some brainstorming for personal narratives. The poem also asks us to think forward, to consider how we will start again in a new year and fill our days with what will last. So we set a few goals for 2022, some academic, some personal. 
  • Something/Nothing passage from Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close by Jonathan Safran Foer (108-111): This is a powerful passage that can stand on its own, but it’s the narrator’s grandfather writing to his son, the narrator’s father. He describes how he and his wife tried to set up rules and live by them, including taping off sections of their apartment and labeling them as “something” or “nothing” spaces. It’s a wonderful metaphor made visual and the students usually find it interesting. But it lets us ask the question, what is “something” or “nothing” for you? We can apply it backwards to what we did in the previous unit/semester or use it to think about writing territories. This passage leads to other good conversations about communication and the power of language, too. 

Some other professional resources for self-reflection:

  • Sarah Zerwin’s end of semester letters: You can read about Sarah Krajewski’s experience with end of semester reflection letters here. Chapter 7 of Point-less describes this process as well.
  • Kelly Gallagher and Penny Kittle from 180 Days: p.126  has their end of year reading/writing reflection, which asks students to take stock and includes the wonderful question: “Which piece would you like to burn?”
  • Maja Wilson from Reimagining Writing Assessment: She has several wonderful pages that focus on self-reflection, specifically p.75-6 and p.137. What I like is the direction of her questions, which she insists should focus on the student’s “decision-making and intent”, or why they did what they did in a writing piece. Here are a few more of her questions:

I don’t think there’s a wrong way to reflect other than omitting the step because of the “fierce urgency of now.” One of my goals this year is to carve out more time for self-discovery and to allow students space to think more about who they are in the midst of the chaotic world they find themselves in right now. It’s a January aspiration.

Nathan Coates teaches junior English at Mason High School, a large suburban district near Cincinnati, Ohio. He’s still celebrating the unlikely success of the Cincinnati Bengals, Joe Burrow, and Jamar Chase.

A Star’s Good Company

PC Theatre Students Prepare Cuttings from Our Town for Regional Competition

Since I have the distinct privilege of writing a post just days before Christmas, I thought this was the perfect time to share a tribute to a literary work that has profoundly impacted my pedagogy and my students’ lives–Thornton Wilder’s iconic Our Town. I posted previously about Our Town in 2019, sharing how I workshopped a canonical text.

This post is different. Our Town demonstrates in the most gentle and profound of ways-how difficult it is to be a human being. In the midst of every kind of unrest from the horrors of school shootings to political upheaval that polarizes families and communities, this play invites us all to pause and to savor the people and things that give our lives meaning. I wrote this tribute for my students recently as we finished reading Our Town together. It was intended to be an invitation to them to think about why reading an eighty year old Pulitzer Prize winning play matters, and as a step into writing their own tributes to the things that make up the fabric of their lives, as well as an introduction to designing one pagers in response to the play. My job sheet for our one pagers is linked here.

Knowing the Stars by Name

A Playlet Starring Various Eighth Graders, and TIME as the thief, as Mrs. O. reflects on one of her favorite things…Our Town.

Act I Scene One:

Date: February 13th, 2019. Time: Late afternoon

 The second trimester is fading like a rose, and the clock is ticking. TIME, that relentless thief, is busy stealing.

The PC 8th Grade Theatre Troupe is preparing to present Our Town, a play in three acts by Thornton Wilder, at District V Regionals. 

TOBY and EMRI are in the window at the Gibbs’ home in Grover’s Corners, New Hampshire, playing the roles of GEORGE and REBECCA. I know I will read the play again, with other students in these roles, but these two voices are perfect. Melody and harmony. 

EMRI (AS REBECCA): George, do you know what I think? Do you? I think maybe the moon’s getting nearer and nearer, and there’ll be a big ‘splosion…

TOBY (AS GEORGE): Rebecca, you don’t know anything. If the moon were getting nearer, the guys that sit up all night with telescopes would see it first, and they’d tell about it, and it’d be in all the newspapers.

EMRI (AS REBECCA): George, is the moon shining on South America, Canada, and half the whole world?

TOBY (AS GEORGE): Well–probly is.

ISAAC (AS STAGE MANAGER): Nine thirty. Most of the lights are out. No, there’s Constable Warren trying a few doors on Main Street. And here comes Editor Webb after putting his newspaper to bed…

MRS. O: The first time I read Our Town, I was a sophomore in high school. My English teacher and one of the most significant mentors of my life, Dale Brinks, assigned the play and we read it in a few days. I remember both loving the story, and desperately wanting there to be more to the story. I knew as a fifteen year old kid who had just fallen in love for the first time, that it was a play that would matter to me for the rest of my life.

Act I Scene Two: Where We Are Now–December 2021

As I think back on our 2019 season, I remember that TIME kept stealing, stuffing minutes into his pockets like crumpled dollar bills, and hurrying away. WINTER was another villain,  brutally icy and cold, blotting out the sun. We had snow days upon snow days…a stack of missed opportunities.  I remember tears of frustration when another email landed in my inbox announcing a cancellation or a two hour delay. 

Members of the 2018-2019 8th Grade Theatre Troupe with Mrs. O.

Then, in February, theatre troupe member Josh’s father died from cancer on Valentine’s Day, while the rest of the troupe was performing Peter Pan in Sully. We dedicated the performance to Josh and his dad. It gave Our Town another layer of meaning for us, and made us treasure the time that we had left together even more.

So here we are. It’s December, 2021.. TIME is still stealing, and Our Town endures, reminding me in its plain and gentle way that more goodbyes are always coming. “Don’t waste time,” the pages whisper. Make the most of today. Be a gift-whether you’re reading a play, or washing dishes. Everything matters–and people–my family and my students–matter the most.

Cast Members at a Dress Rehearsal for the 2021 8th Grade Theatre production of Arabian Nights

 Another day will dim, another rehearsal ends, and the moment, as all moments are, is unrepeatable. I will only be able to “open” the gifts of being with you for a few more months. And then your stories will continue.  Without me. That is the way of things every year, but I never get used to it. It’s unspeakably painful to say goodbye to students who have journeyed with you through everything from the secret of staying gold in The Outsiders to the magic of Arabian Nights and everything still to come.  How do you bid farewell to souls who have lit candles of love and hope with you through their words, and the characters they’ve played? I don’t know the answer. Maybe I never will.

So why is Our Town one of my favorite things? The words are old friends. When I return to them, they are the same, whether I am a fifteen year old girl flushed with first love, or a wife and mother tempered by time, failures, dreams, and devastation. The message is the same regardless of my life season. Don’t presume too much, or berate yourself, either. Be tender. Treasure each moment. Love your family. Love your students. Love life. I can’t think of a message much more meaningful than that.

CURTAIN

What are the stories that live in your heart? Join the conversation by leaving a comment below, or email me at oosterheerte@pellachristian.net. If you’d like to learn more about the endurance of Our Town and why it’s one of the most performed plays in the world, check out this video from the Wilder family, or this one from CBS News, including interviews with award-winning director David Cromer.

Elizabeth Oosterheert is a middle school language and theatre arts teacher in central Iowa. She loves reading and writing poetry and plays with her students. Recently, she wrote Arabian Nights for performance in November 2021.

Kids These Days Are Amazing

I know this title is going to cause some teacher eye rolls because it is rough in education right now. Some of us are using every classroom management tool we can think of and still struggling with refusals to work or listen. I get it- I am there, too.

However, despite this year being even more difficult than last due to social-emotional needs we weren’t expecting, I still think kids these days are amazing. I don’t think I could show up to work everyday if I let this belief go.

I like to use this countercultural phrase because we often hear “kids these days don’t want to learn” or “kids these days don’t know how to make choices for themselves” or “kids these days just don’t care.” I wholeheartedly believe this is not true. Kids, like all human-beings, have an innate need to learn and make sense of the world. Right now, a global pandemic, a year of less connection, continued uncertainty, etc. has caused learning to end up on the backburner of needs. Am I saying this means teachers should just suck it up and deal with the environment of burnout we are experiencing? Absolutely not. We have also been through all of these draining circumstances, too, and we have to give ourselves grace and maybe even a break. The only thing I ask from you is to stop, look around, and see what’s going right. YOU are doing many things right.

I had my own moment of revelation as I sat in bed for days grading our most recent project while I am quarantined for COVID (my case is not bad, and I am doing okay). This quarter, our sophomore English students chose a nonfiction book on any topic they wanted that made them curious and they wanted to know more about. Students chose books like Lone Survivor and Stamped and I Have The Right To. They read about true crime, UFOs, wars, history, racism, assault, poverty, the justice system, psychology and on and on.

My inspiration when creating this project was from those ordinary moments we all experience: we are sitting on the coach watching a movie or reading a book and a question about what we are reading/watching pops in our heads. “Did that historical event actually happen?” “Did those actors break up?” Then, we find ourselves down a rabbit-hole of research from which we emerge half an hour later after reading about how asparagus might cure unwanted hair loss. Though I am making light of this common phenomenon, it demonstrates the yearning to know and understand in our real lives. I wanted to create that phenomenon as authentically as I could for my students while fostering independent reading.

Inquiry Project Details

As students read the nonfiction books they chose, they kept an inquiry log of questions that arose for them as they read their book; they took these questions into our research days to find out more information about a topic in their book. For example, multiple students read about sexual assault and wanted to know statistics about assault in America. At the end of our time reading, questioning, and researching, the students created either a podcast, a TED talk, or a website to present their learning to their peers. This project involved choice, authentic research, authentic product, digital literacy, and authentic publishing. The conversations, products, and learning that came from this project were superb. I had to take a few moments to just stop and bask in the goosebumps-producing joy that is kids being freed to learn what they want to learn.

Of course, there were lots of road bumps (or even total road closures) along the way. We had issues with students picking random books without a lot of consideration as to their interest in it to just get their reading check grade. We had students who didn’t or wouldn’t read. There were lots of absences and catching students up. And we also dealt with a total lack of knowledge in research because of the circumstances of their last two years of school.

For students who picked books they didn’t actually want to read, the remedy was pushing them hard to read in the first two weeks with the option of abandoning their book. Some kids still didn’t read enough within the two weeks to know if they enjoyed their book or not, so those students were stuck with their book and the lesson to choose more carefully next time. For students who had a hard time getting started in their reading (always the toughest, but most important time!), my colleague, Kristal All, created these awesome bookmark trackers so students could practice making checkpoints along the way for themselves. These led to some good conversations about goal-setting, following through, and the mess we make for ourselves when we don’t do the work early on. We also had reading conferences to check in on their progress, understanding, and enjoyment of the book as well as to check in on what kinds of questions students were asking about their books. They kept track of their questions on this document.

Many students started out asking questions that would later be answered in the book or questions about the author’s thoughts/feelings. As we continued in our reading, we steered students toward asking broader questions about the topics that arose in the book that would be better for outside research. We kept reminding them that if the question could be answered by the book, it wasn’t a research question. It took a little while to get them out of a compliance mode and into true curiosity, but the work was worth it for true learning.

Every two weeks, we had a research day. We would start with a mini-lesson such as using the benefits of using the databases, bias in sources, or reliable vs. unreliable sources. The students would then be released on their own to do their research. For my level students in particular, I highly encouraged them to stay on our school databases so they did not have to do the extra work of determining reliability/credibility and so their citations would be made for them. I plan to do some more lessons to open up their research to the whole web next quarter. Our first research day really helped students reframe their thinking about what kinds of questions they should be asking as they read their books.

We used these charts to have conversations about bias in media and when it’s appropriate to use certain sources. For this project, we encouraged them to stick to the center of the bias chart, if researching outside of the databases, since this was supposed to be purely informational.

At the end of the quarter, students chose what mode of media they wanted to present their project in- TED Talk, podcast or Google website. They were given this sheet of instructions, tutorials, and planning documents. The intention was for students to get a major grade for the project and a major grade for presenting. This was our rubric for the product they created. My getting COVID messed up presentations for my classes, but I think it still heightened the level of product I received from the students. For the TED Talk and podcast, students would simply play their media for the class and answer questions at the end. For websites, students would have to present in real-time in front of the class and answer questions. The podcast was a popular choice for students since they didn’t have to be on camera, they got to re-record as many times as needed, and they could potentially read off of their script without anyone knowing. It was also fantastic for my students who are learning English as a second (or third or fourth) language. They got to practice the very important skill of speaking, and I was so impressed with how hard they worked on these.

Student Products

I did this with both my level and my honors ELA II classes. This podcast was produced by a wonderful young lady in my honors class, Brooklyn Spikes (tw: it deals with the topic of sexual assault). She sounded like a podcasting professional, and I think everyone can feel the passion in her speaking. This podcast was created by a student in my level class, Enzo, and my favorite parts are the well-timed comedic pauses and asides.

I wish I could share the amazing websites students have done, but my district has publishing settings where only those inside the district can access the sites. Nevertheless, I will share that many students knocked it out of the part with their website design, flow, engaging details, etc. I have received no TED Talks, and I am still reflecting on why that option wasn’t chosen.

The Joy in it All

I chose to share this project because, at its core, it is a pretty simple idea from which I saw such a powerful effect. It wasn’t easy, as seen in all of our setbacks above, but I think the students were more engaged in their reading and more excited to learn than they have been for a couple of semesters. I know I felt immense joy every time I had a reading conference, and I got to see the light in my students’ eyes as they passionately explained their topic to me. That’s why I say kids these days are amazing. They are very much re-learning how to “do school,” but I think this proves that they are up to the task and that authenticity and choice lead to ultimate engagement. I will also add that this project could not have been as successful without the wide-ranging availability of books for students to choose from (with permission slips from their parents saying they will talk to their children about what they feel is appropriate for them to read). There are many counterarguments to book bans, but above is mine. I hope these resources are helpful to you in some way. Keep hanging in there, teacher. Your work is making a difference.

Rebecca Riggs is in her 5th year of teaching, but her first year at Conroe High School. She just finished reading The Cousins by Karen McManus and really enjoyed another thrilling mystery from the author. She would like to thank COVID for nothing except the little margin it afforded in which she was able to write this blog post. She is starting her Master of Education in curriculum and instruction at UT Tyler in January, but has no plans to leave the classroom soon. She does, however, wonder when she will find time to post on the blog. Her next read will be Somebody’s Daughter by Ashley C. Ford. You can find her on twitter @rebeccalriggs or on instragram @riggsreaders

Leaning into the recent school board book debates

It’s a scary time to be a teacher. States that are zealous to combat Critical Race Theory (CRT) are intruding into the classroom, even offering $500 bounties for proof of teachers pushing “divisive concepts”. Other states have sought to tackle unwanted ideas (like CRT or LGBTQ issues) by examining the reading lists in curriculums and libraries, with one VA school board member advocating for burning unwanted titles while a Kansas school district built a list of 29 books to ban. This, of course, is on top of teaching during a global pandemic with all of the curveballs and landmines it presents to supporting students.

It has made me think twice about what book lists I put in my students’ hands and how they might be perceived by parents, even though my district and community have traditionally been very supportive and inclusive in their approach.

But when Beloved became a swing issue in Virginia’s election for governor, I began to feel a little bit of hope, too, that literature is still relevant, still a disrupting force in a culture adrift in social media sludge. I think the recent school board debates offer some great ways to lean into literature, the power of stories, and the responsive climate the workshop model offers.

An opportunity for research and inquiry

When we begin semester 2, we usually shift from argument to analysis in our approach to writing in English III. As we do that, I’m going to share a Deep Dive opportunity (see the full version here) with my students so they can get a handle on what’s happening in the world. It works like the intro to this piece, trying to give them some context with links to keep learning more about the root issues and perspectives driving the stories.

The Deep Dive is also a model we’ll use to think about how to write about a controversial topic in a neutral way and how to utilize and synthesize hyperlinks to enhance the presentation or sharing of our research. But there are so many other great inquiry questions this event can spark:

  • Why are some school districts building lists of books they don’t want you to read?
  • How does your school district decide which books can or should be read?
  • What is the role of a classroom within a community?

An opportunity to discuss the value of literary analysis and interpretation

At the heart of the school board discussions is how we interpret and arrive at meaning in a text. So it’s fair to ask: are these good interpretations of texts that parents and schools boards are making? What makes an interpretation good? Are some interpretations better than others?

The news hook gives these potentially stale academic questions some context and urgency. It also opens doors to explore some good analysis mentor texts. These are two analysis texts we will spend time with, one I’ve used before and one I intend to use next semester:

These are some of the guiding questions we’ll use during our analysis work of their independent reading:

  • What is the relevance of the books we read to the MHS student experience?  In what ways are the books windows or mirrors into those experiences?
  • Do the books we read reinforce or challenge old stereotypes? Are they meant to be emulated or are they criticisms of what to avoid?
  • Do the books address social issues in a constructive, inclusive way or in more confrontational, divisive ways? Are they too political? Are they literary enough?

An opportunity to make the argument for literature

Some potential argument topics have been alluded to above, but a few more flow from thinking about what literature is:

  • What is literature? Who should get to decide?
  • What books should schools require to be read? Should books be able to be required?
  • Which books would you be willing to fight for? (which leads into some analysis and interpretation moves)
  • Should parents or schools have more say in the learning curriculum?

This leads to some great opportunities for conversations about the power of stories to transform minds and hearts and why storytellers have often been met with resistance by the powers-that-be in other times and in other places. Right now you can also find many mentor texts arguing for or against what each state or school board is doing in response to parental complaints or challenges. 

This satirical take is a fun way to think about argument and Petri is a consistently fun writer to revisit: “Take all the books off the shelf. They’re just too dangerous” by Alexandra Petri (The Washington Post 11/26/21).

To wrap up, the value of the workshop model in facilitating these moves and discussions is central. If I was only teaching one book to all students with the same pacing, it would be much more difficult to maneuver the discussion to respond to current events. When students are at the center of the learning experience in the way that workshop intends, their story and responses drive the learning rather than my agenda. They’re empowered by literature to take on a world that is in scary need of timeless truth.

Nathan Coates teaches junior English at Mason High School, a large suburban district near Cincinnati, Ohio.

Lyric Mashup Poetry: Synthesis & Reflection on Beautiful Words

Billy Joel at the piano with his daughter Alexa Ray

One thing I know about teenagers is that music is a universal love language for them.

As writing workshop teachers, one of the ways that we can speak this language is by inviting our students to write lyric mashup poetry. As the name suggests, this kind of poetry invites students into practicing several skills that elevate our students’ writing craft. Among them:

  • Immersion in beautiful words. As students dive into well-known lyrics, they’re empowered to love words and reflect on their meanings.
  • Listening and speaking: Students are invited to listen to the words of favorite songs, and talk with other writers about why the songs are meaningful, and how they plan to “mash them up” with other songs. 
  • Synthesis: Perhaps the most powerful invitation for our students in writing lyric mashups is synthesizing–looking at the lyrics of three songs, and intentionally selecting lines from each to “mashup” and create a new song.
  • Thanks to Kelly Gallagher and Penny Kittle for introducing me to lyric mashups during their daily videos for teachers during the COVID-19 lockdown!

Billy Joel’s music was the soundtrack of my adolescence, and I still love his haunting melodies and the way that so many of his songs are narrative poems that invite listeners into redemptive tales, breakup stories, or litanies of historic events. Following is a description of how I implement lyric mashup poetry with eighth grade poets, with my job sheets and student examples linked.

Step One: I share my favorite artist, Billy Joel with students, by playing one of the three songs that I use for my mashup with them, “The Downeaster Alexa,” a piece that tells the story of New England fishermen struggling for survival. 

Step Two: After listening to the song together, I give students my mashup and we use different colored highlighters to take a look at how lyrics from “The Downeaster Alexa” are mashed up with words from the other two songs I selected, and lines I wrote myself to preserve the flow of the mashup poem. My job sheet for students is linked here.

The mashup poem that I wrote is called “Cathedral,” and I use it to illustrate how powerful it can be to mashup songs that are dissimilar at first glance, but on closer examination have common threads thematically. To write “Cathedral,” I used “The Downeaster Alexa,” and a song that Joel wrote about Victor, a dear friend he met while on tour in what at the time was still the USSR, called “Leningrad.” My third and final song is his famous breakup song and the tenth track on his 1989 album Storm Front, And So it Goes.” All three of these songs are about loss in different ways: Loss of innocence, loss of a lifestyle, a parent, and the death of a relationship. When joined together, the lyrics from these three songs can create a compelling new poem.

 My students’ lyric mashups were a joy to read and showed the depth of their dive into music, and the breadth of their appreciation for different musical genres. I asked them to include a brief rationale for why they chose the artist that they did at the beginning of their mashup poems. 

     Karis and Carly mashed up four different Beatles’ songs, and wrote about the lasting impact that the Beatles have had on the world. Shaun and Isaiah collaborated on a mashup using the music of NF. Another beautiful aspect of writing mashups is that it invites students to collaborate around their similar musical tastes to create something meaningful.

     Lyric mashups were one way to invite my students back into composing poetry before we spend time writing beside living poets this December during our Ten Days of Spoken Word Poetry. What are your favorite ways to invite students into poetic exploration? Share your ideas in the comments below.

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

Creating space for failure

In the twitterverse I feel like I often hear that the path to growth is through failure. While I always liked the sentiment because it fit with how I tend to learn things in the “real world,” it never quite squared with my experience in the classroom. There really isn’t that much room to fail–a bad grade on a summative assessment wrecks a grade. Especially with the recent trend to not grade formative work. 

This post is just an attempt to reflect on how the ideas of Sarah Zerwin and Maja Wilson, whose books I got to read with a cohort of my department members, helped create space for failure, specifically in our writing work. 

Point-Less: shifting self-reflection into the summative role 

When I read Point-Less by Sarah Zerwin I started to see that shifting what the summative assessment was could open up the room needed to experiment, take risks, and sometimes fail. (Side note: Sarah Krajewski reviewed here in June 2020, and revisited her attempts at implementing Zerwin’s ideas here this spring; I highly recommend checking out her posts for more context.)

Zerwin utilizes grading category weights to emphasize an end of semester self-reflection letter where students make the case for their grade. I haven’t made that full of a shift yet, but I decided to try that within a writing cycle. In the past I would collect three pieces, score and average them. This year I gave feedback on all three, focusing on our 4 writing goals (specificity, complexity, structure, style), but no grade. Then students had a chance to find the best examples of their work toward each goal in a reflection document (or evidence collection). 

This allowed them to share their best work and to do some self-evaluation about where their writing is in relationship to the goal (or standard–Hattie kind of calls this “self-reported grading”).

An evidence collection de-emphasizes the one writing piece that they bombed or the prompt they just couldn’t get into. In my old systems the C or D would harm their average and chance to earn an A. Now, they can reflect on what went poorly and demonstrate their understanding and growth into the next task.

This basically boils down to a shift in what evidence I’m looking for–from mastery of the specific standard (which is often kind of deficit-based) to showing how you are growing in relation to the goal (more asset-based). 

Now, the pressure to make each piece perfect is replaced by noble attempts to experiment with structure or evidence types, whatever the focus might be for the writing challenge. I think they know that they have room to try something and that taking a risk won’t harm their grade. I hope that it’s one more point for the good guys in the lifelong battle against boring writing. 

This is my feeble attempt to show how reflections can add layer of space that encourages risk-taking.

Reimagining Writing Assessment: shifting growth into the grade book 

The other challenge I always faced in finding ways to fail is that a letter grade like a C or D, which might accurately reflect your writing skill, does not always allow for or reflect your growth as a writer. 

In Maja Wilson’s book, Reimagining Writing Assessment, she explores the value of moving beyond standards and mastery to focus on the writing choices that students make. This is hard when you’ve lived with scales and rubrics and the need to accurately sort student essays (norming and scoring). And while that may have value in some settings, if the goal is to help our students grow as writers she makes a good case that a non-standardized approach is needed. 

I tried this in our first writing cycle. Instead of giving students a letter grade (or an AP number, or a Standards-Based descriptor like Sophisticated), I noted in the gradebook that it was complete. Then I added feedback about their work (strengths and goals that surface from the choices they made). 

What this did more than anything was help the students see that I cared about their thinking and their voices. It gave us freedom to talk about their writing outside of the context of a grade.

In the reflection doc, I’m not looking for mastery of each goal. I’m looking for good evidence of growth toward each goal. So an A no longer means that each writer has reached a certain level. An A means that each writer who earns one has demonstrated good evidence of their work toward each goal. There is room for us to discuss the quality of the evidence, but that occurs in my feedback throughout the writing challenges as well.

Takeaways

  • It’s possible to allow the kind of failure that encourages risk-taking and experimentation if I shift the focus of my summative assessments from performance to reflection.
  • It’s possible to create space for opportunities to fail if I shift from using on grades as a way to sort achievement level and move to seeing grades as a way to reflect individual growth.
  • Students are willing to focus on learning instead of gathering points if I reorganize the incentives (grades, points, rules, focus). 
  • When I find ways to take a more asset-based approach (v. deducting points or labeling them with an achievement level) to my students’ writing, it builds their confidence and willingness to grow.

Nathan Coates teaches junior English at Mason High School, a large suburban district near Cincinnati, Ohio. He’s embarking upon teaching his second teenager how to drive, so thoughts and prayers.

Pixie Dust: Or Life Among Fairies

by Elizabeth Oosterheert

PETER: Wendy, get better quickly, and I will take you to see a mermaid. She is awfully anxious to see a mermaid…J.M Barrie–Peter Pan

“Mom, I’m so thirsty…” 

Those aren’t strange words to hear in July and August, are they? I didn’t think much of them in the lazy heat of late summer. I was more focused on soaking in every last drop of Michigan sunlight, and answering the call of the lake, a voice that is more insistent every year. “Join us…we are your memories. Don’t get too old to go back to your childhood…”

It seems fitting to me that every summer I bring my children to all of the places I loved as a child, hoping to awaken the same magic that captivated me. Wind, waves, and an unending shoreline.. I admit that I was preoccupied during our trip. I was writing a play called Crown of Roses and the words were criminals, trying to escape capture every night when I desperately wanted them to live on the pages. 

We had been home from our vacation for a few weeks when I began noticing how thirsty my daughter Summer was. A bottle of Gatorade or a glass of chocolate milk vanished in seconds, leaving her begging for more. At first I blamed the heat, but when August turned to September and the temperatures surrendered to fall, Fear’s cold fingers gripped my heart. I knew there were only a few things that would cause constant thirst, none of them good. “It’s nothing. She’s growing and eating more, too. Everything was fine at her checkup in June.” That was the voice in my head that I entertained when I dared to think about the situation at all.

Friday night football…a sure sign of autumn in countless cities across the country. Summer, a pixie who loves flying around the stands under those stadium lights, went to an Eagles game and returned home reporting that she had thrown up during the game. Again, I heard that voice in my head: “It’s the flu. A little rest, some fluids, and everything will be back to normal.” I offered her 7-Up,  Popsicles, Cookie Dough ice cream, anything to ignore the chill overtaking my heart. 

A few days passed. Summer was worse. Much worse. Wednesday, September 18th…

****OOSTERHEERT THEATRE PRODUCTIONS PROUDLY PRESENTS…A ONE-SIDED CONVERSATION****

ME: How are you feeling? I think you should try to go to school today.

SUMMER: My stomach hurts. 

ME:  I’m starting to think you just don’t want to go to school. You need to try to eat something. Dry Cheerios. Toast. A banana. ANYTHING!

SUMMER:—(TEARS)

ME: I’ll call at noon to see how you’re doing. 

SUMMER:—

:—

SEPTEMBER 18TH, 6PM: I arrived home from school to find Summer pale and unmoving on the couch. Immediately, I called our local hospital and was told to bring Summer to the ER. 

My husband carried her out to my Ford Excursion because she was too weak to walk. I could see every bone in her legs and wondered how she had gotten so thin in a matter of days. After she was safely in the back seat, I turned to my husband. “They’re going to tell me she’s a diabetic,” I said. 

9PM: Summer and I have been in the emergency room for three hours. A doctor confirmed what I suspected for weeks. My daughter’s sugar levels were six times the normal level, and she was diagnosed with Type One diabetes. I prayed Psalm 23: Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil…” 

When I wasn’t praying, I was worrying. Worrying about Summer’s future. Worrying about my other children. Worrying about the Crown of Roses rehearsal I was going to miss the next day, and how much work we still needed to do on choreography. I allowed myself the luxury of tears when Summer was sleeping, and then I decided to call Tyler, my student director. He was the only one who would be able to keep a rehearsal afloat if I couldn’t be at school.

A Late Night Cell Phone Conversation

Hello?

Hey-Tyler. It’s Mrs. O. Sorry to call so late. I’m at the emergency room and I’m about to get in an ambulance with my daughter to go to Blank Children’s Hospital.

Wow. I’m sorry. Is she going to be okay?

I think so. She was diagnosed with Type One diabetes. There’s a team of specialists that is going to teach us how to take care of her. It would be so reassuring for me if you would run the rehearsal tomorrow. Could you be there? I know you weren’t planning to come.

Anything. I would be glad to. Those kids are heroes.

I know. They’re amazing…and so are you. Thanks, Tyler….

Don’t worry, Mrs. O. I’ll be there.

It is no accident that Tyler played the role of Richard the Lion-Hearted when he was an eighth grader. He is royalty.

The ambulance was dark and calming, if a vehicle that is usually a trauma center can be peaceful. Summer was given her first insulin injection, and started feeling more like her light-filled, fairy self. I held her hand, and watched her heart’s gentle rhythm on the monitor.

I thought it was only flowers that die…J.M. Barrie, Peter Pan

Lines from Peter Pan flooded my mind all night, and I was grateful for the comfort of the familiar words, and the story of the Boy Who Would Never Be Old in the midst of a situation that was far from the shores of Never Land. When we arrived at Blank Children’s Hospital, one of the first things I saw was a mural featuring Peter Pan. I recalled that on the night my four babies who are now sophomores were born, and I thought I might bleed to death, God gifted me with an extremely compassionate nurse whose name was WENDY. The holiness of story has surrounded me in so many seasons…

Summer spent the rest of that night on a brick-hard triage bed. She tried to sleep, and I sat next to her with my MacBook, praying and planning lessons for all of the classes I would miss the next day. I didn’t know what the morning would bring, but I knew that we were in the company of angels.

For this month’s post, I wanted to tell you the story of my daughter’s diagnosis with Type One diabetes (with her permission), a story that I shared with my eighth grade students as we work on writing tributes and Note to Self narratives. My writing turned out to be a tribute to both my daughter and to one of my favorite stories, Peter Pan. My students and I are inspired by the following mentor texts:

“Go to the Ice” by Dorothy Hamill

Note to Self by Yonder Alonso

The Life of Reilly by Rick Reilly

The Book Thief by Markus Zusak

CBS News Note to Self Videos. One of our favorites is this one featuring Will Reeve.

We’ve watched a different mentor video each day at the beginning of our workshop time , and then conferred about what we noticed in that visual text. The template that we’re using for recording our observations is linked below.

Our list of craft moves for our Note to Self/Tribute pieces is linked here. We’ve discussed elements such as incorporating multiple genres in one piece, using intentional sentence fragments, playing with figurative language and repetition, the importance of meaningful titles, and more.

After making this list together and practicing sentence imitation based on sentences we chose from our mentor texts using @Wakelet, and watching a series of Note to Self videos courtesy of CBS News for inspiration, we’re ready to begin drafting.

As students write their drafts, they have opportunities to confer with me AND other writers in our workshop. One of the most beautiful things about this writing is that it’s an opportunity not only to reflect on their younger selves. It’s also an invitation to thank someone who has mentored them, or to celebrate a good friend, an effective coach, or a close sibling relationship. It is one of my favorite ways to invite students into reflection and growth.

How do you invite students into reflective writing? Start a conversation in the comments, or email me at oosterheerte@pellachristian.net.

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

Wiki-poems

Inspired by Brian Bilston’s creative poetic structures, such as his Google auto-fill poem, I thought about additional ways to inspire students to construct a form of non-threatening “found” poems. Based on my own quirky practice of researching documentaries and historical films that I view to determine their historical accuracy, and the fact that I often start with Wikipedia as a beginning point of reference (there are great resources cited at the bottom of the pages), I decided to experiment with a “wiki-poem.” Wikipedia pages are already sorted into categories, so if a student takes one line from each section, a poem will naturally progress through a sequence of ideas. This works well for both biographies, historical events, works of art and literature, and other high-interest subjects.

For example, here is a table that shows the organizational chart for Mary Shelley:

Setting parameters that make sense for a specific assignment, you could have students choose words, phrases, or sentences from a certain number of sections to craft their poems. If you’re working on specific literary or rhetorical devices, structure, or other elements of craft, you could require those.

Giving myself the guidelines of writing a poem constructed from at least one phrase from each of the sections from “life and career” through “reputation,” here is a found wiki-poem on Mary Shelley:

Works Cited: “Mary Shelley.” Wikipedia, 4 Sept. 2021. Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Mary_Shelley&oldid=1042316021.

Amber Counts is a frazzled grad student studying English literature while teaching a variety of courses to high school juniors and seniors. Excited to start teaching a 9-week creative writing course today, she spent most of the recent 3-day weekend lesson-planning anywhere inspiration struck. She’s still getting back into the writing groove after a Covid dry spell.

Writing sparks from Bewilderment by Richard Powers

I just finished reading Richard Powers’ new book, Bewilderment, and I was culling through some of the lines that really stood out to me to see if they might be potential writing sparks for my juniors. I found some of them especially relevant for English teachers, so I’m going to share those here with some reflections about why I liked them and a few ideas for how they could turn into prompts or mentor texts. 

Passage 1: “My boy was a pocket universe I could never hope to fathom” (5).

This line really resonated with my parent and teacher heart–I often feel my kids are hard to fathom. Fathom is such a great word. I think it used to be a way to measure depth in water. It’s as though Powers is saying that our kids have these depths and worlds inside them that we may never tap into. And he pairs that with this great metaphor: “pocket universe.” Kids are an entire universe in a small package. The sentence is short but conveys such a sense of wonder and awe. It’s that kind of awe that can be hard to muster in October, when the new school year honeymoon is over and first quarter grades are in and self-destructive patterns of behavior have emerged in certain students and I’ve given the same warning so many times. But it’s true anyway: our kids and our students are pocket universes with rich stories and untold possibilities. It was a worthy reminder for me that helps check the cynicism I know I find myself battling. 

  • Possible prompt: What are some things you could “never hope to fathom?” Build a good list, then zero in on one. Use a metaphor to say what that thing was: ________ was a ___________.

Passage 2: “She held her small frame like an athlete before the starting gun: she was everywhere. She felt like a prediction, a thing on its way here” (49).

I think it’s the simile that draws me–”she felt like a prediction.” I love encountering unexpected comparisons like this. He’s thinking of her physicality and uses a completely abstract noun to convey that. It’s perfect.

  • Possible prompt: Choose a family member or close friend to describe. Think of their posture, their bearing, their energy. Make a comparison of their demeanor to an abstract noun, action noun, or -tion word. The bigger the gap in the comparison the better.

Passage 3: “In the auditorium, I felt the pleasure of competence and the warmth that only comes from sharing ideas. It always baffles me when my colleagues complain about teaching. Teaching is like photosynthesis: making food from air and light. It tilts the prospects for life a little. For me, the best class sessions are right up there with lying in the sun, listening to bluegrass, or swimming in a mountain stream” (66).

“Teaching is like photosynthesis.” This is such a gift of a thought–that our work is like something that takes light (ideas) and creates food (intellectual sustenance). That and the word “tilts.” I know I often leave work for the day a little discouraged by a lesson that went awry or by my perception of resistance or distraction on the students’ part. But Powers reminds us that we’re creating something that might tilt those students’ futures a little. Teaching, like photosynthesis, is subtle and unseen but vital and powerful. I need this reminder.

  • Possible prompt: Choose a scientific process that describes or explains a passion of yours. What is rowing like? What is hiking like? What is playing piano like? Use the colon like Powers does to set up a short reason or extension of the simile.
  • Possible prompt #2: Look at Powers’ last sentence. Choose one of your passions and then tell us what it’s “right up there with” using a list of three items. Aim for the same level of specificity he uses. 

You can hear the way nature permeates the language choices that Powers makes. When he reaches for comparisons, he comes up with pocket universe, prediction, photosynthesis. These passages give a good flavor of the wistful, hopeful tone of the conversations between an astrobiologist and his son who is on the spectrum and battling some complicated mental health issues. Maybe their conversations will help tilt our writers into deeper fathoms. 

Nathan Coates teaches junior English at Mason High School, a large suburban district near Cincinnati, Ohio. After Bewilderment he has moved on to read A Key to Treehouse Living by Elliot Reed.

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