Category Archives: Mentor Texts

A “Quality” Mentor Text

We all know the value of a really effective mentor text: media reviews from A/V Club, The Player’s Tribune for authentic narrative, The Ethicist (credit Penny & Kelly) for opinion or argument, TED Talks (ala Moving Writers) for writing that “speaks” to an audience, Humans of New York for whatever you want it to be. And in a workday that allows little time for “browsing” of any kind, the more adaptable the mentor text, the better.

Shana has written about the use of Ruth Gendler’s Book of Qualities for QuickWrites. I wrote about this mentor text as part of a multi-genre project. (Like most good ideas used in my classroom, this one was bestowed upon me by my teaching partner, Mariana). And we’re using it again with seniors as part of their author study in Advanced Writing. Students are tasked with identifying themes and abstract concepts that feature in their author’s work and personifying one of these in a prose poem after Ruth Gendler’s qualitiescover“Qualities.” This year, I’m also using this mentor text to “assess” independent reading in RWW for sophomores.

First, I give them a copy of the Table of Contents and samples from Gendler’s Book of Qualities and ask them to choose one that connects to their book. Now if I were more efficient (ha!), I would have a copy of each page available, but no. So, that afternoon, I scan the pages necessary for each student to have a hard copy of Gendler’s take on the quality they matched with their own book. In theory, I’ll eventually have all of them scanned and organized in a properly labeled folder, right? Again, ha!

Anyway, the next day or so, they get a copy of Gendler’s prose-poem personification of the quality they identified. Their writing task is to revise Gendler’s piece to make it macbeth's robesspecific to their author’s work. Scaffolding is kind of built in: less confident writers can make more extensive use of Gendler’s structure; stronger writers can even start from scratch. Either way, this task requires VERY explicit modeling, so I model with a quality that links to a text we all read together. This year, the model quality is power, arising out of our film-and-soliloquy study of Macbeth (although I think it would work with any shared text, even a poem or short story or article). Essentially, I build in specific details that are specifically text-related. For example, Macbeth’s power is “dressed in borrowed robes,” at least at first. It doesn’t walk but rather “vaults” across an entire continent with a dagger in its hand. Power’s hands never get clean, so why not just drench them in more blood? Even students who persisted in their claim that they just don’t “get” Shakespeare had their “Aha!” moment in this discussion.

albatrossGendler’s clothing motif in her discussion of power is convenient, as clothing is a motif in the play as well. I just got lucky there. But students are still doing a version of literary analysis of theme and turning to the text for evidence. And it’s way more fun than that albatross of high school English classrooms, the Literary Analysis Essay.

What I love about this mentor text is its adaptability. It would work with any text, and students certainly don’t have to be limited to the “qualities” Gendler explores. They can CHOOSE to invent their own. Depending on how this goes with my sophomores, I might collect them and bind them into a class booklet, our own version of The Book of Qualities. 

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Revising and Editing with Jeff Anderson Part III

Grouped around a big table in the library, seven students looked at me as if they knew the next hour of their life would set the record for engaged boredom.  These were students who volunteered their time to get one last push towards success on our state assessment. Like dental surgery, they assumed going in, that it would be painful.

None of these students were on my rosters, thus, they had no idea who I was or of the learning vortex we were about to descend into.

We picked up an excerpt from Unwind by Neil Shusterman and jumped in with both feet, after reviewing the guidelines for sentence building. Our stated goal was to review the piece with an eye towards sentence structure, alas, what we found was much more meaningful.

I wrote about Jeff Anderson’s book Everyday Editing here and hereCheck out those posts for Anderson’s first six tenets in editing instruction.

The last three parts of this book are:

  • Invitation to Edit
  • Extending the Invitation
  • Open Invitations

Invitation to Edit:

Anderson, in this section, writes about seeking authenticity and meaning in their editing practices: developing an editor’s eye.  He shares with us an activity he calls, “How’d they do that?”  This is an exact move we practiced in my STAAR prep group Thursday afternoon. We stumbled upon a sentence that blew us away and we dissected it with a thoroughness that I’m not sure I’ve ever explored with high school students.  We looked at the way the Schusterman wove words and punctuation together to create magical meaning.

Cast your gaze on this beauty:

unwind

Consider this Anderson gem:

“It hit me as the exact way education gets editing instruction wrong. We make it about identifying what’s missing or there, and students haven’t ever met the concept or become familiar with it.  If they don’t know of it’s existence, they can’t notice its absence” (p. 43).

Extending the Invitation:

What are we supposed to do when we see an amazing sentence sitting there, minding its own business, nestled quietly in a mentor text? The answer is, we stop what we are doing and ogle it. We poke and prod it , using our editing scalpels to peel back its layers and reveal the secrets where-in.  Don’t ever be afraid to pause a reading or writing lesson that has nothing to do with sentence structure to talk about a particularly well structured sentence.  I mean, really, all reading and writing lessons connect a text’s internal and external structures.  Amirite?

Open Invitation:

This section is about removing the idea that editing lessons are their own separate learning task.  Anderson argues that they should be the basis of all writing instruction and that these lessons should creep over into all the others that we use to help our students grow in their literacy.

One more time:

“I want those boundaries muddied so that the rest of the writing and editing lessons I do, besides those start-of-class, blastoff point invitations, are mixed with mini-lessons, writing, and sharing time in writer’s workshop” (p. 46).

All this reminds me how important one-on-one instruction is to literacy instruction and I think back to the absolute necessity that is self-selected independent reading. Consider the wisdom of Penny Kittle quoting Kylene Beers:

PK2

And then what she tweeted next:

pK1

I think this “nudge” can be about craft and not just content.  This is a place into which we can extend invitations.

With you-know-what looming, a lot of what we’ve studied with our reading and writing should, hopefully, help the kids out, but more importantly, set them up for success in their literacy lives.


Charles Moore is so excited to share the last six weeks, or so, of the year with his freshman. He’s looking forward to experimenting with collaborative groups, exploring new ways for students to publish, and, of course, talking to kids about books.  If you want to reach out to him about teaching reading and writing, shoot him an email. Check out his twitter if you want to see the latest episode in dad themed humor.

A Happy Little Lesson

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

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

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

I wandered lonely as a cloud

That floats on high o’er vales and hills,

When all at once I saw a crowd,

A host, of golden daffodils;

Beside the lake, beneath the trees,

Fluttering and dancing in the breeze.

Continuous as the stars that shine

And twinkle on the milky way,

They stretched in never-ending line

Along the margin of a bay:

Ten thousand saw I at a glance,

Tossing their heads in sprightly dance.

The waves beside them danced; but they

Out-did the sparkling waves in glee:

A poet could not but be gay,

In such a jocund company:

I gazed—and gazed—but little thought

What wealth the show to me had brought:

For oft, when on my couch I lie

In vacant or in pensive mood,

They flash upon that inward eye

Which is the bliss of solitude;

And then my heart with pleasure fills,

And dances with the daffodils.

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

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

By Jake (3/3/2019)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Polysyndeton

Personification

Hyperbole

Imagery

Simile

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sky Diving But With Language

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

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

 

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

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

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

Sneaking Vegetables In–Mini Lesson in Disguise

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

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

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

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

Revising and Editing with Jeff Anderson Part II

If you haven’t had the chance to see Jeff Anderson in person, and hear him deliver the gospel of editing instruction, be prepared…he’s very tall.  He’s also funny, charismatic, and passionate. He has an ability to take something very difficult and make it seem accessible, even to an old ball coach like me. Also, he got me to say, “AAAWWUBBIS.”

img_5011

In my post a month back, I outlined how Jeff Anderson describes the first three parts of inviting students into the editing process.

  • Invitation to Notice
  • Invitation to Imitate
  • Invitation to Celebrate

The next three parts are how we take what we’ve noticed and start putting those skills into practice.

Invitation to Collect

Those of us whose students spend most of their time in a notebook might have a dedicated section where we collect “sentence gems.”  These are beautiful examples of sentence construction that we want to hold on to, and maybe one day, imitate.  Anderson points out that he starts this practice with mentor texts that are “controlled.” In other words, he puts specific texts in front of the kids that contain sentences that he wants to help them find.  Once they’ve got an idea about what it means to “collect beautiful sentences, he lets them loose to find sentences in, for instance, their self-selected reading.  Mini-lessons are another place where we can examine well constructed sentences even if our lesson focus is somewhere else.  Many times I’ve paused a mini-lesson to point out a beautifully constructed sentence or a familiar pattern even when it wasn’t a sentence that related to our lesson focus.

Invitation to Write

Putting our skills into practice is the step that might need the strongest shove forward. Whether we use sentence strips, foldables, or just a blank page in our notebooks, we have to sit in the chair and explore these moves in authentic ways.  I think we can all agree that the true internalization of a writing move is most effectively solidified through our hands-on practice with that move.  After that, its up to the writer to use those moves in places where it will increase the effectiveness of a piece.

Invitation to Combine

Anderson writes about how practice with combining sentences helps “develop students’ sentence sense.”  This idea shows us that we can help students understand that they should be “thinking analytically about meaning.” Um…that sounds like effective and engaging instruction and it sounds like the highest level of thinking to me?

Anderson uses a sentence from Lois Lowry’s Gooney Bird Greene (2002) to help us understand that students might learn about combining sentences by working backwards.

Lowry’s sentence: When the class was quiet, Gooney Bird began her Monday story.

Uncombined:

The class was quiet.

Gooney Bird began her story.

Gooney Bird’s story was a Monday story.

 

Anderson goes on to suggest how separate groups could work to combine and uncombine sentences alternately.  Some teachers might see this as too elementary for our secondary classrooms, but I would argue that the writing my students produce tells me this type of practice is still very necessary.

If Anderson’s sentence wouldn’t present much of a challenge, take a look at this one from Nic Stone’s Odd One Out (2018):

She’s probably got Jupe by an inch or so height-wise, but completely opposite body type: slim, kind of willowy. 

I think there is enough there to start a conversation about how sentences can be combined.

Now we can use…

  • Invitation to Edit
  • Extending the Invitation
  • Open Invitation

Anderson’s methods speak to me in that they are intentional and specific.  My growth in literacy instruction leans more towards writing instruction recently, and Anderson makes this type of instruction easy for me to understand.  The greater my understanding, the better chance my students have of understanding, and growing, and exploring their place in this world.


Everyday, Charles Moore hides behind a narrow tree in his front yard waiting for his daughter to walk the three house distance from the bus stop.  She sees him the whole time, but he pretends to jump out from behind the tree and scare her before they run giggling into the house. He’s interested to know if anyone else collects beautiful sentences and if so, what are they?

Keeping It Real As a Teacher of Writers

I have taken up watercolor. It’s been ages since I tried a new hobby, and I find the challenge pretty intense. Prone to put perfectionistic pressure on myself, my need to “get it right” limits my ability to play. This is problematic. And pretty stupid.

I will never get better if I do not take risks — with brushes or pigment or with the water.

For a long while now, I’ve followed my friend Laura’s work with watercolors. Her talent paints.jpgpiqued my desire to give painting a try, so I sent her a message asking advice on beginner supplies. She was gracious and encouraging in her response.

Then, I bought not three brushes but nine, not one medium-grade paint set but five, not one pad of paper but seven — in a variety of sizes. And I saved over 48 watercolor tutorials on Pinterest, plus, watercolor images of flowers, people, trees, waves, birds, landscapes, gardens. . .and pigs; and followed 18 watercolor artists on Instagram.

Because it seemed a lot easier to get ready to learn to paint than it did to try and fail.

Kind of like writing.

If you’ve read this blog awhile, you know I’ve been thinking about writing a book almost since starting 3TT. I’ve outlined three now. But I think and talk and read what others say about writing much more than I write. Like my hesitation about painting, this is problematic.

Of course it is.

And it reminds me of many of my student writers — the fear of getting it wrong or not making the grade, the vulnerability it takes to put ideas out there.

It’s real, and sometimes it’s stifling.

As I’ve worked to conquer my fear of learning to watercolor, practicing lessons on Skillshare (which has a plethora of lessons on multitudes of topics — check it out if you haven’t), trying new brushes and different washes and color combinations, and, finally, just relaxing into my art, I’ve discovered what I hope all young writers discover:

Writers must write for themselves. They write because they feel the tug of it, the need to express thoughts and ideas and meaning. Because they want to. Just as I paint for myself –the joy of it, the adventure in seeing if I can, the peace it brings me.

Recently, 3TT was asked this question on Twitter:  How often do you think MS and HS writers should publish? and I responded–

3tt tweet

I’ve thought about this exchange a lot since, and my thinking has led to more questions than answers:  How can we help our writers set personal goals for their writing? Which comes first:  the personal goal or the desire to write? If there’s no desire, can writers still write well? Does it matter if students write well?

Of course it does.

But just like every watercolorist finds her style, every writer must find his. All too often, school writing means prompts and formulaic structures, word counts and rubrics that restrict meaning-making more than they invite it.

So what can we do to open spaces that invite writers into the vulnerable places needed to grow? The best way I know is to keep it real.

Here’s a short list of what real means to me as I teach writers.

  1. Design Lessons based on what real writers do. For example, they don’t use standardized prompts — they come up with ideas they want to explore, creating their own prompts. Try quickwrites that inspire students to think about their lives and the world around them. Plan time for them to talk to their peers in ways that expands their thinking. Plan time for them to explore topics that interest them or challenge their thinking. Don’t just ask students to write about what they know. Ask them to write about what they notice.
  2. Make your writing life visible. Our writers need to see our thinking as we organize our thoughts into words on a page. They need to see us clarify, discover, and make meaning. They need to see that revision leads to improvement. Revision is not just a one-and-done step in the writing process. It’s not a strategy. Revision is a living breathing move writers make, and they make it often. Model all of the moves you do as a thinker, reader, and writer.
  3. Talk about everything related to writing and writers. “Writing floats on a sea of talk” (James Britton). Our writers need to share their ideas with one another — and with us as writing coaches in conferences. Often, we wait to invite writers to talk about their writing in peer feedback groups or in conferring sessions after they have penned their drafts. Real writers talk throughout their writing processes — from idea to draft into revision and on to redrafting. Talk leads to clarity and discovery, and in my experience, purposeful talk is the best resource teachers have for helping all students grow in confidence as writers.
  4. Immerse writers in beautiful language, clever word play, effective and powerful stories, essays, and poetry. Mentor texts that show students the impact of word choice, figurative language, and everything else from how an author creates believable characters to using dialogue to propel a plot forward are valuable teaching tools. Studying mentor texts helps students internalize what writers do. They come to recognize organizational patterns and structures they may choose to use in their own writing. Before I write pretty much anything of import, I study mentors. Don’t you?
  5. Make writing personal and purposeful. When we write about things we care about for readers we care about, we make deliberate choices as writers. Too often, and I am guilty of this myself, our writers only write for their teacher. Now, maybe your students differ from mine, but I’ve taught many a writer who didn’t care that I was her reader, and it showed. However, when I removed myself as my students’ primary audience and worked to build a community of writers where they wrote for one another, almost every student (sadly, there’s often a few hold outs) began to take greater care and ownership of their writing. They knew they had readers other than me. Of course, we can also help students determine outside-of-class purposes and audiences for their writing, and I encourage it; however, I’ve found that sharing our writing within our own classroom community is just as effective.

By no means do I claim to know it all when it comes to teaching writers. The puzzle working with adolescents is as real as my desire to help them grow as writers — and my newfound desire to learn to watercolor. I do know authenticity matters. When we make choices about literacy instruction, steeped in the authentic practices of what real readers and writers do as they read and write, more students engage in the tasks we ask of them. They take more risks. They more often than not rise to the occasion. And they shine as writers in their own right.

If you’ve made it to the end of this post with me, I appreciate you. And while I am not super confident in my watercolor abilities, and I have a ton to learn about the art of it all, I do have a stack of 20 bookmarks I’ve painted — mostly of birds because they make me smile. If you’d like one, share this post, follow me on Twitter @AmyRass (if you aren’t already), and send me a direct message with your name and address. (First 20 only. I’ve got a book to write.)

 

Amy Rasmussen has decided she loves teaching writers more than she loves to write, but she’s working on a balance of that as she attempts to discipline herself to “get ‘er done.” She has also decided that watercolor painting is harder than it looks. Amy’s currently on a “gap year” from the high school English class as she works on a book about authentic literacy instruction and facilitates professional development as an independent literacy consultant. She misses kids. A lot.

A Friendly Resource for Revising and Editing

The current version of my instructional practices, philosophies, and beliefs was born a couple of years ago. Word spread that our new curriculum coordinator was a “workshop” guy and, coincidentally, I was in a place where change was on my mind.

Traditional “drill and kill” methods heavily supplemented with canonical whole class novels and their hip-tied reading guides left me unfulfilled in my “teacher feels” and I knew there had to be a better way.

Serendipity through reader’s/writer’s workshop…

Much of the credit for the strengthening of my instructional practice can be attributed to the people I’ve met who provided me the opportunity to explore and improve my craft. Teaching next to brilliant people and participating in our Literacy Institute are invaluable experiences. Much of my improvement can be traced to those teachable moments.  Other sources of wisdom came in the form of “Hey, have you read anything by [insert important name here]?”

That spring, many quiet lunch periods were spent hunkered over a professional text, sweating from having just walked off the football field, highlighting brilliant thoughts, taking notes, absorbing as much knowledge as I possibly could.

Lucky for me, one of the first places I visited was Everyday Editing by Jeff Anderson.img_5011

Our upcoming (and ongoing) revising and editing emphasis leads me back into one of my favorite books over and over.  I just can’t stay away from the wisdom contained in this book and the lessons it possesses beyond writing instruction.  This book outlines a path for exploring any skill that students need, and I found that the wisdom contained there-in reaches across the areas of emphasis in our workshop.

I love so much about this book.  Not just the content, but the craft, as well, is brilliant. Anderson breaks the teaching cycle down into nine parts, and, while at first wrapping my head around that many ideas felt daunting, eventually, this book helped polish my teaching methods to a point where I felt very comfortable.

The idea that I need to “invite” my students to join the process of editing is, I think, what this book is really about.  This shift in focus, from teacher to student, is one that proves difficult for many teachers, myself included.  Anderson explains, “I invite students to notice, to read like writers, to come into the world of editing – a friendly place rather than a punishing place, a creational facility rather than a correctional one.”

This right there!!! That sentiment that we can let the students tell us where they are with their understanding and where they need support is what left me gobsmacked.

Anderson repeats this idea over an over using several editing lessons. He takes the reader through the instruction of serial commas, appositives, paragraphs and dialogue.  We learn about using colons, apostrophes, and several other skills. But really, we learn that giving students the space and encouragement to explore their own learning is the best way we can build writers.

He breaks the process down into nine parts and they are so fully explained that even a football coach like me can employ them in a writing workshop. They are:

  1. Invitation to Notice
  2. Invitation to Imitate
  3. Invitation to Celebrate
  4. Invitation to Collect
  5. Invitation to Write
  6. Invitation to Combine
  7. Invitation to Edit
  8. Extending the Invitation
  9. Open Invitation

The first part, invitation to notice, provides us the opportunity for formative assessment right at the jump, and saves time in the lesson cycle. Too often, our assessment focuses on where they are in their learning at the end of the lesson and not on the growth in their understanding.  How can I optimize my instruction if I don’t measure how far they move in the time we work together?  I can’t, and if I don’t, then I’m just throwing out lessons and moving through lesson cycles robotically without any opportunity for the students’ powerful voices to be heard. Also, if I allow them to show me what they notice, I might learn something from them.  A scary thought.

The second part, invitation to imitate, teaches the writers to hang their own ideas on someone else’s frame.  I’m an old man and, more than ever before, I look at texts as mentors not just in content, but in craft.  Our students need that experience as well.  If we show them that mentors are everywhere, we open them up to worlds outside the four edges of a text and the four walls of our classroom.  So much of what we learn about life comes from the people we see and hear. That sentiment should inform our writing instruction as well.

The third part, invitation to celebrate, is one I didn’t understand well, even after reading this book. This one required a great deal of thinking for me to fully understand its importance.  Anderson makes it clear that correcting the writing of our students doesn’t make them better writers. He tells us, “In fact, correction may even stifle, crush and suffocate celebration” (32).  Instead of tearing our writers down, we should share in the joy of the successful writing experience.

Just those first three moves are incredibly important in our work. I’ll write about the next three parts in two weeks. Until then…


Charles Moore is blown away by how quickly the students in his classroom jumped back into their routines this semester and their joy in learning about reading and writing together.  He loves seeing their faces scrunched as they struggle through revising with purpose.  He loves this work and is massively thankful that he has the opportunity to share in the growth his students are experiencing. 

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