Category Archives: Mentor Texts

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.

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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. 

Finding a Book to Crawl Into

I’m feeling a bit chaotic lately. The holidays are fast approaching on the personal front, but seemingly retreating on the professional front (we have how many days left until break?!). My reunion tour with freshmen requires more planning and more patience than I fear I have capacity for. My only child status is rearing its ugly head as my Dad prepares to have surgery today for that emperor of all maladies, and my mind is flying to all sorts of outcomes I can’t imagine dealing with right now. Additionally, I’ve decided that with no time and little energy, I’m going to commit myself to the madness that is Orange Theory Fitness and complete workouts that leave my aging limbs in such agony I’m walking down the stairs sideways. I needed the elderly assistance bar in the restroom the other day, friends. It’s been quite a season.

Needless to say, I need some solace (and a full body heating pad). No surprise, I’ve found it recently in books. Here are a few texts that have me feeling beautifully nostalgic, contemplative, and remembering the joy of learning as I try and hold it together on the outside, but not so secretly disappear into books.


Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird, Some Instructions on Writing and Life, an accessible text on turning your writing ambitions into a practice that will bring both joy and fulfillment, has me laughing out loud, recommitting to my own writing life (her recommendation to 3tt5remember the power of short writing assignments make it all seem so…doable!), and finding pearl after pearl to share with my students about moving their own writing forward, specifically memoir.

For example, I can picture several of my students benefiting from Lamott’s advice to remember that perfectionism, both in writing and in life,  “is based on the obsessive belief that if you run carefully enough, hitting each stepping-stone just right, you won’t have to die. The truth is that you will die anyway and that a lot of people who aren’t even looking at their feet are going to do a whole lot better than you, and have a lot more fun while they’re doing it.” Sometimes we all have such struggles letting go, we can’t even get started. We must be willing to release not only the formulas, structures, and sentence starters of writing, but also give ourselves permission to write in a way that brings us joy and releases pain without judgement from inner critics that can crush our work before it begins.

I also can’t let go of what Lamott suggests in being brave enough to write about those experiences that carry weight in our lives. Those memories that crush us beneath the wheels of remembering and try to halt all progress we can make toward a path of personal growth. Far too many of our students have such experiences, and writing about them can help some to process and release.

With a nod to the fears and reluctance that students in her own classes have when it comes to writing about what really matters to them, Lamont suggests that we:

Remember that you own what happened to you. If your childhood was less than ideal, you may have been raised thinking that if you told the truth about what really went on in your family, a long bony white finger would emerge from a cloud and point to you, while a chilling voice thundered, “We *told* you not to tell.” But that was then. Just put down on paper everything you can remember now about your parents and siblings and relatives and neighbors, and we will deal with libel later on. (Lamott)

Lamott is witty, clever, and real. I plan to pull some sections from this book as mentors for both style and content. This text is a “warm, generous and hilarious guide through the writer’s world and its treacherous swamps,” said the Los Angeles Times. I could not agree more.


My love of Anne Shirley was actually born through Canadian actress, Megan Follows. 3tt3The 1985 mini series on the trials and triumphs of fiery tempered Anne was a favorite of my grandmother, and we watched her two tape VHS version together until it literary broke.

Fast forward to today (I couldn’t help myself) when at NCTE in Houston a few weeks back, I found a copy of Sarah McCoy’s recent publication Marilla of Green Gables. I love a good backstory, so to see McCoy’s ideas around how the sometimes prickly Marilla Cuthbert came to be, made me smile. The text takes it’s liberties, and expands on some character traits that reach a bit from who these classic characters were in my mind, but overall it was a nostalgically tender read that took me back to a story I’ve loved since I was a girl. Having found a few Anne fans in my own classes, this is a great text to recommend.


 

Ruth Sepetys Salt to the Sea had me researching the World War II civilian tragedy of the Wilhelm Gustloff and sharing with my students the power of stories we don’t often hear, because history is too often told only by the voices of the winners.

The Tattooist of Auschwitz by Heather Morris has become an audiobook I can’t hit pause on.

Sold on a Monday by Kristina McMorris is where I’m heading next.

Which books are you escaping into these days? Please share in the comments below! 


Lisa Dennis spends her school days teaching AP Language and English 9, while also leading the fearless English department at Franklin High School, just outside Milwaukee, Wisconsin where she lives with her husband Nick, daughter Ellie, and beagle Scout.  She is a firm believer that a youthful spirit, a kind heart, a big smile, and a good book can ease most of life’s more troublesome quarrels. Follow Lisa on Twitter @LDennibaum.

Humans of League City

I work with a team of freshman teachers who are experienced, passionate, knowledgeable and, luckily for me, functional.  We collaborate in the creation of lesson plans, lesson cycles, the unending search for mentor texts, and grade calibration. Our collaboration doesn’t just benefit the teaching team; the students are the true beneficiaries of our functionality.

Consider the following:

Our goal was to take the hard work and struggle that our kids overcame as they learned about expository writing and literary analysis and have them turn that lens back onto themselves.

We spent the last forever working on pulling issues, claims, and evidence from the writing of others, how could we do turn that around and invest it in ourselves?

Enter: Humans of New York, an idea brought up by colleague, Austin,  at our team planning day. The idea was that we would work through the exploration of expository writing by having students interview and then write about a human in their life.

Lesson Cycle 1

Lesson Focus: I want you to know that writers use specifically selected issues to support their claim.

  1. Reading
  2. Dear World Video
  3. Respond to the video- Write for three minutes. I wanted them to get the emotional response out and onto the page because it’s important, but not the focus of our lesson.
  4. Question 1 – Why do issues matter?
    • Take one lap around your group sharing your response.
    • Write for three minutes, sharing your response.
  5. Question 2 – Why is it important that we identify issues important to us?
    • Take one lap around your group sharing your response.
    • Write for three minutes, sharing your response.
  6. Seed writing: Tell me about issue you care about enough to write on your skin. This is an extending time for writing, something in which I strongly believe.

Lesson Cycle 2

Lesson Focus: I want you to know that writers use craft to strengthen their expository argument.

  1. Reading
  2. Poet moment, I wanted to get their minds set.
  3. Read two HONY examples, look for issues, claims, and evidence and think about how those the author expresses those ideas.
  4. Seed Writing – Tell me about a human you know along the same lines as what you saw in the Humans of New York mentor texts.

Lesson Cycle 3

Lesson Focus: I want you to know that writers use stories to advocate.

  1. Reading
  2. Euripides Excerpt (7 minutes total)
    • Read and show your thinking.
    • Respond using the sentence stem: This piece is really about…
  3. Read two more HONY examples, look for issues, claims, and evidence.
  4. Seed Writing – Tell me about: A different human than yesterday, a different story about the same human as yesterday, or yourself.

Honestly, these lessons look a lot like most of the lessons that find their way into my classroom.  These are the structures with which my students have become accustomed.  If you look closely, in three days, the kids wrote for over an hour, experienced five mentor texts (and a video) and talked… a lot!

Oh, and throughout these three days, I hardly sat down.  I made it around to every student at least once and worked beside them through the process.

This doesn’t just happen “sometimes” in my classroom.  Truthfully, the functionality of the team I get to be a part of promotes this level of complexity because none of us are going at this alone.  We work together, and as a result, the kids win.  I love watching kids win.

Charles Moore likes learning about humans, even if they don’t love the Dallas Cowboys.  He loves moving students through moves that unveil their literacy. He’s pretty worn out from the multiple Robotics practices he helps supervise, but he’s learned exactly how much work he can complete in three hours. He’s excited to co-present at NCTE and to receive his first solo invitation to present at TCTELA in 2019.

Less Really is More

Any English teacher who has seniors this year or who had juniors last year or who ever gave useful feedback to any student at any grade knows the feeling of this time of year: It’s early-deadline-week in the college application season, which means most/many seniors are in the throes of essay anxiety. Much of their stress — and the stress of any of us called upon to assist in this process — arises from the arbitrary word-count limit which, depending on the school and the prompt, can range from 30 words to 650, the latter being the upper limit of the Common App essay.

If we stay true to the process theories of mentors like Donald Murray, Peter Elbow, Lucy Calkins, and Penny Kittle — among so many others too numerous to name — we tell students to address word count limitations only in the final stages of the process. Every year, we all hear the same concern, some version of the following:

“Thanks for the feedback, and it really makes a lot of sense, but I’m already past the word limit so there’s no way I can add anything.”

Scissors-May2Students wish for us to tell them what to cut out before the essay has even been developed, before the central story has been identified and fleshed out to its most meaningful degree. Mariana and I brag to students about our 100% success rate in revising with students to pare down their college essays to within the word count:  possibly the ONLY 100% success rate we can boast. Still, this critical skill of letting go what isn’t needed in the writing — which also, 100% of the time, results in a cleaner, more gratifying piece — is one students still struggle with.

Kristin Jeschke offers hands-on (and fun!) strategies for students to cut out the riff-raff in this post. For our senior writing classes, Mariana and I have found some other useful ways to develop this skill in our aspiring college freshmen, starting last quarter with the 100-word memoir.

imitation-is-the-sincerest-form-of-flattery-that-mediocrity-can-pay-to-greatness-oscar-wilde-7013bLike all great lesson plans, the 100-word memoir was “borrowed” from Kittle & Gallagher. We didn’t even realize the value of adhering to this limited verbiage until we witnessed students engaging and (willingly) struggling with it. While this exercise doesn’t seem to have been quite enough to provide students with enough strategy to pare down their 1000+-word college essay drafts by almost half during revision, we found the concept of a limited word count so potentially instructive that we have decided to turn it on its head with our seniors in our second quarter fiction-writing unit.

Fiction is driven by conflict, but conflict arises mainly out of character, so we start with brief character sketches, using McSweeney’s satirical versions as mentor texts (warning: a few of these are R-rated for language and adult themes). Students took these short pieces and extrapolated the rest of the iceberg, so to speak, by imagining clothing, favorite media, relationship status, hopes and dreams, and potential conflicts that might arise in the lives of each of these fictional folks. Next, they will develop character sketches of their own, describing the main character of their budding short stories. (To give less fiction-confident students a grounding [and to require all students to build some foundation to a piece of writing that can remain dangerously nebulous throughout the entire process], we required all students to craft the world of the story first, through research and planning. I’m happy to elaborate on this for anyone interested).

I’ll also truncate the entire writing-of-the-short-story for the sake of staying focused on the topic of this post: boiling down the writing to its most essential elements. Rather than scaffolding toward longer, more developed pieces as we did in the narrative (ie “college essay”) unit of quarter one, our third writing endeavor (or “lap” in the language of 180 Days) will be to pare down their 1500+-word short story to, say, 250 or less.

the-flash-hates-flash-fiction-2To heighten the deletion and word-choice challenge — and, more importantly to encourage students to boil down prose (their own and others’) to its very essence — one might consider “hint fiction.” I plan to try the strategy with my AP students, asking them to boil down the essence of a complicated argument presented in a text, using limited words to still capture the nuance of a complex argument. In fact, in a late-Sunday-night-lesson-plan-panic, I think I’ll have them do just that this week with Arthur Miller’s article “Why I Wrote The Crucible.” So much of AP Language & Composition depends on seeing just how much depends on that red wheelbarrow of nuance, and this exercise can develop the skill of precision in identifying argument. We’ll see.

buried-under-paper (1)In the meantime, though, I can feel the value of requiring shorter work for both us and our students, on so many levels: precision in word choice, saying more with less (vocabulary development); eliminating redundancy (sentence variation / sentence combining); not to mention the refinement and clarity of ideas that is required to say what you mean with an extremely limited word count. Not to mention the exquisite beauty of conferring on 100 focused words as opposed to 1000+.

On Writers’ Testimonies & Why We Need Them

If I want to call myself a writer, I better start writing. Seems simple enough, right? I’ve read tons of quotes from writers who say the best way to begin is just sit down and bleed on the page. But I struggle.

As I was trying to write this post, with my dogs barking incessantly at an invisible squirrel in the backyard, and The Walking Dead booming from the bedroom tv where my husband languished with flu-like blahs, I thought of all the tweets last week for the National Day on Writing (fantastic inspiration and ideas there).

tweet#whyIwrite

I thought of why I write:  to think, to feel, to clarify, to play with language, to vent and heal and commit to change. All the reasons that everyone else writes. I am not unique.

Or am I?

Recently, I’ve been reading and re-reading the writing of Donald Murray. (Learning by Teaching: Selected Articles on Writing and Teaching is my bible as a writing teacher. Huge thanks to my friend Penny K. for the recommendation!) But I’ve also delved into Murray’s Shoptalk: Learning to Write with WritersIt’s a collection on quote on writers about their craft. Murray states in the preface that he began collecting quotes on writing when in junior high, filling twenty-four three-inch-think notebooks with at least eight thousand quotations. His motivation? He just wanted to know how writers wrote. Murray explains the importance of writers’ testimony:

     Many people have the romantic notion, encouraged by those writers who feel comfortable in the magician’s robes, that writing is an instinctive matter of talent, an art, not a craft, and therefore cannot be explained.

     But writing is not an unintelligent act. Writing is a craft before it is an art, and writers can and do discuss their craft in terms we can understand. There are good reasons teachers and students of writing should hear what writers say about their craft.

     . . . I bring writers into my classroom through their written testimony. As writers of today and yesterday–female and male, young and old, poets and novelists and playwrights and nonfiction writers–talk about their feelings and their problems while writing, my students discover that their natural responses to writing are often the same as experienced writers.

     This is vital. Students facing a writing problem will often find they have to solve it by starting over and will fell they have failed. When they read the testimony of experienced writers, however, they discover that they too act like writers and this increases their confidence in designing their own solutions to their own writing problems. School often teaches unnatural, non-writerly attitudes toward writing–know what you want to say before you say it–and students need to see that their own instincts are the instincts of published writers.

     Students also need to see that writers are not looking back at a finished text but are in the act of confronting the blank page–or looking at the world before their is a page; trying to get started; trying to keep a text on tract or following it off track; working to make a text clear to themselves and to a reader. Writer’s counsel isn’t distant, detached from the act of making; it is immediate, speaking to the writer in the middle of making, a master sharing the tricks of craft with an apprentice at a common workbench.

I need these reminders–for myself and those I hope to take on the identity of writer, other teachers and students alike. Murray explains:

Too often we defend writing as a skill, saying writing should be taught so that students can fill our a job application or write a better letter asking someone to buy a cemetery lot. Writing is a skill on that level, but it also a craft and an art; it satisfies an essential need of the human animal.

So how do I share more writers’ testimonies? How do I help satisfy the essential need of the humans in my care daily?

10-768x384

Here’s some ideas:

  • Share some quotes on writing by writers. There’s lots of insights in that link and even some nice images like the one above.
  • Share Poets & Writers and follow on Twitter, too. I love their weekly update.
  • Read and share articles from NY Times Writers on Writing. This one by Amy Tan is a favorite and makes a fantastic mentor text to write beside.
  • Think, write, model, talk, share, and repeat with writers every single day. Let them know they are not alone in their pursuit of putting meaning on the page.

When I brought the barking dogs in, and before the tv went off and the zombies faded out in the bedroom, I heard a line that gave me pause. It went something like this: “This place is a canvas, and we are the paint. We were sent here to create. We did.”

I don’t know about you, but I think that relates to writing. I write to paint my world in the swirl of language, to create images and goals and imaginings, to figure out what I feel and think and know. I write because it feeds my need. I am human, so I write.

Amy Rasmussen writes most often sitting at her newest DIY project, a desk she repurposed from a vanity her paternal grandfather made for her grandmother over 70 years ago. She lights a candle and listens to Michael Bluble radio on Pandora. And when she gets stuck in her head or on the page, she reads. Follow her @amyrass

Every Child Matters and Sharing the Stories that Matter

residential-school-books-display_origEarlier this week we observed Orange Shirt Day at my school. Orange Shirt day is a day to recognize, remember, and reflect on the many Indigenous children who were taken away from their homes to live in residential schools. The residential school system has a dark legacy in Canada and the United States and the after effects still ripple through Indigenous communities today. In fact, the last residential school located in Saskatchewan did not close its doors until 1996 – a fact that is always shocking to my students when I share it with them.

The tagline of Orange Shirt Day is Every Child Matters and it is a tagline that has resonated with me as I participated in Orange Shirt Day, as we ran in the Terry Fox run as a school to raise money for cancer research, and as I plan with my student council for National Coming Out day on October 11th. While we promote the message that Every Child Matters and we hope our students feel that way as they leave our classrooms, the reality is that in the current world political climate and with the news stories our students are surrounded with each day, it is so easy for our female students, our LGBTQ students, our minority students, our refugee students, or any of our students who feel a little different to feel like they do not matter.

Last year I had the privilege of seeing author Thomas King speak at a conference. Thomas King is an American-Canadian First Nations author who has written numerous novels dealing with the First Nations experience. In his session, King was asked if he believed that story has the power to enact change in the world and his answer resonated with me. King answered that if you had asked him that question years ago, he would have answered with a firm yes, but now that he is older, he can not answer the same way. He was, like so many First Nations people, angry and fed up with the government’s inaction to follow through with promises they had made during the last election. He said that story is powerful, but often not enough and sometimes you just need to get angry and speak your mind. His final point was that if you are going to use story to change the world, you better find those voices that are strong, angry, and give voice to the voiceless because those are the stories with power.

King’s answer has stuck with me as I feel like too often I have used the empty platitude that “stories can change the world” with my students, but then I look at the stories they are being shared and the voices are often so heterogenous and not reflective of their voices and their concerns.

So, I have started a quest to diversify the stories I introduce to my students and to find those angry voices, those suppressed voices, and the voices that speak for them. In this post I will introduce you to a few of these powerful stories and will share others I discover in later blog posts.

The Inconvenient Indian: Thomas King

This powerful work is King’s reflection on what it means to be Native in modern North American. He discusses the historical events that have so impacted his people, but also ruminates on how popular culture has served to frame the narrative that many First Nations people are stuck in. King does not shy away from exploring the darker parts of history in this work, so it would be most suitable for Grades 10-12 students.

We Should All Be Feminists: Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Ngozi Adichie’s name may sound familiar. Perhaps you have seen her powerful TED Talk The Danger of a Single Story  (I love to use this TED talk to spark discussion about the missing voices), or have read her beautiful novel Half a Yellow Sun. Her work We Should All Be Feminists is a short piece, an extended essay, but it is an important exploration of the need for Feminism in the 21st century and how 21st century feminism must be one of inclusion and awareness. In fact, the Swedish government felt that this book held such an important voice for today’s youth that in 2015 they decided to give every 16 year old in their country a copy. We have used this book with Grades 8-12 students at our school and how found content accessible to all age levels in the range.

These are just two of many amazing books that share the voices and stories of people with powerful and important messages. Over the next few months, I will share some more I have come across and I would love it if you could share some of your own suggested titles in the comments below!

To read more about harnessing student voice in a time of political unrest and fear, check out Lisa Dennis’ powerful post.

Pam McMartin is a Senior English Teacher and Senior School Teacher Librarian in Tsawwassen, British Columbia, Canada. She is currently on a quest to help empower student voice through reading and writing and welcomes any suggestions you may have in regards to either.  Find Pam on Twitter @psmcmartin.

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