Category Archives: Description Mentors

Guest Post: I’ve been thinking about Ghosts or What I’ve learned about the power of mentors…and time by Elizabeth Oosterheert

“That version of the story–that version of my life without my husband in it–is a ghost I carry around with me. It’s always there, beneath the surface of my real life. I feel…so grateful that this big, messy, joyous life isn’t a ghost life, but mine…”
Kate Hope Day for The New York Times
Joe and Toby

Joe & Toby after a performance of the 2018 play, Merlin’s Fire

If you’re like me, when the end of the school year arrives, you entertain the ghosts of what might have been. These lingering ghosts are questions like:  What if I had spent more time conferencing with that student? What if I had found this mentor text a little sooner? What if I had done more mini-lessons about . . .

And the list goes on.

I learned a few lessons during this past year I hope will have a positive impact on EVERY facet of my readers’ and writers’ workshop for next year. My teacher’s soul already knew this, but I recognized more powerfully than ever before that the right mentor texts at the right time, combined with enough space to explore craft moves and to write about things that matter, makes all the difference.

My students love what I call food literature (thanks to @KarlaHilliard for this amazing idea!),  a writing study we do after Christmas composed entirely of reflections about food. This takes the form of food narratives, poetry, listicles, or critical reviews.

We study mentor texts, and then students choose a direction based on the ideas they’ve developed in both handwritten and digital notebooks.  After discussing many mentors, and highlighting craft observations, students list powerful descriptive words, make notes about the writer’s voice,  and practice composing complex sentences based on passages in the mentor pieces.

I encouraged my students to consider food in the context of specific flavors and seasons. 

Childhood and adolescence have unique tastes. December has a far different flavor than July. What we quickly noticed is that food literature is about so much more than what is on our plates. It’s about savoring cherished memories.

Another frame that worked well for food narrative that is also very effective for other kinds of autobiographical writing is an idea adapted from Penny Kittle that I call Then and Now:

Then I thought, but now I know. . .

When we write Then and Now snapshots, we admit that our understanding of everything from food, to sports, to relationships evolves as we age and learn how difficult it is to be a human being.

Three new mentor texts spoke powerfully to my students. One was “Carrying the Ghosts of Lives Unlived,” published in the Ties section of The New York Times, written by Kate Hope Day. While this piece is NOT about food, it is about how, in Day’s words, “There are hinge points in time when life could be one thing, or another.” My students applied  this mentor to our food study, writing about different life seasons, and how sometimes seemingly small decisions have a BIG impact.

Another New York Times piece that was very helpful to us  was “Christmas Fudge and Misremembered Snow Cream” by Rhiannon Giles.  I composed a piece for my students based on this mentor about the flavors of my childhood.  An excerpt is linked here.  Students then wrote about their own life flavors, recipes, or memorable meals.

Finally, we studied “Ode to Cheese Fries” by Jose Olivarez. What I love is that my discerning, sensitive, wondering students used that poem to create beautiful reflections on some of their fears about adolescence and daily pressures assailing them. In his poem, “Pack of Ranch Sunflower Seeds,” Toby, one of my eighth grade authors, wrote:

 

What if I’m the small seed

With a big shell

Waiting in the bag

Pleading not to be eaten up

By the mouth

Called life

And my inner seed gets revealed

And my outer shell is thrown out and trampled

By reality

 

Maybe I should chew more bubble gum

 

The rest of Toby’s poem is linked here. 

Our food study is a ghost that haunts me, because I hope that I can continue to make it more authentic. For now, though, I have to remember to be grateful for the time and the writing that was — and in the words of Mary Oliver, give thanks for my “one wild and precious life” and the students’ lives that intersect with mine every day.

 

Elizabeth Oosterheert is a middle school language arts teacher and theatre troupe director at Pella Christian Grade School in Pella, Iowa. She loves writing, and sharing the stage with seventh and eighth graders. Her favorite stories are Peter Pan, The Outsiders, & Our Town. You can find her on Twitter @oosterheerte

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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+.

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