Category Archives: Informative 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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Q & A: Where do you find mentor texts for informational reading and writing? #3TTworkshop

Questions AnsweredHere’s the thing:  Finding engaging mentor texts, whether to integrate current events into lesson plans or use them to teach reading and writing skills, requires us to be readers of the world.

“I don’t have time,” I hear some thinking. Yeah, well, finding the time to read ourselves is the best professional development available.

Want to engage students more in independent reading? Read a wide variety of engaging and inclusive YA literature. Want to shake up literature studies? Read more diverse and award-winning literature. Want to bring real world events into the classroom for some critical discussion? Read a whole bunch of news.

There’s no secret to finding mentors that will work. We just have to do the work to find them.

We can rely on others to help. Kelly Gallagher posts the articles of the week he uses with his students — a good resource. Moving Writers has a mentor text dropbox — also good. However, what works for some students may not work for others. We know this.

We also know our students. We know the instructional goals we have for them, and we know what they need from us in terms of interest and ability (at least we should.)

So — read more. Read with a lens that will best meet your needs and the needs of your students. Sometimes we find treasure.

For me treasured mentors, particularly for informational texts — because they often get a bad rep — are those that are not boring. (In my experience, most students think info texts are boring.) Voice, format, and style = engaging real world informational writing.

I’m sure there’s more out there, but here’s three sources I read regularly. Sometimes I pull long excerpts, sometimes paragraphs, sometimes sentences to use as mentors.

The Hustle. “Your smart, good looking friend that sends you an email each morning with all the tech and business news you need to know for the day.” You can sign up for the newsletter here. Here’s a sampling of a great piece with imbedded graphs and data: How teenage hackers became tech’s go-to bounty hunters. This is a mentor I would love to use with high school classes.

The Skimm. (I’ve shared this before.) “Making it easier for you to live smarter.” Sign up for the newsletter here. The women who started this site are all about promoting and advocating for women. I like that. Their podcast is interesting, too.

Robinhood Snacks. “Your daily dose of financial news.” I’ve been teaching myself about investing for the past couple of years, so this one just made sense to me — the newbie-tentative investor. What I like is how the writers make the information so accessible — and they post a “Snack fact of the day,” which will often work as an interesting quickwrite prompt. Sign up for the newsletter here.

What about you? Do you have favorite resources to stay in the loop of the news or to find treasured mentors for informational reading and writing? Please share in the comments.

 

Amy Rasmussen spends a little too much time reading daily newsletters and checking her most recent stock purchases. Her favorite investing apps:  Robinhood, Stash, and Acorns. Really, if she can do it, you can, too. Amy lives, writes, and loves her family in North Texas. Follow her @amyrass

Reading and Writing about TV

You’ve read before on TTT about how summer is that time for necessary rejuvenation, even if it comes with guilt.  

Summer is also the time for our best ideas to grow.  I just came back from the inspiring NCTE Summer Institute, where I made teacher friends from around the world and I maxed out my library holds in about twenty minutes of talking to fellow teachers.   And if that’s not enough to remind you that summers are important, I’ll remind you that Hamilton wouldn’t be a musical if it weren’t for summer.

LinManuel

One of the ways I am taking time for myself is by watching television.  Lots and lots and lots of television. And I’m not talking thoughtful, high-quality, content-rich TV: I’m talking vote-em-out reality shows where portmanteaus like “showmance” are frequently used.

swaleigh

Chris (Swaggy C) and Bayleigh found each other inside the Big Brother House this summer.   Will “Swaleigh” last or is one of them going home?  

I am not going to try to convince you that you should waste your time like me watch these TV shows.  However, I have noticed that I spend about as much time reading about TV shows and writing about TV shows as I actually spend watching the show.

Using myself as an example, I have some thoughts on how to bring this television into our classrooms for reading and writing.

 

Reading about TV — research and mentor texts:

  1. People, Entertainment Weekly, and Rolling Stone all have solid and consistent coverage of television shows with articles and interviews that are sufficiently detailed and not too sensational.
  2. For reality TV in particular: The New Yorker has this wild story about a failed reality TV concept.  Reality Blurred covers the underbelly of the TV shows and provides a glimpse into casting, productions, and trends.  My fellow Survivor friends would be disappointed if I didn’t include a link to Rob Has a Podcast.
  3. Medium is a good medium (ha!) between social media discussions about TV shows and something more professional.  You can do a search for specific shows or do a search by topic.

 

Writing about TV: prompts to get writers started in notebooks.

  1. What are five TV shows that other students/people should watch?  Why?
  2. If you’re a fan of a specific TV show, what’s the best/worst season?  Why?
  3. You are a producer of your favorite TV show.  What would you change/fix/add?
  4. What TV show was a big disappointment for you?  Why were you looking forward to it? Why didn’t it meet your expectations?
  5. How does where the TV show takes place influence what happens in an episode?
  6. What episodes do you rewatch?  Why?
  7. Who are some of your favorite characters?  Why?
  8. What’s a funny TV show for you?  What makes it so funny?
  9. How does this TV show portray race, class, gender, and relationships?  Does that portrayal line up with how you see your life?
  10. Reality television is often distorted by “the edit” – the snips and clips that make the final cut and represent a fraction of a percent of what a contestant does.  How might the edit differ from the real story?  Why?

 

Now that I’ve laid bare some of my passions — what are you up to this summer?  Do you think it will influence how you teach next year?

 

Amy Estersohn is an English teacher in New York. Her favorite season of Survivor for entertainment value, strong characterization, and sociological discussion is Marquesas (Season 4). 

 

What Does it Mean to Read like a Writer?

It’s a startling reality, but many of my seniors do not know how to read like writers. I spend a good part of the beginning of a semester helping students look at how an author crafts a text.

This still surprises me.

The seniors I have in class this spring have all passed their state mandated English exams. A big chunk of these Texas state exams, both English I and English II, ask questions in the reading portion about author’s craft. (I haven’t explicitly studied the question stems in a few years, but I am guessing at least half.) In trying to get students to talk about the writer’s moves, most of my students get stuck talking about meaning.

Of course, meaning is important — but not when we are using a text to help us move as writers. In workshop lingo, we call this using mentor texts.

How do we learn to write anything well if we don’t study the work of writers who write well?

When I was first asked to write recommendation letters, I studied well-written recommendation letters. When I begin to write a grant proposal, I study how to write an effective grant proposal. When I need to write a speech, I study well-written inspiring speeches. There are solid examples for every kind of writing.

I want my students to know this. If they learn anything from me this spring, I hope it is this:

We learn how to write well by studying effective writing. To quote Kelly Gallagher: “Before you can film a dogfight, you have to know what one looks like. Before our students can write well in a given discourse, they need to see good writing in that discourse”. (Read Gallagher’s “Making the Most of Mentor Texts” for an excellent detailing of how.)

 

Yesterday Charles wrote about scaffolding a reading lesson. The same type of lesson, but with an eye toward reading like a writer, worked recently with my seniors.

It all started when I saw this tweet: TweetofGIFGuide

I thought: “Okay, this may be a relatively painless way to get my writers into writing. We will use this text as a mentor and write our own GIF guides.” (Quick change in lesson plans on the drive to work.)

First, we started with a conversation about GIFs. This NY Times Learning Lesson has some good questions. We wrote our thinking in our notebooks and shared in table groups. Then, not quite as planned, the conversation shifted to how to pronounce GIF. “Um, it’s JIFF, Mrs. Rass, the creator of them said so.”

In case you are wondering:  I think the creator is wrong. But, does it really matter? I just wanted my students to use GIFs as an entry point into writing using mentors.

To help students understand how to study a text for a writer’s moves, I copied the text into a document, and removed the images, so students would focus on the language. Then I crafted a list of questions. Taking a cue from Talk Read Talk Write by Nancy Motley, I cut the questions up and gave a set to each small group. They spent the better part of a class period studying the text and using the questions as a guide.

Later, we brainstormed topics we thought would work, eliminating some that were too broad, and discussing ones that would lend well to a how-to or informational type of writing. Students then completed this document, so they could see my expectations for the writing task, and I could approve their topics.

Students talked. They wrote. I taught mini-lessons on introductions and sentence structure. Students revised. Some taught themselves how to make GIFS.

Most surprised me with their finished GIF guides. Here’s a sampling of a few. (Disregard the citing of sources — that’s still on the Need-to-Learn list.)


Students, no matter their age, will write when we give them the tools and the time they need to be successful writers.

Sure, not all of my students produced solid writing — yet. But I am hopeful. We are only a about a month into the course, and most students now have a writing success story.

That confidence matters.

For a great read on helping students write, read “Children Can Write Authentically if We Help Them” by Donald Graves.

I’d love to know the fun or interesting mentor texts you use to get your students to take a chance on writing. Please share in the comments.

Amy Rasmussen teaches English IV and AP Language at a large senior high school in North Texas. Go, Farmers! When she’s not skimming the news or her Twitter feed for mentor texts, she’s reading books to match with her readers or thinking about the rest she might get during spring break. Eight days, but who’s counting? Follow Amy @amyrass and @3TeachersTalk, and she invites you to follow this blog if you aren’t already.

 

 

 

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