Category Archives: Narrative Mentors

Novels in Verse in the Senior English Classroom

I have always had a bit of a love/hate relationship with poetry. I know as an English teacher I shouldn’t admit this, but poetry has always been my least favourite genre to teach. While I loved to read poetry as a teenager, I loathed when we had to study it in class as I felt that all the analyzing destroyed it. Unfortunately, some of this mindset has followed me into my teaching career and I have often struggled to really love teaching poetry and I have found that this translated into the way my students have engaged with poetry, as well.

While trying to find a new connection with poetry in my classroom, I have found a few things that have helped. The first was spoken word poetry – the powerful performances of these talented poets sparked some of that old love I used to have for poetry in me and I found that it was easy to translate this excitement into my classes.

The second is what I want to talk about here – my discovery of the novel in verse. The first novel in verse I picked up was Kwame Alexander’s The Crossover when I was trying to find a book to recommend for a sports obsessed reluctant reader. I didn’t realize it was a novel in verse when I first opened it up, but from the moment I started to read it I was hooked. The combination of poetry with a narrative arc spoke to me and I realized that novels in verse could be an accessible pathway to poetry for not just myself, but for my students as well. Since then, I have integrated novels in verse into my classroom in many ways. Sometimes I have held book clubs where all of the novels students can choose to read are novels in verse where other times I have chosen to integrate just one or two titles along with prose novels and graphic novels.

Some of my favourite novels in verse I have used recently in my classes are the following. Some of these books deal with heavy topics (in particular October Mourning), so I would recommend reviewing them before using them with younger students.

Death Coming Up the Hill By Chris Crowe: I stumbled upon this one almost by accident and I am glad I did. It was in the bargain bin at a bookstore I was at and I am glad I discovered it. Death Coming Up the Hill is set during the Vietnam War and follows the story of 17 year old Ashe who is dealing with family issues during the backdrop of the war. The story follows Ashe as he tries to avoid being drafted for a war he does not believe in. This powerful novel in verse is even more impressive as it is written entirely in Haiku with every syllable in the novel representing a fallen solider who actually died during the war.

Enchanted Air: Two Cultures, Two Wings by Margarita Engle: The poetry in this novel is completely compelling. Besides being a novel in verse, it is also a memoir of the author’s experiences growing up between two cultures. Set during the Cold War, we follow Margarita’s childhood as she struggles to reconcile her Cuban heritage with the American world she is growing up in.

October Mourning: A Song for Matthew Shepard by Lesléa Newman: This is a hard read, but a powerful and important one. It may, however, be too much for some students. This novel in verse takes us to October 6, 1998 to tell the true story of when 21 year old Matthew Shepard is lured from a bar and beaten to death simply because he was gay. This novel in verse is tragic and powerful at the same time. 

If you had asked me several years ago if I would ever read a novel in verse, I am not sure that I would have said yes. These three novels in verse, along with several others have changed my opinion and have helped me become a more passionate poetry teacher.

If you want more recommended reads, check out my previous post on integrating authentic voices into our middle years classes.

Pam McMartin teaches Senior English and is the Senior Teacher Librarian at an independent school in Tsawwassen, British Columbia, Canada. She is reluctantly becoming more of a poetry fan the more she exposes herself to powerful, modern works. You can follow her on Twitter @psmcmartin

Narrative Writing: Teaching Diction and Imagery Through Shorter Mentor Texts

Writing is hard and encouraging students to write can be even more difficult! We have been focusing on teaching narrative techniques in our freshman English classes as a build up for their personal narrative. After reading 180 Days by Kelly Gallagher and Penny Kittle, our English team has created “laps” in which we teach different types of writing. With each new piece of writing we do, we ask them to build on the skills from the previous ones. To teach diction and imagery, we introduced our students to the last paragraph from The Road by Cormac McCarthy. The passage we chose is short, yet challenging for our students. It takes several reads to understand what it is about:

Part One: Comprehending the Text

Once there were brook trout in the streams in the mountains.  You could see them standing in the amber current where the white edges of their fins wimpled softly in the flow.  They smelled of moss in your hand. Polished and muscular and torsional. On their backs were vermiculate patterns that were maps of the world in its becoming.  Maps and mazes. Of a thing which could not be put back. Not to be made right again. In the deep glens where they lived all things were older than man and they hummed of mystery.

(McCarthy, 241)

We read and our students visualize the text, drawing pictures in their composition notebooks. They reread and circled unfamiliar words. In their pods, they used thesaurus.com & dictionary.com to find synonyms and added new details to their drawings to help them construct meaning from this text.

Part Two: Identifying Narrative Techniques

The students worked together highlighting and annotating their text for examples of the narrative techniques used by McCarthy in this final paragraph. This became their model to imitate with their own writing.

Part Three: Write and Revise

If there is one thing I have learned from writer’s workshop, it is the importance of writing alongside my students each step of the process. I was reminded of this during a session I attended at the Illinois Reading Conference a few weeks ago. The presenter called it “The Curse of Knowledge Bias,” when we already know how to do the work we expect of students and we forget the difficulties we faced learning it. By writing with my students, they saw me struggle and welcome their feedback to improve my writing.

My brainstorming model turned into first draft

For this piece, we brainstormed ideas and then turned them into writing. We anguished over what words to use, making sure to “show not tell,” incorporating imagery and strong word choices throughout our pieces. We offered each other feedback – both students and teachers – celebrating those lines that WOWed us, and offering constructive advice where needed. In the end, our students blew us away.

My final draft after students gave me feedback.

A Few Examples of Their Work

What mentor texts do you use to teach diction and imagery? How do you get students to add details to their writing and WOW you with their work?

Melissa Sethna has been a high school instructional coach for the past ten years. While coaching is her passion, she missed the students and is so grateful to have the opportunity to co-teach one freshman English class this year.

Real World Writing: A mini-unit using Chipotle as a mentor

I’m in Chipotle, munching the chips and reading the bag. I loved the essays from Aziz Ansari and Sarah Silverman over the past months. Today I notice something different. This essay was written by a high school student.

“Excuse me,” I approach the counter at Chipotle. “Can I have some bags?” I explain to the clerk that I work with teachers and want to use these bags in class. The teenager handed over a stack. I feel my heartbeat quicken, the way it does when a teaching idea starts forming. As a literacy coach, I couldn’t wait to share these with the teachers whom I was working. One of our favorite units of writing was born.

I’ve been training myself to read like a writer my whole life. I just didn’t always know it. I loved reading cereal boxes when I was a kid. I’d pour my milk and then pore over every word, reading riddles and puzzles, then on to the nutrition information. At doctor’s offices, I read Highlights. At the grocery store, I’d speed read Tiger Beat. I read everything.

It wasn’t until I was older that I realized how much all that reading impacted me as a writer. And it wasn’t until I was a Fellow in Ohio Writing Project’s Summer Institute that I had a name for it: “Reading Like a Writer,” a term I learned when reading Wondrous Words by Katie Wood Ray.

As we began to think about how to use these Chipotle bag essays with students, I came back to what I know is true about writing instruction, a rhythm gleaned from countless professional texts (Penny Kittle, Ralph Fletcher, Allison Marchetti & Rebekah O’Dell, to name a few). My OWP colleague Beth Rimer succinctly captures this rhythm when she talks about the ideal conditions for writing:

  • Modeling: writers need to see the possibilities for their own writing by looking at lots of examples. And as often as possible, I want those mentor texts to also exist in the real world (See Writing With Mentors for support around this).
  • Ideas: writers need support to find an idea. As Don Graves said, “Unlimited choice is no choice at all.” Instead, writers need strategies to find the ideas they might explore (My favorite way to nudge writers is with Linda Rief’s Quickwrites books).
  • Drafting: writers need time to write, to mess around, and to get feedback (Write Beside Them by Penny Kittle changed my teaching life).
  • Revision: writers need explicit instruction about ways they might make their writing better (I love Revision Decisions by Jeff Anderson as a way to focus my lessons).
  • Feedback: writers need feedback in lots of ways — from themselves, from each other, from an “expert” (Jenn Serravallo’s book about Writing Conferences is a great place to start rethinking how we give feedback).

Every single time I find a piece of writing in the world that I want to share with students, I come back to this. I use it to build our mini-lessons, to decide on instructional days, and to remind me of what writers need. It might look like this:

Day One – Notice. Gallery walk the Chipotle bags. Talk about what we notice the writers doing. Make a list of possibilities for our own writing.

Day Two – Generate ideas. Once we notice that these essays are all about small moments connected to food memories, we might create a moment map, or a quicklist, or a sketchnote.

Day Three – Start writing. Mess around. Get dirty. Know that this doesn’t have to be perfect. Resist the temptation to give students a template and instead remember that writers need time to let a draft take shape. Confer with the writers in the room, nudge and get to know what they’re working on.

Day Four-Five – Teach. Look at what writers have been struggling with and teach more. Look at what writers have been doing well and put that up on the document camera.

Day Six(ish) – Publish. Sometimes we just turn it in. Sometimes kids can print their essays on paper bags and then have a gallery walk, leaving post-it notes of feedback.

This isn’t always what writing looks like in our classrooms, but we try to build in these moments of authentic writing so that students have a chance to stretch important muscles. They build fluency and confidence. They have the chance to work through the writing process quickly, therefore getting to do it more often. They have an authentic audience and see that writing is all around them.

I recently worked with a 7th grade teacher whose students wrote Two Minutes On essays as one of their first experiences. The products were amazing. Students took risks, they wrote from the heart, and they stretched themselves.

If you’d like to try this mini-unit, you can find the mentor texts here. What real-world writing has inspired you and your students? Share in the comments!

Angela Faulhaber is a literacy coach in Cincinnati, Ohio. She loves burrito bowls and is happiest when eating tortilla chips with her kiddos and husband. She works with teachers and students from grades K-12 and the scariest day this year was when she taught a group of adorable kindergartners a writing lesson.

Text Talk: Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson

Speak, by Laurie Halse Anderson, has been on my radar for years, but it burst into my classroom last year after Pernille Ripp’s Global Read Aloud inspired me to do a read aloud of Anderson’s text in my class. With some heavy groundwork laid for trigger warnings and difficult subject matter, the text spurred conversation, self reflection, and some seriously intense quick writes.

So, during my latest jaunt to Half Price Books, I was beyond tickled to see the graphic novel version of the text with illustrations by Emily Carroll. Though it’s been out for well over a year, I missed its release, and I’m so sorry I didn’t snag it sooner.

After some perusal, I find it to be an absolutely gorgeous visual text. It’s full of gripping images that convey not only the raw emotion of the pain and uncertainty Anderson’s main character Melinda experiences, but the formatting of the text itself is also a work of art.

Ways I Have Used Speak and Its Graphic Novel Version:

  • Character Analysis: Especially early in the book, the protagonist Melinda is a wealth of character development through thoughts, actions, dialogue, and mysterious backstory. Students (especially my freshmen) can relate to her struggles on the first day of high school and as the book progresses they see the reasons for her struggle as raw and real.
  • Prose as Poetry: The formatting of the graphic novel highlights specific words and phrases, literally drawing the depth of the text into a mentor for rhetorical analysis in a way that helps struggling students see the emphasis and emotions without quite so much inference. For some of my language learners, this is key to both understanding and engagement.
  • Narrative Mentor Text: As students transition from studying narrative to writing their own, this text serves as a mentor with clear and engaging voice, rich story lines, realistic dialogue, and relatable characters.

Have you used Speak as a mentor is your classroom? Have you read and enjoyed it yourself? Feel free to leave a comment below and share your enthusiasm for this awesome text!

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 now tries to live life based on the last pieces of advice her dad gave her – Be kind. Read good books. Feed the birds. Follow Lisa on Twitter @LDennibaum

Mentor Texts: Lifting Lines and Elevating Self

When working with mentor texts in notebooks, lifting a line–pulling a line or phrase or sentence for its aesthetics and using it as a launching point to generate writing–remains such an important strategy, as Ralph Fletcher notes here. Of course, we want our writers to work with parts of a text that will help them learn to not just write their ideas but to craft.  But I think these lines, these (where appropriate writer-selected) lines, can also elevate the writer somehow. These lines just might move writers in ways where they’re compelled to study themselves just as closely as the craft.  These lines can tug writers into the stratosphere. 

I felt myself lifted as I read Sara K. Ahmed’s Being the Change this summer (This book about how to teach social comprehension offers numerous mentor texts.). One line in particular heightened my summer reflection: “Understand that everyone’s identity is at stake.” Whoa. 

The urgency of this challenged me to think and write and think and write and ultimately create; the best lines to lift should compel writers to create! In this case, my co-coach and I worked to plan professional development for our returning teachers. In Ahmed’s words, we wanted to “make way for the voices, emotions, and experiences of others,” so we centered our time on identity–individual and the staff’s, the students’, the building’s. And then, in our efforts to use story to promote digital literacy, we used America Ferrera’s Ted Talk My Identity Is a Superpower Not an Obstacle. As staff watched, we encouraged them to respond in their notebooks, ultimately suggesting that they choose a line and reflect on how they can carry it into the year with them. 

My hope is that as staff scans their notebooks during our next professional development, they will see this line. They will consider themselves and others, identities at stake. And this line will lift them toward possibility. 

Kristin Jeschke is an English teacher turned Instructional Coach in Waukee, Iowa. After nineteen years as an English teacher, she’s currently re-imagining her identity. But she’s excited for all that’s possible.  Follow her on twitter @kajeschke.

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

Writer’s Notebooks and other Little Big Things

I have a collection of writer’s notebooks I’ve filled since 2009 when I attended the a National Writing Project summer institute, and my life changed. It’s been a long while since I explored the thinking I penned there. I don’t know why. There’s some real gems.

my notebooks

In the front cover of a purple notebook I starting in the fall 2013, a couple months before my mother died, I found four quotes I’d written in different colored pens.

“If I waited until I felt like writing, I’d never write at all.”

Anne Tyler

“Start writing, no matter what. The water does not flow until the faucet is turned on.”

Louis L’Amour

“Write to the one or two people who would git it, not to “readers” or “the market.”

Avery Chenoweth

“Do not wait to strike till the iron is hot; but make it hot by striking.”

William Butler Yeats

You’d think I was planning on (and hesitating) writing a book or something. Guess I still am.

The first mentor text idea I noted as an idea to use with students is “Little Things are Big.” I couldn’t remember why I liked it but had written a question to the side: Why is this event important to the author? I looked up the title, and found this fantastic personal narrative by Jesus Colon. Watch the story here.

Then, I flipped a little further and found my own Little Things are Big. It’s ragged and pretty raw, but you’ll get the idea.

“Quick as a bunny.” It was written on a scrap of paper, tucked in the antique secretary my mother got from her grandmother. We found it the last evening I ever laughed with my mother.

My father slept in intensive care with a machine keeping him breathing, and every day I’d drive my mother to the hospital, so she could stay with him throughout the day. This was harder than it sounds.

My dad had covered my mother’s illness in platitudes. She was not doing “fine.” Her dementia had advanced to the point that she was often angry and unreasonable — so unlike my mother.

Alzheimer’s is a wrecking ball, leaving chaos and confusion, not just on the person who suffers from this illness but on entire families. So many days, trying to drive to the hospital, as she tried to open the door “to get there faster.” So many days, trying to coax a meal, a bath, or even sleep. My dad was the calming balm, the light in Mother’s darkness. And I became the enemy.

Then, one evening I wasn’t. For a hopeful moment, I saw my mother happy. Without prelude she walked to that old secretary, and then walked the sore hearts of my sisters and me through a journey of loving memories. She pulled out pictures and trinkets and old church magazines — all things that represented little parts of my mother’s huge and loving life. And we laughed as she laughed deep girlish giggles.

The funny thing? This silly, rambunctious, talkative woman — she wasn’t like my mother either. No, my mother was mostly demure — a lady in every sense of the word. Sure, she’d pitch in the occasional pithy line. She’d toy with her grandchildren, even tossing one or two in jest into the backyard pool, but she was never like this brash, loud, gregarious woman who laughed with us for a few precious hours.

When Mother passed away several months later, that disease had corrupted everything. Her language. Her love for those who loved her.

And I still grieve.

But I have this tiny note tucked away in the jewelry box my mother gave me, written in my mother’s hand, and that evening sealed in memory.

She held that scrap of paper in her soft papery hand and said, “My mother used to say that to Jody and me when it was our turn to do dishes:  ‘Get them done. Quick as a bunny.’ And we did. Mostly.”

 

What little big things do you have to write about? How will you invite students to write their little big things?

Note:  I think I will be revisiting my notebooks for awhile. More to come…

Amy Rasmussen just finished refinishing the perfect desk, and now she thinks she may have solved the problem of her writer’s block. She is the daughter of incredible parents and the mother of six incredible children. She loves sharing ideas that help move readers and writers, and she’s grateful to you for reading this blog. Follow Amy on Twitter @amyrass 

%d bloggers like this: