Category Archives: Narrative

3 Ways to Help Students Tell a Story They’ve Never Told

This morning, with the new audiobook release of Don Graves’ Children Want to Write (narrated by two of our teacher heroes, Penny Kittle and Tom Newkirk!), I’m thinking about that true fact: children do want to write. We all do. Our minds are, after all, made for stories.

Children Want to Write (Audiobook)

But to tell our stories is a challenge in so many ways. We live in an age of distraction, many of us are often silenced by society, or we struggle to find an audience we trust.

But most of all, many of us don’t know how to tell a story if we’ve never seen a story like ours told before.

Stop and think about this concept, etched in my mind by Dr. Rudine Sims Bishop with her concepts of books as windows, mirrors, and doors. I’ve spent a good deal of my planning time outside of school finding books that can act as windows, mirrors, and doors for my students to either see through, see themselves in, or walk beyond.

But I’m interested today in the way we go further with that discovery. Once you find yourself in a story, how can you tell your own? I realized years ago that I wasn’t just reading voraciously to find my own story; I was looking for a storyteller with whom I could identify: a living, breathing mentor text. I found it when I met Penny Kittle at the New Hampshire Summer Literacy Institutes, a teacher-writer-mother who counseled me on sustainable ways to balance my young children with the work of teaching well.

Until I met Penny, and was bolstered by her support and willingness to share her own story of struggling to be a mom-slash-teacher, I didn’t know how to tell my story. And until I did, I couldn’t be a living, breathing mentor text for my own students, who were thirsting to tell their own stories.

As English teachers, we are blessed to have the opportunity to be that mentor text for our students: teacher-writers who practice, every day, finding and telling stories that resonate. It’s my favorite part of this work, the joy of getting to read and write powerful stories alongside our students. We can offer space for storytelling in our classrooms in three key ways–with vibrant mentor texts, opportunities for playing with genres, and the time to tinker and devote our study to narrative.

  • A well-stocked classroom library, frequent and varied book talks, and mentor texts that flood our students with diverse voices and stories offer our students windows, mirrors, and doors through which they can discover empathy for others and themselves. Seeing a range of stories disrupts the concept of “normal” and helps students see the world in shades of grey, rather than just black and white.
  • Quickwrites and mini-lessons that allow students to play with genre offer possibilities for storytelling they may not have considered: poems, lists, fiction, memoirs, vlogs, podcasts, and multimodel texts show how we can allow the concept of story to flourish in any medium.
  • Time to write: every day, in quickwrites and in workshops, but also over time–when we devote more than just a unit, or a quarter, or a set of standards to the idea of story. We put our money where our mouths are when we return to story again and again, through concepts of argument, informative writing, or creative fiction and nonfiction.

When we offer our students these ingredients, we create a recipe for storytelling that brings authenticity, relevance, and power to our classrooms. A community of readers and writers can be transformed into a workshop of storytellers, who speak and listen through the powerful lens of narrative.

We invite you to share in the comments how you bring story into your classroom!

Shana Karnes loves to read, write, and find stories everywhere in Madison, Wisconsin alongside her two young daughters, hardworking husband, and inspiring teacher friends. Connect with Shana on Twitter at @litreader.

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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.

Enhancing Student Writing: Framing Editing as Choice

I am adding to the trend on the blog this week:  Editing!

I was inspired to re-read Everyday Editing and Mechanically Inclined by Jeff Anderson after Charles wrote about inviting students to notice, note, and imitate last month and earlier this week.  His philosophy influenced what I wanted my students to take away from crafting their final narrative piece–choice.  Anderson argues that telling students what or how to edit isn’t always helpful as it may not be internalized–students may seek a check-list for what to edit versus considering choices and playing with language as a writer. Anderson explains, “We want students to make choices and decisions that create meaning. Not because they’re afraid of making an error. Not because of crapshoot-fifty-fifty chances, but because they are thinking.  We want them to have ways to reason through what’s in front of them, what they see, what it sounds like looks like, means. A thought process” (10). All writing starts with merely getting your ideas out, but revision and editing happen when a writer begins to examine the choices they are or are not making. Choice is ownership in writing and far more rigorous than editing from a checklist.

In American Literature, we restarted our school year with a focus on narrative–we dug back into choice reading and ran through numerous laps of narrative writing, studying the choices authors made in mentor texts and our choice novels. Based on the narratives we had been studying together, students came up with a running list of moves we referenced as we wrote, revised, and conferenced. These core components, which students deemed essential moves of storytelling, formed what their final narrative would be assessed on:

  • Interesting Structure of Scenes within a Larger Story
  • Dialogue or Internal Thinking to Reveal Character
  • Dynamic Shift or Growth that Illustrates a “So What?”
  • Writer’s Craft Language that Shows vs. Tells
  • Variety of Sentence Structure and Word Variety

For me, one of the most challenging practices to get my students in the habit of is revisiting and re-crafting their writing. We live in an instant society which I believe programs students to complete tasks versus sit and whittle away or tinker with their thinking. Hence, “Enhancement Rotations” were born (I didn’t want to call the rotations “edits,” but I have yet to come up with a better name, suggestions?). I asked students to bring in what they thought was their final draft–little did they know they would be producing a “new” final draft! My goal was for students to notice the impactful choices they had already made, but to stretch themselves to make more. To not edit grammar errors, but to re-craft with intention.

In summary, Enhancement Rotations consist of student drafts circulating the classroom and their peer experts suggesting ways to re-craft the outlined aspects of the writing assignment or genre (we used the list above), while also complimenting the elements present in the draft already. Students decide what component they want to be an expert on from our list, then spend the time suggesting and complimenting that element only. Once the draft has visited a group of expert Enhancers, the draft rotates to the next group. Eventually, all selections rotate to different experts and gain not only suggestions and perspective but a holistic, paper-based conference.

Here are my suggested steps in more detail:

  1. After students have worked the writing process, have them print at least two copies of their piece.  Having more drafts than students allows the Enhancers to move through the drafts at their own pace because no one is waiting on them to finish to have a piece to edit. I prefer students have hard copies of their piece without names.
  2. Divide your “look fors,” essential elements, rubric, etc. into sections or chunks where students can be the peer experts–invite students to select what aspect they feel confident in providing advice and suggestions about. Organize one element at one station of desks or tables.  I suggest color coding each element, as it helps Enhancers know what draft has already been to their station. Asking students to narrow their focus helps them move through more of their peers’ drafts, thus seeing even more samples of writing and voice, especially of peers they did not conference with or may not often select as a partner.
  3. Let the editing begin!  Similar student experts sit together and use the same color marker or pen to suggest directly on their peers’ drafts (I do ask that students write their name and focus at the bottom of the draft for Step 4). Before starting, we reviewed each key move of storytelling and recalled mentor texts.
  4. Towards the end of class, students retrieve their drafts and silently reviewed the suggestions and considerations for a few minutes.  The final 10 minutes are for conferencing with one another about the feedback, further questions, and of course, compliments.  I then charge students with creating yet another draft!

Paola’s draft when from a removed retelling to showing, including a fake iMessage text feature from the suggestion of a peer.

Abbey expanding on her feelings and emotions, moving her draft from a retelling a common experience to one that was more personal, adding depth to the experience and purpose.

Inviting writers to notice and note the choices their peers are making serve to strengthen their writing, too, as we know more exposure leads to more thinking and understanding. My writers are beginning to notice the craft and creativity writing offers. Additionally, sharing writing and conferences continues to build the community of writers, and revisers, we are striving to become.

Maggie Lopez teaches American Literature and AP Literature in Salt Lake City, UT. She started reading Educated on her snow day last week, the first in 30 years, alongside Everyday Editing. You can find her on Twitter @meg_lopez0.

A Day in the Life: Re-Starting with Narratives

The start of the second semester has been refreshing–maybe it was the two-week break that felt indulgent and a shuffling of students, or the fresh snow that sweeps over the Wasatch mountains weekly, perhaps the feeling that it is “August” in room 104 and we creating a rhythm with new workshop routines.

After attempting a balanced approach in a new school, giving students only glimpses and tastes of workshop, I have fully shifted gears for the second semester now that I know this school wants the creation of readers and writers, not compliance or approval seekers.  This semester, I plan to take laps around narrative, informational, and multigenre writing, and although each genre study will be faster than ideal, it is better than sticking to the old ways. 

Starting with narrative in a new year, several quick writes and write besides in our notebooks invited students to notice the rich source of their own lives.  As a “first lap,” as Penny Kittle and Kelly Gallagher term craft study in 180 Days, with narrative, I asked students to craft or select a picture that symbolizes their lives as second-semester juniors. I asked, “What is your life like now?  Who are you today, a junior in 2019?” Students are at a transitional time in their lives– they are looking ahead to the next step, making choices about what direction to go and who to be. I want them to show, tell, explain, and reflect.

My students needed a change.  My logic, like so many of you exploring and diving into workshop, was this:

Discussions as Readers x Discussions as Writers / Mentor Texts = Authentic Writing

  • We need to get back into our notebooks.  As we explore narratives, taking “laps” around mentor texts and reading like writers, students will write beside these texts. Rooting into what students know, themselves, will offer an access point to workshop writing.

Years of traditional English classroom expectations + My misguided start to the first-semester x The 3 by 5 Paragraph Essay = Is this what you wanted?

  • My students need to be challenged with choices and the decision-making process.  Majority of students see writing as an English-only endeavor and are hesitant to break from “Is this what you want?” to “I made this decision here because ___,” putting their choices and ideas at the center.

Required Curriculum + Low Classroom Investment = Disengaged Environment

  • Asking students to select a picture that reflects who they are in this moment, their fears, challenges, what makes them feel successful and unique, is another way to connect to students, as well as create space for student voice and individuality. The task mirrors notebook writing “beside” or “around” a picture, poem, or mentor text, which we spent time doing sporadically last semester and daily this semester and challenges students to be the creator and curator, making editorial decisions as an artist, then explaining as a writer.

As we have drafted, revised, and share I have learned more about my students and they are finding a cathartic release.

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Abraham reflected on the importance of animals to his culture:  I also love farm animals and horses. These are important not only to me but also to my parents because they grew up with farm animals and they helped nourished them and their families. All these animals have become a major part of our culture, specifically the horse used for work or transportations and rodeos. Then we have other farm animals that shape our traditional dishes.

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Ronata’s picture showed the importance of art in her life: I like to think that justice is an art. A piece so beautiful and unique, it is impossible to recreate. I’ve been taught about justice all my life, that it’s about people being treated equally. BSU has helped me realize how unjust the world’s ways are, and what ways I can help people understand that everyone needs to be treated with the same respect. Everyone has the same rights, yet society makes it seem as though people of color’s rights have no meaning at all.

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Katherine is seeking balance: The presence of my phone indicates a contrast between stereotypical adolescent behavior and my reality. As many teenagers utilize their iPhones and Macs to pursue recreational avenues such as social media or Netflix, I spend the majority of my time enveloped in the educational bubble. Rather than Snapchat or Instagram, my school email is open. Each unopened tab represents something I have to do.  This chaotic nature is indicative of my own thoughts, in which I endeavor to maintain a semblance of control.

(portions of pictures used with permission)

 

So my life now? A desk full of post-it notes with mentor texts, a dog-earred copy of 180 Days that is being read for the umpteenth time, a continuously revised calendar, a check list of students I have conferenced with, all next to a coffee cup.  We are off to a great “re-start” with workshop.

Maggie Lopez is enjoying ski weekends in Utah while pretending it is August in her classroom.  She just finished Killers of the Flower Moon and is currently reading Beautiful Boy to convince a student that it will not be “boring” compared to Tweak. You can follow her at @meg_lopez0.

Getting “There:” The Narrative Behind the Grade

Suddenly, there is snow on the mountain range that encircles Salt Lake City and the first quarter has come and gone.  Even after spending 11 weeks together, I confess that we, my students and I, aren’t “there.”

You know, there, that elusive place in education where students are investing, taking ownership, engaging, and enjoying thinking.

We have engaged in the elements of workshop, but our classroom feels like we are on a 10 mile per hour train to “there” that is frequently derailed.  Reading as a community was a high point, but the momentum has since stalled.  My old bag of tricks–student-created due dates, “go to” YA books that may shock or surprise, favorite mentor texts–aren’t reaching a far too large chunk of my people. 

Students are being compliant, but they’re not engaged.  

I am not okay with this.  It feels…I feel…mediocre.  

Was it me?  Is it me? The stress of junior year? Too much choice?  Not enough choice? Other teenage things I don’t know about? In an effort to figure out what was going on, what the story behind the data was, I asked students to write the narrative of the student behind the grade. 

I simply wanted to know:  Who is the student behind these grades?  Who is the human behind the numbers?  

Throughout my 100+ students, the reflections were consistent and their honesty certainly made the case for continuing to cultivate a workshop classroom.  Thankfully, we are heading there.  Summatively, these are the three take aways from their data-driven reflective narratives.

  • Stress and anxiety:  Junior year seems to unkindly smack students in the face.  I have seen it for eight years now. The ramped up, seemingly casual yet threatening chats about the looming college process sits heavy on their shoulders.  Increased course demands eat up time that used to be spent with friends or participating in activities without sacrificing academics. Aside from school stress, there are two-sport athletes, thespians, part-time workers, and family child care providers struggling to balance.

All the more case for carving out time to read for pleasure.  These students’ lives are just as busy as adults. Giving time to read, even 10 minutes at the start of class, can be “therapeutic” as Emily said: “This student found reading at the start of class each day to be therapeutic.  She is sad on odd days when the class doesn’t read.” Our students need time to pause. More importantly, they need to connect with characters, settings, and challenges that mirror their existence. They need to read that sometimes things work out, sometimes they don’t, but you will get through these tough years.

  • True choice is new:  While students now admit they really like being able to choose books, choice in August was scary.  I believe it was scary because they didn’t know themselves as real readers, just readers who were assigned chapters due on certain days.  Aria, who is reading through everything that is on Netflix or will soon be a movie, reflected: “This student, who read three books last quarter, loves being able to choose books without judgment.”  

All the more case for exposure to new titles.  While my school is a college prep school and many teachers, from theology to science, assign books to read outside of a textbook, it isn’t a culture of readers.  Students struggling with choice lack a knowledge of what genre or story they prefer versus what they don’t like. My developing readers need exposure via student recommendations, book talks, library displays, topic journals, or ANY other medium, so they can continue to curate a “To Read” list with meaningful titles.  

 

 

  • Writing voices are still developing:  Elliot wrote:  “This student has never been asked to write anything besides school stuff.  This student has a writing voice, but it is quiet and shy, only the notebook knows it now, but the voice is gaining courage.”  Wow. Check out that voice! Many times, I feel my students don’t trust their ideas or analysis as being “right,” just as they don’t yet trust themselves as writers, frequently asking “Is this what you want?” or “Is this good?”

All the more case for writing, writing, and writing more.  Writers need practice just like athletes. Aside from developing confidence in their ideas, students need to develop confidence in trying out elements of voice to develop the craft of writing by writing beside mentor texts, infusing craft into formal writings, journaling, and closely reading for craft in their choice books.  

Boiling it down:  students need time, exposure, confidence so we can get there.  

I will keep at it, as Lisa encouraged, because the work is not easy, but we know it is worthy. As some keep resisting, fake reading, or simply not reading at all, I will keep conferencing and book talking.  I will give reading time As students doodle instead of write, stare at the ceiling instead of revise, ask “Is this good?” instead of trust their skill, I will keep modeling writing and encouraging.  The culture I create this year will create momentum for next year, then into the following, speeding up the train to take us to that special place of learning.

The train may not be speeding ahead, but it’s chugging along.  At least I know we are on the track, heading in the right direction.

Maggie Lopez teaches American Literature and AP literature in Salt Lake City.  She is anxiously awaiting the start of ski season in Utah and NCTE in Houston next month, while reading Girl, Interrupted and scouring for flexible seating furniture on a budget. You can follow her on Twitter at @meg_lopez0

 

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 

Moving from Assigner to Teaching Along Side My Students

Hi, my name is Kristin and I’m a recovering assigner.

I can easily blame the system that taught me. Numerous years of forced writing assignments, inauthentic essay prompts, and unfair expectations with little to no chance to confer.

What I am describing is not just my own experience of high school in the mid to late 90’s but even my own classroom (I’m a work in progress). It wasn’t until this group of wonderful educators and the amazing work of Penny Kittle and Kelly Gallagher did I even begin to understand there was more to writing than the pattern of assigning, “teaching”,  and correcting. It started slowly last year through personalized writer’s notebooks, engaging quick writes, and dabbling in mentor texts to help us grow readers and writers.  But I still didn’t feel “there”– I didn’t feel ready for the complete jump into writer’s workshop.

Fast forward to March– State testing is winding down and I have Kelly Gallagher and Penny Kittle’s new book, 180 Days: Two Teachers and the Quest to Engage and Empower Adolescents in my hands.

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Their recent book takes a look at the question “How do you fit it all in?” but does it with such thoughtfulness, insight, and in a way that makes their readers stop and think about their own practice. For me, it really made me think about how I needed to move from assigning narrative writing to immersing my students in the art of narrative writing.

After reading 180 Days the first time (I’m planning on rereading with my PLC as a book study), I was struck by how Penny and Kelly take different laps during their writing units, with each lap building off the last until students have shown a deeper level of development of their writing than our traditional 4×4 setup (read a book, take a test, write a paper, and repeat each term) allows us to do.

So, how has my life changed?

What my narrative unit was before:

  • I would diligently create a beautiful assignment, even including criteria for success so the students knew exactly what was needed in their narrative.
  • Students were given some choice in what they wrote (but it was choice in disguise–it still had to connect to the novel we recently read)
  • I gave students time in class to work and would start each day with a mini-lesson but it was based on what I thought needed to be taught, not in a responsive way through conferring or using a baseline assessment.
  • Usually five days later, the narrative was due. Some students used their 43 minutes each day to stare at a blank screen and eventually passed in an attempt at a story. Some loved this type of activity but passed in a narrative that was underdeveloped or without any organization. Some didn’t pass in anything at all–they would rather take the zero than take the risk.
  • While they were writing, I spent my time catching up with my grading and walking the room, begging my reluctant writers to get something on the page.

What my narrative unit is now/moving towards:

  • We started last week with multiple low-stake narrative activities in their writer’s notebooks using engaging mentor texts like “Hands” by Sarah Kay, 36-word stories using Visa commercials (Amy R. wrote about a very similar activity here), and writing alongside excerpts from some great young adult books from our classroom library.
  • This week, students will choose which pieces they want to work with and during our work time to expand them based on the day’s mini-lesson and practice revision skills (especially since my students think their first draft in their only draft–still trying to break this habit). We’ll also continue using mentor texts but use them for imitation work– “borrowing” great lines or ideas from actual writers!
  • After a well-deserved spring break, we will take a final lap with narratives the last week of April. I’m still deciding this piece– I want to see how the beginning of this week goes and see where we need to go next as we move towards the break.  I’m trying to be more responsive as a teacher, which is hard as a Type A planner. At the same time, I think this will benefit both myself and my students because I’m teaching the kids and skills in front of me versus just assigning the same narrative prompt year after year.

Although it’s only been a week in, these are some of the things I know so far:

  • My students have never been this engaged (in terms of their writing lives). How do I know this? Their notebooks are out and ready to go each class. They are passing their notebooks around the room, asking their peers to read what they worked on in class. We end our classes with “beautiful words” and they fight over who gets to share this time.
  • My closeted writers are finally finding their space in my classroom. They are sharing their work with others, giving advice to their peers, and even sharing their personal work with me (I had tears in my eyes when one of my painfully shy students handed me her poetry journal she brought from home–she thought I would like to read them this weekend. Be still, my teacher heart!).
  • Where my students are! Skimming through their notebooks has helped me see where they are starting and where we need to go. In the past, I wasn’t seeing their work until the end, which Kelly Gallagher calls gotcha grading. Now, I know where I want to and need to go to help my students with this type of writing.
  • And the best part- I’m writing. Whatever the students are writing, I’m writing alongside them and using my document camera to show my students my typos, my revisions, and myself. Narrative writing can be so personal. To see my struggle but also share parts of myself and my life has helped us connect in ways only stories can.

Although I still have a long way to go to shed the title of assigner, I feel so much hope that I am finally moving in the direction I’ve watched so many other teachers move towards. I’m reminded of what a wise educator has said about teaching– it’s making your practice 5% better each year. In this little way, I feel that my practice is becoming better because of the resources I have at my fingertips (like this group) and finally making the jump into the deep end of the workshop pool. 

What are some of your favorite things to engage and move your narrative writers? What advice do you have for those who are moving from assigners towards writer’s workshop?

 

Kristin Seed has been teaching for ten years at both the middle school and high school level in Massachusetts. Her passion is reading and leaving piles of books in every room of her house. You can find her chasing after her five-year-old son and now a 13 week old Golden Retriever, Abby. Follow her adventures on Twitter @Eatbooks4brkfst.

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