Category Archives: Narrative

#NCTE17 – A Story I’m Thankful For

Like Amy, my NCTE experience this year was a blur of the most magnificent proportions. I was able to share the experience with an amazing group of colleagues, survived flying on standby in a peculiar route from Milwaukee to Detroit to St. Louis, and wrapped up my planning about 72 minutes before 3TT spoke to a wonderfully supportive and inquisitive audience on Friday.

I have 7 pages of notes, in 5 colors, saw so many English Gods and Goddesses speak I lost count, sat down three inches from Cornelius Minor to plan a forthcoming 3TT Twitter chat (Ekkkk! Fangirl moment), got to room for three nights with my bestie like college roommates watching Hallmark Christmas movies, secured over two dozen books for students in the exhibit hall, spent time with my amazing co-bloggers from Three Teachers Talk, and deliciously foreshadowed Thanksgiving with a calzone of turkey, cranberries, pecans, stuffing, mashed potatoes, and gravy dipping sauce.

thanks1So, when we flew home on Sunday night, I got to bed at about 11:30 pm. Up at 5:00 am, Franklin had school through a half day on Wednesday. I then hosted Thanksgiving for 11 people on Thursday, managed a Black Friday marathon shop with my daughter Ellie (She’s four and up at 6 am anyway – might as well take advantage), cut down a Christmas tree on Saturday, and tried to be a teacher again on Sunday in order to tackle 70ish AP Language responses and plan for the coming week. Next week (I am so excited), we fly to Arizona to visit family for a long weekend.

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Spoiler Alert: I ended up at the chiropractor this past Tuesday. She said she was surprised I could turn my neck at all. “Do you encounter a lot of stress on a daily basis?” she asked. I almost choked and laughed in her face.

Needless to say, my notes from NCTE have waited patiently for me.

NCTE last year was such an incredible experience, I came back to my district and raved about the opportunities our department could reap if a group was able to go and fan out across the convention to sample the wealth of presentations that take place. I am so lucky to teach with such amazing English teachers and even luckier to get to travel with them to this event.

We plan to debrief with administration and our department in a few weeks. I promise to share some of the information and inspiration they gathered. We attended sessions from Writing MultiGenre Papers, to Having a Life as an English Teacher, to Arab Voices in the Classroom, to Using Self Assessment with Students, to “let’s listen to Linda Rief, Penny Kittle, Kylene Beers, and Robert Probst all from the same stage and try not to faint with the fatigue of trying to write down all of their brilliance.”

So, until I find a few minutes to sift through those notes and take in the depth of learning we all did, I humbly share with you the slides from my portion of the Three Teachers Talk presentation on reclaiming our voices as teachers and students through narrative writing.

In it, you will find:

  • Some embarrassing personal photos I used to open our presentation with an illustration of  my own story and how it illustrates the power of narrative to define me: who I am, what I do, and why that might be.
  • Supporting information on how narrative defines the human experience. 
  • Explanation of the Visual Biography assignment I used to have students tell their own stories to start the year.
  • A quick write to get students thinking and telling their stories “outside the box” with a reading from Hillary Jordan’s When She Woke. 
  • A final plea to see the value of student story in narrative writing as a way to know students, value their humanity, and give narrative a proper place next to argument and expository writing in our classrooms.

Amy wished us a happy December in her post earlier this week and shared her slides as well. We hope that December really does come soon. Tomorrow, maybe?  May it bring a few moments to breathe and reflect. When we do, we will be sure to shower you with all the #NCTE17 insights you could ask for.


Lisa Dennis teaches English and leads a department of incredible English educators at Franklin High School near Milwaukee. Last year her NCTE notebook pen of choice was the PaperMate Flair, this year she highly recommends the PaperMate Ink Joy pens.  Follow Lisa on Twitter @LDennibaum 

#NCTE17 — So Much to Remember, So Much to Do

Confession:  I do not have the energy to write this post.

NCTEStLouisI had an amazing learning experience at NCTE in St. Louis. I met Twitter friends for the first time face-to-face. I got to present with my amazing and faithful blogging buddies — and Tom Newkirk! I loaded my shoulder bag with loads of new books for my classroom library complements of the book vendors in the exhibit hall. I talked with some fascinating educators and attended fantastic sessions — all tattooed my heart with meaningful messages. I saw Linda Rief talk about her heart books and Nancie Atwell, Kelly Gallagher, and Penny Kittle advocate for choice reading and more talk and more diverse books and more time to read and write with students. I attended CEL and presented with my newfound friend, Sarah Zerwin, who is writing a book on going gradeless, my newest quest. I did not sleep much. Does anyone sleep much at NCTE?

You’d think that after a week-long break I’d have caught up. Not so. Remember how I wrote about my family coming for Thanksgiving? They did. We laughed and ate and camped and ate.

And. It. Was. Awesome.

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My newly weds. Two daughters and two new son-in-laws.

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Hyrum, my soldier, and his twin, Zach

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On the 3rd day of camping, we are a motley crew but somehow still smiling.

But I am tired.

Yesterday I returned to school like I assume most every teacher in America did. The stack of papers needing grading shouted at me as I flipped on the lights. 111 emails flash danced in my inbox. One plant gave up its withered ghost, and four of my bookcases must have wrestled with the devil. Before the first bell, I sat at a table and breathed. Amazing what a few deep breaths will do.

So, yes, I have a lot to remember about NCTE. My notebook begs to be revisited, and when I get a minute or two, I will write a post that showcases the best of my learning at this inspiring convention.  In the meantime, since I did not preview my part of our presentation at NCTE like my writing partners did, I include it here. Most of my notes are in the slides, so maybe my message will make a little sense without my commentary. At least I hope so. Personally, I think our 3TT presentation was awesome! I learned so much from our journey into doing more with narrative. If you were not there, I wish you could’ve been!

Happy almost December, my friends. May your days be merry and bright right on up to the December holidays. Maybe then we will get some sleep.

 

Amy Rasmussen teaches senior English and AP Language at a large and spirit-filled high school just north of Dallas. She is the mother of six adult children and grandmother to five. She loves to read and write and share her love of reading and writing with anyone who will listen. She also loves to sleep and believes that good pillows make the best of friends. Follow Amy @amyrass and @3TeachersTalk.

Please, Add Your Questions about Narrative– #3TTchat tonight 8ET/7CT

Last week I asked my students the same question I often ask teachers when I facilitate professional development workshops:  What do students today need?

My students talked in their table groups and then shared their ideas. Most said in one way or another:  We need to feel validated and to share our voices.

I don’t know of a better way to accomplish both then by infusing narrative into every aspect of my teaching.

Tonight is our inaugural #3TTchat with our guest Tom Newkirk, author of Minds Made for Stories and the new book Embarrassment: And the Emotional Underlife of Learning (among others).

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If you are a regular reader of this blog, you’ve certainly noticed we’ve focused on narrative, specifically Newkirk’s books, lately. I wrote about how teaching itself embraces the drama of story and later shared some of the quotes that resonated enough to change the way I talk about writing with my students — and the way I teach it. Lisa shared her beautiful argument Narrative Writing: Giving Voice to the Stories that Matter Most.

We are shoulders deep into planning our session for NCTE:  Reclaiming Narrative and Amplifying our Voices:  Using Story to Invite Fearless Inquiry and Intellectual Challenge for Our Students and Ourselves. (We present Friday at 12:30. We hope you will come!)

If you haven’t had a chance to read Tom’s books, we hope you will still join us as we chat with him on Twitter. And if you have some time between now and then, or any time really, perhaps you’ll find value in this Heinemann podcast with Tom about Embarrassment and how it is the “true enemy of learning,” or a sample chapter of Minds Made for Stories. You’ll see why we at Three Teachers Talk have made such a fuss.

In preparation for our chat tonight — and for our presentation at NCTE, we’d love for you to ask some questions about infusing narrative into our teaching practices, or just share with us some of your favorite ideas or best experiences with students and narrative reading or writing. We’d love to include you in the conversation tonight and in St. Louis at #NCTE17.

While you’re thinking:  This is the quick write my students and I will write today: What’s your story?

Narrative Writing: Giving Voice to the Stories that Matter Most

I’m a fan of literary mic drops. It’s often those last lines of text that make me smile, sigh, or chuck a book across the room. In conjunction with my unending impatience, I often find myself paging ahead to the conclusion of a text to see how the author and I will part ways. What profound bit of wisdom will end the conversation we’ve been having? How will we part? Do I get to hug this book tighter as I read because I know the beautiful place we’re heading together? Have I glimpsed a future I can’t stomach? Do I need to consider ending the relationship early?

Often, I am rewarded:

“Isn’t it pretty to think so?”
“Go, my book, and help destroy the world as it is.” 
“He loved Big Brother.” 
“In a place far away from anyone or anywhere, I drifted off for a moment.”
“All was well.”
“Are there any questions?”
“I wish I felt confident that I have the best words, but I’m glad I wonder whether they’re worth saying” 
“And he was feeling not-unique in the very best possible way.” 

“I don’t know where there is, but I know it’s somewhere, and hope it’s beautiful.” 

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So it goes with my journey alongside Tom Newkirk in his Minds Made for Stories. Spoiler alert, I paged ahead. Spoiler alert, Mr. Newkirk did not disappoint.

In a text deliciously layered with reminders that narrative is the very foundation of our understanding of the world and our place in it, not merely a cute exercise for the early grades, Newkirk ends with:

“But as humans, as time-bound mortals, we must tell stories” (146).

Yes. Humans must tell stories. We must tell stories to explain how we got here, why we need one another, what we’ve suffered and celebrated here. We must tell stories to share who we are, what we need, and where we should never go again.

Creation stories. Quest stories. Comedic stories. Sob your eyes out stories. Monster stories. Our stories. And if our classrooms aren’t the place where these stories are born, or shared, or honored, or revered, where will they gain footing? Where will they take flight? So often, students already feel their ideas aren’t worth much. If we don’t support their experiences, wonderings, and desires to connect to their own humanity (or encourage them to have such desires), who will?

If we are in the business of promoting the beautiful stories of creative thinkers , how can we look at our students and say that their beautiful stories must fit within the constructs of our unit-based curriculum? The stories of our students, their questions, their pain, their searching, must find a home in our classrooms before these same students are convinced that their stories don’t matter. Likewise, if our students are convinced that they must fit their stories into the structural mold that we give them or that the grammatical difficulties therein supersede the story’s worth, our students will continue to be finishers rather than learners, with passions dulled and attention diverted to less complicated or messy endeavors.

In a world of Everything is an Argument a mantra I readily subscribed to when I took over the AP Language and Composition classes at our school almost a decade ago, I needed to read Minds Made for Stories. I needed to remember, as Newkirk says, that narrative is a “property of mind, an innate and indispensable form of understanding, as instinctive as our fear of falling, as our need for human company.” It is “a foundational mode of understanding” (34) that demands so much more attention than it’s afforded as a unit of study or structured paper our students pump out once a year.

In fact, narrative is at the very core of every significant argument and every engaging expository text I’ve ever taught, read, witnessed, or created. Without the drama of human experience, argument falls short and exposition falls flat.

Not long ago, I was listening to a podcast recommended to me by my husband. We were driving home from Lambeau Field, in the pouring rain, after the Packers had lost their first game of the season without Aaron Rodgers, whose broken collarbone will haunt the state of Wisconsin for at least the next nine weeks (See? Narrative).

Anyway, the podcast, Under the Skin, is produced by Russell Brand (stick with me here, I promise we’ll get through this together), who will not be everyone’s cup of tea, but whose brilliance (it was a surprise to me too) extends far beyond raunchy comedy. In this episode, Brand is interviewing Yuval Noah Harari, author of Sapiens: A Brief History Of sapiensHumankind. Throughout this conversation, Harari and Brand explore the idea that life is built on fictional stories that create our nonfiction existence, and if deeply examined provide the cooperative construction for all of civilization as we know it.

Harari hypothesizes that fiction, or in our case narrative, helps determine what the shared goals and values are of a specific group, and thereby their role in or purpose as it relates to society. All of our shared fictions (corporations, money, countries), in other words, are the bedrock of large scale human cooperation.

So if story, whether it be fiction or nonfiction,  is at the very core of who we are, how we interact, what we seek, and what unites or divides us, how can we limit it to a six week unit, the focus of which is a hook to capture the audience, transitions to move seamlessly between chronological points of interest, and the use of narrative techniques as scored on a rubric?

We can’t. It’s unconscionable.

However…we need grades. I get it. I live that too. Gah.

But what Newkirk has awakened within me, with his reminder that narrative is “not simply a structure or plan or outline,” but rather a “deeply embodied invitation to movement” (50), is that narrative needs to be a part of my daily practice and needs to be freed from our check-listed systems of construction. If I am to stroll about my classroom and pontificate on the value of our lives as writers, then I need to provide more opportunity for and reminder of the importance of story within that work. Narrative as a part of all writing, not just a stand alone.

In other words, I can’t on the one hand see the inescapable connection between human experience and our desire to share it, and then tell my students that their narrative writing needs to live neatly in the confines of an MLA formatted page that shall not exceed x number of pages.

Narrative writing needs to weave it’s way into everything we create.

Our students need to be given opportunity to tell stories, their stories and the stories of fellow humans, in a way that connects us to our past, highlights the questions that matter to us in the present, and hopefully provide answers to the issues that will impact our futures.

It can all start with a quick write. In the low stakes freedom that is a blank page in one’s writers notebook. Let students give voice to their stories without the pressure of our expectations and rules. If we value these stories (fiction, nonfiction, fantasy, political opinion, context for expository poetry, and the like), and give them a place to grow, our students will value them too.

-Three Teachers Talk (1)

We as “time-bound humans” must allow narrative to run boundless through our classrooms. If it defines our lives; it must not be relegated to a neatly packaged composition assignment dictated by the Common Core. Rather, it must be woven into our talk, our choice, our writing.

Narrative gives voice to the parts of us that make us human. Let’s give it a more powerful, empathetic, educated, diplomatic, and beautifully crafted voice.


Lisa Dennis teaches English and leads a department of incredible English educators at Franklin High School near Milwaukee. She can’t wait to meet Tom Newkirk in St. Louis at NCTE and have a truly embarrassing fangirl moment. Follow Lisa on Twitter @LDennibaum 

18 Quotes & a Call for Connection

We all know the value of mentor texts. We use them for read alouds, to model thinking, to dig deep and find meaning, to teach an author’s moves, sentence structure, and more. Some of us collect them, storing them safely among other valuable collections.  We keep a stash for studying craft, earmarking books in the hopes of remembering why we saved that page for later.

I have 11.8K tweets “liked” –many saved to read later and think about how I can share them with my readers and writers. I am a constant planner.

I also have a constant need for connection and a way to grow. Maybe that’s why Twitter swallowed me when I first signed on in 2011. Even my children, teenagers then, complained I was “always on the iPad.”

Sometimes it helps to take a step back. Evaluate our surroundings. Get a better grip.

Awhile ago I learned a thing or two about myself. I learned what drives me. Tony Robbins has a TED Talk called Why We Do What We Do I found helpful, as did this quiz What is your driving force? (I’ve shared both with students, and we’ve had interesting and insightful conversations.)

My driving needs are connection and growth. No wonder I have an obsession with mentors. No wonder I like to write and share what I learn and how I teach. No wonder I like you to read this blog and to share what you learn and how you teach. You are my Personal Learning Connection.

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Sometimes teachers get lucky. We work in departments that feed our needs. We find colleagues in Facebook groups and Twitter feeds. We reach out to living mentor texts (Shana coined that term a few years ago) who help us reach higher toward the goals we set for ourselves.

I am blessed to have many living mentor texts. My colleagues on this blog for sure. (We have an ongoing WhatsApp chat that keeps us grounded and sane. Mostly.) And many of you readers who’ve reached out with questions in emails, trusting that I might have answers for your questions. You’ve mentored me, too.

I am blessed to call Penny Kittle and Donalyn Miller both friends and mentors. They’ve shaped me in too many ways to say. There’s Katie Wood Ray and Tom Romano (thanks to Shana’s friendship) who’ve shared experiences and stories over meals at NCTE. There’s all the teacher-writers of the stacks of professional books that weigh down the shelves nearest my desk in my classroom and my bed. They mentor with each page.

And there’s Tom Newkirk — who, as Penny put it, is “the smartest man I know.” I met Tom at the UNH Literacy Institute when Shana, Jackie, and I took his class on Boys and Literacy. He is caring, kind, and oh, so brilliant. When I read his books, I feel his passion for literacy and learning — and I feel smarter.

I wrote last week about teaching as if teaching is story, thoughts that sparked while reading Minds Made for Stories. The sparks continue.

Three Teachers Talk will present at NCTE on Friday, November 17 at 12:30 pm. We titled our session: “Reclaiming Narrative and Amplifying Our Voices: Using Story to Invite Fearless Inquiry and Intellectual Challenge for Our Students and Ourselves.” Tom Newkirk is our chair. How amazing is that?

In preparation for our our presentation, Tom’s agreed to join us for the first ever #3TTchat on Twitter, Monday, October 30 at 8ET/7CT. We will discuss the power of narrative in all types of writing as explained in Minds Made for Stories — and Tom’s new book Embarrassment:  And the Emotional Underlife of Learning

I pulled some quotes from Minds Made for Stories last night in prep for that chat. I think you’ll see the genius in Tom’s thinking and what it can do for us as reading and writing teachers. I thank Tom, a true living mentor text, for shifting my thinking about the way I talk about writing with my students, the way I view writing with my students. The way I teach writing.

From Part I of Minds Made for Stories:

“[Narrative] is the “mother of all modes,” a powerful and innate form of understanding” (6).

“Narrative is there to help us “compose” ourselves when we meet difficulty or loss. It is there to ground abstract ideas, to help us see the pattern in a set of numerical data, to illuminate the human consequences of political action. It is home base” (5).

“Photosynthesis is a story; climate change is a story; cancer is a story, with antecedents and consequences. To the extent these phenomena can be told as stories, readers will have a better chance of taking in the information” (11).

“We don’t read extended texts through sheer grit, but we are carried along by some pattern the writer creates. Even if our goal is to learn information, we don’t do that well if that information is not connected in some way — and as humans the connection we crave is narrative” (13).

“. . . the ‘hamburger’ format with the opening and closing paragraphs being the two buns and the body being the meat. . . is a disservice to students, and to nonfiction writing, but also an insult to hamburgers. . .” (16).

“. . . when we strip human motives from our teaching, I suspect we make learning harder and not easier” (17).

“Nonfiction. . .is all about moves, motion through time. Not static structures” (17).

“Even writing that takes a form we would not call narrative (e.g., the lab report) still is built on narrative, a causal understanding of the world that is as basic to us as, well, our intestines. This claim is true for even the most specialized academic writing; even research reports must tell a story” (19).

“[Narrative] is part of our deep structure as human beings” (27).

“If we view [narrative] as a deep structure of thinking and understanding, it affects all discourse and plays a much bigger role; we have literary minds, primed for story” (28)

“Yes, we need to teach students the conventions of various genres, and we can’t assume that because they can read and write fictional stories or autobiographical pieces that they can write arguments or reports. Only a magician would think that. But it does mean that the narrative thread, the anecdote, the story of human interest, the apt metaphor are crucial tools in all forms of discourse — as they speak to our need for causality and story. They form a deep structure” (28).

“Narrative is not a type of writing, or not merely a type of writing. It has deeper roots than that. It is a property of mind, an innate and indispensable form of understanding, as instinctive as our fear of falling, as our need for human company. Good writers know that and construct plots–itches to be scratched–that sustain us as readers. We are always asking, “What’s the story?” (34).

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“Voice is a constant, a human presence, a sensibility, a character, a narrator and guide” (38).

“Openings should be read very slowly, reread if possible. So much is happening. So many commitments are being made–which is why writers often find them so nerve-racking to write. Openings establish the topic, suggest the problem to be examined, convey sense of the narration and tone of the piece, risking at any millisecond that the reader will go elsewhere” (42).

“. . .in all analytical writing there needs to be conflicting perspectives, contending solutions, weaknesses and strengths, even good guys and bad guys. If these positions can be attached to spokespersons, so much the better. Writing is dialogic, involving multiple voices, orchestrated by the author. To comprehend a text is to be attuned to this conflict” (42).

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“I am not contending that literary analysis or argument looks like narrative fiction. But arguments that sustain reading must have a dramatic core, a plot. Like a good piece of music, there needs to a be a pattern of tension and resolution, problem and solution, anticipation and fulfillment. When done well, the sensation of reading doesn’t feel like we are working in a tightly contained form, tyrannized by a thesis, the stern father who sits at the head of the table and rules over all. Rather, we feel a mind at work; the sensation is of a journey that may take us to a thesis but invites new questions along the way” (49).


I hope you will join us in our Twitter chat next Monday. Let’s value our connections and share our stories as teachers, writers, and individuals striving to learn and grow and change for the betterment of our students and ourselves. Let’s celebrate the learning we’ve experienced with our students this fall.

We need to be living mentor texts for one another.

This work is hard. When we connect and share, we make it easier.

We already know it is worth it.

Amy Rasmussen connects with friends on Twitter @amyrass and @3TeachersTalk and on Facebook and Instagram. She’d also like to connect her students’ blogs to yours — wouldn’t it be great if they read and commented on each others’ writing? (Email amyprasmussen@yahoo.com if interested.) Amy teaches senior English and AP Language at a large senior high school in Lewisville, TX (Go Farmers!). 

Varying Paragraph and Sentence Length for Effect

The formula is simple.

 

Pair a simple, declarative sentence in its own paragraph with a longer, more detailed paragraph to follow.  The two paragraphs set against each other will balance the other’s flavors out nicely.

 

Practice it mercilessly in workshop and use sparingly in finished work.

 

As you can see from this blog post, an entire essay or article that’s filled with long-short paragraph variations is going to tire, frustrate, and bore readers easily.   It will also become predictable, just like predicting that LeBron James is going to score 20 points in a game.  The good news, however, is that once you introduce the trick, you can invite readers to look for it across their reading.

 

Mentor texts used: An article about Alec Baldwin’s Donald Trump impersonation from The New York Times and a chapter from The Nix by Nathan Hill (hardcover pgs. 482-492) Note:  read over these mentor texts before using to see if they are appropriate for your students.  

Teaching this technique – version A:

 

  1. Invite students to freewrite off of each of these starting sentences from these mentors: “It takes seven minutes” or “Today was the day he would quit Elfscape.”
  2. Have students share their work.
  3. Reveal first two paragraphs of the Times article and page 482 from The Nix.  (Note: the vocabulary on this page of The Nix is tough, so I would suggest using it as an example of the technique only.)  
  4. Identify ideal locations for this technique (leads, beginnings of chapters and sections.)
  5. Practice this technique in a freewrite or on a piece in progress.

 

Teaching this technique – version B:

 

  1. Have students read the New York Times article and flash-skim the chapter from The Nix.  Unless you want students to read a sentence that extends for ten pages…
  2. Ask students about how and why these two authors decided to begin paragraph 1 simply and laden paragraph 2 with all the details.  Why might an author decide to describe a character’s decision to stop playing an online role playing game with zero periods?  Why might the Times author give us excruciating detail about Alec Baldwin’s Trump makeup?  To what extent are these “characters” portrayed similar?  Or are the purposes here different?
  3. Invite students to “hack” their own writing or another expository piece (e.g. a history or science textbook) to mimic the long-short style.  Is this an improvement?  Is the writing worse?  Why or why not?

 

Amy Estersohn teaches middle school English in New York.  She has never played an online role playing game and only pretends to know how to play paper and dice role playing games, so reading The Nix wasn’t easy.  Follow her on Twitter at @HMX_MsE.

Better Teaching: Please tell me your story

I already knew they were hard workers. This group of girls spent a lot of time in my classroom after school. They huddled together at the far table, speaking in a language I did not understand. They asked questions occasionally, afraid of being wrong.  

“Is this right?” one would say, timidly showing me her iPad where she’d written a few sentences in the Docs app. Returning to her table, she’d share my response with her friends.

They held on in AP English by decimal points as each grading period ticked by. Lucky for them, I scored on improvement, not on the AP writing rubric.

In class we watched the documentary “A Place to Stand,” based on the book by the same name by Jimmy Santiago Baca who became a poet while serving time in prison. Baca’s story captivated my students. They identified and analyzed the argument: “Education matters. Fight for it. Words matter. Learn them. Write them. They empower you..”

Some students understood that more than others. These girls, for sure.

We read several of Baca’s poems. Although mine is primarily a non-fiction course by nature of AP Language and my syllabus, I know that it’s through poetry that my students more easily grasp the beauty and intention in an author’s craft.

The task was to re-read Baca’s poem “As Life Was Five” and to write a reflective piece in response to it.

These girls were struggling, so I finally joined them at their table.

“Tell me what’s going on,” I said.

“We just aren’t sure,” Biak said. She spoke more often than the others, although her English was only a little better.

“Can I see what you’ve written?” I asked, and she timidly passed me her writing, carefully penned on notebook paper.

She quickly broke into explanation:  “I wanted to write my own poem. I don’t know how, and I don’t know…” Words tumbled out, and she lowered her head, waiting for me to read the page.

I looked, and before I could read anything, the words “Burmese!! STUPID and CRAZY!” shouted at me.

“Wait,” I said, “I thought you were from Burma.”

Five voices rose in chorus:  “Yes, yes, we are from Burma, but we are not Burmese. We are Chin.”

I needed them to teach me. I’d never heard of Chin, and my knowledge of Burma was limited to the first few chapters of Saving Fish From Drowning by Amy Tan I’d tried to read and abandoned years ago.

“Will you tell me your story?” I asked, looking closely into the small faces of these beautiful young women, similar yet so different in features and personality.

Biak began to talk.

“We are from the state of Chin in Burma. The Chin are the mountain people. The Christians. The Burmese hate the Christians.”

And then they all talk and tell me their story:

They fled Burma with their families, leaving grandparents and loved ones behind. Sometimes not getting to say goodbye for fear the secret of their journey would be told. They traveled in groups, mostly at night, walking, walking, walking, they said. Often barely eating food, and even then, mostly rice balls or an egg stirred into water.

Bawi told of a Buddhist monk who acted as their guide. “He wouldn’t let us pray,” she said. “Every time we tried to pray, he would knock away our food. ‘Pray to me,’ he’d say, ‘I’m the one who gave you food, not God.’ He was so scary!”

“I lost my shoes,” Biak said, “I walked for miles and miles with no shoes, and the.. What are those things?” she turned to her friends, motioning with her hands like claws, “…those things that stuck to my feets?”

“Thorns,” they said.

“Yes, thorns stuck in my feets, but I had to walk. Walk and walk.”

“Walk quickly and don’t let go,” Kimi said.

“There was a pregnant woman with us. She could not keep up. When we reached the border of Malaysia, she could not run. I do not know what happened to her.”

“I remember we heard the POW POW POW. We had to run as fast as we can to cross the border. I was so little. My legs short. I was so scared.”

Biak begins to cry. She bows her head and covers her face with her hands, “I don’t like to think about it. I remember my grandmother’s face. We barely got to tell goodbye. She cried so much.”

I look around the table. Their eyes shine with memories.

“You all left family behind, didn’t you?”

They nod, and I see Van’s chocolate eyes pool with tears.

“Did you travel together?”

“No! But we all have same stories. All Chin students do,” Duh says.

“Wow,” I say, “Just wow.” My heart throbs in my chest, heavy with the weight of these stories. Resilience takes on new meaning.

“So you must think it’s pretty lame when your classmates whine about having to work a three hour shift and that’s the reason they cannot do their homework.”

The tension breaks, and they laugh.

“What an amazing gift you’ve given me,” I say, “You need to write your stories.”

“I wanted to write a book,” Kimi says, “but I don’t know how.”

I smile. “We can work on that.”

My heart changed after that chat with my girls from Chin. I also felt chagrin. I waited three months into the school year to extend the important invitation:  “Tell me your story.”

I can come up with fourteen different reasons why. None of them matter.

Throughout the fall, I struggled with my classes because I focused on the skills needed to be successful in AP English instead of focusing on the individuals who needed to learn the skills to be successful in life. I forgot why I wanted to teach teenagers in the first place.

Perspective matters.

The most important conversation is the one that invites our students to tell us their stories.

Those young women from the state of Chin grew to trust me because I asked, and I listened. They told me later that I was the first teacher who asked them to tell me their stories — they had all attended U.S. public schools for at least four years.

I am sure other teachers assumed they knew. I thought I knew until I saw the emotion in five pairs of eyes. “We all have same stories,” Duh had said, but that is not true. They all have similar experiences. Their stories are uniquely personal, and they serve as cardinal prerequisites to the identities of each individual.

Identity matters.

How our students see themselves — as teenagers, thinkers, readers, writers, friends, students — matters, and to instruct the individual we must know what she believes about her abilities and her capabilities, both of which have been shaped in one way or another before she ever steps through our door.

Peter Johnston helped me understand the importance of identity in his book Choice Words. He reminds us, “[Children] narrate their lives, identifying themselves and the circumstances, acting and explaining events in ways they see as consistent with the person they take themselves to be” (23).

 

 

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Trust and esteem are imperative to effective conferring. They are imperative to effective teaching. They are two cornerstones of conferences that allow for the relationships students need with their teachers, the relationships students need to learn.

If our goal is to help our students incorporate reader and writer into their identities, we must build foundations that allow them to take on the behaviors of those who read and write. Equity and autonomy create balance in this foundation and become the other cornerstones.

All students must feel that we meet with them fairly and without judgment. They must know our goal is to inspire independence as they become more effective readers and writers — and of course, literate citizens.

Really, it all begins with the invitation:  “Please, tell me your story.”

my-chin-girls

Graduates Lewisville High School Class of 2016


THAT DAY  THAT DAY
by Biak Par
Far from my Home, my Family
When looking at the sky they seem so happy
But me,
Thinking about that day
Every word they speaks, every looks, every smiles, every laugh
They tear me apart, the soul sing Be Strong
That day
Every word they talk, it burn my ears like Hell
Its torture me every night, in intimidate me every day
When I see those similar faces
That day
Those word, those eyes         
Tear my heart into two pieces.
Those words are as sharp as a razor
They call me foolish, Yea, I don’t know them
Burmese!
That day
My body fills with wound and remorse.
It like drawing into the water, I could not breathe nor talk,
Walking to class
All eyes on me,
Looking down with hope that there is a place I can conceal
But the room seems so small
As I take a step to the room, the room seems colder
Like I was at Antarctica,
Very Cold
Looking at the room I was isolated for this people,
This entire people are strangers.
That day
Standing still
People examine me, like I am from the others planet
That day…
My tremble body, drum in my blood
Eyes fill with water,
That day
The word of Burmese, such as STUPID, CRAZY echoed through my ears
Stupid, crazy,
My mouth wants to shout, but my mouth feels numb
And makes my throat feels tight like I am being choked,
Almost tearful
Wanting to run away can’t bear the exposes of feeling being hunted.
That day
Eyeing for a place to seat
But none of them invites me or speak,
It like I am walking into a room full of a babies Dolls,
They do not talks
But their EYES,
Their evil eyes talk, its say get out of this room
That day
Head down, looking at the floors as I walk toward to the edge of the room,
Seat alone,
The room feels so dark, so lonely and scary
Even, I was surrounding by those people
That day
My silent cry, wishing I can revisit to where I’ll be safe
Because every second, every minute, every hours this place seems so hazardous
That day…
Hopes and dreams are fading away like the wave of the cloud fade, little by little.
From that day the world is never the same
That day, change my life
Made me feels like a woman, made me realize
That because I am different from them (Burmese) and I only speak
CHIN,
They destroy and killed my hopes, my thought, my believe,
The thought of what might come next. I am Scared.
But,
My soul sing to me, be strong. BE Strong Biak Par. Be STRONG.

 

Mini-Lesson Monday: Friendly Competition

Having just watched my beloved Green Bay Packers hand the game to the Atlanta Falcons, my belly is full of delicious chili, but my heart is heavy. Now, I’m watching the Cubs possibly beat Cleveland and getting an odd thrill over a game I have absolutely no stake in. I’m not usually such a sports enthusiast, but all the excitement has me thinking.

img_6450The thrill of competition, win or lose, can make the ordinary far more fun. This typical Sunday night, for example, involved good friends, good food, and a good amount of jawing about a sport none of us have ever played, but still feel the need to critique. Any other Sunday night would find me waist deep in student papers. A different kind of fun, for sure.

Competition in the classroom puts a spin on the ordinary as well. It’s been my experience that a little friendly competition can turn the most aloof high students into passionate, enthusiastic, albeit candy-crazed participants. When the “prize” is stickers, watch out. The stakes are suddenly cutthroat.

For this relatively ordinary mini lesson on narrative techniques, I took advantage of the fact that I have a class of 28 students. While there are countless techniques that a writer can use in order to advance the chronology of his or her piece, my sophomores were going to be focusing on the basic idea that chronology can be linear or nonlinear, utilizing techniques like foreshadowing, flashback, building suspense, and reflection.

One of my collaborative team members came up with the idea to have the kids make the anchor charts for the lesson (thanks, Weston!), and I ran with that img_6454idea for the active engagement section of the class.

Objective: After researching in small groups, students create anchor charts for narrative techniques related to chronology and use them to determine which techniques could apply to their own stories during revision of their current draft.

Lesson: Having researched their randomly chosen terms in small groups, students pooled their findings and created an anchor chart that included the name of the technique, a definition, a purpose for using the narrative tool, and an example or two. 

With a larger class, I was able to have two groups work with each term, meaning we could have a little friendly competition.

img_6448Students completed their charts and we distributed them around the room. With their small groups, students traveled to each poster pairing and took notes on the techniques, discussing with their classmates places in their own stories they could utilize the technique. In addition, students were deciding which poster they felt more accurately covered the technique and would fit in well with the logical detail needed for our classroom anchor chart wall.

There was a lot of great talk that followed and students writing notes and ideas down in their notebooks too. I loved listening to their ideas of how the technique could be incorporated in their stories and where/how it might best fit.

The voting process even made me smile. The class suggested that they should have an official delegate from each group come forward to vote and then hang the winning poster on the wall. It was very…democratic.

Follow-Up: Students worked during workshop time to identify the chronological steps taken in their papers already and then strengthen the purposeful inclusion of chronological techniques in their pieces. Next class period, we’ll be doing some peer editing involving the specific inclusion of these elements. That exercise and their final submissions will both involve assessment of the writing (peer assessment and self assessment) using the same rubric I will use to grade this portion of their papers.


Proficient Level Narrative Chronology:
The text creates a logical progression of experiences or events using some techniques—such as chronology, flashback, foreshadowing, suspense, etc.—to sequence events so that they build on one another to create a coherent whole.

How do you utilize friendly competition to engage students? Please feel free to share in the comments below. 


Mini-Lesson Monday: Narrative Analysis with StoryCorps

We all have a story to tell.

In fact as writers, we have countless stories to tell. We tell of our experiences, fears, hopes, dreams, and even those trivial events that sometimes add up to more “life” than we could have imagined.

We tell the stories of others too. Real and imagined people that speak to us in words we’ve heard and sometimes, in the words we long to hear.

I wax poetic with my students like this often, but especially early in the school year. I want them to feel my passion for the power of stories and encourage them to develop their own passion for expression. As Morris (protagonist from one of my daughter’s favorite children’s books The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore) beautifully states, “Everyone’s story matters.” 

With this in mind, my American Literature collaborative team (Shout out to Brandon, Catherine, and Erin!) worked this year to develop a unit of narrative writing that asks students to look at the stories they tell and how those stories can be interconnected. Everyone’s story matters, and in this case, they get to have even more meaning as students craft individual tales that relate to their chosen thematic focus.

Students, having already selected, listened to, and analyzed an episode of This American Life for elements of author craft in a narrative (hook, chronological/detail choices, and word choice), partnered up or formed a group of three, and selected a theme out of a hat (dangers of conformity, vanity as downfall, the power of choice, etc.) they would explore, both individually and in their groups.

The overarching assignment is to craft an individual narrative that fits the theme and ultimately orally record the stories in a podcast that highlights the interconnectedness of the individual work. Students are graded individually on their narratives, but the podcasts are a group effort and will be played for the class.

storycorps


Objectives — Students will listen to several examples of 2-3 minute stories from NPR’s StoryCorp in order to practice narrative technique identification and analysis one more time before drafting their own stories. Students will discuss and share their insights on narrative impact of what they heard in an effort to purposefully craft their own narratives.

Lesson  — According to their website the initiative of StoryCorp is to “preserve and share humanity’s stories in order to build connections between people and create a more just and compassionate world.” 

In class, we had spoken already about the power and purpose of stories and students had come up with some wonderful ways stories enrich and fulfill us. Stories:

  • explain, or attempt to explain, where we come from and/or why we are here.
  • allow us to express what we believe or hope.
  • reveal who we are or who we want to be.

I shared with students that we were going to listen to some short pieces that told unrelated stories on the surface, but each would link back to some of the reasons we tell stories at all. Students were asked to record what they heard in the hook, insights on which details were included and why, and word choice (all elements they will be scored on when writing their own narratives).

I started by playing a sample story and then walking them through my own analysis. “Traffic Stop” is a piece that details police brutality in 2009 against a black man who was raised by white parents. The piece pretty brutally (I did have to mute three or four seconds of the piece where a police allegedly uses a racial slur that is inappropriate for the classroom) relates the story of a young man who is pulled over by police, searched but cleared, and then is assaulted by police when he questions why the officers are searching his car.

After I played the piece, I projected some of my own analysis. The hook involved the young man’s mother saying that she never would have thought skin color would make a difference for her son, but she painfully learned she was wrong. Word choice vividly captured the pain, fear, and confusion of the young man who was beaten by police. The chronology includes context for the horror of the event, a play by play of the few moments of the traffic stop, and details about the young man’s mother seeing his injuries in the hospital. My analysis was that the elements chosen were specifically selected and organized to convey the disbelief that something like this could happen to an innocent person and the role that race played in the event.

We then listened to two more stories. Students wrote down their take-aways in their writer’s notebooks and discussed after each piece. We shared out ideas and pulled insights back to those class generated elements of why we tell stories.

Finally, I had students listen to one last piece, detail their analysis on a half sheet of paper and turn it in to me for some formative feedback.

Follow-Up — We are about to start mini-lessons on hook, chronology, word choice, and parallelism (thank you Common Core) in drafting these narratives. I plan to reach back to the insights shared during this class in order to help students make purposeful choices in crafting and revising their narratives.

Everyone’s story matters. 

What tools do you use to get students thinking intentionally about their writing craft? Please share your ideas in the comment section below! 

Try it Tuesday: 44 Songs for Quickwrites

My students and I start writing on the first day of school. Our first quickwrite might be in response to a video or a poem or a short passage. For the past few years, I’ve shown To This Day by Shane Koyczan. I pass out notecards and ask students to listen to the message and then either write their thoughts to the whole of the video, or perhaps to a line in it.

I learn a lot about my students on the first day of school.

Then, three or four times a week, we write in response to other videos, poems, or passages throughout the year. Sometimes we return to these quick writing pieces, choose topics, and take the writing into full processed works. (Shana shares how she leads students into this mining his mini-lesson.) Sometimes we stop at just sharing our thinking with our table mates. Sometimes we use our thinking a springboards into texts we read together or in book clubs.

Writing responses is one of the best thinking strategies I know for engaging students in writer’s workshop. (Actually, I think asking students to write responses in any content area is good for thinking — I wish math and science teachers gave students more opportunities to write. I’m sure they wish I did more with math and science, but somehow I don’t think that’s really apples for apples. Is it?)

 

As this year winds down, I think of a million things to ask my students that might help me

Screen Shot 2016-05-30 at 4.48.59 PM

Lovelyn’s suggestions for songs to inspire writing.

reach more readers and writers the following year. This week I asked them to give me ideas on the songs they listen to — songs that might work well to get students thinking and responding in their notebooks.

They sent me lots. Some sent me lists.

(Disclaimer:  I have not listening to all of these songs yet, but I did start watching the music videos. Some have lyrics that might work well, but videos that might not. Some are a little too much… others are just weird. Some would work if we think of thought-provoking questions to include with the lyrics/videos. Should’ve had kids come up with those, too.)

Here’s a list of songs my students suggest would make for good quickwrites:

“Alive” by Kehlani

“Clarity” by Zedd

“Bright” by Kehlani

“Halo” by Beyonce

“Someone Like You” by Adele

“Be Alright” by Kehlani

“Lean On” by Major Lazer & DJ Snake

“Shark” by Oh Wonder

“Lights” by Vexents

“Thinking Out Loud” by Ed Sheeren

“Imagine” by John Lennon

“Run Away” by Kanye West

“Brother” by Need to Breathe

“Love Yourself” by Justin Beiber

“7 Years” by Lukas Graham  (I found this one before my students mentioned it. I actually saved the title to this song in my notebook after I heard it on the radio. It’s a great song for thinking about Our Stories.)

“Stronger” by Kelly Clarkson

“Humble and Kind” by Tim McGraw (Another song I already love and am tickled that a student suggested it. This is a message I know we all hope our students internalize. Studying the humanities makes the world –and the classroom — a better place.)

“50 Ways to Say Goodbye” by Train

“Apple Tree” by Erykah Badu

“Ain’t No Rest for the Wicked” by Cage the Elephant

“The Light That Never Fades” by Andra Day

“Rise Up” by Andra Day

“Hall of Fame” by the Script

“Cornerstone” by Hillsong

“Don’t Stop Believing” by Journey (Ohhh, Journey. I remember you well. Another student suggestion that made me smile.)

“The Middle” by Jimmy Eat World

“Heroes” by David Bowie

“What Would You Do” by Bastille

“Youth” by Troye Sivan

“Locked Inside” by Janelle Monae

“I Don’t Want to Be” by Gavin DeGraw

“Became” by Atmosphere

“Battle Scars” by Lupe Fiasco

“Not the Only One” by Sam Smith

“The Moon – The Swell Season, It Will Rain” by Bruno Mars

“Talking to the Moon” by Bruno Mars

“See You Again” by Charlie Puth

“Only One” by Kanye West

“Beautiful” by Eminem

“Heaven” by Troye Sivan

“Lose It” by Oh Wonder

“Don’t Let Me Down” by The Chainsmokers

“Never Forget You” by Zara Larson

First” by Laura Daigle

What about you — do you have some great songs you use to inspire your writers? Please share in the comments.

 

 

 

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