Category Archives: Writers Workshop

Mentor Texts: Lifting Lines and Elevating Self

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

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

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

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

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

Hope Thrives in Courage

Today is the third Friday with my senior English students. Yep, I did it. I’m back in the classroom, learning alongside some amazing young people.

I have a billion goals for myself — enough to weigh me down, certainly — but one that keeps floating to the top is this:  Thrive in hope. (Yeah, I don’t really know if that’s a goal, but stay with me here.)

When I left the classroom two years ago, I’d lost a lot of it. Personal struggles. Professional struggles. The state of the world struggles. All of it. But lots of self-reflection, rest, writing, paint, dirt, good friends, family, and growing things –probably most of all growing things — changed me. My hope is back. It’s thriving, just like the plants that add energy and life to my home and my new classroom.

And while I teach literacy skills to seniors in high school, what I really want to teach is hope. Hope in humanity and our ability to thrive — together and as individuals.

So, like you, I’ve started with relationships. Every text we’ve read together, every task WritingBesideDwyaneWadeI’ve asked students to complete, every book I’ve matched to a reader’s interest has given me insight into who these young people are as individuals with backgrounds, cultures, fears, failures, dreams and desires. Just like me, they cling and pounce and clamor after hope.

A few years ago, after a sniper killed five police officers in downtown Dallas, I read this commentary by Chequan Lewis. The last line still resonates: “My sights are simply set on what is possible when we are courageously human.”

Courageously human. That’s what I want for myself and for my students — to practice courage as a means of becoming better than we were when we walked in the door. So moving forward into senior English plans, I’ll invite students to step into the vulnerable spaces that require courage: reading texts that challenge the status quo, writing honestly about ourselves, our learning, controversies, and convictions; and communicating in ways that validate, clarify, empathize, and challenge.

I’ll step there, too, because the more I think about it:  Hope thrives in courage.

Here’s a few of the texts we’ve used thus far to write beside and spark our thinking on this journey. Perhaps you’ll find them useful as you begin your own.

My Honest Poem by Rudy Francisco

Famous by Naomi Shihab Nye; the poem here

“This Bud’s for 3” — Dwyane Wade

If you have ideas for more resources that fit our theme, please share in the comments.

 

Amy Rasmussen teaches seniors at a large high school in North Texas. She’s a #houseplantcollector, writer, reader, gardener, watercolor-artist wannabe, bicyclist, and grandmother to eight courageous little people, the newest little man born today! Follow her @amyrass and @3TeachersTalk

Becoming a Writer — Guest Post by Austin Darrow

On a late summer night, as the new school year looms on the horizon, my wife and I re-watch Heath Ledger’s comedic masterpiece A Knight’s Tale for the umpteenth time. As Ledger’s character William makes the decision to bravely follow his true calling and stand as a knight, knowing he will be arrested, Roland proclaims the old adage, “Well boys, all good things must come to an end.”

As all teachers oft do, I took this as a metaphor. It’s time for summer to come to an end, to don my armor, pursue my calling, boldly face the new year. In response, my wife said to stop being so melodramatic and watch the movie.

With her reminder, I did put an end to these flairs. Sure, summer–with its days of sleeping in, its weeks to simply and blissfully read for hours, catch up with old friends, its endless possibilities–would have to make way for something more structured. But I also felt a change this time around. The nervousness, the butterflies, the back-to-school nightmares (mostly) gave way to a new feeling: excitement. This would be a great year.

You see, last year, my second year in this profession, was a furnace for me.

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The Image by zephylwer0 from Pixabay

Conditions were just right: the heat was cranked up by my peer Charles Moore, who constantly challenged me to grow through conversations, mentor text wars, an anchor chart “hall of fame”, and an endless pursuit of authenticity in our shared love of teaching literacy; a mold was given to me by my mentor, Helen Becker, who showed me concrete strategies to make these things work while always reminding me to read, write, and cut out all the extra “stuff” that could allow impurities to ruin my work; Megan Thompson was the hand that guided the hammer, refining the techniques I tried, inviting me into her classroom and her thoughts, and modeling an unconditional love for students that requires a strong will; lastly, the students were the anvil, always giving me a sturdy base on which I could hone my edges and continue growing and shaping.

Without “further gilding the lily” as Chaucer would say in A Knight’s Tale, I learned and grew so much in this forge through the strong students, mentors, peers, colleagues, and I daresay friends that were willing to walk the walk with me.

Our North star–our central focus–at the heart of this growth was always learning how to make the literacy experiences for our students more authentic.

As I continue to reflect on these experiences, I realize that our greatest growth was in writing instruction. As our students walked in the door for the first time last year, we quickly realized many had gaps in their writing instruction. But perhaps a more alarming assessment was that most students, even those “proficient” by any state standards, had no love or purpose for writing.

And so our work began.

We tried many things–increasing the amount of formative data we would look at in team meetings to help guide our planning; shifting what and how we assessed and graded with rubrics and scales that would be more authentic; changing the pacing and length of our mini-lessons to get out of the way of these young writers; and so much more. Each of our adjustments were tried, refined, and often ditched and replaced, and I believe that each warrants further reflection. But one adjustment stood above the rest: when we as teachers became writers too.

In Kelly Gallagher’s Write Like This, he proclaims: “Of all the strategies I have learned over the years, there is one that stands far above the rest when it comes to improving my students’ writing: the teacher should model by writing–and think out loud while writing–in front of the class” (15).

Nearly all teachers of writing have heard something along these lines at some point in their career. Many have been brave and vulnerable enough to try it.

But this past year, I learned that there is a difference between writing in front of your students and becoming a writer.

A writer is a person who keeps journals and notebooks and endless Word documents, filled with ideas and drafts and revisions in a smorgasbord of conditions. A writer is an artist who pursues and experiments with their craft to get it just right. A writer is a dreamer filled with goals and purpose that can only be met through careful, meticulous, arduous effort.

With this working definition, I quickly realized that I was not a writer. Are you? I also questioned myself:  How could I authentically ask my students to become the writers that I have qualified here if I hadn’t become a writer yet myself? How could I expect them to give what I was not willing to give myself?

So I set out to become a writer. At first, I wrote the same essays and assignments that I tasked my students with. Then I said yes to sponsoring our school’s Poetry Corner and shared my own work at our weekly meetings. I wrote letters to family and friends, and love notes to my (at the time) fiancé. I wrote reviews of products I had purchased and services I had received, application letters to conferences I wished to attend, thank-you cards to wedding guests, and much more.

As I climbed each of these mountains of literacy, I shared my writing experiences with students. I wrote many of these pieces with them, inviting their feedback and giving mine in return. I became a writer and watched as my students became writers, too.

In a recent conversation with the aforementioned colleagues and friends, we created an anchor chart of reasons why everybody–students and teachers alike–benefit when the teacher becomes a writer:

  • Foresight to specific struggles students might have
  • Better understanding of what skills to teach in mini-lessons
  • Concrete conferring questions to ask student writers
  • Empathy for students struggling with the writing process
  • Equity in creating assessment scales and rubrics
  • Modeling vulnerability, struggle, and craft for the students
  • Modeling authenticity and purpose as a writer

I’m certain there is more to unpack here, but with these benefits alone, I am convinced: the most essential “tool” of writing instruction is when the teacher becomes a writer, too.

So as I glimpse into the year ahead, the usual back-to-school nerves have been replaced with sheer excitement. I am excited to step into the classroom, share my writing territories with students, and coach them as they create their own. I am excited to write alongside them, receive their feedback, and watch as they grow. I am excited for our next Poetry Corner meeting, where old students and new are so electrified by their literacy that they have to come and share. I have so much to learn still about writing instruction, and I am excited to step back into the furnace.

Austin Darrow has now begun his third year as a teacher and self-proclaimed literacy advocate. He teaches English I, AP Lit, and coaches the Academic Decathlon at Clear Creek High School. He is trying to grow and refine his voice of advocacy, so follow him on Twitter @darrowatcreek.

A Poem to Start Your Notebook

Each morning, I receive two poems in my email inbox: one from The Poetry Foundation, and one from The Writer’s Almanac. One morning in July, I received “More of Everything” by Joyce Sutphen, read it, and thought, wow. That would be so powerful to write beside with students.

As it turns out, some pretty brilliant thinkers receive these same poems in their inboxes, and they took the same poem and ran with it in a beautiful direction:

I often have my students write beside poetry inside our notebooks, but Linda Rief and Penny Kittle have inspired me to bring poetry to the personalization process. I love the idea of having students glue this poem into their personal photos and collage pages we create: it prioritizes an individual, emotional response to literature that is valued in the workshop classroom…and the results of the thinking around this text are beautiful, too.


As you and your students begin the school year and personalize your writer’s notebooks, perhaps you’ll consider adding a text to the start of your journals. Will you share any poems or short texts you frame your year with in the comments?

Shana Karnes lives in Wisconsin with her husband, daughters, and cats. She is teaching and learning alongside amazing teachers through the Greater Madison Writing Project this year. Connect with Shana on Twitter at @litreader.

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

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

Joe and Toby

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

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

And the list goes on.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Then I thought, but now I know. . .

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

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

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

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

 

What if I’m the small seed

With a big shell

Waiting in the bag

Pleading not to be eaten up

By the mouth

Called life

And my inner seed gets revealed

And my outer shell is thrown out and trampled

By reality

 

Maybe I should chew more bubble gum

 

The rest of Toby’s poem is linked here. 

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

 

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

Q & A: How do you grade the writer’s notebook?

Questions Answered

For all the years of my teaching career, my students have always kept writer’s notebooks. We personalize our covers and create our own book lists and dictionaries, practice writing, sketching, and glue-ins to make every writer feel at home, and then go about the work of filling those empty pages with ideas, practice, drafts, and beauty throughout our time together. I do this work beside my students, and we inspire each other–the same way I see my teacher mentors do this.

Because of this framing, students are invested in their individual writer’s notebooks, and they are carefully and creatively cultivated. As a result, when I collect the notebooks, it’s not for the purpose of accountability: it’s for the purpose of students sharing something they’ve chosen with me, and for me to gather some information about where my students might need more instruction.

Just as students have their choice reading books lying open on their desks when we talk about their reading lives, they have their own writer’s notebooks lying open when we confer about their writing lives. I can see, and guide, students’ work in the notebook on a daily basis, so when I collect notebooks, most of what I’m seeing isn’t new to me.

Students select two pieces of writing they would like feedback on and flag them with post-it notes, then turn in their notebook every two weeks. I browse through their writing, have a look at their TBR lists and personal dictionaries, and write back on the pieces they’ve noted.

Once per quarter, I ask students to do a “journal harvest,” in which they revisit their writing from that quarter, assess their growth as a writer, set new goals going forward, and choose one piece they may have abandoned to harvest, revise, and polish.

If my classroom were gradeless, that would be that: daily conferences, biweekly turn-ins, quarterly harvests. That gives students a variety of feedback types and times, and gives me, the teacher, enough information to help move individual writers and the class as a whole in their writing growth. Because I have always been required to enter grades weekly into an online gradebook, I make turn-ins worth 20 points and quarterly harvests worth 60 points.

Students who do the work with fidelity and demonstrate growth earn the full points possible. Daily conferences are filled with self-assessment, which informs my “grading”–it’s easier to help award points to students when they’ve already set their own goals and assessed their progress during our conversations during the week.

As always, I treat the notebook as “workshop, playground, repository,” via the guidance of Tom Romano in Write What Matters. It is a place for students to “think, ruminate, speculate with the pressure off and the stakes low” (16), and as such, our grading should reflect that.


Note:  This post is a part of a series. It’s based primarily on the most frequent questions about readers-writers workshop asked at our workshop trainings. For more see here.

Shana Karnes lives in Wisconsin and teaches writers, educators, and her own small children how to improve their lives with literacy. As a new resident to the Dairy State, she’d love your recommendations about things to do. Connect with Shana on Twitter at @litreader.

Summer Reading Recommendations : what to read and how to go public

As summer winds down and I am heading back to school, I am taking time to reflect on my own summer reading.

Summer is always busy: our family travels from our home in Nicaragua back to our home in Oregon to visit family and friends, and we don’t really have a “home base” throughout the summer. We are always so happy to spend this precious time with our loved ones, and we end up visiting late into the night quite often. This means I’m not reading as much before bedtime, and in the afternoons when I might normally be reading, I’m visiting and playing and participating in summer activities.

But just because I’m not reading on my regular schedule doesn’t mean I don’t value reading and books like I always do, and when my students return to school in a couple of weeks I want to be able to demonstrate to them that it’s important for me and for them to all have healthy reading habits.

I’ve written before about how important it is to be public with our students regarding our reading habits and values. I just don’t think it can be said enough — showing our students how much we value and appreciate reading is perhaps more important than telling them. But the questions is how… so I have come up with a few more ideas this summer about how to share with my new students in the fall.

  1. First of all, I will show them my own list of books I’ve read over the summer.IMG_5385IMG_5386I’ve kept track in the Notes app on my phone, and it’s super easy to keep track this way. I could have added how many pages were in each book, genre, authors, etc, but those are easy things to look up later, so I just included the titles in my own list.

I’ll share this list with my students, and then talk with them about the diversity of the list — books in verse, graphic novels, nonfiction, middle school level, young adult, etc. My reading life isn’t just about reading “on level” books; it’s about reading what I like, reading to learn, and reading for fun. I want to both model this and be explicit with my students about this fact.

  1. Secondly, I’ll share with my students that I’ve been public all summer long. I’ve shared many of my current reads on twitter and instagram, and while I don’t have a huge following on either of these platforms, I have gotten good feedback from others, and it feels good to have a conversation starter about books.

ILHLInsta

A screenshot of one of my posts on Instagram this summer. Not only am I sharing what I’m reading, but I’m sharing that I read and it’s important to me. This leads to conversations that happen face to face!

 

 

My students can share their current reads in many ways – they don’t necessarily need social media, but they do need to see that a willingness to start a conversation about books and about reading is beneficial in creating a community of readers.

 

As an aside, I can heartily recommend all nine of the books pictured above. Actually, I can recommend all of the books on my list above — it was such a great summer of reading! 

  1. Thirdly, I’ll share with my students that while I wasn’t reading, I was often shopping for books for our classroom library. I shopped our local thrift shop, the Goodwills in my area, the St. Vincent de Paul, and some other local new/used bookstores. I even found a few copies in some little free libraries around town. I found treasures without having to spend too much money. Most of my book purchases were fifty cents apiece, and I made it a rule not to go over three dollars a book unless it was something I had to have. Even then I only went over the three dollar mark about three times, and most of my books were under a dollar.

 

I purchased multiple copies of the same titles so I could organize book clubs and book partnership units and activities, and so some of my students can organically decide to read the same titles together. (I was so happy to find about ten copies of Seabiscuit, for example, and I didn’t pay more than two dollars per copy.)

I understand that it’s not feasible for every teacher to purchase books, but that’s not the point. The point is that I want my students to see that I value reading, books, and their access to books. As teachers, we can demonstrate that priority in countless ways. In fact, last year, I built my classroom library from scratch with no money out of pocket at all. I just needed to make sure that I could immediately put books into the hands of my students, and I’ll keep doing what I can to make that happen.

I wonder how other educators will model their values as they get to know their students this fall? Please share in the comments, as I know there are some really good ideas out there, and I oh-so-selfishly want to hear them!

Julie has been teaching secondary language arts for twenty years, spending the first fifteen in rural Central Oregon,  four in Amman, Jordan, and the most recent school year in Managua, Nicaragua. 

Follow her on twitter @SwinehartJulie

How a Bullet Journal Baby-stepped me Back to Writing

I know that it is most important to write when dealing with the very adversity in life that makes us run from writing. I know that. And yet, I have not written much in the past year. I dabbled a bit while writing with my students – mostly during poetry club – but I enjoyed neither the process (it felt forced) nor the products (I lacked the passion to see the potential in my pieces). I felt worse than I did prior to embracing workshop as a teacher because now, I knew better. I felt like a fake. I could hear myself encouraging students to write as a form of catharsis, but I wasn’t walking the walk. It is hard to admit that I felt this way for almost the entire school-year.

I remember how great my muscle memory was in marching band. Even when I didn’t feel well, even when I was not in the mood to play “If My Friends Could See Me Now” one more time, even when I was completely distracted by the cute tuba player in my peripheral vision (we’ve been married 27 years now), my finger knew which holes to cover and keys to hit. I knew when to breathe. I knew when my foot should hit the yard-line. Luckily, that same type of “muscle memory” applies to teaching. Though I secretly struggled, I engaged my students in writing and offered them choice, whenever possible, in their medium of expression, topics, genres, etc.

This is how one of my students came to show me her bullet journal. For several years, I have assigned some variation of a “senior autobiography project.” Students have wowed me each time with introspective pieces and astounding creativity. I do assign some parameters because I want students to include writing, of course, and their final entry requires them to find a major theme in their work (and life), but some of the project types I have received include:

  • a video game walkthrough with text pop-ups and a voice-over
  • scrapbooks (with written pieces)
  • a choose-your-own adventure video game to solve a mystery (and get to know the student)
  • memory boxes
  • a bird’s nest constructed of rolled-up notes and pictures (the theme was written on a beautiful paper bird)
  • a full CD with 12 original songs that capture elements of the student’s life
  • PowerPoints
  • videos
  • infographics
  • traditional journals
  • and recently, bullet journals

I check in with my students at the mid-point to see what format they are considering for their project and to see what written pieces they’re thinking of including. One of my students told me that she was crafting a bullet journal. I had to ask her what that was. I know; I was slacking on my Pinterest-perusing! She looked at me with the most somber expression and said, “Mrs. Counts, you have GOT to check out bullet journaling! You would LOVE it! I know you would!”

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Instead of travel dreams, students could set post-graduation goals or high school bucket lists!

So…several Pinterest-hours later (they have got to start counting that as professional development), I had several pages in my writer’s notebook: travel dreams, reading list, spring-cleaning list, weight-loss goal cough, mood trackers, a list of what I could do if I’m bored or feeling down, a gratitude page, and a list of things I can control. They’re just lists, but I was writing, and writing is never really just a list. The mood trackers have allowed me to gain insight into patterns and how different events affect me. Thinking about what I can control empowers me to do those things and let the others go. My spring cleaning list – well, that’s still not done, and neither is my summer list, but I can reflect on that and set new goals, too! I also create to-do lists for my classes, take notes during training courses, and even have an expanding summer Netflix binge-watch list!

I have always thought that a lot of my best lesson ideas come from my students, so when Screen Shot 2019-07-11 at 10.10.11 PM

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Mood trackers are a valuable self-assessment tool.

I teach creative writing this fall, I plan to incorporate some of the bullet journal ideas into the course. I would love to look at possibilities together and let students choose what areas to explore in their lives. My student’s suggestion got me writing again – first by lists, then by taking ideas or phrases from those lists to create something new. I know that magic can work for some of the more reluctant writers in my class.

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I take “real” notes in my journal, too. I even glued in my annual non-winning convention door prize ticket for laughs 😀

I know that none of these ideas are new. Most of us already use writer’s notebooks with our students for quick-writes, pieces modeled on mentor texts, and much more, but some of the bullet journal templates are quick, non-threatening, adaptable, and fun! Please comment with any fun resources you find on the topic. I’m off to add to my Netflix page…

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Students can visualize concepts before writing about them. This small entry in my journal has somehow reminded me to do these things daily!

 

 

 

 

 

A few resources:

 

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 wants her students to know that language is power – one that she hopes they will be able to wield for Good. Someday she will write her story. Follow Amber @mrscounts.

I’ve Been Thinking…About Heroes (Or What I’ve Learned from Eighth Graders This Year) Guest Post by Elizabeth Oosterheert

Theater1

Eighth Grade Theatre Troupe members rehearse a scene from Peter Pan

Every great story has a beginning, middle, and end, not necessarily in that order.

We are all great stories…Phil Kaye

As the first days of June open like flowers, I’m thinking about the courage, complexity, and vulnerability of the eighth graders I taught this year…and all that I learned as we wrote together, and spent time on stage.

My students suffered. They experienced everything from abuse, to the death of a parent and coach, to Stage IV cancer. It was heartrending. And it was glorious, because they used tragedy to craft some of the most beautiful, honest writing I’ve ever read from middle school students, and their wounds gave them authenticity on stage, as many of them joined my theatre troupe.

What were our favorite mentor texts?

TheaterIn  writing workshop, my students’ favorite things to compose were Spoken Word poetry and film analysis. When I asked students what their favorite mentor text was at the end of the year, most of them chose “Tony Steinberg: Brave Seventh Grade Viking Warrior” by Taylor Mali.

In a poem that Mali says took him three years to write, he recounts what it was like to lose a seventh grade student to cancer, and also incorporates some of his best teaching memories.

Mali masterfully employs the metaphor of the Viking ship,  their belief in Valhalla, and the importance of dying valiantly in battle.

Students selected a captivating line or  image from the poem, and wrote from that. Not surprisingly, in a year when cancer was impacting so many of my students’ families, this poem resonated with them.

Following is an excerpt from a co-authored poem written by Trevan and Hayden, after listening to and writing beside the “Tony Steinberg” mentor text:

We’ve seen cancer take more than hair.

We’ve seen it take joy,  peace, and life.

Cancer has stolen our coach’s joy,

and torn the heart of his son like a gift ripped away from a child.

Cancer

/kansər/

A disease caused by an uncontrolled division of abnormal cells in a part of the body sometimes causing death.

Cancer can be battled, beaten like a knight in shining armor overcoming an army.

We watched it advance…

 

The Outsiders DallasIn addition to being inspired by Spoken Word poets, particularly Taylor Mali and Phil Kaye, my students enjoyed the autonomy of writing about memorable characters when we studied book and  film analysis. Our favorite mentor text for character study was “Katniss Everdeen is my Hero” by Sabaa Tahir, published in the New York Times.

In using this mentor text, students had the opportunity to borrow many excellent craft moves, such as the way that Tahir opened her commentary by explaining how she first “met” Katniss Everdeen.

Writing in front of my students, I imitated this craft move by sharing my first encounter with Dallas Winston, the toughest member of Pony’s gang, in S.E. Hinton’s The Outsiders.

Dallas Winston and I met on a summer’s day in 2002.

Countless colleagues had urged me to read The Outsiders, yet for some reason the book and I had never crossed paths. At the time, I wondered how a story written so many years ago could still resonate with teenagers. Days away from the birth of my first child, I decided to embrace stillness long enough to give the gold-dusted pages a try, reasoning that my advanced pregnancy made everything other than reading–from tying my shoes to my habit of  swimming a mile every morning–a challenge.

Resting beneath the branches of an ancient pine tree in my front yard, with only a few persistent sparrows for company, I read the book in one afternoon, ignoring everything but the words on the pages as the characters’ lives entranced me as deeply as any magic spell.

Of all the characters in Pony’s gang, it was Dallas Winston who hooked me from his first appearance. Dallas is a character of contradictions, claiming a stone cold heart,  yet lending his gun to two desperate boys and helping to shelter them in Windrixville. Scorning love, but ultimately dying for it. Dallas’ character stayed with me long after I read Pony’s last words about him. I wondered about the tough but broken hearted boy who died under a streetlight with an unloaded gun and Two Bit’s jet handled switchblade.. To some, he died a nameless hoodlum, but Pony knew the truth.  Dallas died young, reckless, and gallant, a true gentleman in a blood soaked jacket who got what he wanted.

So I could write much more about the  eighth grade heroes I taught this year. Like Dallas, they are gallant. They have broken hearts that are healing as they leave eighth grade and look forward to their high school chapters. They’ve reminded me that one is never too young to harness the healing power of the written word.

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

Rethinking Summer Assignments

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Ahh…Summer reading…

For some of us, summer reading means lounging by the pool reading something that isn’t school related. Maybe we’re soaking in the rays and the books that, if you’re like me, have been piling up on our dressers all year long while we reread Gatsby for the 100th time. (If you’re looking for a great summer pleasure read, I have to suggest Daisy Jones and the Six. It was fantastic. Definitely listen to some Fleetwood in the background while you read the novel.)

For others of us, summer reading means sitting down with our arsenal of sticky notes and highlighters and InkJoy Gel Pens to catch up on some professional reading because, you know, we spent the year rereading Gatsby for the 100th time. Gotta love that green light and the bae across the bay plotline! (If you’re looking for a solid professional summer read, I highly suggest Why They Can’t Write. It’s prompted some interesting conversations and some thoughtful reflections for me.)

I plan on partaking in both kinds of summer reading – the more traditional for pleasure books and the I can’t stop thinking about teaching for pleasure books.

For our students, however, I wonder how many of them look forward to their summer reading. I wonder how many of them find value in their summer assignments besides the assignment just being a hoop to jump through.

I do think there’s value in summer reading assignments. Summer slide is real, and I like my classes to come in to the first day with something more to discuss than the syllabus. I also teach at a highly competitive magnet school, and summer work is one of those unstated expectations for AP classes.

So all of these ideas were running through my mind when thinking about my summer assignment for AP Seminar – a new course we’re offering for the first time next year. I knew that the students were expected to complete something over the summer. I knew that I wanted their assignment to have some choice involved. I knew that I didn’t want the assignment to take all summer, but that it should be meaty enough that we could start discussions at the beginning of the year. A lot of boxes to check. The brilliant Hattie McGuire came to the rescue. She posted her ideas of offering a summer writing invitation instead of a summer reading assignment. After talking with her, I tweaked some of her ideas to fit my environment.

Here’s the assignment:

I wanted my students to continue to think critically and inquisitive about the world around them, to take stock of their surroundings and experiences and to try to push their thinking further by asking themselves, “I wonder…” until they couldn’t wonder (or in some cases, wander) anymore.

So in an attempt to spend part of the summer writing and to cultivate a researcher’s mindset, each student will create 42 entries in a “Curiosity Journal.” Each entry will catalogue an observation/problem/question about their day and an attempt to take that observation/problem/question as far into “I wonder territory” as possible. We’re calling this part “further implications.”

A sample entry might look like this:

I observed that the extremism of Marie Kondo’s method of cleaning was very cathartic for me personally, and the house does feel less cluttered, but I wonder what good I’m truly doing by donating all of my unwanted junk to Goodwill.

My further implications for this observation might be: In participating in this behavior and in giving my stuff to Goodwill, I’m making the assumption that other people want my junk. I wonder if I’m doing good with my leftovers. This makes me think of disaster relief efforts and how often we send out crappy sloppy seconds to people who are truly in need. We do offer our stuff because doing so makes us  feel better, makes us feel useful, but I wonder if it’s actually useful for those people in need. I also wonder if it’s better to just throw all of this stuff away in a landfill. I wonder if there are other, better options for donation besides Goodwill. I find that the trend of minimalism goes against the consumerism of American society – it’s counterculture but it’s also pop culture, which is interesting. We’re overwhelmed by our stuff, which should make us question why we have all of this stuff to begin with in the first place. I also wonder how long I can keep up this minimalism streak until I’m back in Target buying another throw pillow. I also notice that there’s a lot of privilege present in even being able to KonMari my home. I wonder what the implications and effects of this privilege are?

So after a run of seven observations, students will choose one problem or question to pursue a little bit further by finding one external source that deepens their understanding of the issue, offers another perspective, or adds to their further implications. They’ll write about this new piece as well.

We’ll begin our first day of class discussing our favorite observations and, hopefully, the rabbit holes our observations led us down, maybe sparking a conversation about research and questioning. I’m hoping to find trends in the kinds of problems/questions/observations my students noticed that could begin to facilitate a conversation about what all of this says about who we are as people or how society works. I plan on using their Curiosity Notebook as a jumping off place for our individual introduction conferences that will happen during the first two weeks of school.

Mostly, I’m hoping that this assignment will keep students writing and reading and thinking over the summer about ideas that they’re interested in.  I’ve linked the assignment here if you’re interested.

Happy reading – whatever you’re reading, I hope it’s good!

Sarah Morris teaches AP English Language, AP Seminar and Film as Lit in Middle Tennessee. She’s currently enjoying her first summer as a married woman, spending her time travelling with her husband. You can follow her @marahsorris_cms.

 

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