Category Archives: Prewriting

Planning Time for Thinking

One thing I know for sure:  Writing is hard. Lately, I’ve been reminded how hard as I’ve tried to keep up with Sarah Donovan’s challenge #verselove2019 to write a poem a day during the month of April.

It’s only day 9, and Oh, my!

It’s not even the poetry part I’m finding difficult, which is surprising. Deciding on an idea and then sticking to it has wrecked me for eight straight days. And now I’m wondering:

How often do I expect students to dive into drafting without giving them time to talk and question and change their minds about their ideas? Do they have enough time to play and mull and sit with their thoughts before they make a commitment–or before a draft is due?

I know what so many great writers say:  Just start writing; you’ll discover what you want to say. But what if that doesn’t work for everyone? Lately, it hasn’t worked for me.

So now I’m wondering:  How can I plan for enough time to give everyone the time they need to settle in to their ideas before I plan enough time for them to write?

Now, I’m not talking about timed writing — or state-mandated test writing. Those are different (and in my humble opinion) horrible inauthentic beasts. I’m talking about the process of thought. The thinking it takes to draft with intention.

I’m pretty sure I’ve rushed it.

And I want to slow it down.

#verselove2019

Amy Rasmussen lives and writes from her home in North Texas where the bluebonnets are blooming beautifully. She thinks about writing all the time and needs to get better at getting her thoughts on the page. Writing poetry, which is far out of her comfort zone, may help. You can follow her on Twitter @amyrass

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I really like grading papers

I have something to tell you, and you’re not going to like it:

 

I enjoy grading papers.

 

I do.

 

miranda sings haters back off

I learned about Miranda Sings from paper grading.

When I grade papers, I learn about the world.  I ask questions I never thought I’d ask.  I become more informed.  Grading papers, when it is going well, is like reading a really, really, really long newspaper.

 

Some of the things I’ve learned from student papers:

 

  1. Superstar quarterback Tom Brady wasn’t a top draft pick back in the day.
  2. The NFL has a lot of strange rules and has an even stranger escalating fine scale for the strange rules.  
  3. In some states there’s a different minimum wage depending on whether you receive tips or not.
  4. The Denver Broncos have a home field advantage because they are used to breathing in that Mile-High air.
  5. The Jets had a miserable season and we’re still pointing fingers all over the place as to who is to blame.
  6. Disney Channel shows are NOT what they used to be.
  7. It will be difficult, but not entirely impossible, for Donald Trump to build a wall against the Mexican border.
  8. Caffeine has some health benefits.
  9. There are child YouTube celebrities.

 

It’s fun to grade papers when students know they have something they want to share.  Getting students to that point, however, requires some heavy lifting.

 

 

  • I model and post my brainstorms.  If I am asking 100 students to come up with new ideas, I have to come up with some fresh ideas, too.  I share my brainstorming at the beginning of a unit and continue to post and share brainstorms throughout the unit, and students who feel stuck take to or modify my original ideas.  This is not unlike the editorial meeting where the editors toss out a variety of ideas and writers pick up the assignment.
  • I try to develop a “yes” culture that empowers risk-taking.  My students are age-young and experience-young.  They don’t know that there are culturally hip, feminist publications like Teen Vogue or analytical commentary pieces like those in Vulture.  They don’t know that The Economist blends news pieces and opinion pieces.  Or that published writers often figure out what they want to write as they write it.  I have a lot of teaching to do around the words “Yes,”  “Try it!” and “Other writers already do something like this.”
  • I meet writers slightly above eye-level.   As teachers, writers, and readers, I think it’s partly our responsibility to share knowledge and resources with our students.  If they wrote about cell phone addiction last year (and they all did, they all do), then this year I have to talk to you about privacy and apps on your phone.  If you’re reading the MARCH graphic novel series, I have to tell you about the time a Harvard professor was arrested for trying to break into his own home.  When they ask me “Is that real?” “Did that really happen?” I know I’ve struck writer’s notebook gold.

 

 

How do you help students brainstorm new topics so that you aren’t reading the same paper hundreds of times over?

 

Amy Estersohn is a middle school English teacher in New York.  She defers to her students’ judgment on good YouTubers.  She tweets at @HMX_MSE

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! 

Mini-lesson Monday: All Good Writing Begins with a Good Question

One of the hardest things I ask my students to do all year is choose their own topics. We start generating ideas on the first day of school. We watch video clips, read quotes and short passages, listen to poems, look at cartoons — and we write responses. We create various versions of writing territories in our writer’s notebooks. We have many ideas stored in our well-used notebooks by this time each year.

But with every writing task, students seems to always start the topic journey right back at square one, even when I remind them that they have a mine of ideas sitting in the pages of their composition books. I’ve decided that just like me they like the process of discovery.

My goal is to get them to move past topic discovery into writing discovery. Too often, students think they have to know what they want to say before they ever start writing. No wonder so many kids have a hard time approaching the blank page. (See NCTE’s 10 Myths of Learning to Write #4)

The last writing assignment my students complete each year is a multi-genre type piece wherein they show they’ve improved in the various writing modes we’ve practiced throughout the year. They have almost total choice in terms of what they write, and they have most of the choice in terms of the forms they write in.

I have just two mandatory suggestions (oxymoron intended):  one piece must be a Rogerian argument, and somewhere in their master piece, students must show they know how to use an academic database to find valid sources, and then they must use the sources in the correct context, and cite the sources correctly.

We look at a few mentor texts that use multiple genres within the same piece. Narrative, informative, persuasive — plus images and info-graphics, or other types of forms that present information, including videos and interviews. My favorite is the award-winning feature article, Snowfall: Avalanche at Tunnel Creek by John Branch.

Once students know their end-goal: the creation of their own multi-genre writing piece that shows off their writing journey for the year, they must choose a topic. Some will want to stick with a topic they’ve written about multiple times this year. Depending on the topic, and the student, I may be oaky with that.

This mini-lesson came about in an attempt to help students figure out a topic that they know enough about to ask questions but not so much about that they could answer all of them.

Objective:  Using the language of the Depth of Knowledge Levels, students will construct a list of things that make them wonder; they will formulate questions about a self-selected topic derived from their wonderings. They will then categorize the questions in sets that make sense. Finally, they will determine which questions may best be answered through a specific genre or form of writing.

Lesson:  I tell students that we are about to play in our notebooks. “Turn to a new page, and write a list of all the things you wonder about,” I say. They usually sit there writing nothing, so I get them started:  “I wonder if teens got paid to go to school if they would want to learn more.”

Most students start to write, but I keep wandering the room, stating things that make me wonder as students list their own wonderings in their notebooks.

“I wonder when the state of Texas will get wise to the lack of wisdom in state testing. I wonder why students choose to do their APUSH homework over AP English. I wonder if the Dallas Cowboys will ever win the Superbowl again.”

Once students have at least a half a page of wonderings, I ask them to talk with one another in their small groups. “Perhaps your peers will remind you of something else you wonder about. Add it to your list.”

“Okay, look at your list and zero in on one topic that you think you can find the answer to with a little bit of research. Now, let’s think all the way around this topic.”

I ask students which of my wonderings I should use as a model for their next step, and they tell me the one about the Cowboys. I write it on the board. “Okay, help me come up with questions that look at this from every perspective possible — like who has a stake in whether the Cowboys win the Superbowl again.”

When was the last time the Cowboys won the Superbowl?

Who led the Cowboys to the Superbowl in the past?

How many times have the Cowboys been in the Superbowl?

Is the Cowboys coach as good as the coaches in the past? Are the players as good as the players in the past?

What is different or the same about the NFL?

What do the Cowboys need to do to win more games?

Who would be a better quarterback than Tony Romo?

Does the current team consist of Superbowl quality players?

Which teams are in the way of the Cowboys going all the way again?

Some questions get silly — pretty sure the Dallas Cowboy Cheerleaders don’t matter all that much to the reality of getting to the Superbowl. Sorry, girls — but students get a hang of the idea. “Ask as many questions as you can think of. After you write a list of your own, ask your peers for help in writing others.”

Next, we need to put our questions in categories. I ask students to talk with one another and determine which of our questions about the Cowboys might go together. We decide we’ve got questions about 1. the history of winning the Superbowl, 2. similarities and differences in the game, the coach, the players, 3. current Cowboys, 4. the opponents.

We talk about what genres and forms might work to convey the best answers to our questions.

“Compare and contrast the differences. That’d be easy,” someone says.

“The history of the Cowboys’ past wins would be information, right?” another student says.

“What could be the topic of a persuasive piece?” I ask.

“The question about the ability of the current players. Easy.”

I tell students that they get the idea, and I charge them with reading through their questions and categorizing them into groups that seem to go together.

I remind them:  “All good writing begins with a good question.” And they’re off.

Follow up:  Students should use their questions and their categories to guide the choices they make as they write their end-of year multi-genre pieces. In conferences, I read through questions, helping students add to and clarify. I remind them that form helps determine meaning, so as they make choices, they need to think about the best way to share meaning with their intended audiences. Students will present their writing projects as their final exams.

Mini-Lesson Monday: Mining Memories to Begin a Writing Unit

Narrative is, to me, the most powerful genre of writing one can do.  Whether the narrative rests in a fictional or true story, or acts as an anecdote within an argumentative text, or helps to illustrate a concept in an informative one, story is central to great writing.  Students know and live this, and are natural storytellers once they get going…but sometimes knowing what story to tell is easier said than done.

I find that stories students have rehearsed well through talk or reflection are the best stories to get them to write.  As a result, we mine our memories to harness our most powerful topics for writing all narratives.

Objectives — Using the language of the Depth of Knowledge Levels:  Identify memories that are rich with complexity to write from. Or, from the Common Core:  Write narratives to develop real or imagined experiences or events using effective technique, well-chosen details, and well-structured event sequences.

Lesson — My students in West Virginia are well familiar with the concept of a mine.  For them, a mine is “an abundant source of something,” while to mine means “delve into (an abundant source) to extract something of value, especially information or skill.”  Using this metaphor for brainstorming topics is comforting for them, since they know we’re digging for existing ideas and knowledge–not crafting something new.

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My scars maps

One of my favorite activities for mining memories came from Tom Romano, which he simply calls “Scars.”

I begin by drawing a stick figure on the board and then turning to my students.  I point to my knee, then draw a small dot on my stick-figure knee.  “When I was about eight,” I begin, “I really thought I could jump down a whole flight of stairs and land on my feet.”  I get them laughing as I tell them the story of how I got that particular scar.  Then I draw a little dot on my left stick-figure eye, and tell them the story of how I got chicken pox so badly that it went into my eyeballs.  They cringe in horror, so then I draw a little dot on my left wrist and tell them about how my new kitten just really won’t stop using my arm as a scratching post.

We laugh together.

“All scars have a great story behind them.  Draw a stick figure in your notebook and label your own scars.”

They do this, unable to keep silent as they show their neighbor their stick figures and begin to tell their stories in brief.

After a few minutes, I draw their attention back to the board and draw a large heart.

“All scars have stories, but not all scars are visible.  Sometimes we carry scars on our hearts, where no others can see.”  The classroom always gets eerily quiet at this point.  I write the name “MeMe” in my heart on the board, and tell about my awesome Tennesseean grandmother and her fabulous Southern drawl and feisty persona, and how she passed away on my very first day of teaching.

“It was basically impossible to get through my very first day of this career that I so love,” I share.

Then, I write the word “miscarriage” in my heart, and tell about that worldview-shifting event in my life.

“Go ahead and draw your own hearts and label your own heart scars.  We all have them.  Don’t be scared.  This is just for your notebook, for now.  It will stay private.”

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My scars story

The classroom falls silent and I open my notebook under the document camera while they scrawl, not telling any stories to neighbors this time.

“Beneath your stick figure and your heart, let’s take eight minutes to write about any one of these scars.  Tell the story of how it came to be.  It could be a funny story, or a sad one, or a scary one.  But tell the truth and tell it well.”

We write together, revisiting a routine that has become commonplace in our classroom–I model not just the act of writing, but the act of vulnerability, and my students dive headfirst into the tough stuff as a result.  This is just one practice that builds a strong community of readers and writers.

Follow-Up — After we write, we revise briefly, then elect whether or not to share at our tables only.

The next class, we mine another set of memories by creating a map of our childhood homes, then telling the story of one of the places on the map–a Penny Kittle gem.

Another day, we go through our playlists, choose a song that is the soundtrack of our life, then tell the story that made it so.

We continue with five seed prompts in a row, five class periods in a row.  Then we select one of those stories to refine and workshop into a narrative.  I teach a mini-lesson each day about a narrative skill, so that by the time we’ve really committed to a topic, students are well-versed in pacing, dialogue, descriptive detail, and the like.  We confer and workshop and revise.

I’ll employ this routine when we return from break, focusing on reflection and rejuvenation and resolutions in the new year, working to craft multimodal “This I Believe” essays as we read Siddhartha together.

How do you get your students to come up with meaningful topics for writing?

3 Ways to Jump-Start Reluctant Writers

IMG_1703My younger sister Brittany is a phenomenal writer; in school, she excelled in all subjects, including English, but I never saw her struggle quite as much as when she was required to keep a writer’s notebook. For me, writer’s notebooks had always been liberating. I kept one in my spare time after having read Ralph Fletcher’s A Writer’s Notebook the summer before sixth grade. This was not the case for my sister though who, at the urging of her teacher, would write, “I do not know what to write” for ten minutes straight. Her teacher would tell her, “You’ll figure out what to write after a while,” but she clearly didn’t know my sister who is not only brilliant but also strong willed and persistent. In turn, when I told my sister I’d be integrating writer’s notebooks into my classes, she groaned, saying, “I hated those things.”

Brittany’s PTSD was reasonable. When used without encouragement or prompting, writer’s notebooks can become tedious and painful. Students can easily learn to loathe this tool that should otherwise be fun and stimulating. In turn, when my students explore their writing, I make an effort to help fuel their ideas and interests through a variety of writing activities and exercises that oftentimes help even the most particular writers.

  1. Prompt Board: At the beginning of the year, I ask students to write 3-4 pages in their writer’s notebooks. This helps students establish a writing routine and it helps me to learn about my students quickly. That being said, many students stall when it comes to putting pencil to paper. After running into this problem early on, I began posting five writing prompts per week on the side of my main white board. These topics included personal questions about students’ interests or extracurricular activities as well as sentence starters and fictional scenarios intended to lead into creative writing. I compiled the majority of these prompts off of social networks like Twitter and Pinterest, but I also use sentences from my book talks during the week as prompts as well. I post these prompts on my website in a separate section so students can always go back and revisit the prompts from past weeks.
  1. Ideas Shelf: Teens love thumbing through the pages of oddly shaped writing books. One of my most well-loved books is a cube shaped book called The Writer’s Block, which has “786 ideas to jump-start your imagination.” That being said, there are plenty of fantastic average size books that I store on an ideas shelf, which also includes 642 Things to Write About, Now Write: Nonfiction, Now Write: Fiction Writing Exercises From Today’s Best Writers and Teachers, and 100 Quickwrites by Linda Rief. When stuck, students gravitate towards this shelf. In addition, with the help of my Writer’s Club, I am hoping to add a jar of words, images, and prompts this year for students to pull from whenever they are struggling.
  1. Self-Guided Activities: As the adviser of Writer’s Club, I always have trinkets on hand Rory's Story Cubes for StADato help students put their pencils to paper. Some of my students’ favorite toys include Rory’s Story Cubes, which are dice with small pictures on them. Students can toss a handful of dice and incorporate the images into a story. I also have a collection of old skeleton keys I bought at a craft store. Tied to each key is a tag with a sentence starter that discusses where the key might have been found or what the key opens. Another easy activity involves collecting paint strips from your local hardware store and having students write stories involving the absurd color names on each strip.  Finally, I love utilizing found photography like the pictures from Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children or old calendar images to get students thinking. I have a collection of small Dana Heacock calendar images, which are brightly colored drawings of New England scenery or objects.  These images oftentimes stir up students’ memories of childhood and lead to fantastic personal stories.

How do you help inspire your reluctant writers?  What methods do you use to jump-start their independent writing process?

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