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Category Archives: Modeling

Every Teacher a Reader. Every Teacher a Writer.

Do any of you follow the Middle and High School Secondary ELA group on Facebook?

Now, I am not trying to pick any fights, but I’m just going to say it:  Some of the comments drive me straight over a rocky cliff. Honestly, I tend to get a little snarky if I spend too much time there. (Sorry, not sorry.)

Today an ELA teacher posted “Writing sucks.” What?! I sure hope a student never hears her say that. Yesterday a teacher posted this question:

“Silent reading…have you built it into your routine? For how long? Do you find your struggling readers or non-readers (at home) love this time? I currently have built it in for the first 15 minutes since I know many of my 6th grade sts do not read at home. I think it works, but just brainstorming other ways to do things for next year. Just curious what you all do! I would be curious if HS teachers still give time to silent read, too.”

I had a hard time reading the thread with comments like “They won’t read, or forget their books… It turns into wasted time.”

Of course it does, if teachers do not establish the all out importance of reading, the benefits of reading, the time commitment to grow as readers; if teachers do not walk the talk of readers, share their reading lives, promote books and match books to kids and beat the drum of reading. Every. Single Day. We have to help students value reading.

The same holds true for writing. We have to help students value writing. We have to help students value the struggle of writing well.

Are we teacher-writers who model the difficult task of writing? Do we share the struggle of getting thoughtful ideas on the page and revising and revising and revising to convey the meaning we intend to the audience we intend? Writing well means we make intentional choices and we develop the habits of writers. Read Donald Murray’s “Habits of Writing,” and then internalize his last line: “Consider my habits of writing, but develop your own by studying what you did when the writing went well, and make what you discover your own writing habits.” (If you really want to build your writer-mojo, I suggest Murray’s books, The Essential Don Murray:  Lessons from America’s Greatest Writing Teacher, and Learning by Teaching.)

We can learn to write well. We can learn to teach writing well as we discover our own writing habits and guide students into developing their own. But this will never happen if we do not write.

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I’ve written about walking our talk before — and I believe it more every day. I think we owe it to our students to be actively engaged in the learning process the same way we ask them to be actively engaged. I can never be a good enough reader. I can never be a good enough writer.

So, this summer I commit to keep working on my craft. I will read. I will write.

If you are reading this post, I know I am preaching to the choir. I know you already share at least some of my beliefs about reading and writing. Thank you for that!

I invite you to share your reading and your writing, to amplify our collective voices as teachers who read and write, and walk our talk — even during the summer. Shana posted our summer posting plans yesterday. I hope you’ll join us on our Facebook page, our Instagram feed, and on Twitter. And as Austin Kleon famously asserts:  Show your Work!

Let’s spread it far and wide!

Amy Rasmussen lives in north Texas and teaches AP English Language and English 4 (new prep in ’17. She loves talking books, daughters’ weddings (two this year), and grandbabies (five). She also loves facilitating PD for other teachers making the move into a workshop pedagogy. Amy adheres to the words of Emerson: “We aim above the mark to hit the mark,” and Jesus: “Love one another.” Imagine a world if we all aim higher. Follow Amy on Twitter @amyrass. And she really hopes you will follow this blog!

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Stay Gold, Ponyboy. Authentic Literary Analysis: Poetry in Two Voices – Guest Post by Elizabeth Oosterheert

Over the past several months, social media has been a buzzing hive of Tweets, articles, and teaching resources for The Outsiders, as S.E. oosterHinton’s beloved classic celebrated fifty years of resonating with readers of all ages around the globe.

In using The Outsiders as a whole class text this spring with a seventh grade class composed of nearly all boys, I began to explore juxtaposing the beauty and power of poetry during National Poetry Month, and authentic literary analysis. How could I use poetry as an analytical catalyst?

The answer came in an approach that I love because it promotes several of the pillars of writing workshop:

  • Student agency/ownership of the writing process
  • Collaborative writing and thinking
  • Mentor texts as models for writing craft moves
  • Opportunities for teachers to participate in workshop as writers

Poems in Two Voices are an excellent way to invite creative literary analysis, since by definition, they challenge student writers to take on the personas of fictional characters and to look at a literary work through the lens of their chosen character’s perspective.


As an invitation into learning about Poems in Two Voices, I shared a poem that I wrote from Johnny and Pony’s point-of-view during our workshop time, as well as poems written by former students.

Seventh Grade Literature
The Outsiders
“The End of Innocence: A Poem in Two Voices” by Mrs. O.

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Ponyboy Curtis Johnny Cade
Nature’s first green is gold, her hardest hue to hold. Nature’s first green is gold, her hardest hue to hold.
Gold was my mother. She was beautiful. Nothing gold can ever stay. My life has been black.
Gold is my brother Soda. Movie star handsome. He kind of radiates. I pulled a silver switchblade, thinking it was for the best. Disaster from then on.
Beauty was the sunrise in Windrixville. There was a silent moment when everything held its breath. I did, too. I remember Pony’s voice as he read Gone With the Wind. Dallas is gallant, going into battle like those Southern gentlemen.
I thought things could only get better, but we went from ice cream sundaes at Dairy Queen to the red Hell of the church on fire. We started it with our cigarettes. I was a hero for a moment. Instead of being beaten down, I was giving life. Pony said Jerry thought we were sent from Heaven.
Johnny never thought of himself. We can’t live without him. The gang needs him. I don’t want to die now. Sixteen years ain’t long enough.
Sixteen years on the street, and you can learn a lot. But all the wrong things, not the things you want to learn. Sixteen years on the street, and you can see a lot.  But all the wrong sights, not the sights you want to see.

 

Then leaf subsides to leaf… Then leaf subsides to leaf…
We had a rumble, but in the midst of the fight I realized, I don’t hate the Socs anymore…None of us should have been there, throwing punches with a gang of future convicts. Useless…fighting’s no good. I tried to tell Pony that. I have to get the words out while I still have a pulse.
Johnny was so quiet, I thought Dallas and I were too late. I thought Johnny was already dead. “We’re all proud of you, buddy.” That’s what Dallas said. I loved Dallas. I wanted to die with his words in my ears.
Johnny was trying to talk to me. I leaned in,  close to his burns, his closed eyes. “Stay gold, Ponyboy. Stay gold.”
The pillow sank a little, and Johnny died. I see something on the horizon. Light.
So Eden sank to grief,

So dawn goes down to day.

Nothing gold can stay.

So Eden sank to grief,

So dawn goes down to day.

Nothing gold can stay.

After sharing my poem, and giving students the opportunity to read several student written poems aloud, we wrote the following list of writing craft moves:

Writers of Poems in Two Voices…

  • Look back at passages in the text where the characters they’ve chosen are actually speaking, or where they can “hear” their thoughts.
  • Base their poems on a specific passage in the book, or make their writing a more general reflection of everything that they’ve read so far.
  • Might give a voice to a character who doesn’t speak often or is silent. This allows creative license as a writer. For example, what would Bob say if he could speak to Johnny or Pony about what happened in the park? What would Johnny say to the children he rescued from the church in Windrixville?
  • “Steal” lines or word choices from the book such as a favorite Again and Again, or golden line
  • Sound like the character being represented
  • Decide which lines will be read in unison, and which ones will be read individually
  • Include important details from the novel to illustrate close reading
  • Practice reading poems ALOUD with coauthors to work on timing and inflection

 


Two voice poetry allows students to powerfully express how a text has changed their thinking about the world, gives them the opportunity to write with a coauthor, and to present their poetry to others.  It works beautifully with any book. My students loved revisiting favorite scenes in The Outsiders, and we’ve also written narrative poetry, found poetry, and whipstitch poetry together.

The end of the year is the perfect time to utilize poetry as an analytical tool.

How do you use poetry with your students? Please add your ideas and questions to the comments below!


Elizabeth Oosterheert teaches middle school language arts and directs the 8th Grade Theatre Troupe at Pella Christian Grade School in Pella, Iowa.

She loves reading and writing with middle schoolers.


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Care to join the conversation? We’d love to add your voice! Please email guest post ideas to Lisadennibaum@gmail.com.

Author Bios – A Follow-up

I collected these papers 20 minutes ago, and I am smiling so hard that my second period class coming in asked me what was going on.

A few days ago, Amy wrote a post about students writing their own author bios. It was an idea that snuck up on me a few weeks back when Amy Poehler’s author bio made me laugh out loud.

Following much the same format that Amy detailed earlier this week, I introduced the idea to my students of writing our own author bios by reminding them of what they have heard from me one thousand times before over the course of this year:

“We are readers and writers.”

To reflect this persona, I shared with my AP Language students a quick writing prompt that is turning out to be one of the best writing assignments of the whole year.

When Brianna turned her piece in this morning, she had a huge smile on her face. “I had SO much fun doing this.” Brianna, as studious, driven, brilliant, and stressed out as they come, was beaming ear to ear. What a testament to the power of writing with self reflective purpose.

To facilitate this assignment we:

  1. Looked over several sample bios from our book club books, some texts off my shelves, and a few internet suggestions.
  2. Students talked at their tables and came up with a list of “look fors” in this type of writing. I was impressed by not only the length of the list, in terms of what they noticed, but some of the insight. “If you are going to write a funny book, be funny. If you’re writing about the Nazi’s, that’s not a good idea.” True, true. Style and form must match purpose. I love it.
  3. Students then drafted both a current and a future author bio. The future bios were far and away the best. Students really embraced how wildly accomplished they will be as readers and writers after college. Additionally, this group is apparently going to rule the world.
  4. Peer feedback came next, with an inclusion of Shana’s “Push and Pull” feedback strategy. It was wonderful to see the details and voice emerge from their pieces. Celina had a line about winning the Nobel Prize, an Oscar, and a Grammy. I suggested she tell us what she won the Nobel for, who she co-starred with for her Oscar win, and how many albums she sold for the Grammy. “Oooo! I helped kids in the Sudan by supplying them with books (Mrs. Dennis swoons), Brad Pitt came out of retirement to play my dad in the movie, and I sold a record to every high school student in America, Spain, and the Ukraine.” Yes, yes, yes!
  5. Students took the peer and teacher feedback, went off to polish one of their bios, get an author picture, and turn in a final draft.
  6. These are HOT off the presses and I am so proud of their voice and creativity.

If you only look at one example, check out this first one. Brianna had me laughing out loud. No wonder she was beaming ear to ear.

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From line one, this piece had me laughing out loud. Brianna could not be a more serious student, but this work let her voice shine. I LOVE it from start to finish. 

Connor is a pretty quiet kid in class. His writing fluency has improved A LOT this year. And look at that smile! 

Charlie just won the most prestigious scholarship Franklin offers, because of his service, incredible heart, academic achievements, and being an all-around amazing person. He really opened up in his one pagers this year. I could not be more proud of this young man. 

Tahseen is a very serious young woman, but the little quips in here brought out her true voice. 

JJ too had a ways to go with his writing fluency and voice development. I’m seeing it now! 

Errin is a young woman whose name you will know someday. I am SURE of it. She had this shirt on in class this morning. The picture was taken before 7:00am. 

Lisa Dennis teaches English and leads a department of incredible English educators at Franklin High School near Milwaukee. She delights in writing in the third person, claiming it’s akin to an existence in parallel universes. Follow Lisa on Twitter @LDennibaum 

An Idea: Author Bios and Some Focus, Wit, & Polish

I stole this idea from Lisa. She said it was okay that I write about it first. Bless her.

I finally feel like I’m getting a little of my writing mojo back. If you’ve been following my posts lately, you know I’ve had a hard time. I loved my student teacher, but I missed my students and how they inspire me to want to write and share.

It hasn’t been easy taking back my classroom. I am much more intense than Mr. G, and this translates to mean for some of my students. It’s true I grade hard, expect a lot, teach bell to bell. It’s not that he didn’t — maybe it’s just that I’m 50+, and he’s close to half my age. Whatever the reason, reinvigorating relationships hasn’t been easy.

Kind of casually one day, Lisa suggested she wanted to write author bios with her students next year. She said she’d read a few she wanted to use as mentor texts, thinking this little writing task would be a way to help her students develop their identities as writers. What a fantastic idea!

So last week for our writer’s notebook time, we wrote author bios, short, little, quippy, quirky writing that states who we are and why we write. (We still need work on the why we write part.)

booksforauthorbiosI prepared first by reading the inside back covers of some of my hardback YA literature. I chose four bios with similar elements:  Andrew Smith, Winger; Julie Murphy, Dumplin‘; Heather Demetrios, I’ll Meet You There; and Jason Reynolds, All American Boys. {Bonus: four book talks, along with the author intros. Boom.]

I explained the task:  We’re going to read four short author bios and then write our own. Listen to each one carefully, so we can pull out the similarities within each one.

We charted the elements of the bios on the board and then drafted our own.

authorbio

We spent five minutes on the writing, two minutes on revision, and six minutes sharing with our peers. We laughed. We wondered if the authors wrote their own book cover bios. We discussed our writing process.

“It would have been easier writing about someone else,” one student said.

“I need more time to think of how to say things,” said another.

“This would be fun to do at the beginning of the year,”

“I don’t do anything!”

“I’ve never won anything!”

“I cannot write that I am interesting when I am not interesting.”

“Can we write about what we want to do in the future instead?”

Oh, yeah, we stirred the pot, and ideas bubbled out. Throughout their questioning, my response remained:  Be creative.

One of the best books I’ve read on writing is How to Write Short: Word Craft for Fast Times by Roy Peter Clark. I marked it up with lesson ideas:  “the whole chapter would make a great lead in rhetorical analysis” and “on annotating: read before starting 1st book club” and “use b/f narrative –teaches analysis with song lyrics” and “parallel structure & compound sentences!”

This paragraph from the introduction is a great reminder for all types of writing — and writing instruction:

How to Write Short

Focus, wit, and polish. My students and I talked about our identities as writers. We talked about the time it takes to develop our voice, our craft, our meaning.

As they read their author bios to one another, the cough of community clamored just a bit, and in a few minutes the whole classroom caught it.

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MariaCSkyauthorbioMicaelaauthorbioTreyauthorbioI reminded students as they write over the next few days — finishing their multi-genre projects, their last major grade — to write with intention, to write in a way that shows the answer to the last question I’ll write on the board this year:  How have you grown as a reader and a writer?

In the fall, I will do this exercise again. We will write our author bios at the beginning of the year, on day one, maybe. We will spent a good deal more time on them, and we’ll return to them again and again as we practice the moves all writers make to produce effective, convincing, creative writing. We will publish our writing with our bios. Hopefully, this will help us keep our sights on Focus, Wit, and Polish in all aspects of our writing.

How might you use this author bio writing activity? What tasks do your writers do that help them take on the identities of writers? Please leave your ideas in the comments.

Amy Rasmussen lives in north Texas and teaches AP English Language and English 3 at Lewisville High School. She loves talking books, daughters’ weddings (two this year), and grandbabies. Facilitating PD for other teachers making the move into a workshop pedagogy delights her. Amy adheres to the words of Emerson: “We aim above the mark to hit the mark,” and Jesus: “Love one another.” Imagine a world if we all aim higher. Follow Amy on Twitter @amyrass.

Stop the Slaughter: Lifeless Literary Analysis

Teaching is a reflective practice. If you’re doing it right, that is.

We question, we research, we dig deep to update, invigorate, and refresh our work on a daily basis. And while this can be utterly exhausting (I think we need to investigate the ingenious cultural practice of siestas), it’s also exciting. As we push ourselves to grow and change as teachers, we impart that commitment to be better to our students.

I remember when I was student teaching several (cough, cough) years ago. The English and Social Studies departments shared an enormous office, and I was lucky enough to be afforded some space in that room to work. The fresh-faced 21 year old with boundless energy and enthusiasm for making a difference and connecting with “kids” (I was teaching 18 year olds. I’m pretty sure I was in elementary school with one of my students).

Then, I met *Mr. Pumblechook. (Names have been changed to protect the identities of very nice, well meaning people whose educational practices make me shutter.)

Pumblechook was a social studies teacher with perhaps six or seven years under his belt. He had a bright smile, hearty laugh, great expectations for his students (I had to. Thanks Dickens) and a file cabinet.

But this, ladies and gentlemen of the jury ( got serious quick, didn’t I?)this was no ordinary file cabinet. For in this file cabinet was a collection of folders. And in those folders were lesson plans.

One folder for each day of the year containing (because I pretended to be impressed with his organization and asked to see): a lesson plan, several worksheets to make copies of (even leftover handouts from the year before), and overhead slides of prewritten notes.

Was I student teaching in 1962? No.
Was I student teaching under a dictatorial regime? No.

This was 2002, people. Suburban Milwaukee.

And every time I tell this story to fellow educators, they nod, and I hear similar stories of educators from days gone by. Worksheet after worksheet, recorded lessons from first hour played to subsequent hours, teachers knitting in the back of the room, and countless acts of readicide across the land. Is seems Mr. Pumblechook had good historical precedent for imparting knowledge to children by opening up their brains and pouring in the same ideas year after year without regard to their role in that programming or real world applications of classroom material.

Enter: My classroom last week.

My AP students are armpit deep (my quip to convey complexity over the waist, but less perilous than the nose) in literary analysis. I wrote last week about our journey with diction analysis, as we got down and dirty with how an author conveys meaning with words.

Along my merry way I skipped, confident in this unit that I’ve taught several times, the tweaks I’d made in planning it for this year (updated mentors, current event references, jokes that students last year hadn’t heard yet – he he), and last year’s solid AP test scores. Not quite a folder for each day, but not too terribly far off either.

Then, I read Rebekah O’Dell’s post from Moving Writer’s, “Three Reasons Literary Analysis Must be Authentic.”

Gulp. Authentic.

I (shamefully) hadn’t really thought of that. I was preparing my students for the AP Language test. Wasn’t that authentic enough?

Of course, the skills of analysis are invaluable. Critical thinking across the curriculum is bolstered by the development of analysis skills which help students recognize patterns, decode information, compare and contrast concepts, classify elements under examination, and utilize inferences to support ideas. As one of the elements utilized by the College Board to determine students’ readiness for college level curriculum in English, rhetorical analysis is obviously important. The traditional essay format is required to pass this test and the analytical skills necessary to do so are a benefit to students far beyond the classroom.

But here’s the rub…

Even AP readers are looking for students to write outside the box. Yes, the skills of analysis must be present. But top scoring papers are those that challenge convention, take risks, and (I’m hanging my head in shame here) speak to a more authentic and far-reaching audience.

O’Dell’s post, like literary providence, reminded me that I needed to climb out of my car with tinted windows (I’m in here doing my thing. Nothing to see here) and pick up a mirror to reflect why I was doing what I was doing.

Her 3 key reflections on teaching literary analysis hit me right between the pencils. She reminds us that:

  1. Our job isn’t to produce English teachers.
  2. Writers need models in order to write.
  3. The traditional academic, literary analysis essay hurts student writing.

So,  am I hurting my students with what I’ve been doing? Absolutely not.
Could it be better? Absolutely, Mr. Pumblechook, because they might be better at formulaic writing with what I’ve been working on, but we’ve taken some steps back in their growth as authentic writers.

To address each of O’Dell’s points, which I felt compelled to do immediately (I had the mirror up and didn’t like what I was seeing), I changed some plans for this week and next.

  1. Our job isn’t to produce English teachers: I have to tell myself this more and more. O’Dell reminds us that 2% of college students major in English, and of those 2%, only 1% will enter professional academics.

    It did occur to me though, that our students will need to engage with the world around them and likely need to synthesize ideas in order to share them. As such, I had my kids choose editorials on current events and topics of interest to present 1-2 minute speeches on. They needed to make claims about how the author achieved his/her purpose through DIDLS.The fluency of their writing for these speeches has blown me away. We’d been “writing analysis” last week, but none had the same voice, passion, or deep analysis that these had. Speaking the analysis had the power to remove the formula. Students concentrated on engaging their audience in a way that a practice AP prompt could not replicate.

    When my students sat down to write a full AP analysis practice today, I reminded them of how they had to work to capture the audience of their peers through their speeches, and that the nameless/faceless AP writers still wanted that same engagement. They want students to be successful on the test. This exercise seemed to solidify that and afford my kids the opportunity to reignite that natural voice we have been working with all year.

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    Katie presents her editorial analysis speech this morning

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    A quick Google form that I fill out as students are speaking provides immediate feedback via email 

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    A sample of the detailed feedback on both content (helps with literary analysis prep) and public speaking (a real life skill for all)

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    Students give peer feedback on the rhetorical analysis they heard, as well as the speech overall. 

  2. Writers need models in order to write: I’ve been using student samples from AP to accompany the prompts we’ve been analyzing for years. That’s honestly helpful. I have students score them and discuss with peers what constitutes a high, middle, and unacceptable essay according to AP so they can apply or avoid the same ideas.

    However, those high scoring essays were always met by my students with comments that suggested that top scoring essays held some undefinable magical quality.

    What is it? Style.

    Those essays, as I said earlier, not only develop complex ideas, but they do so in a way that keeps the reader engaged.To work with this, I’m going to share with my students some of the literary analysis that O’Dell’s post links to as well. The Atlantic‘s “By Heart” where authors share their insights on their own favorite passages in literature, is a website that makes literary analysis real, full of voice, and peppered with references to texts/authors my students know.
    My post a few weeks back on Arts and Letters Daily is another place we’re going to explore. How do writers write about texts without using a five paragraph essay? How can we, as Penny Kittle says, stand on their shoulders as writers and work to write as they do?

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  3. The traditional academic, literary analysis essay hurts student writing: We want our students to be able to master the structure and form, but yet we want them them to break free of it too.I’ve often told my kids over the years that you have to know the rules in order to effectively break them.

    Maybe it’s true. Maybe, I just don’t have them break them soon enough and get to that authentic voice for an authentic audience.Because there, in the place where they have something to say with confidence, passion, precision, and critical thoughts developed by honed skills, will they bridge the gap between possessing the skills we want them to master and making their writing shine with the creative use of those same skills.

And now…it’s Wednesday morning and the lovely Tricia Ebarvia just ran a post about authentic audience through blogging. I’m headed there next.

I should just carry a mirror. I need it. Always.

How do you help move students move beyond the traditional literary analysis? We’d love to hear your ideas in the comments below! 


Lisa Dennis teaches English and leads a department of English superheros at Franklin High School near Milwaukee. A joke her students haven’t heard yet, but soon will, is:  Why did the librarian miss the conference? She was overbooked. Her students are sure to chuckle, if not pumblechook (used as a verb with creative credit to Dickens), at that one. 

 

 

 

Mini-Lesson: The Simultaneity of Instants by Jessica Paxson

I am an anti-bandwagon jumper.  I tend to think if everyone is flocking toward something, I’m likely too cool for it.  I attribute that to my father, and I’ve discussed it before, but that’s beside the point.  

18143977.jpgThis year, as I made the venture to RWW, I knew I would need to read lots of buzz-worthy books, simply for the purpose of recommending.  Needless to say, I have slowly been broken down from my rigid ways. It’s because of this anti-bandwagon mentality that I am so late to the Anthony Doerr party, particularly in respect to All the Light We Cannot See.  

I decided to tackle this novel over Christmas break because of how many people had recommended it to me.  I was reluctant, but of course, Doerr drew me in with his utterly gorgeous descriptions of difficult cultural situations, the relationships between characters, and the flawless knitting together of a nonlinear storyline.  

So.  I’m a fan.  Likely at least two years after everyone else, but better late than never, right?

I was specifically intrigued by one of the chapters near to the end, entitled, “The Simultaneity of Instants.”  This chapter reminds me a little bit of the montages that occur at the end of a movie or a season finale in which all characters come together for a final appearance.  The only difference with this chapter is that they did not come together in the same place, but simply in the same moment.  I thought this would be a great way to coach my students through describing an important moment with a bird’s eye view.  

Objective: Students will describe an important moment in their life by also providing a glimpse into that same moment for other “characters” in their story.

Mentor Text

Lesson: First, students will begin by writing about a specific moment that they remember vividly.  You could draw from many different forms of pre-writing for writing about memories, but a few of my favorites are Writing Territories and Blueprinting.  After students decide on a moment that was important to them, we will do a quick draft for about 10 minutes.  

Next, students will begin to brainstorm about what other people might have been up to at that very moment.  The key here is for students not to get hung up on what actually happened, but to simply imagine that moment in time from a broader scope.  

Finally, after brainstorming simultaneous instants, it’s time to weave them together.  This is the moment in which Doerr’s writing as a mentor text will be unequivocally valuable.  Students will ask, “Well, how do I know which moment to put where?”  And I’ll say, “What does the mentor text do?”  And on and on until we have pieces of writing of which the students never imagined they would be capable.

I hope to do this along with my students, and I’m particularly imagining a Simultaneity of Instants starting with the Presidential Inauguration, or Obama’s farewell wave, or something to that effect.  I may already be blubbering as I brainstorm.  

Follow Up:

I teach Seniors and Creative Writers.  While my CWers will work on this concept soon, I may save this for my Seniors until their end of year MGPs (anyone want to help me plan?).  I think an imaginary Simultaneity of Instants as they walk across the stage.  This will end up resembling an end-of-an-era-montage, and I can’t wait to see what they come up with!

Jessica Paxson is an English IV and Creative Writing teacher in Arlington, TX. She also attempts to grapple with life and all of its complexities and hilarities over at www.jessicajordana.com. Follow her on Twitter or Instagram @jessjordana.

Using Picture Books as Secondary Mentor Texts

This year my family ditched the traditional Christmas festivities for a week in Orlando,

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Disney started his work as a cartoonist in high school.  How can we carve these same creative spaces for our own students?

Florida.  Swapping fur boots for flip flops, we ran around Walt Disney World, weaving in and out of storybook rides and watching teeny princesses wobble around Cinderella’s castle.  Only now that I am grown do I have a true appreciation for the sheer magnitude of Walt Disney’s brilliance.  He built a physical world of stories.

Disney doodled his way through high school; he honed his craft through drawing and photography classes.  Unfortunately, few curricula allow for the same creative exploration for students.  Oftentimes, the countless possibilities for storytelling and narration tend to center on only real-life experiences, personal narratives, when in reality, writing fiction opens up an entirely different world for self-exploration.

This year I swapped out our traditional multi-scene personal narrative for a story unit in which I taught many of the same narrative craft marks using a combination of fiction and non-fiction mentor texts.

The greatest challenge I faced was in finding short, succinct, and well-crafted stories that weren’t twenty pages long.  While I love short stories, I knew many of my freshmen would not only lose stamina if asked to write such lengthy pieces , but they would also struggle with translating the story structure of these mentors into their own pieces.  I began my hunt for a strong mentor text in, of all places, the children’s section of the library.

Objectives:  In alignment with the Common Core, students will write narratives to develop real or imagined experiences or events using effective technique, well-chosen detail, and well-structured event sequences. Using the language of the Depth of Knowledge levels, students will recognize a wide variety of craft marks in fictional writing.  They will identify patterns and compare effectiveness through discussion. They will formulate their own stories, revising them, and finally applying their understanding to future writing assignments.

Lesson:  I find writing fictional stories intimidating.  My plots seem to sag in some areas, or my dialogue doesn’t feel authentic, but many of my students love leaving their reality to explore their own creative worlds.  The vast majority read fiction, so its only natural that their reading interests feed into their writing curiosity.  The problem is that their greatest mentor texts are, on average, 250 pages long.

Screen-Shot-2014-11-07-at-1.51.36-PM-1514mm8The Promise written by Nicola Davies and illustrated by Laura Carlin is a beautifully crafted story of a girl growing up in a hardened city. After stealing a purse from a pedestrian, the main character makes a promise out of desperation, only to realize that the purse she has stolen has no value and is instead full of acorns, which she must now plant across the city.  The story reads more like a poem and has a cyclical ending that allows students to see the succinct structure of a short story.

Prior to sharing the story I type up the entire story book (which comes out to two pages) so that the students may access the text without the pictures.  I present it to them as a short story, and we read it aloud like any other mentor text, but I do not tell them it is a picture book!

I ask students to look at the structure of the story—what do they notice about how the author formatted the story as a whole.  Since we just finished studying plot in our literature circles, many of the students dig in to find the rising action and climax while others simply read and re-read to comb through the intricacies of the structure.  Almost all of the students notice The Promise’s cyclical ending that reinforces the story’s themes of redemption and the beauty of nature.

I have them return a second time to the story to look at the writer’s craft.  Students make a list of author’s moves within their writer’s notebook.  If they see something that intrigues them but they aren’t sure of the name, I have them describe what they notice and we develop a name for the skill together as a class.  Finally, we compile our observations onto a large sticky note that remains on display throughout the unit.  Students must then choose two of the craft marks to experiment with in their own writing.

Finally, once we have finished working with the piece, I reveal to students that The Promise is a picture book and I read it aloud.  Oftentimes students are shocked to hear that such a complex story is written for children, but their initial reading makes them value the intricacy of the writer’s work even more.

Follow-Up:  Not only did my students fall in love with the writing process, but they also asked thoughtful questions and engaged in deeper conversations about their writing.  One of my favorite conversations between two jocks involved the complexity of a fight between an alien, human, and zombie.

As a final follow-up, I had students complete a self-revision sheet.  They peer reviewed each other’s work and finally wrote a metacognitive reflection in which they discussed the craft moves they made and how they structured their story.

The freedom to write fiction or nonfiction opened doors for many of the students who tend to struggle with developing ideas while reinforcing many of the craft marks we studied (leads, plot, sensory details, concrete details, internal and external dialogue) in our snapshot narrative unit. As Griffin said, “It’s the best thing I’ve ever written because I’ve gone back and looked at my work in the past.  Fiction is easier because you can make up whatever you want.”

 

 

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