Category Archives: Katie Maguire

Less Really is More

Any English teacher who has seniors this year or who had juniors last year or who ever gave useful feedback to any student at any grade knows the feeling of this time of year: It’s early-deadline-week in the college application season, which means most/many seniors are in the throes of essay anxiety. Much of their stress — and the stress of any of us called upon to assist in this process — arises from the arbitrary word-count limit which, depending on the school and the prompt, can range from 30 words to 650, the latter being the upper limit of the Common App essay.

If we stay true to the process theories of mentors like Donald Murray, Peter Elbow, Lucy Calkins, and Penny Kittle — among so many others too numerous to name — we tell students to address word count limitations only in the final stages of the process. Every year, we all hear the same concern, some version of the following:

“Thanks for the feedback, and it really makes a lot of sense, but I’m already past the word limit so there’s no way I can add anything.”

Scissors-May2Students wish for us to tell them what to cut out before the essay has even been developed, before the central story has been identified and fleshed out to its most meaningful degree. Mariana and I brag to students about our 100% success rate in revising with students to pare down their college essays to within the word count:  possibly the ONLY 100% success rate we can boast. Still, this critical skill of letting go what isn’t needed in the writing — which also, 100% of the time, results in a cleaner, more gratifying piece — is one students still struggle with.

Kristin Jeschke offers hands-on (and fun!) strategies for students to cut out the riff-raff in this post. For our senior writing classes, Mariana and I have found some other useful ways to develop this skill in our aspiring college freshmen, starting last quarter with the 100-word memoir.

imitation-is-the-sincerest-form-of-flattery-that-mediocrity-can-pay-to-greatness-oscar-wilde-7013bLike all great lesson plans, the 100-word memoir was “borrowed” from Kittle & Gallagher. We didn’t even realize the value of adhering to this limited verbiage until we witnessed students engaging and (willingly) struggling with it. While this exercise doesn’t seem to have been quite enough to provide students with enough strategy to pare down their 1000+-word college essay drafts by almost half during revision, we found the concept of a limited word count so potentially instructive that we have decided to turn it on its head with our seniors in our second quarter fiction-writing unit.

Fiction is driven by conflict, but conflict arises mainly out of character, so we start with brief character sketches, using McSweeney’s satirical versions as mentor texts (warning: a few of these are R-rated for language and adult themes). Students took these short pieces and extrapolated the rest of the iceberg, so to speak, by imagining clothing, favorite media, relationship status, hopes and dreams, and potential conflicts that might arise in the lives of each of these fictional folks. Next, they will develop character sketches of their own, describing the main character of their budding short stories. (To give less fiction-confident students a grounding [and to require all students to build some foundation to a piece of writing that can remain dangerously nebulous throughout the entire process], we required all students to craft the world of the story first, through research and planning. I’m happy to elaborate on this for anyone interested).

I’ll also truncate the entire writing-of-the-short-story for the sake of staying focused on the topic of this post: boiling down the writing to its most essential elements. Rather than scaffolding toward longer, more developed pieces as we did in the narrative (ie “college essay”) unit of quarter one, our third writing endeavor (or “lap” in the language of 180 Days) will be to pare down their 1500+-word short story to, say, 250 or less.

the-flash-hates-flash-fiction-2To heighten the deletion and word-choice challenge — and, more importantly to encourage students to boil down prose (their own and others’) to its very essence — one might consider “hint fiction.” I plan to try the strategy with my AP students, asking them to boil down the essence of a complicated argument presented in a text, using limited words to still capture the nuance of a complex argument. In fact, in a late-Sunday-night-lesson-plan-panic, I think I’ll have them do just that this week with Arthur Miller’s article “Why I Wrote The Crucible.” So much of AP Language & Composition depends on seeing just how much depends on that red wheelbarrow of nuance, and this exercise can develop the skill of precision in identifying argument. We’ll see.

buried-under-paper (1)In the meantime, though, I can feel the value of requiring shorter work for both us and our students, on so many levels: precision in word choice, saying more with less (vocabulary development); eliminating redundancy (sentence variation / sentence combining); not to mention the refinement and clarity of ideas that is required to say what you mean with an extremely limited word count. Not to mention the exquisite beauty of conferring on 100 focused words as opposed to 1000+.

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To Recommend … or Not?

Have you ever recommended a book or done a book talk on a book you haven’t read? I know I have. Always, of course, with the caveat that I haven’t read it yet, but still. I have two examples of how this has backfired, one with minor consequences and another that could have gone terribly wrong.

riskThis year, I recommended Concussion to an athlete in my AP class, for his independent reading. I did so based on the subject matter and its popularity. AJ is loathe to pick it up during independent reading, but at this point (because it’s AP and they use their independent reading for analysis) it’s not practical for him to start something new and still be able to complete the rhetorical analysis work.

Effectively, what my faulty recommendation has done is to reinforce for this student that books are just a part of an academic life that one has to endure to reach a broader goal (AP college credit). Not only did I confirm that reading has nothing to do with his interests or identity, I hit the trifecta by reinforcing for him that teachers are clueless and wasting an opportunity to build his literacy skills. Indeed, I may have set them back. Maybe I should have recommended Junior Seau: The Life and Death of a Football Iconwhich appears (appears is key) to explore the same issue but in a much more narrative and less esoteric way than Concussion. Plus, one of my footballers from last year read it.

But using previous student experiences with a text to recommend it forward is, at best, for-mature-audiences-onlyimperfect. Last year, a student was looking for “something edgy” and was willing to try transitioning into fiction from her obsessive poetry reading. So, I recommended a short story collection that a former student with similar interests had found on her own and loved, and which I subsequently added to our classroom library: Heartbreaker by Maryse Meijer. This current student took my recommendation, read her 20 minutes per night and diligently recorded her progress in her reading log, finishing it before we had a chance to conference. But when she handed it back to me she said, “Ms. Maguire, this book might not be for everybody.” She then went on to describe scenes of exhibitionism and lesbian prison sex.

I have become more reluctant to recommend to students books that I have not read myself. For 3TT readers, though, I’ll still take the risk. Here are a few titles I have recently added to our classroom library. Full disclosure: the first two I have read in their entirety; the third, about half.

This Way Home, Wes Moore and Shawn Goodman: This YA novel came out in 2016, but I only came across it recently, browsing the BookOutlet web site (which offers fantastic deals btw). Many students in my district are familiar with The Other Wes Moore, the true story of the divergent trajectories of two African American boys on the same block with the same name. This Way Home tells the fictional story of Elijah, who has pro-basketball aspirations but must cope with a dilemma brought on by the local gang’s interest in his neighborhood team. I HAVE read this one, so I can confidently say it is high-interest for striving readers.

Delicate Monstersby Stephanie Kuehn: This novel by the author of the award-winning Charm & Strange, which I haven’t read yet, is darker than I expected, and from the very beginning. The -isms that this novel touches on are SO numerous: racism, classism, voyeurism, alcoholism, to name a few. Also included are bipolar disorder, bullying, suicidal ideation and suicide, gun violence, adultery, sociopathy, even Tourette’s and Munchausen’s-by-Proxy. And there is no happy ending. For anyone. Personally, I’m down with the darker, the better. But to recommend for students? Probably more on an individual basis than a book talk. But speaking of book talks, this next one could work.

Prideby Ibi Zoboi (author of America Street): This YA novel is a retelling of Pride & Prejudice, set in present-day Brooklyn. I’ve read the first few chapters, and I’m hooked pride_zoboi(this from a reader who has little patience with the precious world of Jane Austen). What compels me to bring this text into our classroom, though, is the author’s response to a review in WSJ: the review suggested that the book would have limited appeal due to its “heavy use of slang,” ie, Afro-Haitian dialect. If I can do my job right, we might be able to examine excerpts of the text in conjunction with the WSJ review and the social media responses it generated, as we enter our second quarter focus on text analysis.

Sigh. Second quarter, really? Where did first quarter go? And there’s one of the main reasons books get recommended without them having been read, convoluted passive voice intended. I think in the writing of this post I have reminded myself–and I hope, you–to rein in the guilt, for not doing more, for not doing it all. I just asked my 11-year-old child for 5 more minutes to finish this post, and he patiently waits in his room for me to join him so we can continue reading together D’Aulaires’ Book of Greek Myths

 

Nothing New Under the Sun?

So many thoughts came up as I read Maggie’s post last week, the same day the American people, indeed the whole world, had a chance to witness our judicial process unfold in TheCrucible_940x470-678x381real time. My very first thought was, “I’m going to read The Crucible aloud with my AP students, too.” Miller’s play is one of the core texts of the junior English curriculum. Having promised myself that this year, I intended to provide my AP students with as much of the RWW as I could while still “covering” everything, this idea was perfect.

the-crucible-3360718-59ac57cf0d327a0011aa0fe9My next thought … politics. In the play, Reverend Hale is one of the few characters who exhibits any change in thinking. He observes. He listens. He struggles to negotiate his worldview when what he sees and hears doesn’t fit. Reverend Hale — indeed the whole village — experiences the crucible of accusation, doubt, and disintegration.

By definition, a crucible is “a situation of severe trial, or in which different elements interact, leading to the creation of something new.” The “something new” in Salem? Miller concludes, “To all intents and purposes, the power of theocracy in Massachusetts was broken.”

My hope is that our study of this play will evoke conversation about our current democracy, about whose voices are heard, about whose voices are (at the risk of further mixing david-butow-brett-kavanaugh-senate-vote-friday-1literary allusions) a little more “equal” than others. And how can this “interaction of elements,” lead to the creation of something new, perhaps some power structures that need to be broken? 

So, what to do with this as teachers of writing, and to glean something practical from our own real-time crucible? My students will write an “Open Letter” essay as we study The Crucible to explore concepts of voice and audience. (McSweeney’s is a great source for open letter examples of all kinds. I want to provide an opportunity for them to give voice — their own — to what matters to them, directed to the audience that most needs to listen.

The Magic of the 100-Word Memoir: in Retrospect

100_Word_Story_Logo_332x190We (my teaching partner, Mariana, and I) never questioned the value of the 100-word memoir, the first piece we would take through a full prewriting – drafting – revision process with our students. After all, it’s what Penny and Kelly do in 180 Days. Need we any better reason? No. Turns out, though, there is major added value we hadn’t realized about this little genre as the first text we ask of our students. (My guess is Penny and Kelly knew, but didn’t have space to elaborate in the book.)

So, here are the values and beliefs that our experience of the 100-word memoir brought to light, mostly after the fact:

1. Short pieces offer even the most reluctant writers a sense of accomplishment. Those writers who need more time than their classmates — and we all see them right away — turned in their notebooks with a complete draft within the allotted time frame. Every single student turned in a complete draft (even if the rest of their notebooks were still in progress). Just a guess, but an early sense of “I can do what’s being asked of me in this class” can set a tone of that invites rather than excludes.

2. The value of re-vision in its truest sense becomes apparent, even palatable. I’m sure we are all used to the experience of reading a student draft that gets to any substance only at the very end, close to the word count. With the 100-word memoir, more students than I can count on two hands (out of 83 total) saw this in their own writing. They were not only willing to but intent on rewriting. Questions went from “Is it good enough if I just fix …?” to “If I’m rewriting the whole thing, should I do that in my notebook first?”

3. Students begin to understand their own processes as writers. The above questions naturally led to a class discussion of the difference between meeting a teacher’s requirements and cultivating good writing. Even my youngest students (sophomores) are mature enough to understand the value of knowing themselves as writers. “Do you prefer to rewrite the draft by hand? Or will you ‘revise’ as you retype the draft into a document?” The offer of that respect to them as real writers was a major trust builder at this critical early moment in the year. The concept of writing conferences is still alien for most students. But when they called for a one-on-one conversation about whether another “first” draft was required if they were completely rewriting, a conversation opened up about their own process. Doing so, I had the opportunity to point out we were in the midst of a writing conference right then. I don’t think it’s overly optimistic (no one has ever accused me of such a stance) to imagine that any trepidation a student had about a writing conference with me was at least a little dispelled — and I made sure that fellow writers at that table who were conspicuously keeping their heads in their notebooks heard that, too.

4. Students writers can benefit by learning the art of DELETING. Kristin Jeschke writes thoughtfully here about the value of teaching students to be incisive. Our 100-word memoirs aren’t long enough for us to do literal paper-cutting (or are they … hmm), but the practice of incision with a short piece can instill this habit early on. In Intention: Critical Creativity in the Classroom, Amy Burvall and Dan Ryder discuss — among other innovative cross-curricular ideas — the notion of “creative constraints.” I’ve pretty much fallen in love with this phrase in place of language resembling “criteria” or “learning targets” (and the meanings can conveniently satisfy the paperwork of performance evaluations). The phrasing helped students to see “criteria” as a creative challenge: at best, inspiring and at worst, less arbitrary than some assignment “criteria” can be. AND, as Mariana pointed out, inevitably our seniors must cure the logorrhea in their college essays, and the 100-word “creative constraint” gives them practice.

Coulda3Usually my own post-lesson, reflection phase is a litany of all that I could have, should have done. How refreshing, then, to reflect in a way that identifies value beyond what we’d hoped. What an affirmation that our practice recognizes beliefs we hadn’t even seen.

I have no intention of giving up my private, critical post-practice litanies. But the experience of the 100-word memoir lowered the volume of that familiar, reproachful teacher-self. At least for a day or so.

 

 

Taking a Chance with Mentor Texts

I was both relieved and inspired by Amy’s post on ways to “avoid the dread” and make the opening day or days of our reading-writing workshop classes feel less like just like everything else, forms and lists of rules and the reinforcement of the dread of yet another school year filled with being told exactly what to do and how to do it. I loved her idea about author bios, and my teaching partners and I plan to use it along with another mentor text idea I stole from Allison Marchetti at the blog Moving Writers: James Gulliver Hancock’s Artists, Writers, Thinkers, Dreamers: Portraits of Fifty Famous Folks & All Their Weird Stuff. This  mentor text worked really well last year with both sophomores and seniors. I only wish I had done more with it, so I plan to do so this year, which is actually less than a week away!

As teachers of reading-writing workshop and followers of this blog, we are so fortunate to have the benefit of so many tried-out mentor texts to use with our students. Our own colleagues are of course our best and most trusted source for anything we need from the most philosophical to the most concrete. So, thank you for everything this blog has provided for me to be constantly reflecting and improving on my practice to provide the richest possible experience for my students.

But in the second part of this short-ish post, I’d like to present a handful of mentor texts that are not yet tried-and-true but hold (I think) some potential for reaching our writers who have their own very personal reasons for their reluctance as writers.

Your_Black_Friend_coverA collection of Ben Passmore’s online comics has been published late this summer as Your Black Friend & Other StrangersYou can read one of the NYT reviews here — I read the book myself and was blown away. Race and equity is a critical element of our curriculum and professional development. Ben Passmore’s work, I think/hope, can be useful for opening a cross-racial dialogue in a way that is accessible for its down to earth portrayal of what cross-racial friendship looks like from the perspective of a person of color.

For this next one, Things I Never Said by Starlenie Vondora, I owe thanks to my Things I Never Saidcolleagues Mariana and Abdel: the same day I read Mariana’s review on GoodReads, lo and behold, Abdel had a copy of it just sitting in his classroom waiting for a reader. Disclaimer: This book is heavy, heavy stuff. I curated a few of the more neutral poems that might have potential as quick-write prompts or mentor texts. But I love the overall concept of putting down on paper “things I never said,” and I think teenagers might, too.

And so, we begin again. A friend of mine who recently left teaching was speaking wistfully about the cyclical nature of what we do, about the freshness of each new school year. It’s so true. Despite last year just about slaying me every day, I might be just about ready for this one. Aren’t we all? So let’s savor these early days, which for me will be the about the first five, just before it sets in that that I’m already behind, that there is never enough time and far too much to do. And we’re back to it, coming back and trying again every day. With a little help from mentors and friends.

Analog Mind in a Digital World

Last year in my AP Lang & Comp classes, we read “Is Google Making Us Stupid?” by Nicholas Carr, published in The Atlantic in 2008. Many students were set off just by the title and took Carr’s argument personally, even though the “us” of Carr’s title includes himself and his highly-educated colleagues. Carr argues that the tools we use influence the way we think, and he speculates on the impact of a tool as powerful as Google to direct our thinking. Most students vehemently defended technology as wholly beneficial to their everyday experience, even arguing that a shortened attention span is not necessarily a detriment and even a worthy sacrifice for the breadth of information to be gained. However, many had trouble distinguishing between “information” and “knowledge.”

1*8P_dPIZZ-9aKVz2Ji4nOtgWe discuss and experiment with so many ideas for students to develop the habits of a writer, even down to the practical tools — both “analog” and digital — for doing so. And we all have our own. One of my most prolific students keeps everything on her phone, including her award-winning spoken-word poetry complete from draft through final version (although she dutifully complied with the traditional notebook requirements of the course). Mariana swears by the Notes app on her phone in addition to her written notebook. I’ll use my Notes app when it’s the only tool I have, but I always forget about it.

I’ve always been a napkin scribbler. Even my notebook is an assemblage of scraps, some of which do lose context when I return to them. Still, most of the scraps elicit entire experiences or trains of thought because of the legibility of my scrawl or the color of the ink. When I use the insights from Roxane Gay’s talk in my teaching, I’ll always picture the orange ink bleeding through that napkin and the way I had to write around the grease spots. And I’ll remember the event, being there with Mariana, drinking wine, listening to Roxane Gay’s lovely, distinctive voice as she talked about the power of our stories (more on Gay’s insights in a future post). For me, indistinct lines of digital type on the same tool I use to pay bills and order takeout becomes more like information rather than inspiration. But I can’t help but feel outdated and outpaced.

And this is to say nothing about the role of the digital world in our students’ reading flower_-_analog_vs_digitallives, which Amy discusses here. Maybe it’s inevitable that physical books and paper notebooks will go the way of snail mail and brick-and-mortar. For the near future (i.e., next year), I’m holding to the requirement of a physical book for independent reading and a physical notebook for quick writes and writer’s craft lessons.

Has anyone made the switch to a fully digital reading-writing workshop? I’d love to hear about your experience. What is lost and what is gained? 

 

 

In Re: Summer State of Mind

Sounds like the title of a catchy pop song, right? It might actually be one, but if it is, my guess is that its tone would contrast to my own summer state of mind so far. Last year kicked my teaching a**: two sections of AP Lang, two sections of a brand new sophomore curriculum implementing a workshop model, and one section of a senior elective titled Advanced (read: “creative”) Writing. Like anyone reading this blog, I loved (or grew to love) every student,  I loved (almost) every teaching minute, I (usually) loved the planning. I had so much love that there weren’t enough minutes in the day to express it. Literally. We express our teaching love through individualized attention, nurturing encouragement, and meaningful feedback, right? So, literally not enough minutes.

My own personal summer state of mind consisted of my mind grinding to a halt. For almost the whole first two weeks after school let out, Chicago spat a chill rain and my bones ached with mental exhaustion. And my brain hurt. I checked out of my teaching self so deeply that I put out of sight the stack of books I had planned to devour starting on day one. And I unwittingly missed two blog posts, for which I sincerely apologize. Guilt over that professional lapse drove me further into the delinquency of binge-watching season 2 of Marcella. Although I did drag my attitude out of the mire to see Roxane Gay speak about her memoir and her new anthology, about rape culture and politics, about writing and (of course) Queen Bey. I went with my friendIMG_4221 and teaching partner Mariana, with whose pen I scrawled pieces of Gay’s wisdom on a cocktail napkin. Ms. Gay was inspiring (although Mariana and I shamefully confessed to each other that it had been tempting to just put on pajamas per usual at 6:30 pm, but tickets had been purchased).

Has anyone been there, in that “summer state of mind”? I suspect you have. Despite the temporary comfort of a British-TV-mystery binge, between the exhaustion and the guilt, it’s not fun. When I got home from the Roxane Gay event, I tucked the cocktail napkin into my copy of 180 Days without even looking at it. Shana wrote of not being able to turn off her teaching self, but I was wallowing in the avoidance of mine and in the guilt of doing so. This couldn’t go on.

mic_dropA few days later, I followed through with plans to meet with a few beloved colleagues, two of whom will be new to our sophomore workshop curriculum next year, to do some planning. These are smart, passionate, devoted teachers–not to mention funny, lovely people. But even among these dynamos, my own energy still waned. So now I had something new to feel guilty about: not bringing my best professional self to that coffee shop and to my colleagues. But lo and behold, that very same day, Shana had posted this. And that brief paragraph at the end, so straightforward and honest, but more complex than anyone in another profession could know: “I think it just contributes to that overall feeling of exhaustion I have, so maybe I just need to pick it up when I’m a little more rested.”

Boom. Mic drop.

We’ve all read and written about how much we deserve our summer break, and even its accompanying anxiety. But we’ve also all heard the haters. Is it their rhetoric that brings 1301BlamingTeachers-Art.pngabout the guilt? Is it seeing our loved ones go off to their year-round jobs while we are still sipping coffee in jammies? Is it because I was raised Catholic? (I have to admit, the moment of reading that paragraph in Shana’s post felt to me like I had just prayed the Rosary).

This post doesn’t offer anything new, but I guess I wrote it just in case anyone is still struggling with a “summer state of mind” that isn’t what that phrase connotes. As for our better teaching selves, “maybe we just need to pick them up when we are a little more rested.”

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