Category Archives: Katie Maguire

A “Quality” Mentor Text

We all know the value of a really effective mentor text: media reviews from A/V Club, The Player’s Tribune for authentic narrative, The Ethicist (credit Penny & Kelly) for opinion or argument, TED Talks (ala Moving Writers) for writing that “speaks” to an audience, Humans of New York for whatever you want it to be. And in a workday that allows little time for “browsing” of any kind, the more adaptable the mentor text, the better.

Shana has written about the use of Ruth Gendler’s Book of Qualities for QuickWrites. I wrote about this mentor text as part of a multi-genre project. (Like most good ideas used in my classroom, this one was bestowed upon me by my teaching partner, Mariana). And we’re using it again with seniors as part of their author study in Advanced Writing. Students are tasked with identifying themes and abstract concepts that feature in their author’s work and personifying one of these in a prose poem after Ruth Gendler’s qualitiescover“Qualities.” This year, I’m also using this mentor text to “assess” independent reading in RWW for sophomores.

First, I give them a copy of the Table of Contents and samples from Gendler’s Book of Qualities and ask them to choose one that connects to their book. Now if I were more efficient (ha!), I would have a copy of each page available, but no. So, that afternoon, I scan the pages necessary for each student to have a hard copy of Gendler’s take on the quality they matched with their own book. In theory, I’ll eventually have all of them scanned and organized in a properly labeled folder, right? Again, ha!

Anyway, the next day or so, they get a copy of Gendler’s prose-poem personification of the quality they identified. Their writing task is to revise Gendler’s piece to make it macbeth's robesspecific to their author’s work. Scaffolding is kind of built in: less confident writers can make more extensive use of Gendler’s structure; stronger writers can even start from scratch. Either way, this task requires VERY explicit modeling, so I model with a quality that links to a text we all read together. This year, the model quality is power, arising out of our film-and-soliloquy study of Macbeth (although I think it would work with any shared text, even a poem or short story or article). Essentially, I build in specific details that are specifically text-related. For example, Macbeth’s power is “dressed in borrowed robes,” at least at first. It doesn’t walk but rather “vaults” across an entire continent with a dagger in its hand. Power’s hands never get clean, so why not just drench them in more blood? Even students who persisted in their claim that they just don’t “get” Shakespeare had their “Aha!” moment in this discussion.

albatrossGendler’s clothing motif in her discussion of power is convenient, as clothing is a motif in the play as well. I just got lucky there. But students are still doing a version of literary analysis of theme and turning to the text for evidence. And it’s way more fun than that albatross of high school English classrooms, the Literary Analysis Essay.

What I love about this mentor text is its adaptability. It would work with any text, and students certainly don’t have to be limited to the “qualities” Gendler explores. They can CHOOSE to invent their own. Depending on how this goes with my sophomores, I might collect them and bind them into a class booklet, our own version of The Book of Qualities. 

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No More American Dream Essays, Please.

Qualifier for this post: It is not about RWW per se. Through my own fault, my AP Language & Comp students rarely have any choice about what they read and write (next year. sigh.) But I think what I describe in this post could be adapted pretty easily for the RWW classroom.

I’m teaching The Great Gatsby for the 17th time. Over the years, I’ve gone the route of color imagery analysis, character analysis, stylistic analysis, and yes, the novel’s commentary on the American Dream. The latter option, this year, fills me with nothing but dread for political reasons I probably don’t have to explain to anyone reading this blog. But my dread is also based in an ongoing (and growing) sense of complex arguments becoming grossly oversimplified: We either “Like” something, or we “Unfollow” it. Ceither-or-fallacy-with-examplesharacters are either “normal” (Nick), or they are psychopaths (George Wilson). You’re either with us, or you’re with the terrorists. Me Tarzan, You Jane.

Most ideas or issues are more complicated than simply “either” one thing “or” another. Obv, right? My AP students are learning the importance of making complex meaning from what they read and expressing their understanding of an issue in complex ways by qualifying their own or their understanding of others’ arguments. To that end, I’d like to recommend the process of “iterative collaging,” which I learned about at NCTE last fall from a session given by Andrea Avery, Nishta Mehra, and Courtney Rath.

As we’re reading, we’re discussing themes of capitalism and class structure, freedom and collage_stage1oppression, and the omnipresent concept of the American Dream. We’ve examined images from media as well as the writing of Ta-Nehisi Coates surrounding these issues. Right now, ideas are plentiful and scattered. Ultimately, though, by arranging these images and passages in certain ways, students will compose a visual argument about the interaction of these issues in the America they know. But here’s the cool part — and the iterative part: Using some magic in the form of repositionable glue sticks (yes, those are a thing — see photo!), students can arrange and rearrange the items in their collage to explore the ways various juxtapositions can reveal new understandings.  AND — Maguire hopes — discover complex meanings beyond the reductive arguments that plague so much of our current discourse.

We’re in the early stages of this work — hence, the in-progress photo — but I will surely let you know how it goes. Has anyone out there ever used collage for argument (or, any other fun reason)?

Beginnings and Endings

Regarding leads, or “introductions,” my usual advice to students as they draft is NOT to start with the beginning. Many have difficulty doing so, but it’s ok — our revision process always includes a reconsideration of the lead and, by turn, the conclusion, so that the two are stylistically and thematically connected. I’ve turned to many mentors for showing students how it’s done. For the purposes of most readers of this blog, Beyond Literary Analysis by Allison Marchetti and Rebekah O’Dell offers practical and student-friendly approaches to leads & conclusions for analytical writing. I used these lessons with my sophomores, who are writing media reviews.

Today, though, I want to offer an approach to beginnings and endings in writing that I used in my Advanced Writing class — specifically for short-story writing — but I like it because I think it is highly adaptable for writing experiences in many genres and at many levels.

I borrowed the content from articles in The Writer’s Notebook II: Craft Essays from Tin HouseAfter students had a draft of their short story (many of which were sans endings), I presented the content from articles by Ann Hood and Elissa Schappell about beginnings and endings, respectively. In these essays, these two writers examine beginnings and endings in the short story genre and present their findings to readers — who, given this publication, are also writers. Here’s the slide we discussed in class about “Beginnings:”

3TT_beginnings and endings - Google Sl_ - https___docs.google.com_presentatio

Many of these beginnings I’m sure you will recognize, and so did several students! For our purposes, I asked students to experiment with three alternate beginnings that were different than the way their story opened in their drafts. Students then shared their options at their writing tables to determine which worked best.

The “Endings” slide was a bit less specific in that it did not cite word-for-word examples. Still, as many (read: most) students hadn’t written any ending at all to their short story drafts, they found the suggestions useful. In a move that is contradictory to true workshop form, I required students to identify one of these approaches to the beginnings and endings of their short stories. And in keeping with the best paradoxes, these limitations have allowed their sense of choice to flourish rather than flounder among too many possibilities. (Mariana knows about my unapologetic “taking the ‘creative’ out of ‘creative writing’ approach this year). But in a school system that seldom allows choice, for many (read: most) students, I have found that “choice among several options” is more productive than choice that is infinite. And I’m more than ok with that.

3TT_beginnings and endings 2- Google Sl_ - https___docs.google.com_presentatio

So, I hope you find this framework useful.  You can find the Google Slides document here, if you would like to use my clumsy boxes and improve upon it for your own use. (I hope I did the sharing settings correctly — if you cannot access, let me know).  If I had it to do over again — which I will, because I plan to use this approach regularly — I might combine it with Marchetti and O’Dell’s sticky-note activity, in which students write several different beginnings and endings on sticky notes and stick them at the beginning and end of a printed essay. Then they can try out a few options next to each other, which even further reinforces the construction of a piece of writing as a series of conscious choices on the part of the writer.

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+.

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.

 

 

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