Category Archives: Katie Maguire

Story Generates Story, and More

This past weekend, Tom Newkirk tweeted about writiNewkirk Self-Promptsng fluency and the value of “self-prompting,” and he included a list of a dozen+ prompts that foster such fluency. For Tom, these prompts “swirl in his head” as he writes. For our students, we need to build the habit of prompting questions into their process. Whether through daily writing, regular conferring, or sheer faith in the possibility, many students this year have discovered the true generative nature of writing — a sentence begets a sentence, begets a sentence, and so on. Alas, too many have not.

Our students hear from published poets and slam poetry veterans (our school librarians put on a magnificent Poetry Week every year) about lengthy revision processes. They view interviews with their favorite authors who explain the grueling evolution from idea to draft to revision to “finished” piece. They read lots of writers on writing about the toil of the work. Still, more students than I care to admit still believe in some divine inspiration behind the magic of words on a page, which one either receives or does not. And, to try to write without this inspiration (as in, every day in their Writer’s Notebooks) is a futile endeavor.

Tom’s recent tweet seemed divine in its timing. The day before, as an in-school field strip, 10th-grade English classes participated in a workshop with storytellers from Chicago’s 2nd Sstory_line_awk-e1523848925727.jpgtory, an organization that holds storytelling events, workshops, and education in the value of story — in both the telling and the listening — as the source of human connection. The name 2nd Story refers to the very nature of story as generative: one shares a story of their own experience, which inevitably reflects some aspect of the universal, and then invites others to do the same.

Presenters shared their own stories, which included universals such as losing our youthful belief in things magical, facing our greatest fears and living story_line_rightto tell, proving we’re capable of what others believe we are not. Then they got students up out of their seats in parallel lines or inside-outside circles, so humans faced other humans, screen-free. First, students shared one-sentence stories based on prompts like “I felt [insert emotion] when …” or “Tell about a time when you … broke or ruined something … told a lie … received a gift you really wanted (or not) …” Lines and circles shifted and rotated to maximize the quantity of faces in contact.

Sure, it was awkward and scary at first for many — if not most — of these 15- and 16-year-olds, who may or may not have met before. Gradually, though, as stories even as brief as one sentence were shared, it became less so.

In one of the two workshop rooms, students talked in pairs, sharing their stories by kelly_empathyjpg.jpgelaborating on one of the prompts from the first part of the exercise. I could hear the energy in the room even before I was fully in the door. Moving through pairs of students, I could hardly hear the stories themselves, but no matter. story_lean-in.jpgWhat mattered was that students were hearing them from their partners, many of whom started out as strangers (different classes were blended into one workshop). And not just hearing, but listening. They began, literally, to lean in, closing distances through shared stories and the natural empathy that results. When we return to our regular classrooms this week, students will begin recording their stories on FlipGrid, listening to and commenting on one another’s without the high stakes and vulnerability (even unfamiliarity) of face-to-face, real-time human interaction. Which reminds me …

story_engagement.jpgI’d like to pause briefly to offer this qualifier: On-demand, face-to-face, forced interaction with strangers is not every 10th grader’s cuppa tea. (Heck, it’s not every adult’s cuppa, either.) In fact, several students literally waited it out on the sidelines. But even these reticent, reluctant, and even recalcitrant folks couldn’t help but listen — and be drawn into — the stories of others. And maybe even, as a result, classmates who were still strangers became less “other” than they had been 90 minutes earlier. I’m even holding onto the possibility that the stories heard that day will sustain their generative power and elicit even more — not only more stories, but more listening, more “leaning in,” more empathy, even more inspiration: not from any divine spirit, but from engagement with each other and with the work of writing — and speaking — their truth.

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Some Multi-Genre Magic

So, remember my lamentations 2 weeks ago about students turning in “drafts” less than 24 hours before the “final version” of their multi-genre writing was due? Well, I still think years of indoctrination of The Gradebook Mentality is doing immeasurable damage to students own perception of their learning and success. But dang, did they come through in the end.

To review, seniors in Advanced Writing produced a multi-genre paper focused on an author or a genre. And the genres they could choose to write in were seemingly endless. To generate these, we played a version of Scattergories in which groups competed to name the as many unique genres as possible.  (Apparently, competition is a real motivator. Who’da thought?) Some of the noteworthy were manifestos, glossaries, Scrabble game boards, breakup letters, suicide notes, and on. What might have been the favorite was Choose Your Own Adventure: Claire took readers through an existential journey through Camus, and Maya let readers find love (or not) in her study of David Levithan.

qualitiescoverOne mentor text we studied brought about some magical results: The Book of Qualities by Ruth Gendler (BIG props to my teaching partner Mariana Romano for this idea). In this book, Gendler takes a whole slew of abstract “qualities” and embodies them in a collection of beautiful prose poetry.

Many students followed Gendler’s lead by taking prominent “qualities” of the work they studied and embodying them in prose poetry.  To express a theme that emerged from his study of Salinger, Jed personified “Innocence:” qualitiesexample

Innocence is that old friend. You know the one. That friend you run into on the street … It’s been so long, right?! Maybe not quite long enough… But at this stage of your life, it just isn’t a good match … and somehow you manage to lose them more than youMorrisonAppendix already had. 

Myria, who studied parallel universes in fiction, personified the fear that permeates the work. fear_myria

Elizabeth, one of the worst “late draft” offenders, included an appendix in her study of Morrison to aid her own readers in interpreting the complex symbolism in Morrison’s fiction.

Gray composed a recipe poem to explain the operation of the worlds built in Brandon Sandrecipe_grayerson’s fiction.

And Maya even went 3-D — her project on David Levithan’s love stories lives in a breakup bag! breakupbag.jpg

So, hope is restored. Which is SO useful as I follow my seniors into the final quarter of their high school experience — useful for me, anyway.

 

 

 

 

 

$%^@* Gradebook!

Sorry for the semiotic profanity, but the more research I read, the more conversations I have with students, the more reflecting I do about my practice, $%^@* is what comes to mind. The inherent contradictions between meaningful learning and the system in which it takes place become most apparent about a week before grades are due, which for many of us is right about now–the end of a quarter. And the accompanying frustration and anxiety seem especially pronounced in writing courses, where our emphasis is on process over product.

I teach Advanced Writing, one of several English courses for seniors. The whole of third quarter has been devoted to an author or genre study: students must read 3 full-length texts and a number of critical articles by and about their author/genre, and express their findings through a variety of genre, ie a multigenre paper. Students made their own schedules, although I assigned drafts throughout the process to be workshopped and revised prior to the due date, which is today.

Many students held firm to their own and my deadlines all along, becoming heavily invested in their work — and the work of their classmates. Claire, a self-professed “math & science person,” immersed herself in the work and the philosophy of Camus. RJ, a devoted journal-keeper, examined the work and the critical reception of confessional poetry. Grace, a reader of all things spooky, explored the connection between horror writers and themes of lost innocence and coming-of-age. (I could go on, but I want to save their work for another post). These students and many others made careful, purposeful decisions about how to express their discoveries in a variety of genre, even — gasp! — taking that bold writerly step of abandoning a draft that wasn’t working and trying something new. Workshop and multigenre at its finest, right?

Sort of. Last week, drafts started to trickle in from students who had arrived late to the process party. I gave feedback as effectively as I could and kept my teacherly admonishments about deadlines under control. By Saturday morning, I had returned at least one draft to every student who had submitted work, and so I carried on with my weekend. Sunday afternoon, my inbox was full again with drafts of genre pieces. I still don’t know why I was so surprised, given that the quarter-long project was due in less than 24 hours. As I skimmed the list of submitted drafts, I faltered between pride in the work that finally came in and frustration over how late it was.

grade cartoon Glasbergen_1824This course is about nothing if it’s not about writing as a process. For three quarters, our work has been based on no other principle more than this one. Students who handed in drafts so late clearly did not engage in the work at this fundamental level. Surely I couldn’t award them the same grade as those who had. Right?! Right. So I started drafting a not-so-nice email to those stragglers pointing out that they all have known the due date for quite some time and surely they must have had no intention to revise in the first place so why did they even bother handing in a draft and was it just to get a number in a gradebook but of course I will not award the same credit so you will receive that fat ZERO because you’re seniors and by gosh I’m going to use that fat zero to show you how the world works because it’s time you start …

OK, no, I didn’t go that far, but that’s where it felt I was headed, and it felt wrong. How could I disregard their work yet still claim to value the process? How could I do the talk (and walk) against grades as an artificial, arbitrary, inaccurate measure of ability and achievement and then use them as a punishment? The only lesson they are likely to learn is that yet another adult they wanted to trust is revealed as a hypocrite.

In the end, I made my best attempt at a compromise, the details of which I’m sure resemble what anyone reading this blog would have done. But in that initial moment of composing that email — and that it was my first instinct — reminded me how ingrained the system can be even in those of us who do all we can in our practice to skirt around its limitations. I’m sorry this post doesn’t provide any grand answers to this pervasive conflict between meaningful learning and hierarchical measurements of such, but gosh I feel so much better for having shared with an audience that can commiserate. I hope you do, too.

Research In Search of a Claim

Why do high schools feel compelled to create their own “headings” for how students should format their papers, in spite of an English curriculum that calls for teaching MLA style? Oh, never mind. Put like that, I can see that this contradiction is in line with what we are tasked with every day in our classrooms: to machete through convoluted curriculum standards so we can lead our students to some real learning. This particular contradiction usually preempts any teaching energy I might have at the beginning of “The Research Unit.” As I plan, I am haunted by images of students typing their research questions word-for-word into Google, scrolling aimlessly through search results based on what they are most likely to click through to infinity, and finally just quoting from Wikipedia or that first Google blurb (attributed to “Google” and a 400-character URL in a triple-spaced Works Cited page presented in a hodgepodge of fonts from the cutting and pasting). Sigh.

It’s not their fault. This work can be rather uninspiring. Last year I tried to shake things up by offering another option to the traditional research argument: Students could compose a “research narrative” by using story form to trace their process of developing a claim. I spent hours developing model texts and elaborate instructions, devoted precious class time to comparing the two forms and creating anchor charts. Students dutifully complied with this. They complied again by completing a traditional research paper filled with information they mostly already knew or will have quickly forgotten. I dutifully (and wearily) returned papers filled with equally uninspired feedback they may or may not read and a grade that left me feeling morally compromised. Sigh.

So … no. How can we get away from Google as a first-resort and turn instead to our own minds — and each other — as we develop topics? And how can we make use of all the writing work we have already done and blend it with the research “unit” so that it feels less like a “unit” at all? Where can we look for topics that might inspire some meaningful, lasting learning?

Instead of starting from scratch, I had students turn back to their “Writing Territories,” the areas in their lives and in the world they identified earlier this year as potential writing topics. (Nancie Atwell is a continued inspiration–“Writing Territories” comes from Lessons that Change Writers). I modeled using my own territories to extract 1-2 potential research topics, and students did the same. I wanted to develop a sense of community and investment in each other’s topics, so I adapted an activity from Kelly Gallagher’s Teaching Adolescent Writers: 

  1. Students write their topics at the top of a piece of lined paper and pass the paper to the person on their left.
  2. This person reads the topic and writes one open-ended question about it.
  3. Papers continue around the room until each student receives their own paper back.

Even just this movement was energizing. After some initial fumbling, papers began moving through the room (almost) smoothly. Even better, students began talking to each other about whose topic was whose, and competing to write obscure and original questions to “stump” each other. Students took their own papers home, and were tasked with thinking through the questions and deciding on a few focus points within their topic in order to move forward.

So, this was fun and students had a bunch of interesting questions to explore. But that vision of students typing those interesting questions into Google still loomed large. I felt they still needed more of their own entryways into their topics, entryways into authentic thinking beyond search engine results. And as usual, I borrowed. This time, I adapted a poetry exercise from Georgia Heard: the 9-Room poem. I asked students to move through “9 rooms” of preliminary research that I hoped would lead them to consider their topic in terms of themselves and their own worlds.

Research_NotebookPrompts

My intention was for students to move through the rooms to establish a basic foundation of information (rooms 1, 3, 5, 7) and to explore their topic through a more creative lens (rooms 2, 4, 6, 8). As with the question swaps, perhaps the most valuable outcome of this exercise was the conversation it generated around the room. Students are talking about their topics with each other, even excited about being quoted in each other’s work!

So, here’s where we landed for now. Stay tuned for student examples as we move through this process toward formulating a claim. And, of course, proper MLA format.

The Upside Down of SparkNotes

My ninth period class sometimes feels like the Upside Down, you know, the terrifying parallel universe kids get sucked into in the Netflix series Stranger Things. They seem to keepcalm_shutupfunction in perpetual chaos. Every day I whack-a-mole them into their current book, notebook work, mentor text, draft, or just away from their phones.

In another teaching universe, I might anticipate 9th period with fear and loathing. But I don’t. Despite the daily ruckus, there is no malice in their behavior. In the universe of RWW, we can muddle through these chaotic moments together, (mostly) with humor and (mostly) without the rank-pulling that commands student compliance. And sometimes, these moments even provide a portal to the universe of important conversations.

This class has a number of self-proclaimed non-readers. Luke considers reading a “hobby” that some people enjoy and others don’t (and shouldn’t have to do). Lani regularly describes herself as “not much of a reader.” Miles’s stance is more ambivalent. He wants to know stuff, but sees reading as inefficient for doing so. I ask, “What ruined reading for you?” He answers without hesitation: “SparkNotes.” He elaborates, “It’s just a faster way to get the information.” Classmates nod their heads in agreement.

INFORMATION?!? I recoil.

By “information,” they mean what they will be held accountable, by quiz or discussion. When I remind them that we don’t do that in RWW, they explain — gently, mercifully — that now it’s just a habit. They look genuinely sorry for me, as if they just told me there is no Santa Claus. Or that SparkNotes is Santa Claus. Which maybe it is: the Santa Claus of the Upside Down, that parallel universe where reading resides for many of our students.

In their practice-revolutionizing book Disrupting ThinkingKylene Beers and Robert Probst distinguish between “aesthetic” and “efferent” reading. The former is about how a text affects our thoughts and emotions and the latter about the information we can extract from it. In classrooms where the efferent is favored over the aesthetic, SparkNotes is a useful substitute. Miles and his classmates have learned to reside here, to the extent that efferent reading is their natural stance in their English classrooms.

Beers and Probst do not discount efferent reading out of hand. It certainly has its place when information or efficiency is the goal. SparkNotes is a means to this kind of extrinsic end that drives so much of how we measure “success.” Can we blame our students for using a resource to reach that end more efficiently?

Aesthetic reading doesn’t lend itself to extrinsic reward, making it incompatible as a means to the end of racking up points toward the reward of an A. But here is the very reason why we must stand by its importance: the aesthetic stance is what invites the emotion and empathy that brings qualitative value to students’ reading experience, that honors the power and the beauty of the written word, that opens a window into the lives of others. And, which encourages the “compassionate thinking” that Beers and Probst define as so critical to our students’ reading lives.

My 10th-grade RWW students were given the option of book circles. In planning for rolling out their choices, I tried constructing elaborate lessons to reveal the beauty of a text so that students would have to admit to its aesthetic power. What I should have realized sooner is that a lesson like this was beside the point.

SparkNotes_F451_screenshotThat day, the SparkNotes summary of the first chapter of Fahrenheit 451° (one book circle choice) was their writing prompt. There was some confusion: Were they supposed to write about whether they were going to choose that book? Or to predict what the book might be about? This prompt is like any other daily writing, I told them. Just write what it brings to mind.

I’m not creative enough to make a lesson into a mystery. When students finished writing to this (rather uninspiring) prompt, I told them straight up: Now, here’s the source text for this SparkNotes summary. Please, just listen.

And I read aloud the beginning of Fahrenheit 451°. 

It was a pleasure to burn. 

By the time I reached the description of Guy Montag as a “conductor” of the symphony of flames that silenced the voices of the books he burns, there was also silence in the room. More students than I expected opted for the book circle, reading Fahrenheit 451°. I don’t know whether these choices resulted from an aesthetic reading of the book’s opening, but isn’t it pretty to think so?

Kathleen Maguire teaches Sophomore English, Senior Advanced Writing, and AP Language & Composition in Evanston, a suburb just north of Chicago. When she’s not grading papers or reading books to recommend to students, she tries to keep up with her yoga and her 10-year-old son, Jude (not in that order). She tweets at @maguireteach.

 

Who Else Have I Been Failing?

Among the countless ideas borrowed from the inimitable Penny Kittle are quarterly reading reflections (although by the time I got around to it with my sophomores, they wrote quarter(ish) reading reflections). I offered students a collection of reflective questions, generated from Penny’s work:

  • What has worked well for you so far in your independent reading?
  • What was challenging for you?
  • What might be helpful to overcome those challenges?
  • What reading goals will you set for next quarter/semester?

I love this work for the way it asks students to focus on themselves as readers, not just as students earning a grade. It also informs my plans, especially for students who are still meandering through workshop: fake readers and serial abandoners and the like. Much of what I found was unsurprising:

Students can be hard on themselves …

At home I read fairly inconsistently and met the goal of 2 hours a week infrequently. Looking back at this that is pretty pathetic; I did the math and figured out that reading that reasonable amount every week for me is the same as if I were to read just one minute for every waking hour.   — Robert P.

… and on their authors.

I have to say that Big Little Man was the most challenging because its story was quite confusing to me  … I had to piece events in order and figure out if it was a flashback or not. This confusing puzzle kept me up nights. I understand that he is adapting to the American life as a Filipino Man, but please explain it in order from Day 1.   — Dylan L.

Learning happened …

Even though I read only 2 books this quarter I feel that my habits are disappearing and that I’m becoming a better reader with each book. I feel that I am reading a lot faster and not stumbling on lines as much as I did all my life.  — Jacob V.

… and choice is emphatically good …

I’M NOT READING THE BOOK BECAUSE I HAVE TO. I’M READING THE BOOK BECAUSE I ENJOY IT AND WANT TO. [emphasis NOT added]        — Maluboo D.

… except when it’s not. 

Because I no longer have a criteria for choosing books, I no longer feel the desire to choose a book.   — Darielle W.

KeepCalmReadOn

Growing up in Delaware, Darielle had always chosen books by authors of color, “not because of their past, but because of their color, sadly. Although my past relates a lot more to an author of Caucasian, and privileged descent.” When she moved to Chicago seven years ago, her experience — and her understanding of her own identity — became more complicated. Reading books by African American authors became a way for her to “learn to be more like the people who looked like me … to appear more black, to fit in with them so that I could rid myself of the title ‘the whitest black girl I know.’ To understand how I am really seen by others.” Darielle’s book choices became even more fraught when she developed a relationship with a white boy.

I began to feel as if I was no longer black enough to read about these things. I’d suddenly felt guilty and unworthy of reading anything that had to do with the African American experience … which is very unfortunate because [these] books are all I’ve read or wanted to read since I moved here 7 years ago.

For all her reading life, Darielle had been trying to find a mirror. Amy Rasmussen deconstructs this reading metaphor in this post. Don’t we all search for mirrors in books, especially as young readers? What we read is about who we are. What others observe us reading tells them about who we are.

I thought about my past conversations with Darielle and realized how I had been failing her. Every time I asked her if she was still reading How It Went Down. Every time I asked her why it was hard for her to remember to bring her independent reading to class. Every time I playfully called her “the book sampler.”

Who else have I been failing? What is really behind the avoidance behavior of my other “fake readers” and “serial abandoners”? The answer, I see now, is far more complicated than finding the right book for them. The answer is about who they are, how they see themselves, and how they fear others will see them. 

In our RWW classrooms, students “get to” choose what they read. Shana examines the complexity of choice in this post. For some (read: many?) students, this freedom is heavy. What we choose to read sends a message about who we (think we) are. And what we choose not to read, or what we cannot decide to read, sends another message loud and clear. And now I’m listening. 

 

Kathleen Maguire teaches Sophomore English, Senior Advanced Writing, and AP Language & Composition in Evanston, a suburb just north of Chicago. When she’s not grading papers or reading books to recommend to students, she tries to keep up with her yoga and her 10-year-old son, Jude (not in that order). She tweets at @maguireteach.

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