Category Archives: Katie Maguire

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.”

Summer Reading: Mentor, Memoir, Music

As any audience of teachers in late May can understand, we’re in that real-time–time warp: The current school year may still be in progress but we are living in the planning of the next. So, in the interest of looking forward — and being inspired by Amy Estersohn’s recent post about book club choices and Lisa Dennis’s about a summer reading list — I thought it might be helpful to share a few titles from my inventory of “Books I Meant to Read This Year but Didn’t” as well as “Books I Knew I Would Have No Chance to Read until Summer.” (By the way, I have no personal or professional stake in promoting any of these books other than inspiring conversation among and providing potential ideas to 3TT readers and beyond.)

Mentors of Our Own180Days_notes

Kelly Gallagher and Penny Kittle, 180 Days Duh. As you can see I couldn’t help but already start this much-awaited piece of pedagogical brilliance. With their perfect balance of philosophy and practicality, Gallagher and Kittle have managed to land directly in the sweet spot of books about practice. What they offer is just general enough to imagine it happening in our own classrooms and just specific enough for it to be highly practical.

beyond_literary_analysisAllison Marchetti and Rebekah O’Dell, Beyond Literary Analysis I will never forget this question that one of my very first mentors taught me to ask: Do we seek to cultivate aspiring English majors or an informed, critical-thinking citizenry? (I know, I want both, too. Alas.) Lisa Dennis discusses in this post the limitations — and, even detriments — to student writing that the traditional literary analysis imposes. Even without having read it, just knowing this book exists fuels my determination (on students’ behalf and my own) to refuse that pain and suffering for even one more year.

Potential Book Talks (or not): Memoir

When They Call You a Terroristpatrisse khan-cullors & asha bandela
The Girl Who Smiled BeadsClementine Wamariya

cultural_memoirWho says we shouldn’t judge books by their covers — and their titles? I won’t apologize for instantly loving these books for their beautiful, ethereal covers and alluring titles. What a happy coincidence that each is filled with the pathos of personal experience that makes memoir so compelling in addition to an earnest and essential reminder about the human beings that live and struggle behind the headlines and the hashtags.

The Recovering (Leslie Jamison) and You All Grow Up and Leave Me (Piper Weiss)memoirs_reading.jpg

Based on what I’ve read so far (30–50 pages of each), neither of these would be near the top of a classroom book-talk or mentor-text list for my classes. But man are these stories irresistible (in this amateur reviewer’s opinion). Weiss’s craft is most apparent in her arrangement of alternating time periods and varying expression of voice, while Jamison’s tends toward stylistic elegance. Due to their “mature” subject matter and in the interest of healthy boundaries, I’m likely to continue reading these not as a teacher but as a regular, private citizen-bibliophile.

Music-Inspired Mentor Texts

abdurraqibThey Can’t Kill Us ‘Til They Kill UsHanif Abdurraqib. The provocative cover of this collection of music/cultural criticism has been taunting me from my shelf all year, even more so after I read an excerpt from Beyond Literary Analysis (see above) in which Marchetti and O’Dell write incisively about channeling students’ love of music into analytical writing. In the book’s introduction, Eve L. Ewing writes, “Abdurraqib makes you realize that the music you listen to isn’t about People Like Us, because it turns out all of us are People Like Us. All of us are frightened and heartbroken and ecstatic and mourning and in love and driving fast down the interstate, and we are blessed enough to live in a time when there are plenty of artists adept to holding that mirror.” Just from this mentor sentence alone, students can practice the power of polysyndeton! From there, I can’t help but imagine students building analytical bridges between the music they love and the qualities that give the music that power.

Creative QuestQuestlove. questloveI’m pretty sure many of my students in Advanced Writing left the course still skeptical of the notion that artists — even accomplished ones — still turn to the work of other artists to inform or inspire their own. So, next year if they don’t believe me, maybe they’ll believe Questlove. In a section of this inspiring and accessible book called “Reduce, Reuse, Recycle,” he celebrates this practice and discusses “covering” the work of other artists not only as a way to work through an artistic slump but as an act of creativity in itself. Thanks, Questlove, for a refreshing take on the concept of mentor texts. He explains, “That’s another thing that creativity is–taking the existing world and making something new from it.” (BTW, I know that’s going on a handout somewhere.) I really loved his discussion of the MTV series Unplugged, which features popular (and typically “plugged-in”) musicians in a stripped-down, acoustic format. I’m determined to figure out a way to use the series to demonstrate the impact of form and tone.

If any of this summer reading evolves into meaningful, practical lessons, I’ll be sure to post the details. In the meantime, though, I hope there might be something here to inspire you or to add to your own never-ending lists (which I’d love to hear about)!





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.

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.






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