Narrative Writing: Teaching Diction and Imagery Through Shorter Mentor Texts

Writing is hard and encouraging students to write can be even more difficult! We have been focusing on teaching narrative techniques in our freshman English classes as a build up for their personal narrative. After reading 180 Days by Kelly Gallagher and Penny Kittle, our English team has created “laps” in which we teach different types of writing. With each new piece of writing we do, we ask them to build on the skills from the previous ones. To teach diction and imagery, we introduced our students to the last paragraph from The Road by Cormac McCarthy. The passage we chose is short, yet challenging for our students. It takes several reads to understand what it is about:

Part One: Comprehending the Text

Once there were brook trout in the streams in the mountains.  You could see them standing in the amber current where the white edges of their fins wimpled softly in the flow.  They smelled of moss in your hand. Polished and muscular and torsional. On their backs were vermiculate patterns that were maps of the world in its becoming.  Maps and mazes. Of a thing which could not be put back. Not to be made right again. In the deep glens where they lived all things were older than man and they hummed of mystery.

(McCarthy, 241)

We read and our students visualize the text, drawing pictures in their composition notebooks. They reread and circled unfamiliar words. In their pods, they used thesaurus.com & dictionary.com to find synonyms and added new details to their drawings to help them construct meaning from this text.

Part Two: Identifying Narrative Techniques

The students worked together highlighting and annotating their text for examples of the narrative techniques used by McCarthy in this final paragraph. This became their model to imitate with their own writing.

Part Three: Write and Revise

If there is one thing I have learned from writer’s workshop, it is the importance of writing alongside my students each step of the process. I was reminded of this during a session I attended at the Illinois Reading Conference a few weeks ago. The presenter called it “The Curse of Knowledge Bias,” when we already know how to do the work we expect of students and we forget the difficulties we faced learning it. By writing with my students, they saw me struggle and welcome their feedback to improve my writing.

My brainstorming model turned into first draft

For this piece, we brainstormed ideas and then turned them into writing. We anguished over what words to use, making sure to “show not tell,” incorporating imagery and strong word choices throughout our pieces. We offered each other feedback – both students and teachers – celebrating those lines that WOWed us, and offering constructive advice where needed. In the end, our students blew us away.

My final draft after students gave me feedback.

A Few Examples of Their Work

What mentor texts do you use to teach diction and imagery? How do you get students to add details to their writing and WOW you with their work?

Melissa Sethna has been a high school instructional coach for the past ten years. While coaching is her passion, she missed the students and is so grateful to have the opportunity to co-teach one freshman English class this year.

Writing Workshops Modeled on Writing Center Theory

Image result for writing center

I was a writing center tutor when I was in graduate school, and my current school allows me to run a student-tutored writing lab for our population during the school day – a dream come true! 

Anyone who has worked as a writing tutor knows that it changes how you see yourself as an instructor. You see beautifully and poorly constructed writing assignments and equally helpful or unhelpful commentary on written work. Helping students navigate an instructor’s expectations makes you better at setting expectations for your own students. 

Perhaps the most powerful pedagogical contribution of writing center theory is the focus on the writer over the writing. A good tutor’s job is to improve the writer, not the paper, a concept described in Stephen North’s 1984 essay “The Idea of a Writing Center.” This is often done through questioning strategies that force the writer to think about her writing rather than commands of how to “fix” it. 

After training my tutors in writing center theory each year, it occurred to me that these ideas could transform writing workshops in my classroom. Now, before my first writing workshop each year, I make sure to teach all my students on a foundational writing center concept: HOCs and LOCs. 

Higher Order Concerns (HOCs) and Lower Order Concerns (LOCs) are how we set the agenda of a writing center appointment. In our writing lab, we have roughly 20 minutes for an appointment, so we need to quickly choose a focus. How do we decide? HOCs and LOCs are our guide. 

HOCs are typically big-picture questions related to revision. Does the paper actually fit the assignment? Is the author’s purpose clear? Does the author need better or more evidence? Has the author provided enough explanation? Would the ideas be better structured a different way? 

These ideas are higher order because, if they are not meant, nothing else really matters. The paper can have beautiful imagery and perfect grammar, but if the message is not communicated, who cares? 

LOCs are often editing issues. I prefer to call them “later” order concerns rather than lower. They are still important, but they should be addressed later in the writing process or at least after the HOCs. These include punctuation, spelling, correct citations, and word choice. Of course, any issue can become a HOC if it interferes with meaning too much. A student whose grammar is incomprehensible may need a lesson on basic sentence structure first. 

In my experience, left to their own devices, students focus first on LOCs, regardless of the goals of the workshop. It is so much easier to tell someone where to add a comma or that “effect” is misspelled than it is to find out what someone was actually trying to say. For my students to be able to have useful workshops, I need to push them beyond what is easy. 

To train my students, we first outline the HOCs and LOCs on the board. Then, together we read a sample paper out loud, and I have them determine what area should be worked on first and why. What are the most pressing issues in the paper? If you really want to challenge them, make sure the paper has some glaring grammatical problems but even bigger issues with argument. 

Then, we discuss our process and rules for writing workshop. 

  1. Start with the author’s concerns. Most authors know what they are having trouble with, so ask the author first. This also puts the author in control of her own paper. 
  2. Read each paper out loud with everyone in the group listening. Ideally, the author should read his own paper. This keeps busy hands from adding commas all over. Students are never allowed to simply pass papers around in my classroom. 
  3. Have a conversation about the paper. I encourage my students to ask questions, such as “What did you mean here?” or “I thought what you were trying to say was … Was that correct?” or “Why did you choose to put this example in this paragraph?” Questions force the writer to think about his own choices and be an active participant. 
  4. Brainstorm possible solutions to problems together and make sure that the author writes them down. 

Over the course of working on a paper, we will eventually get to those LOCs, but again, we do not just want good papers but better writers. Students discussing the decisions behind their writing will inevitably lead to more fluent writers. 

If you’re interested in reading more about writing center theory, a great place to start is The Allyn & Bacon Guide to Peer Tutoring

Sarah Esberger teaches AP Language and Composition and Sophomore English at Central Magnet School in Murfreesboro, TN where she lives with her second-grader, her husband, three furry friends, and a bearded dragon. She also runs her school’s student-tutored Writing Lab and is always seeking new ways to incorporate James Britton’s concept “reading and writing float on a sea of talk” into her teaching.

Real World Writing: A mini-unit using Chipotle as a mentor

I’m in Chipotle, munching the chips and reading the bag. I loved the essays from Aziz Ansari and Sarah Silverman over the past months. Today I notice something different. This essay was written by a high school student.

“Excuse me,” I approach the counter at Chipotle. “Can I have some bags?” I explain to the clerk that I work with teachers and want to use these bags in class. The teenager handed over a stack. I feel my heartbeat quicken, the way it does when a teaching idea starts forming. As a literacy coach, I couldn’t wait to share these with the teachers whom I was working. One of our favorite units of writing was born.

I’ve been training myself to read like a writer my whole life. I just didn’t always know it. I loved reading cereal boxes when I was a kid. I’d pour my milk and then pore over every word, reading riddles and puzzles, then on to the nutrition information. At doctor’s offices, I read Highlights. At the grocery store, I’d speed read Tiger Beat. I read everything.

It wasn’t until I was older that I realized how much all that reading impacted me as a writer. And it wasn’t until I was a Fellow in Ohio Writing Project’s Summer Institute that I had a name for it: “Reading Like a Writer,” a term I learned when reading Wondrous Words by Katie Wood Ray.

As we began to think about how to use these Chipotle bag essays with students, I came back to what I know is true about writing instruction, a rhythm gleaned from countless professional texts (Penny Kittle, Ralph Fletcher, Allison Marchetti & Rebekah O’Dell, to name a few). My OWP colleague Beth Rimer succinctly captures this rhythm when she talks about the ideal conditions for writing:

  • Modeling: writers need to see the possibilities for their own writing by looking at lots of examples. And as often as possible, I want those mentor texts to also exist in the real world (See Writing With Mentors for support around this).
  • Ideas: writers need support to find an idea. As Don Graves said, “Unlimited choice is no choice at all.” Instead, writers need strategies to find the ideas they might explore (My favorite way to nudge writers is with Linda Rief’s Quickwrites books).
  • Drafting: writers need time to write, to mess around, and to get feedback (Write Beside Them by Penny Kittle changed my teaching life).
  • Revision: writers need explicit instruction about ways they might make their writing better (I love Revision Decisions by Jeff Anderson as a way to focus my lessons).
  • Feedback: writers need feedback in lots of ways — from themselves, from each other, from an “expert” (Jenn Serravallo’s book about Writing Conferences is a great place to start rethinking how we give feedback).

Every single time I find a piece of writing in the world that I want to share with students, I come back to this. I use it to build our mini-lessons, to decide on instructional days, and to remind me of what writers need. It might look like this:

Day One – Notice. Gallery walk the Chipotle bags. Talk about what we notice the writers doing. Make a list of possibilities for our own writing.

Day Two – Generate ideas. Once we notice that these essays are all about small moments connected to food memories, we might create a moment map, or a quicklist, or a sketchnote.

Day Three – Start writing. Mess around. Get dirty. Know that this doesn’t have to be perfect. Resist the temptation to give students a template and instead remember that writers need time to let a draft take shape. Confer with the writers in the room, nudge and get to know what they’re working on.

Day Four-Five – Teach. Look at what writers have been struggling with and teach more. Look at what writers have been doing well and put that up on the document camera.

Day Six(ish) – Publish. Sometimes we just turn it in. Sometimes kids can print their essays on paper bags and then have a gallery walk, leaving post-it notes of feedback.

This isn’t always what writing looks like in our classrooms, but we try to build in these moments of authentic writing so that students have a chance to stretch important muscles. They build fluency and confidence. They have the chance to work through the writing process quickly, therefore getting to do it more often. They have an authentic audience and see that writing is all around them.

I recently worked with a 7th grade teacher whose students wrote Two Minutes On essays as one of their first experiences. The products were amazing. Students took risks, they wrote from the heart, and they stretched themselves.

If you’d like to try this mini-unit, you can find the mentor texts here. What real-world writing has inspired you and your students? Share in the comments!

Angela Faulhaber is a literacy coach in Cincinnati, Ohio. She loves burrito bowls and is happiest when eating tortilla chips with her kiddos and husband. She works with teachers and students from grades K-12 and the scariest day this year was when she taught a group of adorable kindergartners a writing lesson.

Making Grammar Tangible: Designing Ways for Students to Interact with Tools & Rules by Tosh McGaughy

As a seventh grade writing teacher, I adored conferencing with student writers but I struggled with the lack of impact that those conferences had on my students’ understanding (and application) of grammar concepts. I modeled; I provided mentor sentences; I corrected (with non-red Flair pens); I even… assigned a few grammar workbook pages that came with our textbook. (Yes, I was that desperate.) I knew that I needed to teach grammar and conventions within their writing, but I also knew that the things I was doing weren’t working for the majority of my seventh graders (especially my students who were not avid readers.)

The Impetus

Fate intervened and my own daughter transferred to my campus and landed in my English class. Having the benefit of knowing this particular seventh grade learner since birth, I was privy to a depth of understanding about how she learned best which equipped me to design learning tailored for her. A dancer since an early age, she communicated and learned through movement. Though exposed to many books and rich text experiences, reading did not involve enough physical activity to be one of her passions and she had not “absorbed” grammar through prolific reading. Knowing all this, I was presented with the challenge of designing grammar experiences that would actually “reach” this learner because if I was only going to get this one year to be her teacher, I wanted to make the most of it.

The Action Research aka. trial & error

So, I threw out everything I had done previously with grammar and approached it from a different perspective: how can I make the nitty-gritty and fascinating tools of grammar something that students can physically touch, move, and manipulate? This led to me nailing down a process to identify what my students needed to understand, through our writing conferences and formative writing tasks in our journals, and then creating “tangible grammar” tasks that I could use with students during small group instruction based on their specific needs. The lesson components I found most effective with my students were manipulative, cooperative, personal, and memorable.

The Process

The process that evolved was centered around answering four core questions related to those components. 1) How can I make this concept touchable and moveable? 2) How can I get students to discuss and work together on this concept? 3) How can I help students connect the concept to their own writing and usage? 4) How can I design an experience that students will remember as they learn this concept?

Chart with hyper link

The Successes

One successful mini-lesson that came out of this process was “Punctuation Clothespins Dialogue“. Hearing students repeatedly say that they didn’t “see” the punctuation in sentences and that they felt that punctuating was largely an arbitrary process, I wanted to create a lesson that made the tiny pieces of punctuation BIG while providing opportunities for discussions and revisions to punctuating choices.

HOW: I took colored card-stock and printed out the different pieces of punctuation, with end punctuation printed on one color, and all other punctuation printed on another color. Then, I hot glued (okay…my family members hot glued) the punctuation to inexpensive full-size wooden clothespins. In class, I provided my small group with a mentor sentence from a read aloud text that included punctuated dialogue. (The inclusion of the comma in relation to the quotation marks was baffling my students.) They created their own imitation sentences on paper and then re-wrote them, without punctuation, on large sentence strips. Next, they exchanged with one another and used the punctuation clothespins to punctuate each other’s sentences. The author of the sentence would then check the punctuating and discuss any differences in how their peer punctuated and how they punctuated the sentence. Because the clothespins were moveable, they would just clip and unclip to move them around during these discussions. The whole thing took only 15 minutes, but they engaged with a mentor text, wrote their own imitation sentence, punctuated multiple imitation sentences, and discussed punctuation choices with multiple peers. One of my favorite overheard comments was, “these are top punctuation and these are bottom punctuation” when one student explained where the quotation marks and commas went in a sentence. In all my years of teaching grammar and punctuation, I had never thought of the physical position of these things in relation to a sentence, but that was important to these learners and the clothespins helped facilitate that discussion in a way that my proofreading marks and writing conferences never had.

The “Hot Messes”

I’ll admit, not all all of my “tangible grammar” ideas were a hit. My brutally honest daughter would get in the minivan after school and pointedly ask, “How do you think that went?” Ouch. One particularly spectacular miss was “Punctuation Pasta”. Though having the many shapes of pasta for students to sort, choose, discuss, and use to punctuate their own imitation sentences seemed like a creative idea, it devolved into a crunchy pasta-on-the-floor debacle with seventh graders eating raw pasta (that other classes had touched) and few students (if any) leaving with a better handle on the nuances (and beauty) of correct hyphen use.

The Shift

But, my daughter’s incisive and reflective feedback did push me to take more risks that year, and I kept trying new things to reach those learners that I came to realize I had not been designing for: my kinesthetic students and my students who did not read for pleasure. It also pushed me to research the science of constructivism and concept building in order to tap into the pathways of learning that I had previously ignored. (Visible Learning for Literacy by Hattie, Fisher, & Frey was particularly helpful.) Moving away from “covering” grammar rules in my mini-lessons to truly “teaching” the tools of grammar with chunked, explicit, and very tangible tasks helped my students build understanding in multiple ways, which showed in their writing and improved the quality of our writing conferences.

Layering Notice and Note Signposts over the Plot Triangle

Teaching seventh grade is both a challenge and a joy. Students are inquisitive, silly, maturing . . . and in the seventh grade. Until last year, I hadn’t taught this grade for about eighteen years, and I wasn’t expecting to. But, life can be unpredictable, and in a strange and wonderful turn of events, I have found myself teaching seventh grade students.

I couldn’t be happier.

Recently, because of some standardized testing they were involved in, the concept of the plot triangle was raised. My students, for the most part, stared at me blankly, not understanding what it was. I realized that the plot triangle is a simple diagram, but can be a difficult concept.

It was really perfect timing because we were starting to read some short stories together as a class, and we needed some common language for when we discuss and write about them.

I created a chart I and posted it on our classroom wall.

plot triangle

As the students digested the ideas in the plot diagram, I was peppered with eager questions.

Why is the climax so close to the resolution? 

What is the falling action? 

How many events belong in the rising action? 

We talked it through, and students started to feel more comfortable with the ideas, but the next question was one that made me smile. Why does the plot triangle matter?

Fair question. Why? is always a fair question in my classroom, and I had a proud teacher moment.

In trying to explain why the plot triangle matters, I tried to share that a visual representation of a story helps us to understand more deeply.

We made the connection that the fiction signposts also help us to more deeply understand a story. Since we’ve been studying the signposts as we study short stories and narratives, it was a great connection to make.

IMG_6285

So, after class I annotated our wall chart with the fiction signposts. It took some thinking, and I’m hoping I got it right.

I didn’t want to limit anyone’s thinking by suggesting that a signpost might only be found in one part of the story, but I did want to let them know where they might start noticing them.

They started to create plot triangles with some of the stories we had recently read together, and then layering some of the signposts into the plot triangle.

  1. Charles by Shirley Jackson
  2. Thank You, M’am by Langston Hughes
  3. The Medicine Bag by Virginia Driving Hawk Sneve
  4. Fourteen by Alice Gerstenberg

Here are some examples of what they did right at first:

 

My students aren’t done creating their plot triangles, and they aren’t done thinking about how the layering of the plot diagram and the signposts complement one another, but so far their thinking is going in the right direction.

They are asking questions and making connections. They are talking to each other and challenging each others’ thinking. They care more deeply about the stories and the characters they are reading about.

I’ll call it a win.

Update: I had another “aha moment” and asked my husband to help add another layer to the wall chart. What do you think?

plot triangle w tape

Julie has been teaching secondary language arts for twenty years, spending the first fifteen in rural Central Oregon,  four in Amman, Jordan, and the most recent school year in Managua, Nicaragua. 

Follow her on twitter @SwinehartJulie

Not Averse to Verse: Using Novels in Verse to Engage English Learners #ILA2019

This is a guest post by Dr. Helen Becker, and I owe her a big apology. I had agreed to run this post before her presentation at ILA. I have a million excuses:  None will do. So I publicly I say, “I’m sorry for not following through,” and if you are reading 3TT today, know this:  Helen is one of the smartest educators I know.   ~Amy

To understand the instructional power of novels in verse in the high school English classroom, you must first know a bit about my former school. Clear Creek High School, a comprehensive high school in Clear Creek ISD in southeast Houston, serves 2500 students in grades 9-12. According to Texas Academic Performance Reports (TAPR) published by the Texas Education Agency (TEA), in the last five years, the campus has experienced a steady rise in the number of English Language students. Many of these students have come from Latin American countries.

What you must also know is that our district advocates student choice reading in a reader/writer workshop setting. Furthermore, to provide students greater choice in reading material, the district invested nearly a million dollars to flood classroom libraries with high-interest books. Self-selected independent reading has become a constant in the changing school landscape at Clear Creek High School.

Fast-forward to my fifth period Reading class two years ago: a group of thirteen boys and one girl who, despite the best of intentions and instruction, had still not passed both End of Course (STAAR) exams in English. Enrollment in a Reading course, coupled with co-enrollment in grade level English class, was meant to close the gaps in their reading and writing lives. This is where the workshop model and classroom libraries intersected with my fourteen EL students. When the District ELA coordinator brought a stack of newly released novels in verse to my fifth period Reading classroom, the students devoured the books. Thanks, Billy Eastman.

And so began my quest to know more about the power of using novels in verse in the EL classroom. I knew I had found a topic that I needed to know more about – for not only my use in my classroom but use in the classrooms of others as well. While researching the topic further, I encountered a noticeable lack of research-based information about using novels in verse with EL students.

In fact, the only direct source of data I located was from Farish (2013) who writes based on her first-hand work as a librarian at a school with a large population of EL students. Farish writes in School Library Journal that the poetic form of novels in verse mimics folksongs and tales that are part of many foreign cultures. As a result, EL students feel comfortable with the novel in verse genre because of this similarity.  Farish (2013) adds, “Many who work with English-language learners and others who struggle with reading seek novels that promote fluency and a sense of competence in readers.” Verse novels accomplish just that. They can move fast and offer readers at any level a feeling of completion.

I broadened my research scope to consider the transferrable skills all students, not just ELs, could practice with novels in verse as an instructional medium. The arrangement of words and a sheer abundance of white space on the page makes these books, well, friendly and approachable. EL students have fewer words to decode. Furthermore, Young Adult novels in verse often involve a protagonist with the same issues the EL students themselves are encountering. In short, novels in verse promote student agency (Garud, Hardy, & Maguire, 2007; Oakeshott & Fuller, 1989; Tran & Vu, 2017), and self-efficacy (Bandura, 1977).

But my experience with novels in verse really concerns one Fifth period Reading student in particular: Emerson. Emerson moved to our community from Guatemala five years ago and had difficulty finding books in English to read in my class. He experimented with books at a lower Lexile (I, for one, feel that Lexile level hinder rather than encourage literacy. This Literature Review from ALA provides data to support my stance on Lexile levels), but he was quick to abandon them, shrugging and saying, “They are boring, miss.” When I put Booked by Kwame Alexander in his hands, I totally mean it when I say that I didn’t see Emerson’s nose for a long time…it was in his book the entire time. In fact, I’m pretty sure Emerson read the book several times over. When I asked him about the book and why he liked it so much, Emerson said, “It speak to me.”

I cried those tears you cry when a student finally connects with a book.

As a result of my experience with ELs, I authored and co-presented a workshop at TCTELA on using novels in verse to engage English Learners in the high school classroom. In the session, fellow teacher and now Instructional Coach Megan Thompson and I delved into ways to leverage this popular genre to encourage reading comprehension and improve writing craft. I reworked the presentation for the International Literacy Association (ILA) conference this month in New Orleans, and Megan and I and invited our fellow teacher and TCTELA High School Section chair, Charles Moore, to join the presentation team. Both Megan and Charles brought their expertise as literacy leaders to the presentation.

Helen Charles Megan at ILA2019

If you were not able to attend the presentation but want more information on novels in verse in the EL classroom, reach out to me at hbecker@ccisd.net. I’d love to share my learning with you.

P.S. I gave my copy of Booked to Emerson as his graduation present.

For research citation see here.

Helen Becker has taught all levels of English Language Arts as well as AP Capstone Seminar in her seventeen years teaching secondary English. Today, Dr. Becker teaches Senior English at Clear Brook High School in Clear Creek ISD. Any day now, a suitable replacement for her will be found, so she can transition to her new job in the CCISD Office of Assessment and Evaluation. Until then, every day is a workshop day. Which means every day is a good day in Room 406.

Book Snapchats

While I’m a little bummed I’m not attending NCTE in Baltimore this year, NCTE 2018 in Houston was awesome–I’m still going through my notes nearly a year later!  Not only did I get to meet a handful of Three Teachers Talk contributors in person, snag new books, fangirl favorite authors, and catch up with former colleagues from Lousiville and Houston, I headed home challenged by new ideas and armed with new activities to implement in my workshop.  NCTE is truly a magical event for educators–enjoy if you’re heading to Baltimore next month!

Like many of us, I am always seeking different, engaging ways students can interact with and analyze a text.  One such activity from Charles Youngs (@Charles_Youngs), an educator and instructional coach in Pennsylvania, was Book Snaps.  Students are tasked with finding a significant page in a text, then creating an analytical “snap” via Snapchat.  While we work on annotating and sketchnotes throughout the year, Snapchat opens the arsenal of analysis tools students can access to create meaning.  There are stickers, filters, animated gifs, color tools, stamps, and other features I don’t even know about which students can use to digitally annotate.  Last year, I used the activity to study the minor characters and themes in The Bluest Eye in small groups.  This past week, my students created a snap about their independent reading book as the quarter comes to a close.

As students spent time finding the page that would “sell” their book, the discussion surrounding gifs and stickers turned analytical.  Students asked one another for advice on the features and, in the process, discussed the characters, conflicts, and themes with one another.  I didn’t expect to hear such thoughtful commentary while students were creating.

If students did not have Snapchat, I offered the opportunity to take a picture of the page then edit it on Google Slides.   Once students completed and downloaded their Snap, we compiled them on one Google Slide deck.  Don’t worry if you’re not Snapchat savvy–your students definitely are!

Maggie Lopez only sends snaps of her dog Bounder to her husband and is currently reading The Spy and the Traitor by Ben MacIntyre.  You can find her on Twitter @meglopez0.

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