Tag Archives: craft study

A Question/Response to Whole Class Novels: This time for ESL

Recently, I found this in my inbox:

Hi Amy –

We exchanged messages a couple of years ago when I was at a different school, discussing largely AP students, if I recall.

Last summer, my husband and I moved, and I am in a new district with new “clientele,” so to speak. We are finishing Neverwhere, which went over better than I thought it would with this extremely reluctant bunch of readers. I won grant money and purchased a class set of Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk Home, largely because I remembered that you recommended it.

Here is what I’m up against: I have regular seniors, most of whom are ESL. Most of my little darlings are low level and struggle with reading. Because I only have one class set for three classes of kids, we do some independent reading in class, and then we take turns reading it out loud. I pause them A LOT because I have to “interpret” what we read – especially when we read Othello, and even with Neverwhere. They have reading projects and journal prompts, we have class discussions.

But I feel like I’m failing them somehow. That I’m not doing enough.

If you have any resources for Billy Lynn that you can share, I would appreciate it. I’m questioning whether this is the right book to read with them, but since I have a good number who want to go into the military upon graduation, I think maybe I can grab those kids and then others will follow.

Thank you so much for any guidance you can provide.


A while ago, I wrote about Billy Lynn’s Long Half Time Walk in two different posts. Once about how I added it to my book club list and loved the author’s craft and the other an excerpt for a craft study. I have never read this book with students as a whole class novel. I’ve never even been very successful in getting a lot of students to read it for their book clubs.

Just because I love a book, bless it, use a passage out of it, doesn’t mean my students will want to read it, too. That is the beauty of choice. It is also sometimes the struggle.

Am I surprised more students do not choose this book? Yes. Dallas Cowboys after all. But I get why they don’t — many of my students do not want to read books that are set so close to come — they cannot wait to get out of here. But that’s a post for another day.

This is my response to my teacher-friend’s email:

Hello,

Thanks for reaching out. I hope your move has proved a positive one. I know it is hard to change districts and schools.

Regarding Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk:  While I loved the book when I read it and found several passages I could use to study author’s craft with my students, I have never taught it as a whole class novel. So — I do not have any resources that go along with this book. I do have a few ideas that may help liven up your students experience with it though.

Teaching second language learners can be hard, especially seniors who want to check out of the learning so early. Pulling from my ESL training and my own experiences with students similar to those you describe, I’d probably do a few things, which you may already be doing.

1. Small discussion groups. Just like I do book clubs, I’d divide my students up into small groups. I’d give each group a short list of open-ended questions that relate to my skills-focus for choosing this book (theme, plot, characterization, etc), and I’d model how a discussion about literature might go — similar to how my friends and I talk about books in our book club. We would talk a lot. You mentioned that you already do journal prompts. I’d be sure that students write their thinking in response to these prompts before these discussions. Activate the thinking power.

2. Quickwrites. Besides journal prompts, I’d ask students to think about and write in

dallas_cowboys_stadium_05_by_jonzicow

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response to topics thematically related to the book. I might show a photo of Dallas Cowboys Stadium and ask students to think about attending a game there. What does it look like on the inside, what does it smell like during a big game, how many people work there? I may find data about how much the stadium cost, how many seats it has, something about the huge jumbotron. I might find a sports interview clip filmed within the stadium and ask students to watch it and respond to some component of the interview. Maybe I’d find a video of the Dallas Cowboy Cheerleaders (try outs, community service — not just game shots) and ask students to respond somehow. All these things will helps students understand and visualize the setting.

iraq-war

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3. Other Visuals. ESL students needs lots of them. And if we want students to understand more complex texts, we must give them the background knowledge needed to stick the new learning to. (I often forget this.) So — I’d use photos of young soldiers in war zones, as buddies, delivering first aid. I’d be sure my students know where Iraq is on a world map. I’d help them understand the idea of a “reality TV show” so they could visualize what this company of soldiers is dealing with at the stadium that day. This ties in to the multiple conflicts the book addresses:  Billy’s individual conflict — “Should I stay or should I go” and the conflict with the TV show and the “rich” businessmen-type attitudes.

4. Movie clips. I am not always a fan of using movies in class, but this might be a great opportunity to compare scenes in the book with scenes in the film. What is similar? What is different? Why do the makers of the movie make the choices they do? Do they keep the integrity of the book?

5. Craft studies. I’d pull significant passages from the book to study for specific reading and writing skills — again trying back to why I chose this book for a whole class read in the first place. If my focus is theme, I’d find passages we can read and determine themes that relate to the over-all theme. If I’m using the novel to become better writers, I’d pull passages where the author does something interesting with language. We’d study the passage. Maybe write our own passage, mirroring what the author did.

Finally, I’d be okay with not reading the whole of the book. When I plan lessons, I focus on the skills [needed to get to the endgame whatever that may be for the unit.] Once I’m sure I’ve covered the learning targets, and students have learned what they needed to by reading this book, I’d be okay giving students the option to read the rest of the novel on their own.

When we focus on teaching a book instead of teaching the reader/writer, we can often get bogged down. I am in no way saying this is you, but it is a whole lot of teachers on my own campus and in schools where I conduct PD. We must focus on the learner and not the book. The best way I know how to do that is with a focus on skills:  modeling, mini-lessons, reading, writing, talking. A lot.

I hope you find these ideas helpful. I would love to know how your experience with Billy Lynn plays out.

Best blessings,

Amy

What ideas would you add to help a class of primarily English Language Learning students read and comprehend a whole class text? Please add your comments.

Amy Rasmussen teaches AP English Lang & Comp at Lewisville HS in North TX. She’s enjoyed the semester watching her student teacher face Teenage Angst, but he is good, very, very good, and will be a great teacher. Her next adventure is helping Mr. G build his classroom library. Follow Amy on Twitter @amyrass or @3TeachersTalk

Goodbye Days: a Craft Study and a Gorgeous Grand Slam

I love language. I love sharing my love of language with students.

When I read a book, I often dog-ear the pages, thinking of how I might use a passage to help my writers. Sometimes a book just does me in — so many beautiful words I cannot keep up. It’s a bonus if the story does me in.

Like Goodbye Days by Jeff Zentner. 30649795

If you haven’t read this book, oh, you’ll want to. Zenter’s first book, The Serpent King, kissed my soul. Goodbye Days took a hammer to it.

In a good way.

I started marking passages at page 36. I think because I forgot to think about it. Just read the first line of this YA novel:  “Depending on who — sorry, whom — you ask, I may have killed my three best friends.”

Mini-lesson opportunity one (whom), two (parenthetical with the dash), three (participial phrase), and four (voice)– all in one sentence.

The first time I really thought about using language from YA novels to teach my writers was in a class at UNH Literacy Institute taught by Penny Kittle. She showed us mentors of sentences and passages, pulled from the books she introduced to her students. She talked about how these craft studies also could serve as quickwrite prompts and book talks. A triple play.

Since then, Shana (who sat with me in Penny’s class) and I upped the ante:  some of our favorite mentors are hard-hitting home runs. But the following passage from Goodbye Days –It’s a gorgeous Grand Slam.


Excerpt from Goodbye Days by Jeff Zentner (p36)

     I feel like I’m watching something heavy and fragile slide slowly off a high shelf. My mind swirls with mysteries. The eternities. Life. Death. I can’t stop it. It’s like staring in the mirror for too long or saying your name too many times and becoming disconnected from any sense of yourself. I begin to wonder if I’m even still alive; if I exist. Maybe I was in the car too.

     The room dims.

     I’m tingling.

     I’ve fallen through ice into frigid black water.

     I can’t breathe.

     My heart screams.

     This is not right. I’m not fine.

     My vision narrows, as if I’m standing deep in a cave, looking out. Spots form in front of my eyes. The walls are crushing me.

     I’m gasping. I need air. My heart.

     Gray, desolate dread descends on me — a cloud of ash blocking the sun. A complete absence of light or warmth. A tangible, mold-scented obscurity. A revelation:  I will never again experience happiness.

     Air. I need air. I need air. I need air. I need.

     I try to stand. The room pitches and tosses, heaving. I’m walking on a sheet of Jell-O. I try again to stand. I lose my balance and fall backward, over my chair, thudding on the hardwood floor.

     It’s one of those nightmares where you can’t run or scream. And it’s happening to me this moment in the dying light of this day of dying. AND I AM DYING TOO.


What writing mini-lessons could you teach with this passage?

I Prefer a Community of Confident Writers — Our Jump into Understanding a Writer’s Craft

 

Before spring term was over, I’d written two pages of notes in the back cover of my writer’s notebook. I titled it “Remember to Do Things to do Differently.” I’m a bit ambitious — and I realize, often, too hard on myself. Although I knew my students learned last yearemember-to-do-things-differentlyr, I wasn’t confident that they couldn’t have learned more.

I imagine you’ve been there, too. Always second guessing.

One of the things I knew I needed to improve was my relationships with students — I needed them to be good and strong, faster.  I also needed to help students jump in quicker to the complexities of craft analysis without scaring the poor little dears.

So last week, the second week of school, I did what Lisa just wrote about yesterday. I “Encourage[d] Students to Start Sharing Who They Are,” and I did it by sharing a favorite poem by Wislawa Szymborska: “Possibilities.”

I asked students to study the poet’s language in each line and then write their own “Possibilities” poem, imitating the poet’s sentence structure and word play. I gave them a copy of my annotations and wrote my own poem as a model.

This proved to be an excellent lead into the rhetorical analysis students must be able to do in AP Language. I was able to see which students quickly understood how to look closely at an author’s craft — and which ones did not.

The best part though was what I learned about my students. All their preferences!!

Last Friday, when their poems were due, we did our first Author’s Chair share in class.

First, to help students build confidence, they read their poems to a partner.

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sharingpossibilitiespoems

Then, volunteers sat in our Author’s Chair and read their poems to the class.

While the student read his poem, everyone else sat with sticky note and pen in hand ready to offer “blessings,” things they liked about the author’s use of language, or connections they could make to his ideas.

sharingintheauthorschair

After each writer shared, the class flooded him with “blessings.” Smiles grew wide, trust blossomed, and the community that I felt was missing for too long a time last year took root.readingblessings

Bonus:  When students read their little notes, carefully crafted by peers who listened to
their writing, their confidence as writers grew. Too bad we ran out of class time. I might have run out of sticky notes if all students would have felt the desire to share.

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I wouldn’t have minded.

I would not have minded at all.

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I would love to hear your ideas on building community and/or introducing students to rhetorical analysis. Please join the conversation and share in the comments.

#FridayReads — A Book about Death to Teach Writing?

Last Saturday my niece and I attended the North TX Teen Book Festival.

Hundreds of teens stormed the book sales and stood in lines to get signatures from their favorite authors. Authors shared stories about their craft and their books while grouped in panels with interesting names like “‘Just a Small Town Girl’ Small towns — Big Stories,” and “‘The Book Boyfriend’ Sometimes Boys in Books are Better,” and “‘We’re Young and We’re Reckless, We’ll Take This Way Too Far’ Exploring mature situations in YA.

Raistlyn took notes. She is 14, a prolific poet, and is writing a novel.

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New books added to by to read next list.

For our last event of the day, we crowded in an overflowing room to listen to Holly Black, James Dashner, Sarah Dessen, Gayle Forman, Ruta Sepetys, Margaret Stohl talk about what it is like when books become movies. We oohed and aahed and laughed as they told of their experiences. (Margaret Stohl is funny!)

School busses lined the streets, and I cheered that so many teachers thought to bring their students. I did not. We were out of school the day before, and thanks to my poor planning, I never got around to getting a field trip approved.

I kicked myself after.

But I got a lot of great book recommendations, and my TBR tower is now named Eiffel.

I only bought one book. (Don’t tell. My husband and I have a bet to see who can resist 18883231buying books the longest.) I bought Denton Little’s Death Date by Lance Rubin because I heard the author talk with such excited wonder about this story and his experience writing it.

It’s the story of a boy who knows the date of his death. He knows because that’s the way it goes in his world — everyone knows the day they will die. Morbid, you say? Maybe.

But this is a comedy.

Hooked me. I need more books with laughs in my classroom library, and so far, this one does not disappoint. Here’s the excerpt I will share when I book talk this book:

Excerpt from Denton Little’s Deathdate by Lance Rubin p 66-67

I know different people and cultures have varying approaches to death, so in case you don’t know about the tradition of the Sitting, here’s the deal:  whilst waiting for death, you sit. You generally end up in a room of your house, probably the family room (ideally not the living room because the irony of that is too hilarious and stupid), where you’re joined by your immediate family and whoever else has been invited:  cousins, aunts, uncles, grandparents, girlfriends, best friends, and so on. Everybody communes and celebrates and waits for something to happen.

And something always happens.

Heart attack, stray bullet, seizure, fallen bookshelf or tree, stabbing, tornado, tumble down the stairs, strangling, drug overdose, fire, aneurysm. Not to mention the basics:  old age, cancer, pneumonia, other fatal illnesses. People have gone to great lengths to try and survive, but you just can’t. This guy, Lee Worshanks, in Pennsylvania, spent years working on what he called a Safety Room, the perfect place in which to spend his deathdate:  ideal temperature, rubber walls, dull-edged furniture, the works. When the Big Day rolled around, the room’s complicated security system somehow malfunctioned, and Lee found himself locked out. After hours of failed attempts to get inside his perfect room, he went a little nuts. He ended up electrocuted by some kind of circuit panel in the basement. So pretty much every possible variation on death in a house has happened to at least someone in the past few decades.

But you don’t know what the variation is, and you don’t know when in the day it will happen. That’s why the Sitting has always seemed insane to me. Who would ever want to be sitting in a room with their family for twenty-four hours straight? How is that anybody’s idea of a happy way to die?

Besides liking the narrator’s voice, I love how Rubin structures some of these sentences. This is a great passage to discuss syntax.  Look at that stand alone single sentence paragraph. Look at the lists and the use of the colon. And I love all those sentences that start with conjunctions. My students think that’s a grammatical error, and that leads to interesting discussions about why a writer might start a sentence with and or but or so.

I also love that example:  “This guy, Lee Worshanks, in Pennsylvania, spent years working on what he called a Safety Room, the perfect place in which to spend his deathdate. . .”

My students struggle with developing their ideas by using appropriate and convincing evidence. Here, right in a passage from a YA novel, is an example of an example I will use to illustrate examples with my writers. (My nerd factor is pretty high right now, isn’t it?)

Here’s the thing:  I loved attending that book festival with my niece. I loved listening to authors talk about their writing. I loved getting new ideas for books to share with my readers. And I really love that I found this one little passage in a pretty clever book about how we face and talk about death I can use with my students.

Reading is fun. Isn’t it?

*Note:  Did you know there’s a site that will predict the date you will die?

Mini-lesson Monday: A How-to on One Way I Teach with Short Texts

“Hey, Mrs. Rasmussen, I noticed this passage when I was reading,” Geovany said after class as he flipped a few pages in The Kite Runner and read a few lines. “That just really make me think, and it’s really nicely written.”

“And this is what I want you to understand, that good, real good, was born out of your father's remorse. Sometimes, I thing everything he did, feeding the poor on 
the streets, building the orphanage, giving money to friends in need, it was all 
his way of redeeming himself. And that, I believe, is what true redemption is, 
Amir jan, when guilt leads to good.” ~Khaled Hosseini

That might have been the passage. I don’t remember exactly, but I do remember the moment. It’s one of my favorites of the year.

Geovany did little work in my class until these book clubs. I’m not sure he finished reading even one book all fall. Although bright and capable, he is busy. He works 20 hours a week changing tires at a local auto shop, plus school with at least one AP English class. Mine. I know Geo has big hopes for his future, and I know he wishes he had a dad. He’s written a few times this year about how he wishes he had a father to mentor him, care for him — be a dad to him. So when Geovany showed me that passage in The Kite Runner, and when he explained that he’d made a connection to it, I knew all my talk about reading and noticing how authors craft language was working.

I will keep doing what I know works.

This lesson is an example of how I use what my colleagues and I call a triple play. We got the term from Penny Kittle. A triple play is when we find a passage that allows us to do three things with it:  1. have student write a personal response to the passage, 2. talk about an engaging book students might like to read, 3. study the author’s craft — not necessarily in that order. This lesson uses a passage from Challenger Deep by Neal Shusterman. (Actually, there’s two passages because I love them both!)

Objective:  Using the language of the Depth of Knowledge Levels, students will make observations about a text, write a response, discuss and analyze the author’s craft, and construct meaning of their own modeled after the writer’s.

Lesson: First, to give students a glimpse into the book, I introduce it by reading the cover, 18075234which has three interesting quotes:  1. “A brilliant journey across the dark sea of the mind; frieghtening, sensitive, and powerful. Simply extraordinary.” ~Laurie Halse Anderson, award-winning author of Speak; then two from the book:  2. “The bottom is only the beginning.” and 3. “My feet are on safe, solid ground, but that’s just an illusion.”

I ask: What do you think this book is about? After we read a passage from this book today, analyze a little bit, and write a little bit, I hope this is a book you will want to read.

Next, I give students a copy of the passage. I read it aloud first and ask students to pay attention to anything they find interesting that the writer does with language. They almost always find the literary or rhetorical devices I hope they will. Sometimes they do not know how to name it, so this is where I teach academic vocabulary. We discuss the effect of the devices on the meaning of the passage or why the writer might have made those choices when constructing meaning. We almost always talk about tone. Depending on where we are in the school year and how much we’ve done with analysis, I may ask students to write an analytical paragraph that answers the craft study question.

Finally, I ask students to read the passage again to themselves and then write a response. Some suggestions for response prompts are at the bottom of the passages. Students have about 10-15 minutes to write. I always ask students to read over what they wrote and then revise before they share. Sometimes students share at their tables. Other times we share out as a whole group.

Follow up:  Throughout the school year, I use a variety of texts I pull from books I read from my classroom library. You’ll find other passage I’ve used if you search the categories for craft studies (or just click there).

A few times a year, I ask students to find significant passages in the books they read. Sometimes they construct their own “craft study” questions. (I especially like to do this when we read in our book clubs.) Sometimes students answer the questions they construct in formal response one-page essays.

The goal is to help students learn how to identify and analyze the moves writers make to craft meaning — and to help them practice writing using these moves as models for their own craft.

And just maybe they will make connections to a text like Geovany did to The Kite Runner.

 

Mini-Lesson Monday: Identifying & Imitating Voice

Comedy is all about voice, and we’re gearing up to notice and imitate as much voice-filled comedy as possible in the next few weeks.  When thinking about how to help students identify and craft their own written voices, I thought of a lesson Amy and I shared in Franklin a few weeks ago.

721003Objectives: Using the language of the Depth of Knowledge Levels:  students will make observations about a writer’s craft, identifying patterns in sentence structure, punctuation, and word choice to help define voice.  Or, in the Common Core, students will interpret words and phrases phrases as they are used in a text and analyze how [they] shape meaning or tone.

Lesson:  I’ll distribute copies of this excerpt from Peak by Roland Smith, which will serve today as both a booktalk and a mentor text.  I’ll introduce the piece as a book I loved, then segue into how it serves as an examplar of voice.

“Peak–that’s the main character’s name–is writing the whole book in the form of journals to his English teacher, so his voice is very conversational.  I found him pretty hilarious and sarcastic.

“Today we’re going to look at this excerpt from page one and try to see how Peak creates his writing voice.  Let’s all read this and annotate for craft–just notice HOW he’s saying what he’s saying.”

PeakVoiceLesson-page-001

After a few minutes of student annotation, which I am doing alongside them on the document camera, I’ll ask students to share their noticings in their table groups.  “Share with your tables what you notice about Peak’s sentence structure, punctuation, and word choice,” I’ll say, writing those bold terms on the board.

Once students have shared in small groups, I’ll ask each table to share out what they noticed.  As a group, we’ll arrive at some conjectures about Peak’s use of:

  • parenthetical asides to the reader
  • occasional fragments amidst his varied sentence structure
  • relaxed jargon
  • rhetorical questions.

Once we have those key terms in our notebooks, along with great examples from the text, I’ll ask students to practice using these skills.

“In this case, using these writing moves create a writer’s voice unique to Peak.  We’re going to imitate this piece now by writing a quickwrite about how we each got our own names.  Write your piece imitating Peak’s style, and use those four writing moves as you do.”

Follow-Up:  We’ll all take about eight minutes to craft our name stories, imitating Peak’s voice, in our writer’s notebooks.  We’ll share them in our small groups, then use that quickwrite as a seed prompt for a possible comedy best draft as we move through the unit.

How do you help your students craft their writers’ voices?

Mini-Lesson Monday: Freezing Time

dumplinIt’s -4 degrees in West Virginia today, which might explain why I’m thinking about the narrative skill of freezing time.  I’m also thinking about it because I’m reading the fantastic Dumplin’ by Julie Murphy, the story of an unconventional small-town beauty pageant contestant.  As I read, I was aware of how quickly the writing hooked me–I began to look for reasons why, inspired by Writing With Mentors.  My noticing of Murphy’s freezing of time to show me the thoughts and feelings of her narrator, Willowdean, reveals two skills I’d love for my students to utilize: the skill of reading like a writer and imitating the craft they notice in their own writing.

Objective:  Using the language of the Depth of Knowledge levels:  students will identify and categorize Murphy’s craft moves, then revise their own narrative drafts to apply the concepts they learned.  Or, in the language of the Common Core:  Analyze the impact of the author’s choices regarding how to develop and relate elements of a story or drama (e.g., where a story is set, how the action is ordered, how the characters are introduced and developed); Use narrative techniques, such as dialogue, pacing, description, reflection, and multiple plot lines, to develop experiences, events, and/or characters.

Lesson:  I’ll introduce Dumplin’ during book talks by describing the plot and passing out the following excerpt:

The car behind me at the drive-thru backfires, and I rush inside.  My eyes take a second to adjust to the dim light.  “Sorry I’m late, Bo,” I say.  Bo.  The syllable bounces around in my chest and I like it.  I like the finality of a name so short.  It’s the type of name that says, Yes, I’m sure.

A heat burns inside of me as it rises all the way up through my cheeks.  I run my fingers along the line of my jaw as my feet sink into the concrete like quicksand.

The Truth:  I’ve had this hideous crush on Bo since the first time we met.  His unstyled brown hair swirls into a perfect mess at the top of his head.  And he looks ridiculous in his red and white uniform.  Like a bear in a tutu.  Polyester sleeves strain over his arms, and I think maybe his biceps and his hips have a lot in common.  Except the ability to bench-press.  A thin silver chain peeks out from the collar of his undershirt and his lips are red with artificial dye, thanks to his endless supply of red suckers.

He stretches an arm out toward me, like he might hug me.

I drag in a deep breath.

And then exhale as he stretches past me to flip the lock on the delivery door.  “Ron’s out sick, so it’s just me, you, Marcus, and Lydia.  I guess she got stuck working a double today, so ya know, heads up.”

“Thanks.”

I give students a specific purpose for reading, since we’re looking at this text as a mentor.  “While I love a lot about this book–the author’s diction, how her word choices change the narrator’s voice and reveal her personality and sense of humor, and the fantastic chemistry between Bo and Will, today I just want to pay attention to how Julie Murphy paces this scene.  As you read, you’ll notice how she just freezes time so you feel like you’re holding your breath.  Annotate how exactly she does this, and we’ll talk about it in five minutes.”

I read alongside my students, modeling notes on craft with the document camera.  After five minutes I ask them to share at their tables, very specifically, what they noticed.  Then, I solicit from each table group one craft move they saw, and where it was in the text.

“Well, dialogue kind of brings you back into the present, like at the end when Bo says something and kind of snaps Will out of her daydream,” one student offers.  I write on the board, dialogue–keeps you present.

“Awesome.  What else?”

“The long description of Bo’s appearance stops the action,” another says.

“Yep.”  I write on the board, description–freezes action.

We continue until each table has shared a craft move they’ve noticed.

“Okay, so today during workshop, I want you to think about how you might play with freezing time in your narratives.  Use what we talked about to help you revise the pacing in your scenes, and if you think Dumplin’ sounds good, add it to your what-to-read list.”

Follow-Up:  During that day’s workshop, I’ll confer with students and see where they might be strengthening existing moments of freezing time, or adding some brand new ones, in their narratives.

Later, as we finish the narrative unit, we’ll return to the anchor chart we’ve been adding to and create a rubric that reflects the skills we’ve focused on, one of which will be pacing.  I’ll also hope to see lots of students reading Dumplin’ over the coming weeks–doubling a booktalk with a craft study lesson is usually a highly effective way to get kids hooked on a book.

 

Integrating Reading & Writing Instruction: Craft Studies & Mentor Texts

This is a continuation of our post from yesterday.

#3TTWorkshopWhat are you reading now, and/or what are your latest finds that could be strong mentor texts?  

Jackie:  For fun, I am currently reading Ready Player One by Ernest Cline, and for AP Literature, I am currently reading Othello.  I read Ready Player One as a departure from my typical YA reads.  I was never a gamer or 80s enthusiast, so I wanted to “challenge” myself by choosing a new genre.  Ernest Cline brilliantly writes action pieces.  Somehow he manages to translate the video game structure into a novel AND make it interesting for non-gamers like me; I am planning to use an excerpt to discuss movement of time either when we work on our multi-genre project this year or our fictional writing next year.  

Most recently, my CP freshmen read the picture book The Promise by Nicola Davies as a mentor for our narrative fiction unit.  In my academic freshman classes, we recently completed process papers based on The Compound by S.A. Bodeen.  Mentors for these included “What you will need in class today” by Matthew Foley and “Instructions for a bad day” by Shane Koyczan.  Students used each as a mentor text by which to craft their own poems and then eventually built them into unique survival guides ranging from “How to survive a zombie apocalypse” to “How to survive a friend’s breakup.”  As Shana said yesterday, I like pairing professional work with my own to show them the messy process of writing, so prior to class I get a head start on my own piece and then I continue developing it while projecting my writer’s notebook on the board at the beginning of workshop time.    

img_1056-1Shana:  I just finished the beautiful Everything, Everything by Nicola Yoon.  I love it as a mentor text because it’s a bit multigenre, and it’s an engaging YA love story, AND it’s gorgeously written.  With tons of parallel structure and a short-chapter format, it’s a quick read but one that lends itself to lots of frequent re-reading.  I’ll use this text for craft studies at the sentence and paragraph level to teach things like repetition, parallel structure, and varied sentence structure.

Another book I just read was Caitlin Doughty’s memoir Smoke Gets In Your Eyes, and Other Lessons from the Crematory, which I usually booktalk with Mary Roach’s Stiff.  This tale of Caitlin’s experiences working in a crematory will be useful for my students to analyze at the chapter level, during which she employs narrative to blend her adult experiences in the crematory with the formative experiences of her youth in order to make a claim about the nature of human life and death.  It’s a powerful example of the use of narrative within nonfiction.

I also recently read Memoirs of a Teenage Amnesiac by Gabrielle Zevin, which tells the story of a high school senior who falls and loses all memory of everything after sixth grade.  As a result, most of her life story is revealed through dialogue with other characters, so this will be a fantastic mentor text at the whole-text level–how can we craft a short story that uses dialogue to reveal movement through time, a character’s background, or a character’s personality traits–all without that dialogue being spoken by that character?

 

How will you integrate your current reads into your practice?

Shana:  I like to share this article about noticing beautiful writing with my students.  We use it as the basis for two sections in our notebook–“Quotes & Craft Study” and “Wondrous Words.”  I like to break down with my students why a particular line or paragraph or chapter in a piece of writing is so powerful–at the word level, the structural level, the punctuation level.  When we read like writers, we can notice all of those details and begin to imitate them in our own writing.  

img_1057My students asked for more craft study and grammar instruction in their midterm exams.  With our new notebook setups, I’m hoping to create a routine for the wordplay we’ll need to constantly return to in order to strengthen our use of punctuation, specific diction, sentence structures, and other craft moves.  I want to employ more “triple-plays,” as Penny Kittle calls them–books that act as a booktalk, a quickwrite, and a craft study mini-lesson.  For example, I’ll take the chunk of Everything, Everything pictured at right and make copies of it for my students to glue into their notebooks.  Beneath it, we’ll imitate the parallel structure of the sentences, and the exercise will serve to teach parallelism, talk up the book itself, and be a quickwrite we’ll call “it could be.”

Jackie:  Inspired by a course we took this summer with Tom Newkirk, my colleague and I are putting together a superhero unit for our academic Freshman English classes.  The unit will involve both a persuasive essay and a comic strip students make about a hero in their life.  In turn, I’ve been skimming comics and graphic novels to find inspiration for students.  

In this unit, students will practice storyboarding their own comics while studying the use of craft like onomatopoeia, movement of time, and internal and external dialogue.  My hope is that these building blocks will provide a foundation for us to further discuss the use of colors to portray goodness and evil within a comic (or novel) as well as the use of framing or perspective in the pieces as well.

Please join the conversation–how do you approach the study of craft with your student writers?

Finding Mentor Texts & Craft Studies

#3TTWorkshop MemeWhat prompted you to begin the process of noticing examples of mentor texts or craft study?

Jackie:  When I first started teaching, finding mentor texts proved to be difficult.  While I knew what made writing strong or well-crafted, I didn’t always know what I was looking for.  Instead, I would eat up a plot line, soaking in word choice (I have always loved words), but rarely did I stop to think about how an author sculpted a line or page or chapter.  Finally, after struggling with structuring a piece of fiction writing, I referred back to To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee.  Intrigued by her ability to create a scenes that showed the progression of time, I read and re-read the novel, observing her intentional moves as a writer.  Gradually, I began understanding the value of mentor texts to my own writing.  

The skill is not easy, and I have learned more about myself as a reader in the time I have taught than I ever did during my schooling.  While reading like a writer does slow down the reading process, it also makes me appreciate the artistry of writing.  It makes me aware of my own moves as a writer and how writing, like any other form of art, is about discipline, awareness, and interpretation.

Shana:  I didn’t know about the concept of mentor texts, or craft studies, or imitating great writers, or even reading like a writer…until I took Penny Kittle’s UNHLit class in 2013.  Everything that summer blew my mind, and I was hungry to begin looking for strong examples of real writing for my students to study, imitate, and craft.  I learned about lots of authors, nonfiction writers, poets, journalists, and more while I was at UNH, and in the year following I learned to think back to my own favorites and ask my students for their recommendations when I needed more mentor texts.

Once I began thinking about writing instruction in terms of products I wanted my students to create, I learned to start searching for examples of those strong products.  Sometimes I seek out a specific genre of mentor text if I want to teach a unit about narrative fiction.  Other times, I find an amazing mentor text and design a unit around getting kids to create that specific genre.

 

Describe your process as you search for examples of mentor texts and craft studies.

Shana:  I read much more slowly now.  Almost all of my reading is of texts that could be used for craft study in my classroom, or books that might go well on the shelves of my classroom library.  I think about writing and reading in such new ways now that I almost unconsciously note a good page for a booktalk, a beautiful line for craft study, or an interesting segment of writing for a mentor text.  

To build an arsenal of texts for use in my classroom, I began to scour the award lists for the National Book Award, the Pulitzer Prize, the Man Booker Prize, and lists of recommendations by groups like ALA, Kirkus, and more.  I also value the recommendations of literacy greats in our field like Donalyn Miller, Carol Jago, and Penny Kittle.  I want strong, complex writing to hand my students, so that they can absorb the craft of good writing through constant, diverse exposure.

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The page I’ll booktalk from Everything, Everything by Nicola Yoon

Now, most of the mentor texts I discover are incidental–I stumble upon a lovely sentence in a book I’m reading, or I see someone tweet a link to a good article, or I’m struck by a student’s craft as I’m reading their writing.  I try to give a published example, a student example, and my own example as an “in-progress” mentor text, in keeping with the recommendations of Katie Wood Ray in Wondrous Words.

Jackie:  Now that I have begun practicing reading as a writer, I am more aware of the mentor texts that surround me every day.  It took about a year of intentionally slowing down my reading, contemplating the craft, and thinking about where to file the piece within my units for me to develop this practice.  

From Pinterest finds to articles to book excerpts to poems, I am constantly searching for pieces that will inspire and engage my students.  Most of my finds feed into mini-lessons that tackle current skills with which my students struggle.  For example, Many of my students grapple with the use of second person point of view and use it as a default instead of intentionally employing it to reach out to and connect with their audience.  After the November Paris attacks, I found a piece that brilliantly uses second person point of view to help students develop empathy with Syrian refugees.  This piece serves to not only guide them but also make them think about the intentional moves needed to connect with one’s readers.

I also look for mentor texts in classic literature and young adult reads.  These short excerpts teach my students phenomenal craft while dually serving as a mini-book talk.  The writing sells itself.  I always have students request The Glass Castle by Jeanette Walls after I use the first chapter as a mentor text for multi-scene narratives as well as a craft study for opening lines.  The same goes for when I use The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt when I use a short explosion scene to discuss snapshot narratives.

Tomorrow we’ll discuss how we employ found mentor texts in our classrooms.  Join the conversation in the comments–how and why do you seek out mentor texts?

 

Using Picture Books as Secondary Mentor Texts

This year my family ditched the traditional Christmas festivities for a week in Orlando,

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Disney started his work as a cartoonist in high school.  How can we carve these same creative spaces for our own students?

Florida.  Swapping fur boots for flip flops, we ran around Walt Disney World, weaving in and out of storybook rides and watching teeny princesses wobble around Cinderella’s castle.  Only now that I am grown do I have a true appreciation for the sheer magnitude of Walt Disney’s brilliance.  He built a physical world of stories.

Disney doodled his way through high school; he honed his craft through drawing and photography classes.  Unfortunately, few curricula allow for the same creative exploration for students.  Oftentimes, the countless possibilities for storytelling and narration tend to center on only real-life experiences, personal narratives, when in reality, writing fiction opens up an entirely different world for self-exploration.

This year I swapped out our traditional multi-scene personal narrative for a story unit in which I taught many of the same narrative craft marks using a combination of fiction and non-fiction mentor texts.

The greatest challenge I faced was in finding short, succinct, and well-crafted stories that weren’t twenty pages long.  While I love short stories, I knew many of my freshmen would not only lose stamina if asked to write such lengthy pieces , but they would also struggle with translating the story structure of these mentors into their own pieces.  I began my hunt for a strong mentor text in, of all places, the children’s section of the library.

Objectives:  In alignment with the Common Core, students will write narratives to develop real or imagined experiences or events using effective technique, well-chosen detail, and well-structured event sequences. Using the language of the Depth of Knowledge levels, students will recognize a wide variety of craft marks in fictional writing.  They will identify patterns and compare effectiveness through discussion. They will formulate their own stories, revising them, and finally applying their understanding to future writing assignments.

Lesson:  I find writing fictional stories intimidating.  My plots seem to sag in some areas, or my dialogue doesn’t feel authentic, but many of my students love leaving their reality to explore their own creative worlds.  The vast majority read fiction, so its only natural that their reading interests feed into their writing curiosity.  The problem is that their greatest mentor texts are, on average, 250 pages long.

Screen-Shot-2014-11-07-at-1.51.36-PM-1514mm8The Promise written by Nicola Davies and illustrated by Laura Carlin is a beautifully crafted story of a girl growing up in a hardened city. After stealing a purse from a pedestrian, the main character makes a promise out of desperation, only to realize that the purse she has stolen has no value and is instead full of acorns, which she must now plant across the city.  The story reads more like a poem and has a cyclical ending that allows students to see the succinct structure of a short story.

Prior to sharing the story I type up the entire story book (which comes out to two pages) so that the students may access the text without the pictures.  I present it to them as a short story, and we read it aloud like any other mentor text, but I do not tell them it is a picture book!

I ask students to look at the structure of the story—what do they notice about how the author formatted the story as a whole.  Since we just finished studying plot in our literature circles, many of the students dig in to find the rising action and climax while others simply read and re-read to comb through the intricacies of the structure.  Almost all of the students notice The Promise’s cyclical ending that reinforces the story’s themes of redemption and the beauty of nature.

I have them return a second time to the story to look at the writer’s craft.  Students make a list of author’s moves within their writer’s notebook.  If they see something that intrigues them but they aren’t sure of the name, I have them describe what they notice and we develop a name for the skill together as a class.  Finally, we compile our observations onto a large sticky note that remains on display throughout the unit.  Students must then choose two of the craft marks to experiment with in their own writing.

Finally, once we have finished working with the piece, I reveal to students that The Promise is a picture book and I read it aloud.  Oftentimes students are shocked to hear that such a complex story is written for children, but their initial reading makes them value the intricacy of the writer’s work even more.

Follow-Up:  Not only did my students fall in love with the writing process, but they also asked thoughtful questions and engaged in deeper conversations about their writing.  One of my favorite conversations between two jocks involved the complexity of a fight between an alien, human, and zombie.

As a final follow-up, I had students complete a self-revision sheet.  They peer reviewed each other’s work and finally wrote a metacognitive reflection in which they discussed the craft moves they made and how they structured their story.

The freedom to write fiction or nonfiction opened doors for many of the students who tend to struggle with developing ideas while reinforcing many of the craft marks we studied (leads, plot, sensory details, concrete details, internal and external dialogue) in our snapshot narrative unit. As Griffin said, “It’s the best thing I’ve ever written because I’ve gone back and looked at my work in the past.  Fiction is easier because you can make up whatever you want.”

 

 

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