Tag Archives: high school writer’s workshop

What Does it Mean to Read like a Writer?

It’s a startling reality, but many of my seniors do not know how to read like writers. I spend a good part of the beginning of a semester helping students look at how an author crafts a text.

This still surprises me.

The seniors I have in class this spring have all passed their state mandated English exams. A big chunk of these Texas state exams, both English I and English II, ask questions in the reading portion about author’s craft. (I haven’t explicitly studied the question stems in a few years, but I am guessing at least half.) In trying to get students to talk about the writer’s moves, most of my students get stuck talking about meaning.

Of course, meaning is important — but not when we are using a text to help us move as writers. In workshop lingo, we call this using mentor texts.

How do we learn to write anything well if we don’t study the work of writers who write well?

When I was first asked to write recommendation letters, I studied well-written recommendation letters. When I begin to write a grant proposal, I study how to write an effective grant proposal. When I need to write a speech, I study well-written inspiring speeches. There are solid examples for every kind of writing.

I want my students to know this. If they learn anything from me this spring, I hope it is this:

We learn how to write well by studying effective writing. To quote Kelly Gallagher: “Before you can film a dogfight, you have to know what one looks like. Before our students can write well in a given discourse, they need to see good writing in that discourse”. (Read Gallagher’s “Making the Most of Mentor Texts” for an excellent detailing of how.)

 

Yesterday Charles wrote about scaffolding a reading lesson. The same type of lesson, but with an eye toward reading like a writer, worked recently with my seniors.

It all started when I saw this tweet: TweetofGIFGuide

I thought: “Okay, this may be a relatively painless way to get my writers into writing. We will use this text as a mentor and write our own GIF guides.” (Quick change in lesson plans on the drive to work.)

First, we started with a conversation about GIFs. This NY Times Learning Lesson has some good questions. We wrote our thinking in our notebooks and shared in table groups. Then, not quite as planned, the conversation shifted to how to pronounce GIF. “Um, it’s JIFF, Mrs. Rass, the creator of them said so.”

In case you are wondering:  I think the creator is wrong. But, does it really matter? I just wanted my students to use GIFs as an entry point into writing using mentors.

To help students understand how to study a text for a writer’s moves, I copied the text into a document, and removed the images, so students would focus on the language. Then I crafted a list of questions. Taking a cue from Talk Read Talk Write by Nancy Motley, I cut the questions up and gave a set to each small group. They spent the better part of a class period studying the text and using the questions as a guide.

Later, we brainstormed topics we thought would work, eliminating some that were too broad, and discussing ones that would lend well to a how-to or informational type of writing. Students then completed this document, so they could see my expectations for the writing task, and I could approve their topics.

Students talked. They wrote. I taught mini-lessons on introductions and sentence structure. Students revised. Some taught themselves how to make GIFS.

Most surprised me with their finished GIF guides. Here’s a sampling of a few. (Disregard the citing of sources — that’s still on the Need-to-Learn list.)


Students, no matter their age, will write when we give them the tools and the time they need to be successful writers.

Sure, not all of my students produced solid writing — yet. But I am hopeful. We are only a about a month into the course, and most students now have a writing success story.

That confidence matters.

For a great read on helping students write, read “Children Can Write Authentically if We Help Them” by Donald Graves.

I’d love to know the fun or interesting mentor texts you use to get your students to take a chance on writing. Please share in the comments.

Amy Rasmussen teaches English IV and AP Language at a large senior high school in North Texas. Go, Farmers! When she’s not skimming the news or her Twitter feed for mentor texts, she’s reading books to match with her readers or thinking about the rest she might get during spring break. Eight days, but who’s counting? Follow Amy @amyrass and @3TeachersTalk, and she invites you to follow this blog if you aren’t already.

 

 

 

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Mini-Lesson Monday: Learning Concrete Details with Independent Reading

More than any other writing, I love reading my students’ narratives. We start the year with narrative for many reasons, but my favorite is that I get to know my students faster than I can get to know them during one-on-one reading conferences or during group activities and discussions.

Here’s a short list of what I’ve learned from student stories just this week:

  • several of my male students wish they had a father who showed interest in their lives
  • a few of my girls live with their fathers because of their mothers’ poor choices
  • several boys and girls journeyed long and far, walking miles through jungles, so their families could escape oppression, rape, and murder
  • many of my teenagers have experienced heartache because of love interests, friends, and family members
  • a few are still grieving the loss of grandparents, aunts, uncles, and friends who died from suicide
  • at least one young woman still holds anger toward her mom because of the way she handled a brother’s addiction and abuse

Personal and powerful, all of these stories matter. My goal as a writing teacher is to help my writers harness the words so emotion reigns in the heart of the reader. The problem?

Abstract language.

Objectives — Using the language of the Depth of Knowledge Levels: Show understanding of the terms abstract vs. concrete; in your independent reading books, identify concrete details and figurative language; analyze the effectiveness of the author’s language; revise your writing to include fresh concrete details and figurative language as you create a text that evokes powerful emotions.


Lesson
— Before the mini-lesson, students have already drafted a few pieces, narratives or poems. I abstractconcreteusually do the mini-lesson after silent reading time, but for this lesson I begin before because I want to give students a specific purpose for reading.

First, I write on the board ABSTRACT and CONCRETE and we review what these terms mean when it comes to writing. I try to use only abstract words as they begin to discuss this with me.

“Awesome, you might get it,”

“Wonderful, I think you know what I mean,”

“Hey, that’s pretty good…”

Eventually, they will pick up on what I’m doing, and we make a list of abstract words. Then I give each table-group a word and challenge them to come up with a concrete description that shows us that abstract word. They get 1-2 minutes, and then we share out as I write the concrete details on the board. We discuss the difference in how an author can create emotion.

Next, I ask students to pay attention to the concrete details in the book they are reading, and I give them each a sticky note. “As you read today find at least one sentence where the author does something really clever with concrete details and/or figurative language,” I say.

Students read for 15 minutes, pen in hand, paying particular attention to the author’s craft. When time is up, I ask students to share their sentence in small groups and to analyze the effectiveness of the author’s word choice.

AllieTate“Think about what he’s trying to do there. Why did he mention the color of the sweater, or the smell of the breeze?” If they feel like the author’s accomplished creating emotion, they put the sticky on the board (or as in the photo here –poster).

Students need to not only recognize the details and know that they create some kind of imagery, they need to think about how effective the word choice is for what the author is doing at that moment in the story. If I can get them to start thinking about this, I can get them to begin making purposeful choices in their own writing.

Next, I ask students to search their own writing for concrete details that create images and to add a lot more. “Where can you add a phrase or line similar to what you found in the book you are reading? Is there somewhere you can add color or shape or texture?”

And we revise.

Follow-Up — When students immediately apply learning we’ve practiced using their personal reading materials, they begin to see the connections between becoming active readers and purposeful writers. This is the kind of lesson I do again and again with a different literary or grammar skills students to master. Next up:  subordinating conjunctions.

A few lines from students’ published narratives:

“Each body turned to watch as the green army, blurry, entered the gate. The ground only knew sadness and the sky transformed into a dark night, roaming like a lion.” –Tha Sung

“My first impression when I met Lucila:  petite, chunky, short red-velvet hair, wearing a sweater that covered her sins, mysterious face with a sealed silent mouth.” –Karina Rangel

“My brothers slept like angels with devilish grins.” –Geovanni Medina

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