Tag Archives: Mentor Texts

Pixie Dust: Or Life Among Fairies

by Elizabeth Oosterheert

PETER: Wendy, get better quickly, and I will take you to see a mermaid. She is awfully anxious to see a mermaid…J.M Barrie–Peter Pan

“Mom, I’m so thirsty…” 

Those aren’t strange words to hear in July and August, are they? I didn’t think much of them in the lazy heat of late summer. I was more focused on soaking in every last drop of Michigan sunlight, and answering the call of the lake, a voice that is more insistent every year. “Join us…we are your memories. Don’t get too old to go back to your childhood…”

It seems fitting to me that every summer I bring my children to all of the places I loved as a child, hoping to awaken the same magic that captivated me. Wind, waves, and an unending shoreline.. I admit that I was preoccupied during our trip. I was writing a play called Crown of Roses and the words were criminals, trying to escape capture every night when I desperately wanted them to live on the pages. 

We had been home from our vacation for a few weeks when I began noticing how thirsty my daughter Summer was. A bottle of Gatorade or a glass of chocolate milk vanished in seconds, leaving her begging for more. At first I blamed the heat, but when August turned to September and the temperatures surrendered to fall, Fear’s cold fingers gripped my heart. I knew there were only a few things that would cause constant thirst, none of them good. “It’s nothing. She’s growing and eating more, too. Everything was fine at her checkup in June.” That was the voice in my head that I entertained when I dared to think about the situation at all.

Friday night football…a sure sign of autumn in countless cities across the country. Summer, a pixie who loves flying around the stands under those stadium lights, went to an Eagles game and returned home reporting that she had thrown up during the game. Again, I heard that voice in my head: “It’s the flu. A little rest, some fluids, and everything will be back to normal.” I offered her 7-Up,  Popsicles, Cookie Dough ice cream, anything to ignore the chill overtaking my heart. 

A few days passed. Summer was worse. Much worse. Wednesday, September 18th…

****OOSTERHEERT THEATRE PRODUCTIONS PROUDLY PRESENTS…A ONE-SIDED CONVERSATION****

ME: How are you feeling? I think you should try to go to school today.

SUMMER: My stomach hurts. 

ME:  I’m starting to think you just don’t want to go to school. You need to try to eat something. Dry Cheerios. Toast. A banana. ANYTHING!

SUMMER:—(TEARS)

ME: I’ll call at noon to see how you’re doing. 

SUMMER:—

:—

SEPTEMBER 18TH, 6PM: I arrived home from school to find Summer pale and unmoving on the couch. Immediately, I called our local hospital and was told to bring Summer to the ER. 

My husband carried her out to my Ford Excursion because she was too weak to walk. I could see every bone in her legs and wondered how she had gotten so thin in a matter of days. After she was safely in the back seat, I turned to my husband. “They’re going to tell me she’s a diabetic,” I said. 

9PM: Summer and I have been in the emergency room for three hours. A doctor confirmed what I suspected for weeks. My daughter’s sugar levels were six times the normal level, and she was diagnosed with Type One diabetes. I prayed Psalm 23: Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil…” 

When I wasn’t praying, I was worrying. Worrying about Summer’s future. Worrying about my other children. Worrying about the Crown of Roses rehearsal I was going to miss the next day, and how much work we still needed to do on choreography. I allowed myself the luxury of tears when Summer was sleeping, and then I decided to call Tyler, my student director. He was the only one who would be able to keep a rehearsal afloat if I couldn’t be at school.

A Late Night Cell Phone Conversation

Hello?

Hey-Tyler. It’s Mrs. O. Sorry to call so late. I’m at the emergency room and I’m about to get in an ambulance with my daughter to go to Blank Children’s Hospital.

Wow. I’m sorry. Is she going to be okay?

I think so. She was diagnosed with Type One diabetes. There’s a team of specialists that is going to teach us how to take care of her. It would be so reassuring for me if you would run the rehearsal tomorrow. Could you be there? I know you weren’t planning to come.

Anything. I would be glad to. Those kids are heroes.

I know. They’re amazing…and so are you. Thanks, Tyler….

Don’t worry, Mrs. O. I’ll be there.

It is no accident that Tyler played the role of Richard the Lion-Hearted when he was an eighth grader. He is royalty.

The ambulance was dark and calming, if a vehicle that is usually a trauma center can be peaceful. Summer was given her first insulin injection, and started feeling more like her light-filled, fairy self. I held her hand, and watched her heart’s gentle rhythm on the monitor.

I thought it was only flowers that die…J.M. Barrie, Peter Pan

Lines from Peter Pan flooded my mind all night, and I was grateful for the comfort of the familiar words, and the story of the Boy Who Would Never Be Old in the midst of a situation that was far from the shores of Never Land. When we arrived at Blank Children’s Hospital, one of the first things I saw was a mural featuring Peter Pan. I recalled that on the night my four babies who are now sophomores were born, and I thought I might bleed to death, God gifted me with an extremely compassionate nurse whose name was WENDY. The holiness of story has surrounded me in so many seasons…

Summer spent the rest of that night on a brick-hard triage bed. She tried to sleep, and I sat next to her with my MacBook, praying and planning lessons for all of the classes I would miss the next day. I didn’t know what the morning would bring, but I knew that we were in the company of angels.

For this month’s post, I wanted to tell you the story of my daughter’s diagnosis with Type One diabetes (with her permission), a story that I shared with my eighth grade students as we work on writing tributes and Note to Self narratives. My writing turned out to be a tribute to both my daughter and to one of my favorite stories, Peter Pan. My students and I are inspired by the following mentor texts:

“Go to the Ice” by Dorothy Hamill

Note to Self by Yonder Alonso

The Life of Reilly by Rick Reilly

The Book Thief by Markus Zusak

CBS News Note to Self Videos. One of our favorites is this one featuring Will Reeve.

We’ve watched a different mentor video each day at the beginning of our workshop time , and then conferred about what we noticed in that visual text. The template that we’re using for recording our observations is linked below.

Our list of craft moves for our Note to Self/Tribute pieces is linked here. We’ve discussed elements such as incorporating multiple genres in one piece, using intentional sentence fragments, playing with figurative language and repetition, the importance of meaningful titles, and more.

After making this list together and practicing sentence imitation based on sentences we chose from our mentor texts using @Wakelet, and watching a series of Note to Self videos courtesy of CBS News for inspiration, we’re ready to begin drafting.

As students write their drafts, they have opportunities to confer with me AND other writers in our workshop. One of the most beautiful things about this writing is that it’s an opportunity not only to reflect on their younger selves. It’s also an invitation to thank someone who has mentored them, or to celebrate a good friend, an effective coach, or a close sibling relationship. It is one of my favorite ways to invite students into reflection and growth.

How do you invite students into reflective writing? Start a conversation in the comments, or email me at oosterheerte@pellachristian.net.

Elizabeth Oosterheert is a middle school language arts teacher and theatre troupe director in central Iowa. She loves writing, and sharing the stage with seventh and eighth graders. Her favorite stories are Peter Pan, The Outsiders, & Our Town. She recently finished writing an adaptation of Arabian Nights for performance in November 2021.

Wiki-poems

Inspired by Brian Bilston’s creative poetic structures, such as his Google auto-fill poem, I thought about additional ways to inspire students to construct a form of non-threatening “found” poems. Based on my own quirky practice of researching documentaries and historical films that I view to determine their historical accuracy, and the fact that I often start with Wikipedia as a beginning point of reference (there are great resources cited at the bottom of the pages), I decided to experiment with a “wiki-poem.” Wikipedia pages are already sorted into categories, so if a student takes one line from each section, a poem will naturally progress through a sequence of ideas. This works well for both biographies, historical events, works of art and literature, and other high-interest subjects.

For example, here is a table that shows the organizational chart for Mary Shelley:

Setting parameters that make sense for a specific assignment, you could have students choose words, phrases, or sentences from a certain number of sections to craft their poems. If you’re working on specific literary or rhetorical devices, structure, or other elements of craft, you could require those.

Giving myself the guidelines of writing a poem constructed from at least one phrase from each of the sections from “life and career” through “reputation,” here is a found wiki-poem on Mary Shelley:

Works Cited: “Mary Shelley.” Wikipedia, 4 Sept. 2021. Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Mary_Shelley&oldid=1042316021.

Amber Counts is a frazzled grad student studying English literature while teaching a variety of courses to high school juniors and seniors. Excited to start teaching a 9-week creative writing course today, she spent most of the recent 3-day weekend lesson-planning anywhere inspiration struck. She’s still getting back into the writing groove after a Covid dry spell.

Writing sparks from Bewilderment by Richard Powers

I just finished reading Richard Powers’ new book, Bewilderment, and I was culling through some of the lines that really stood out to me to see if they might be potential writing sparks for my juniors. I found some of them especially relevant for English teachers, so I’m going to share those here with some reflections about why I liked them and a few ideas for how they could turn into prompts or mentor texts. 

Passage 1: “My boy was a pocket universe I could never hope to fathom” (5).

This line really resonated with my parent and teacher heart–I often feel my kids are hard to fathom. Fathom is such a great word. I think it used to be a way to measure depth in water. It’s as though Powers is saying that our kids have these depths and worlds inside them that we may never tap into. And he pairs that with this great metaphor: “pocket universe.” Kids are an entire universe in a small package. The sentence is short but conveys such a sense of wonder and awe. It’s that kind of awe that can be hard to muster in October, when the new school year honeymoon is over and first quarter grades are in and self-destructive patterns of behavior have emerged in certain students and I’ve given the same warning so many times. But it’s true anyway: our kids and our students are pocket universes with rich stories and untold possibilities. It was a worthy reminder for me that helps check the cynicism I know I find myself battling. 

  • Possible prompt: What are some things you could “never hope to fathom?” Build a good list, then zero in on one. Use a metaphor to say what that thing was: ________ was a ___________.

Passage 2: “She held her small frame like an athlete before the starting gun: she was everywhere. She felt like a prediction, a thing on its way here” (49).

I think it’s the simile that draws me–”she felt like a prediction.” I love encountering unexpected comparisons like this. He’s thinking of her physicality and uses a completely abstract noun to convey that. It’s perfect.

  • Possible prompt: Choose a family member or close friend to describe. Think of their posture, their bearing, their energy. Make a comparison of their demeanor to an abstract noun, action noun, or -tion word. The bigger the gap in the comparison the better.

Passage 3: “In the auditorium, I felt the pleasure of competence and the warmth that only comes from sharing ideas. It always baffles me when my colleagues complain about teaching. Teaching is like photosynthesis: making food from air and light. It tilts the prospects for life a little. For me, the best class sessions are right up there with lying in the sun, listening to bluegrass, or swimming in a mountain stream” (66).

“Teaching is like photosynthesis.” This is such a gift of a thought–that our work is like something that takes light (ideas) and creates food (intellectual sustenance). That and the word “tilts.” I know I often leave work for the day a little discouraged by a lesson that went awry or by my perception of resistance or distraction on the students’ part. But Powers reminds us that we’re creating something that might tilt those students’ futures a little. Teaching, like photosynthesis, is subtle and unseen but vital and powerful. I need this reminder.

  • Possible prompt: Choose a scientific process that describes or explains a passion of yours. What is rowing like? What is hiking like? What is playing piano like? Use the colon like Powers does to set up a short reason or extension of the simile.
  • Possible prompt #2: Look at Powers’ last sentence. Choose one of your passions and then tell us what it’s “right up there with” using a list of three items. Aim for the same level of specificity he uses. 

You can hear the way nature permeates the language choices that Powers makes. When he reaches for comparisons, he comes up with pocket universe, prediction, photosynthesis. These passages give a good flavor of the wistful, hopeful tone of the conversations between an astrobiologist and his son who is on the spectrum and battling some complicated mental health issues. Maybe their conversations will help tilt our writers into deeper fathoms. 

Nathan Coates teaches junior English at Mason High School, a large suburban district near Cincinnati, Ohio. After Bewilderment he has moved on to read A Key to Treehouse Living by Elliot Reed.

Searching the Depths of Your Heart: Parallels Between Writing Workshop and Theatre

by Elizabeth Oosterheert

Caleb & Garrett rehearse combat choreography for Arabian Nights.

One of the most magical things about directing middle school theatre…

is inviting students to unwrap the art of stage combat choreography. I love the beauty of the interaction, the sheer grace that is part of learning together, and the way that students use their imaginations to enter the world of the play and make decisions about how each scene, and each combat sequence will evolve as part of the larger story.

As I reflected on the fine art of stage combat, I realized that there are many parallels between spectacular swordplay, and being part of a writing workshop.

Since my students and I will be writing listicles this week, (thanks to @KellyGToGo and ESPN Magazine for the idea!) I thought I would share a listicle with you about the tandem hearts of theatre (combat choreography in particular) and writing workshop.

Six Things I Know About Writing Workshop & Stage Combat Choreography

  1. Both writing and combat choreography are matters of the heart. Excellent writing, AND masterful choreography begins in a restless heart that simply MUST write, or MUST take to the stage-to be complete.
  2. Whether one is wielding a pen or an epee (stage combat weapon) risk is involved. Authentic writers and actors embrace risk as part of the journey. What does risk look like for writers in our workshop? It’s everything from playing with mixing genres (last week we looked at mixing poetry and informational text as we studied stories of 9-11–See a list of mentor texts at the end of this post!) to working with a co-author for the first time. On stage, there is inherent risk in crafting a new combat sequence and in trusting one’s partner to memorize every move.
  3. Both writing and acting involve world building. Eighth grade writers construct worlds built of childhood recollections as we compose our autobiographies together, while 8th Grade Theatre Troupe members are invited to suspend their teenaged, central Iowan existence every day for an hour to become princes, or palace guards. 
  4. Writers and actors need inspiring mentors. Our favorite poetic mentors in writing workshop so far this year for crafting autobiographical texts have been “My Honest Poem” by Rudy Francisco, and “Possibilities” by Wislawa Szymborska. On stage, eighth grade actors are mentored by high school and college students who bring a wealth of stagecraft knowledge to us every day.
  5. Writing and acting are about surrendering the spotlight so that we can truly grow into the supporting roles we’re meant to play in a story that is larger than we are. I frequently tell students in our writing workshop that writing is about growth and grace, not grades. The same is true about learning the language of combat choreography. Students quickly discern that it takes countless hours of rehearsal to polish even five minutes of finished fight choreography. It is time and effort that elevates a performance (or a piece of writing) from good to great.
  6. One of the greatest gifts of both theatrical training AND writing workshop is the opportunity to be part of a thriving community that scales the mountains of a great performance and also weathers the valleys of those days when it feels like we’re not “good enough” to write anything of consequence or to tell a story on stage convincingly. Whether we’re in writing workshop or on stage, the invitation is open. Regardless of how discouraging today might have been, tomorrow we can return to the page, or the stage and begin again.
These epees are ready to go on stage. They’re waiting for a few eighth graders…

As writers and actors, we’ve been invited on a journey to a place of discovery, harmony and joy. What a privilege it is to write beside the students in our workshops–and in my story I am doubly blessed with opportunities to build worlds with words in notebooks and in auditoriums.

Last week, we were mentored by the heroes of September 11th.

Mentored by Heroes

I thought I would close by sharing links to a few deeply moving mentor texts in honor of the victims of 9-11 and their families. My students and I studied these written and visual texts last week, and used them in crafting narrative snapshots.

The Unusual Courage of Todd Beamer by Brandon Anderson

Anderson beautifully weaves the threads of the loss of his brother into a story that honors the extraordinary courage of Todd Beamer and the other passengers of Flight 93. My students and I noticed that looping is a powerful craft move, and that this is a multi-genre piece that blends narrative, poetry and commentary.

The Man in the Red Bandana courtesy of ESPN.com

This is the story of Welles Crowther, a volunteer firefighter who sacrificed his own life to save the lives of many others.

Beverly Eckert Remembers Sean Rooney courtesy of Storycorps.org

Eckert invites us to know her husband Sean by ushering us into her final conversation with him on September 11th. This is a story of searing loss and enduring love. Ironically, Eckert later died in a fiery crash as she traveled to award a scholarship in Sean’s honor.

The Photos of 9-11 courtesy of The New York Times Insider

This photo journal captures unforgettable images of September 11th and includes captions to draw us into the stories of each photo. My students used this piece as a mentor for constructing our own “Dear Photograph” captions. This piece illustrates not only the power of a photograph, but also the importance of word economy.

What are your deepest convictions about writing workshop?

Share your ideas in the comments, or email me at oosterheerte@pellachristian.net

Elizabeth Oosterheert is a middle school language arts teacher and theatre troupe director in central Iowa. She loves writing, and sharing the stage with seventh and eighth graders. Her favorite stories are Peter Pan, The Outsiders, & Our Town. She recently finished writing an adaptation of Arabian Nights for performance in November 2021.

Field of Dreams: Film Study in Writing Workshop

by Elizabeth Oosterheert

Kevin Costner and Gabby Hoffmann in Field of Dreams.

If you build it, they will come…

For Iowans like me, last week the iconic line from 1989’s classic Field of Dreams came true  as our state hosted its first ever Major League Baseball game between the White Sox and the Yankees on a field adjacent to the Dyersville site used in the famous film. 

Eight thousand fans welcomed the teams, and Kevin Costner walked through a cornfield onto the new diamond, giving a sparkling speech referencing his love for baseball and the movie. Thirty years ago, on the other side of that corn, we filmed a movie that stood the test of time,” he said. “Tonight, thanks to that enduring impact that little movie had, it’s allowed us to come here again. But now we’re on a field that Major League Baseball made.

We’ve kept our promise, Major League Baseball has kept its promise, the dream is still alive. There is probably just one more question to answer – is this Heaven? Yes it is,” he added, a nod to one of the film’s famous quotes.

 (Speech excerpt courtesy of People.com.)

Reading the multitude of articles about the new field and the iconic movie reminds me of how films become woven into our cultural identity, and how vital it is for us as teachers  to invite our students into studying, interpreting and responding to visual text.

Field of Dreams is a perfect example of a sports themed movie that is about much more than a baseball game. It’s a story of regret, redemption, and relationships between fathers and sons.

For eighth graders, analyzing an entire film is a daunting task, so I’ve learned that one of the best ways to welcome them into film study is through analysis of ONE scene, giving attention to nonverbal elements such as the actors’ positioning, facial expressions, costumes, use of props, and more.

Film study also exemplifies how bias informs writing. When we read a film review with our writers’ eyes, we can infer within a sentence or two what the author intends to communicate. We can also use the reading of critical reviews to teach sophisticated craft moves.

My favorite mentor texts for film study include:

The New York Times Anatomy of a Scene Videos

How I Use This Mentor:

  • These videos are excellent tools for demonstrating how much thought goes into a movie. What’s even better is that directors narrate them, so students know this is expert analysis rather than another school “hoop.” One of my favorite videos is this one for Kenneth Branagh’s 2015 live action Cinderella. Branagh explains that every detail of the first meeting between Cinderella and Prince Charming is critical, from the Shakespearean trees in the background to the horses’ genders. This video is also helpful if you have a student who chooses to write about the rash of live action remakes studios like Disney have released, from The Lion King to Mulan. And speaking of Mulan, there’s an Anatomy of a Scene video for that film as well! The Times continually updates this collection, recently adding videos for summer hits such as Black Widow and In the Heights.

Film Analysis and Prompts from Scott Myers (@GoIntoTheStory) on Medium.com

How I Use This Mentor:

  • Myers is a screenwriter, professor and blogger. His work is an outstanding mentor text since he leaves NO writing stone unturned. Whether your students are engaged in film study, writing narrative snapshots, or responding to their independent reading, studying Myers’ writing will inspire them to delve beneath the surface of setting, characterization and more to produce writing that is truly empathetic.  Recently, Myers wrote a piece for Medium.com called “The Writer as Psychologist.” In it, he discusses how often shame motivates fictional characters, and invites readers to explore Red’s development in The Shawshank Redemption. Myers concludes by saying that “it is our responsibility to understand each of our characters to the core of their emotional, spiritual, and psychological being. That process not only enables us to write complex, multilayered characters, it also informs us as to how each character ties into the overall narrative as well as the shape of the story’s structure.” It’s awesome to aspire to this analytical depth in writing workshop.

What evidence of learning do I ask students to share?

  • Students take notes with a partner on cinematic scenes and techniques.
  • Students view and comment on videos from the NYT Anatomy of a Scene series.
  • We discuss professional and student written mentor texts for writing about visual texts. 
  • Students write their own Anatomy of a Scene. This may be in response to a film OR an episode from a series.
  • Students compose an original scene individually or collaboratively.
  • Students read a variety of professional film reviews and we comment on craft moves such as writing a lead for a review and how those leads often show the writer’s bias. Discussion of bias is critical to future argumentative writing that we will do later in the year.

What are your favorite ways to invite students into writing critical commentary? Share your ideas in the comments, or email me at oosterheerte@pellachristian.net.

Elizabeth Oosterheert is a middle school language arts teacher and theatre troupe director in central Iowa. She loves writing, and sharing the stage with seventh and eighth graders. Her favorite stories are Peter Pan, The Outsiders, & Our Town. She recently finished writing an adaptation of Arabian Nights for performance in November 2021.

You Tell Me You Know What It’s Like To Be A Teacher In A Pandemic

You tell me you know

what it’s like to be

a teacher in a pandemic.

Yes, you’ve had zoom meetings, too!

You worked from home as well, juggling

kids, work, health, social isolation.

You were also scared, but somehow

somewhat relieved because of the freedom

from hectic schedules.

You, too, weathered the pandemic.

But were you forced back

to in-person work while the government

officials declared that you were essential

not for educating children, but to get the economy

back “up and running”?

Were you forced to do your job twice over

in-person and online at the same time?

Were you also given new duties of nurse,

custodian, and therapist for the inevitable trauma?

Were you constantly gaslit, told to “smile,

the kids need to see that everything is okay,”

yet you went home and often cried because

no one was assuring you?

Were you then told that despite

your hard work and grueling year,

“the students are behind” and

you must find a way to “catch them up”?

You tell me you know

what it’s like to be

a teacher in a pandemic,

and you may have lived through

this historical event at the same time

as us, but

you will never truly understand

what it has been like

to be an educator in this time.

Find the artist on Twitter @alabbazia

One of my favorite Quick Write lessons of all time was when I showed my students this video of Darius Simpson and Scout Bostley performing “Lost Voices,” and then we responded with our own poems, starting with the line “You tell me you know what it’s like to be…” From there, students could choose any identity they had that they felt people often acted like they understood or could relate with, but it was too deeply a personal experience that those outside of that identity could never understand. This idea came from Penny Kittle and Kelly Gallagher’s 180 Days in the Narrative section where they provided all sorts of mentor texts for “swimming in memoirs” to encourage students to address their own story from lots of angles.

When I did this lesson with my students in my second year, they soared. I got quick writes that started with “You tell me you know what it’s like to be autistic,” “You tell me you know what it’s like to be an assault victim,” and “You tell me you know what it’s like to be an immigrant.” Each story, each window into those students’ lives were so powerful. I often did not know what it was like to be what my students were writing about, but their willingness to be vulnerable in their writing helped me see from their eyes and understand just a little more.

As I recover from this year of teaching in a pandemic, my mind wandered back to that activity, and I began writing the beginnings of the poem above. As I mentioned in my previous post, I struggle with finding time/space/ideas/willingness to write. I keep having to learn that it often only takes a strong mentor text and I am off to scribble in a notebook. This remembering will play a huge role in my teaching this coming year. I am also having to constantly re-learn/remind myself how powerful a tool writing is for processing things. It has been an almost impossible year for many teachers, including me. It is only the beginning of summer, but I have had all sorts of reflections and emotions surface. I hope, if you want to get into more writing as well, that you will take time to soak in the words of these poets and write your own “You tell me you know what it’s like to be” poem. Maybe it’ll help you process the emotions and experiences of your year, too.

If you do write using these ideas, please share in the comments or tweet it tagging @3TeachersTalk.

Rebecca Riggs is a writer (or tricking herself into being one the same way she does her students- by just declaring it so). She is currently reading The Girl Who Smiled Beads: A Story of War and What Comes After by Clemantine Wamariya and Elizabeth Weil. Her current obsession is trying out new cookie recipes and working hard to not fill up her entire schedule so she can actually rest this summer. You can connect with her on Twitter @rebeccalriggs or Instagram @riggsreaders.

Mini-Lesson Monday: Great Sportswriting is Worth Two Reads

In fifth grade, I attended a writing workshop with sportswriter Paul Daugherty at the helm.  A columnist for the Cincinnati Enquirer, he encouraged we wee ten-year-olds to think about how we might revise more quickly and do our prewriting in our heads.  He spoke about his experiences writing half a story while watching a game unfold, sometimes being tempted to write the ending before the ending had even occurred.  At age ten, I found him eloquent, mysterious, and inspiring–I decided then that I wanted to be a journalist.

Although I dropped my journalism major after one year in college, I still enjoy Daughterty’s columns in the Enquirer and occasionally Sports Illustrated.  And as an adult, I see his process in his product.  The craft of Daugherty’s writing is one of the things that made me enjoy sportswriting, and now, strong pieces about America’s most-loved athletic pastimes are some of my favorite things to read.

So, when Tom Romano sent me this piece from the New York Times, I thought immediately of how students would love the “metaphorical, descriptive” writing “with quotes and assertions and a great final line.”

Screen Shot 2016-11-07 at 5.56.48 AM.png

Tom Romano’s great description of this piece in the Times.

Objectives: Identify patterns in the author’s writing to characterize his voice; find where the author cites evidence that supports his claims; infer the writer’s process; apply concepts of writer’s voice and strong argument writing to your own nonfiction pieces.

Lesson:  I’ll distribute copies of “Twitchy, Sweaty, but Triumphant” by Michael Powell for students to read, but I’ll also have the piece projected on the Smart Board so kids can see the great accompanying photography.

Because ’tis the season of moving past narrative and into nonfiction writing (in which we often harness the power of narrative, by the way) students will have already been immersed in a study of making claims supported by evidence, crafting a clear and purposeful structure, and maintaining a voice and style that defy the conventions of a five-paragraph you-know-what.  This article will serve as a mentor text that features all three, plus some insight into that long-ago lesson I learned from Paul Daugherty: the speed of a sportswriter’s process.

“We’ve been studying a variety of nonfiction pieces that have great style as well as strong claims–commentaries, columns, and speeches.  And here’s another example of those traits in this sports article.

“As you read it, look for the writer’s voice and the way the writer makes claims and supports them with evidence, as we’ve been doing throughout this unit,” I request.

We take ten minutes to read through the article, annotating quickly and noting writerly moves that jump out at us.  I model on the document camera, noting what I see–the unnamed players throughout the first paragraphs of the piece, creating a universal scene; the sheer entertainment of his vocabulary (words like gluttonous, beatnik, facsimile that you wouldn’t expect in a sports article); his unique turns of phrase.

I then ask students to share in table groups what they noticed about craft and claims.  After they share and we debrief, I return to the article.

“One of the things I find fascinating about sportswriting is how quickly it has to happen.  The turnaround is so quick–we spend a few weeks polishing pieces of this length, but these writers only have a few hours.”

(In keeping choice central to my curriculum, students always get to choose either their process, genre, or topic.  Because in this unit students are constrained to one genre–nonfiction–I will make an effort to help them choose their own topics and processes.  That’s wisdom I gleaned from Writing With Mentors.)

“I want to consider the writer’s process, and I found some good evidence of it:  let’s look at Powell’s tweets from during the game.”

I pull up Powell’s Twitter account and we scroll down to see his game-time tweets, many of which contain some of the same phrases  in the article: the Dead End Kids, the Lackawanna freight train rolling through, the pitchers being gassed.  Students notice these unique phrases immediately.

“What could you infer about Powell, given that this game ended at around 1:00 am and his piece ran at 9:00 am?”

I elicit students to share:  “He was already writing a bit during the game.”  “He writes sports all the time so he can already pull up a lot of the jargon quickly.”  “He really loves his subject, since he’s up watching the game and tweeting and having fun with it.”  “He’s knowledgeable about the history of these teams–maybe he did a lot of research beforehand or maybe he just knows it from writing about it a lot.”

Now, students have painted a picture of the piece’s author.  We can go into the reading warm, not cold.

“So, let’s read again, and consider his process this time,” I ask.  “Look now to see how his tweets–evidence of his prewriting–are in the article and what that teaches you about his process.”

We read the article again, a fresh purpose for reading helping us see the writer’s process come to life.  Once we’ve finished, we talk in table groups and then debrief as a whole class about the evidence we see of Powell’s writing process based on his tweets and what we know about sportswriters as a group.

These two reads give us three things:  another example of writer’s craft, more examples of claims with supporting evidence, and an example of process.

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I love this great photo of the Cubs’ moment of triumph from the Wall Street Journal. 

Follow-Up:  After students read this piece, there are many opportunities for follow-up.  One is to simply have them apply its writing lessons to their own nonfiction pieces.  Another is to have a lengthy conversation on writing processes, and how they can be short yet incredibly effective–students can see that prewriting doesn’t have to take the form of a web or an outline, but that it can be tweets, too.

Daugherty’s work, the now-defunct Grantland, and The New York Times sports section are some of my favorite places  to find great sportswriting.  What are some of your favorite resources for finding great nonfiction for your students? Please share in the comments!

Mini-lesson Monday: Remembering 9/11 and a study of language

Our students are too young to remember the events of 9/11. And while we are not history teachers, I do think we have a responsibility and an opportunity to help them try to make sense of the horrors of that September morning and how it impacts their lives today.

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Pvt. Hyrum Chase Rasmussen

In church yesterday, the congregation stood and sang three verses of “The Star Spangled Banner.” This song has new meaning for me since my son Hyrum joined the Army this summer. It may have new meaning for you if you’ve been following the Colin Kaepernick-taking-a-knee-event-fall-out-and-discussion. I want my students to be able to make sense of their world and one way I can help them do that is to provide them with thought-provoking pieces that help them make connections. Maybe one of these texts will help them find their own “new meaning.”

In honor of September 11, the every day people and every day heroes who lost their lives, the families who still mourn loved ones, the soldiers who valiantly died facing foes in foreign lands, and the men and women willing to serve today in a time of unrest and war, this is the lesson that I will share with my students today.

Objective:  Using the language of the Depth of Knowledge levels, students will react to a first-hand account of 9/11 in their writer’s notebooks. They will formulate ideas on how this one story relates to our growing theme of what it means to be courageously human. Students will then analyze a text and compare the writer’s use of language to a text read previously.

Lesson:  We’ve already discussed the question, “What does it mean to be courageously human?” a phrase I borrowed from a text we read last week. (I read Chequan Lewis’ piece as a read aloud, wanting students to just listen and enjoy his use of language. Then, later we read it again and analyzed the literary and rhetorical devices he uses to create the meaning. I modeled how to annotate and asked students to write their own notes in the margins — something I will expect them to do throughout the year.)

Today I will remind students to read texts with pens in hand, noting the writer’s interesting use of language, any points of confusion, any words they don’t know, the structure of the text, and any and all devices the writer uses to craft meaning. Today’s text is the masterful piece Leonard Pitts, Jr. wrote September 12, 2001.

After students have time to read, annotate, and discuss in small groups, we will come together as a class and craft an anchor chart that details the moves Pitts makes in comparison to those craft moves made by Mr. Lewis. I will charge students to model these moves in their own writing throughout the year.

Follow up:  The anchor chart will hang in the room as a reminder that writers are intentional in the moves they make as they craft meaning. Students will be expected to be intentional in their own writing as they work on various forms of writing in class and on their blogs this year.

Mini-lesson Monday: Poetic Literary Movements

This year was a balancing act. Bridging the old and the new. The curriculum I’m used to and the possibilities of workshop. Along with that came plenty of challenges, but also plenty of opportunities to improve on what I know by learning more about what my students can create with choice.

This lesson is from my American Literature class (sophomores) and occurred this past April when we were studying Realism. Students had conducted some research on what thematic and stylistic elements characterized the Realist movement in America and I turned to poetry to make the 19th Century ideas come to life.

Objective/s: Using the language of the Depth of Knowledge Levels, students will analyze their Realism research and examples of Realist poetry in order to synthesize characteristics of the time period with original ideas in the form of Realist inspired poetry.

Lesson: Students came to class with notes they took on American Realism. I had asked them to research the major authors of the time period, famous works, common themes and stylistic elements of writing from that time, and the historical events that led to a shift away from Romanticism.

We started by taking a look at Stephen Crane’s “I Saw a Man Pursuing the Horizon.”

I saw a man

I modeled for students my own analysis, suggesting the elements of Realism I saw in the poem. The clash of Romantic thought and Realist. The futility Realists saw in trying to escape reality. The simple construction of sentences and relatively plain diction.

We then talked about connections to these realist ideas today. “Many of us are Romantics,” I said, “I think I’m one. But I bet many of you are Realists too. What does that look like in your life?”

I asked students to jot down some ideas in their writer’s notebooks of everyday events that speak to these same themes…what some would call the ordinary struggles of life. As I walked around and took a look at the ideas my students were generating, several jumped out at me:

  • Watching someone get bullied and not knowing how to help
  • Dealing with the hand you’re dealt
  • Unavoidable accidents
  • The ‘you’ no one would suspect

Holy poetry material! I shared aloud several examples of ideas I saw from their notebooks and then shifted to have them look at one more example to solidify the simplicity (and power) of realist diction and images.

“Now, I am of the opinion that some of the best poetry is exceedingly simple. The raw, honest truth of life, just like some of the ideas I saw when I walked around and peeked into your notebooks. Let’s take a look at one more example of realist poetry – a modern example.” I showed students  “The End,” a poem (no author found) I discovered when searching for examples of Realism:


The End

It didn’t come with a bang

or a big explosion.

It didn’t come with an inevitable apocalypse

or an armageddon.

It didn’t come with collision

or a war.

It didn’t end with a dying sun

or a waking moon.

It didn’t end in breached dimensions

or shattered realities.

It didn’t end with entropy.

It came when Existence stopped dreaming

And fell into a deep sleep.


Students read the poem silently a few times and I asked them to write down the lines that they felt were especially impactful, powerful, and/or moving. I then read the poem out loud and we discussed our thoughts on the lines they wrote in their notebooks.

Next up was time to explore. Students took their knowledge of Realism, their explorations of realist topics, and our discussion on the power of simple construction with simple ideas and set to work on their own realist poems in their notebooks.

Follow up: After students had time to work on their poems, I had them share at their tables. Each table elected one student whose poem they thought was particularly pointed and either that student stood to read it or asked someone else at the table to read his/her work. We always talk about taking pride and ownership in our writing to build community. Sometimes this means letting someone’s enthusiasm over the work of his/her peers fuel an energetic reading of the work as well. Kids love to read the work of their peers and I can see in the faces of the authors a pride often unmatched when they read their own work.

A few class periods later, I asked them to find additional poems with Realist characteristics. We used these as mentor texts for small group discussion and to compare with our own work.
Do you sometimes have to bridge the gap between old school and workshop? How do you make the old seem new again? Please share in the comments below.

Imagining Our Ideal Bookshelves

My students are selfie experts; somehow, through practice, they have discovered the perfect angle, the right light, the exact method to fit ten people into one frame—while still managing to make their head look normal-sized.  In those fleeting snapshots, they capture the essence of who they are (or at times who they want to be), if only for a second.

I believe that the books we read can serve as small photographs of our hopes, dreams, desires, and curiosities.  They provide a  snapshot of who we were, who we are, or who we want to become.

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Julia’s highly organized ideal shelf

As a final project, my AP Literature and Composition students completed an “ideal bookshelf,” inspired by the book My Ideal Bookshelf and a quick write I completed in Penny Kittle’s summer class two years ago.  The assignment was relatively simple—create your own ideal bookshelf of the books that “represent you—the books that have changed your life, that have made you who you are today, your favorite favorites” (La Force xi).  Since this is an AP Literature class, I added a twist—I wanted students to stock their shelves with books that not only transformed them as a person, but also developed them as a reader.

As each student presented on their shelf, they transformed from self-assured seniors to wide-eyed children who relayed the story of the first book they had ever fallen in love with.  Many of them spoke of how they either found or developed their passion for art,

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Max’s science-based book shelf

coaching, theatre, computers, and physics through books they had found over 18 years.  The books they listed did more than just challenge them as readers; these books had the power to inspire, entertain, and heal.  As Claudia wrote about The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants, “I have no real idea what is so special about it, but I’m not going to question its magical powers when it does so much good for me.”

 

 

What I loved most is how these shelves found life through details; Julia’s shelf held her drawing notebook, Cam’s his favorite cookbook, and Payton’s was adorned with her grandmother’s locket, which she uses as a bookmark.  Some shelves were neat and orderly, perfectly stacked, while others, like Sammie’s were a bit more scattered.  As Sammie put it, “I don’t know what I want to do as a profession; I am still figuring it out.  That partially explains the disarray that is my bookshelf.  I couldn’t decide which would be more practical, stacking or leaning.  The result is a bookshelf with a little bit of both.”

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Sammie’s slightly scattered ideal shelf

As my seniors complete the next three weeks and begin the process of preparing for college, I want them to walk away with the writing and analytical skills we’ve honed all year, but more than anything, I want them to remember why they fell in love with reading in the first place.  I want them to question why books are powerful and understand that the universality of a novel’s message can change readers.  I want them to read for knowledge and depth and challenges, but I also want them to accept that not everything needs to be analyzed, dissected or picked apart.  In fact, sometimes we read for escapism, for love, for adventure.  For many, this might be the last English class they take.  Hopefully, it is only the start of a lifetime of reflective reading and ideal bookshelves.

 

 

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