Tag Archives: Mentor Texts

Students Who Write by Ear by Amy Estersohn– an #NCTE17 Preview

The following is a sample of what I’ll be presenting with Three Teachers Talk at #NCTE17, session C.26, Friday at 12:30, room 274.

Tom Newkirk’s book, Minds Made for Stories, encouraged me to think about students as natural storytellers.

So I dug through their writers’ notebooks to see storytelling in action. During my dig, I wasn’t looking for detail or dialogue or finished pieces.  I wasn’t reading for apostrophes or paragraphing or numbered and dated pages, either.  I instead wanted to know where writers were already practicing storytelling, and what tools and strategies they were already using.

One the ways I noticed that student writers tell stories is that they listen to their inner ear.  This emerged when I read half-baked, quarter-finished crime stories where a student could hear a bought cop addressing a group of criminals.  I noticed it when I heard a writer list the annoying sayings her mother used.  I noticed it again when writers took on a Ken Burns-ish important-sounding narrative voice to discuss an important world issue.

Some students can really hear when they write.

So the first thing I did was I turned that observation back to the students: did you notice how you hear the character in this section?  That observation then became an expectation.  In your writing, you should be able to hear your character or narrator speaking.  When you revise, ask yourself if you still hear your characters or your narrators.  If you don’t, mark the text for a future revision.

There are also ways that writers can practice hearing stories.  The easiest way is just to choose a good piece to read out loud to the class.  For middle school, I’d recommend the first few pages of a Kate DiCamillo’s Because of Winn Dixie or Jason Reynolds’ Ghost.   For high school, I’d probably choose a text like Laurie Halse Anderson’s Speak or A.S. King’s Glory O’Brien’s History of the Future.  You can read the book in your voice or cue up the audiobook, and ask students to discuss what they noticed and then practice some imitations.

You can also invite students to imitate characters they already know.   It’s always fun to try to imitate a sibling’s voice or a young child’s voice.  I invited students to imitate boastful and outrageous LaVar Ball, a parent of an NBA player, after I provided examples of what he has said.  Students embraced the opportunity to play around with LaVar’s voice in their writers’ notebooks.

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Another idea would be to collect some of the voices of nonfiction: this includes Deborah Heiligman’s Vincent and Theo, Candace Fleming’s Giant Squid, some Mary Roach, and whatever nearby textbook or magazine is in sight.  Work backward: what do these voices sound like?  Whom do I imagine is telling me this story?

I could even see students doing multimedia work with voice by tape recording themselves.

I’m going to assume for a moment that teaching voice is probably not new to you.  But what might be new is teaching voice and playing with voice as an element of storytelling instead of housing it within a certain genre or a certain unit.

Will you be at #NCTE17?

Sarah Raises Hand

I hope to see you there!

 

Amy Estersohn is a middle school English teacher in New York.  She writes book reviews at teachingtransition.wordpress.com and is deeeeeelighted to serve on the CYBILS book award committee for middle grade fiction.  

 

18 Quotes & a Call for Connection

We all know the value of mentor texts. We use them for read alouds, to model thinking, to dig deep and find meaning, to teach an author’s moves, sentence structure, and more. Some of us collect them, storing them safely among other valuable collections.  We keep a stash for studying craft, earmarking books in the hopes of remembering why we saved that page for later.

I have 11.8K tweets “liked” –many saved to read later and think about how I can share them with my readers and writers. I am a constant planner.

I also have a constant need for connection and a way to grow. Maybe that’s why Twitter swallowed me when I first signed on in 2011. Even my children, teenagers then, complained I was “always on the iPad.”

Sometimes it helps to take a step back. Evaluate our surroundings. Get a better grip.

Awhile ago I learned a thing or two about myself. I learned what drives me. Tony Robbins has a TED Talk called Why We Do What We Do I found helpful, as did this quiz What is your driving force? (I’ve shared both with students, and we’ve had interesting and insightful conversations.)

My driving needs are connection and growth. No wonder I have an obsession with mentors. No wonder I like to write and share what I learn and how I teach. No wonder I like you to read this blog and to share what you learn and how you teach. You are my Personal Learning Connection.

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Sometimes teachers get lucky. We work in departments that feed our needs. We find colleagues in Facebook groups and Twitter feeds. We reach out to living mentor texts (Shana coined that term a few years ago) who help us reach higher toward the goals we set for ourselves.

I am blessed to have many living mentor texts. My colleagues on this blog for sure. (We have an ongoing WhatsApp chat that keeps us grounded and sane. Mostly.) And many of you readers who’ve reached out with questions in emails, trusting that I might have answers for your questions. You’ve mentored me, too.

I am blessed to call Penny Kittle and Donalyn Miller both friends and mentors. They’ve shaped me in too many ways to say. There’s Katie Wood Ray and Tom Romano (thanks to Shana’s friendship) who’ve shared experiences and stories over meals at NCTE. There’s all the teacher-writers of the stacks of professional books that weigh down the shelves nearest my desk in my classroom and my bed. They mentor with each page.

And there’s Tom Newkirk — who, as Penny put it, is “the smartest man I know.” I met Tom at the UNH Literacy Institute when Shana, Jackie, and I took his class on Boys and Literacy. He is caring, kind, and oh, so brilliant. When I read his books, I feel his passion for literacy and learning — and I feel smarter.

I wrote last week about teaching as if teaching is story, thoughts that sparked while reading Minds Made for Stories. The sparks continue.

Three Teachers Talk will present at NCTE on Friday, November 17 at 12:30 pm. We titled our session: “Reclaiming Narrative and Amplifying Our Voices: Using Story to Invite Fearless Inquiry and Intellectual Challenge for Our Students and Ourselves.” Tom Newkirk is our chair. How amazing is that?

In preparation for our our presentation, Tom’s agreed to join us for the first ever #3TTchat on Twitter, Monday, October 30 at 8ET/7CT. We will discuss the power of narrative in all types of writing as explained in Minds Made for Stories — and Tom’s new book Embarrassment:  And the Emotional Underlife of Learning

I pulled some quotes from Minds Made for Stories last night in prep for that chat. I think you’ll see the genius in Tom’s thinking and what it can do for us as reading and writing teachers. I thank Tom, a true living mentor text, for shifting my thinking about the way I talk about writing with my students, the way I view writing with my students. The way I teach writing.

From Part I of Minds Made for Stories:

“[Narrative] is the “mother of all modes,” a powerful and innate form of understanding” (6).

“Narrative is there to help us “compose” ourselves when we meet difficulty or loss. It is there to ground abstract ideas, to help us see the pattern in a set of numerical data, to illuminate the human consequences of political action. It is home base” (5).

“Photosynthesis is a story; climate change is a story; cancer is a story, with antecedents and consequences. To the extent these phenomena can be told as stories, readers will have a better chance of taking in the information” (11).

“We don’t read extended texts through sheer grit, but we are carried along by some pattern the writer creates. Even if our goal is to learn information, we don’t do that well if that information is not connected in some way — and as humans the connection we crave is narrative” (13).

“. . . the ‘hamburger’ format with the opening and closing paragraphs being the two buns and the body being the meat. . . is a disservice to students, and to nonfiction writing, but also an insult to hamburgers. . .” (16).

“. . . when we strip human motives from our teaching, I suspect we make learning harder and not easier” (17).

“Nonfiction. . .is all about moves, motion through time. Not static structures” (17).

“Even writing that takes a form we would not call narrative (e.g., the lab report) still is built on narrative, a causal understanding of the world that is as basic to us as, well, our intestines. This claim is true for even the most specialized academic writing; even research reports must tell a story” (19).

“[Narrative] is part of our deep structure as human beings” (27).

“If we view [narrative] as a deep structure of thinking and understanding, it affects all discourse and plays a much bigger role; we have literary minds, primed for story” (28)

“Yes, we need to teach students the conventions of various genres, and we can’t assume that because they can read and write fictional stories or autobiographical pieces that they can write arguments or reports. Only a magician would think that. But it does mean that the narrative thread, the anecdote, the story of human interest, the apt metaphor are crucial tools in all forms of discourse — as they speak to our need for causality and story. They form a deep structure” (28).

“Narrative is not a type of writing, or not merely a type of writing. It has deeper roots than that. It is a property of mind, an innate and indispensable form of understanding, as instinctive as our fear of falling, as our need for human company. Good writers know that and construct plots–itches to be scratched–that sustain us as readers. We are always asking, “What’s the story?” (34).

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“Voice is a constant, a human presence, a sensibility, a character, a narrator and guide” (38).

“Openings should be read very slowly, reread if possible. So much is happening. So many commitments are being made–which is why writers often find them so nerve-racking to write. Openings establish the topic, suggest the problem to be examined, convey sense of the narration and tone of the piece, risking at any millisecond that the reader will go elsewhere” (42).

“. . .in all analytical writing there needs to be conflicting perspectives, contending solutions, weaknesses and strengths, even good guys and bad guys. If these positions can be attached to spokespersons, so much the better. Writing is dialogic, involving multiple voices, orchestrated by the author. To comprehend a text is to be attuned to this conflict” (42).

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“I am not contending that literary analysis or argument looks like narrative fiction. But arguments that sustain reading must have a dramatic core, a plot. Like a good piece of music, there needs to a be a pattern of tension and resolution, problem and solution, anticipation and fulfillment. When done well, the sensation of reading doesn’t feel like we are working in a tightly contained form, tyrannized by a thesis, the stern father who sits at the head of the table and rules over all. Rather, we feel a mind at work; the sensation is of a journey that may take us to a thesis but invites new questions along the way” (49).


I hope you will join us in our Twitter chat next Monday. Let’s value our connections and share our stories as teachers, writers, and individuals striving to learn and grow and change for the betterment of our students and ourselves. Let’s celebrate the learning we’ve experienced with our students this fall.

We need to be living mentor texts for one another.

This work is hard. When we connect and share, we make it easier.

We already know it is worth it.

Amy Rasmussen connects with friends on Twitter @amyrass and @3TeachersTalk and on Facebook and Instagram. She’d also like to connect her students’ blogs to yours — wouldn’t it be great if they read and commented on each others’ writing? (Email amyprasmussen@yahoo.com if interested.) Amy teaches senior English and AP Language at a large senior high school in Lewisville, TX (Go Farmers!). 

An Idea: Author Bios and Some Focus, Wit, & Polish

I stole this idea from Lisa. She said it was okay that I write about it first. Bless her.

I finally feel like I’m getting a little of my writing mojo back. If you’ve been following my posts lately, you know I’ve had a hard time. I loved my student teacher, but I missed my students and how they inspire me to want to write and share.

It hasn’t been easy taking back my classroom. I am much more intense than Mr. G, and this translates to mean for some of my students. It’s true I grade hard, expect a lot, teach bell to bell. It’s not that he didn’t — maybe it’s just that I’m 50+, and he’s close to half my age. Whatever the reason, reinvigorating relationships hasn’t been easy.

Kind of casually one day, Lisa suggested she wanted to write author bios with her students next year. She said she’d read a few she wanted to use as mentor texts, thinking this little writing task would be a way to help her students develop their identities as writers. What a fantastic idea!

So last week for our writer’s notebook time, we wrote author bios, short, little, quippy, quirky writing that states who we are and why we write. (We still need work on the why we write part.)

booksforauthorbiosI prepared first by reading the inside back covers of some of my hardback YA literature. I chose four bios with similar elements:  Andrew Smith, Winger; Julie Murphy, Dumplin‘; Heather Demetrios, I’ll Meet You There; and Jason Reynolds, All American Boys. {Bonus: four book talks, along with the author intros. Boom.]

I explained the task:  We’re going to read four short author bios and then write our own. Listen to each one carefully, so we can pull out the similarities within each one.

We charted the elements of the bios on the board and then drafted our own.

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We spent five minutes on the writing, two minutes on revision, and six minutes sharing with our peers. We laughed. We wondered if the authors wrote their own book cover bios. We discussed our writing process.

“It would have been easier writing about someone else,” one student said.

“I need more time to think of how to say things,” said another.

“This would be fun to do at the beginning of the year,”

“I don’t do anything!”

“I’ve never won anything!”

“I cannot write that I am interesting when I am not interesting.”

“Can we write about what we want to do in the future instead?”

Oh, yeah, we stirred the pot, and ideas bubbled out. Throughout their questioning, my response remained:  Be creative.

One of the best books I’ve read on writing is How to Write Short: Word Craft for Fast Times by Roy Peter Clark. I marked it up with lesson ideas:  “the whole chapter would make a great lead in rhetorical analysis” and “on annotating: read before starting 1st book club” and “use b/f narrative –teaches analysis with song lyrics” and “parallel structure & compound sentences!”

This paragraph from the introduction is a great reminder for all types of writing — and writing instruction:

How to Write Short

Focus, wit, and polish. My students and I talked about our identities as writers. We talked about the time it takes to develop our voice, our craft, our meaning.

As they read their author bios to one another, the cough of community clamored just a bit, and in a few minutes the whole classroom caught it.

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MariaCSkyauthorbioMicaelaauthorbioTreyauthorbioI reminded students as they write over the next few days — finishing their multi-genre projects, their last major grade — to write with intention, to write in a way that shows the answer to the last question I’ll write on the board this year:  How have you grown as a reader and a writer?

In the fall, I will do this exercise again. We will write our author bios at the beginning of the year, on day one, maybe. We will spent a good deal more time on them, and we’ll return to them again and again as we practice the moves all writers make to produce effective, convincing, creative writing. We will publish our writing with our bios. Hopefully, this will help us keep our sights on Focus, Wit, and Polish in all aspects of our writing.

How might you use this author bio writing activity? What tasks do your writers do that help them take on the identities of writers? Please leave your ideas in the comments.

Amy Rasmussen lives in north Texas and teaches AP English Language and English 3 at Lewisville High School. She loves talking books, daughters’ weddings (two this year), and grandbabies. Facilitating PD for other teachers making the move into a workshop pedagogy delights her. Amy adheres to the words of Emerson: “We aim above the mark to hit the mark,” and Jesus: “Love one another.” Imagine a world if we all aim higher. Follow Amy on Twitter @amyrass.

What’s the most important thing you think you’ll ever write?

I am good at setting reading goals. Good at helping students set them, too.

But I never really thought about the importance of setting writing goals until I decided I wanted to write a book and struggled to get words on the page each day. (I still struggle.)

Even with this blog, my writing goals seem fuzzy. Sure, we have a 3TT posting schedule, and more often than not, I make my mostly self-imposed deadlines. But I haven’t really considered these deadlines writing goals.

Today I am wondering why not.

And I’m thinking that this is probably similar to how my students view the writing tasks I ask them to complete. They look at the calendar I provide. They consider the writing workshop dates, the revision workshop dates, the writing group dates. Maybe they pay attention to the learning goals I write on the board and review each day — all valuable parts of our writing class routines, but I doubt they actually set any goals. (Okay, maybe they set the goal to actually complete the assignment. Maybe.)

But I want them to set writing goals. I want to set writing goals for myself this year.

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a gem of a goal by my friend Billy

So today as we go back to school and get back into our routines, we will talk about writing goals, not just writing assignments. We will talk about the reasons we write and how practicing our craft can help us accomplish those reasons.

I think we’ll start with this poem:  The Writer by Richard Wilbur. And then read “The Daily Routines of 12 Famous Writers” and maybe “9 Weird Habits That Famous Writers Formed to Write Better.”

Then, maybe I’ll ask this question:

What’s the most important thing you think you’ll ever write? Why?

I don’t know where the conversation will go, but I am okay with that. I’ll let my students know how I feel about setting some personal writing goals. I’ll let them know how I think this may change, or challenge, my ability as a writer.

I’ll write my goals as they write theirs, and we’ll share.

If you need personal writing inspiration — or just want to find some excellent short mentors to use as you write with you students — read this: “Ten Texts That Will Get Teachers Writing.” And, of course, we share lots of writing inspiration on this blog.

I’d love to know your writing goals for the year. Please share them in the comments. (P.S. I hope one of them is to write a guest post here in 2017.)

Amy Rasmussen lives in north Texas and teaches AP English Language and English 3 to the Fighting Farmers at Lewisville High School. She adheres to the words of Emerson: “We aim above the mark to hit the mark,” and Jesus Christ: “Love one another.” Imagine a world if we all love more than we think we can. Follow Amy on Twitter @amyrass.

Mentor Texts Are Everywhere!

return and talkThis summer, we’d like to return and talk about some of our most useful, engaging, or popular posts.  Today’s post, written by Erika in 2014, reminds us of her process for finding mentor texts–they’re everywhere!

Please return to this topic and talk with us in the comments–how do you find, organize, or utilize mentor texts?


This time last year I was amidst a mad dash – a mad dash in seeking out, organizing, asking about, researching, contemplating, and gathering the ‘best of the best’ of mentor texts.  I had just learned what a mentor text was (text that, well, mentors!) and wanted to make sure I had a plethora to kick off the school year.  And, I did.  I had gathered so many I wasn’t even sure when, and in what context, I would be using them.  But, they were ready and I felt confident that I was too.

This year, it’s a bit of a different story.  After implementing the Reading Writing Workshop model in my urban oasis for the first time this past school year, I realized there is no longer a need to be dashing about.  Mentor texts are everywhere!  Literally.  They are in the morning’s newspaper.  They reside in the autobiographies I always find myself engaging in (and of course, loving).  Articles promulgating the Twitter circuit for the purposes of dissecting content and craft.  Classics, more modern, and everything in between became focal points of inquiry and investigation.  Students’ independent reading books shed light on crafty moves authors strategically choose to utilize.  On occasion, an excerpt from professional development texts deserved a public viewing (sometimes with scrutiny, sometimes not).  Nothing is off limits.

So, it is no wonder that as I have been reading a vast array of literature this summer; I have new mentor texts lined up for this coming school year that I am thrilled to explore with my students.  So, grab your Writer’s Notebook and flip to your Next-To-Read list.   I hope you not only fall in love with these pieces, just as I have, but they inspire you to think about what you’re reading and how you’d like to share them with the brilliant and inquisitive minds occupying your learning community.

Making Meaning with Texts: Selected Essays by Louise Rosenblatt was first introduced to me in this summer’s UNH Literacy Institute via Penny Kittle’s Book Love course.  This piece sent a buzz all throughout the campus as we were asked to read it for homework and come prepared to discuss it the next day.  Before the night was through, classmates were chronicling their amazement and joy with Twitter posts such as:  “Reading Louise Rosenblatt for homework and keep saying “Amen, sistah!” in my head. #unhlit14″.  So, you can only imagine how this Reading Theorist evoked an awakening in us all.

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It was when I came to this paragraph that I realized I had just stumbled upon an incredible mentor text; not only for myself as an educator, but for students as well.  What better way to expose students to the questioning and thinking behind our reading and writing than by sharing the source with them?  These questions are going to guide us through our reading (and writing) journeys this year.  We are going to study these questions, make sense of them, put them into practice; but, we are also going to really delve into why Rosenblatt has chosen these questions to guide us.  See, that’s where exploring craft and an author’s intention becomes our focal point.

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Battle Bunny by Jon Scieszka and Mae Barnett is a clever and witty piece that is sure to get students charged up about editing and revising.  How could it not?  This entire piece chronicles the the narrator’s (yes, the bunny) stylistic and creative writing journey.  The entire story is marked up, crossed out, reworded, and illustrated to show the power of the writing process.  It’s beautiful.

While I educate students ages 16-21, and this piece (I’m sure) was not intended for that audience, I believe this mentor text will be a lighthearted way to quell some of the fears that override their writers’ anxiety.  We know, many students are uncomfortable and afraid to revise, rework, or allow their time-intensive writing pieces to become ‘messy’.  Yet, that’s what produces the most profound writing.

battleI know this may be a risky move in my classroom.  Yet, I’m going to take a chance.  I anticipate shared laughter as we navigate this piece together.  I also plan to explore the bunny’s intentions and make it relevant for our work as writers:  Why did he feel the need to rewrite the story?  Do the illustrations add to the message he is portraying?  Do any of his original thoughts (verse his revisions) feel more powerful to you?  What intentional moves did he make in re-creating this story?  And on and on.

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Destined to Witness: Growing up Black in Nazi Germany by Hans J. Massaquoi is a piece I have not been without this entire summer.  And, although I’m finished reading it, I find myself flipping through the pictures over and over; it’s that profound. Massaquoi is a mentor of life, overcoming adversity, obtaining the (perceived) impossible, and what it truly means to be human.

Journalist by trade, Massaquoi takes such grace in his every word, sentence, and strategic ‘move’ that’s crafted.  This book encapsulates 443 pages of sheer brilliance and I want students to be exposed to this kind of writing because they too, have the ability to craft such beauty.

I also want them to catch a glimpse into my journey while reading this piece (note post-its) because I want to share what I found fascinating.  I want to explore some of the word choices (see my unknown word list) IMG_20140812_121513and talk strategy.  I want to use some of these words within my own vernacular and challenge students to do the same.  Most importantly, I want to show them that reading is a process; not one to shy away from.  And yes, sometimes it takes work, but overtime it becomes natural…and wildly fulfilling.

I can’t help but think, above and beyond the work I plan to do with this text, that the historical context won’t propel students in their study of history as well.  World War II and the Holocaust have rarely been depicted from the racial standpoint in which Massaquoi portrays.  This just may be a piece that peaks enough intrigue among students that they too will add it to their Next-To-Read list.  That’s my goal.

IMG_20140812_124058You are a Baddass: How to Stop Doubting Your Greatness and Start Living an Awesome Life by Jen Sincero has found its way into my Survival Book Kit and I love it!  I’m just past the first thirty pages, yet I have not stopped laughing.  Yes, out loud.

Sincero most definitely has a way with words.  She is edgy and a straight shooter for sure.  Yet, she is able to talk about really serious life-changing ideas in a way that feels ‘light’.  Not your typical self-improvement piece.

I want students to see how infusing humor among the serious can be oh-so-powerful.  Utilizing analogies to talk about the conscious and subconscious mind provides readers visuals…imagery.  A way to process this vitally important information that can shape their lives.  In only the most positive of ways.

I plan to choose the excerpts from this text skillfully.  I want students to have access to the content and the craft…as always.  I do foresee really rich one-on-one reading conferences with those that decide it’s time to make a change in their lives, or at the very least are up for a great laugh, and decide to take this piece on independently.

I hope my four have inspired you.  I really do.  I hope it will do the same for my students.  I encourage you to also share your favorites, here on this site.  As we all gear up for an incredible year to come, and we are swiftly shifting into our ‘going back to school’ mode, this is a wonderful time to start thinking about what we’re reading in a way that lends itself to the idea of being a mentor text.  Articles, books, poetry, graphic novels…all are welcome.

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.

 

 

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?

YA Fiction That’s Funny and Full of Voice

After millions of snow days, my student teacher, Mike, and I are finally wrapping up our Siddhartha self-reflection unit and jumping into a new writing unit I’m really excited about–comedy!  We’ll study satire, sketch comedy, stand-up, commentary, and monologues for mentor texts, then work with our students to craft strong comedy writings that exemplify the skills of pacing, payoff, “punch-up,” and one other skill that I think is the most important:

Voice.

Writing voice, for me, is where humor, sarcasm, and personality come alive in a piece of writing.  “Voice,” Tom Romano writes, “is the writer’s presence on the page.”  Voice is the most elusive quality of writing to teach, I think, because it’s not really quantifiable and cannot be duplicated or imitated.  Each writer must craft his own authentic voice.

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Brainstorming the bare bones of a comedy unit

While discussing the very bare bones of our comedy unit, we brainstormed mentor texts, seed prompts, and writing skills.  After we hammered those out, Mike wondered about which books to booktalk for the unit.  “Nonfiction comedy is easy,” he said.  “Bossypants, Yes Please, Confederacy of Dunces.  But I’m not sure what to booktalk for fiction.”

“But YA fiction is so hilarious!” I exclaimed.  I started rattling off narrators who cracked me up.  Their writing voices were the perfect mentor texts for our students, who’d be focusing on crafting a humorous writing voice over the course of the unit.

“Looks like I know what I’ll be brushing up on for my weekend reading,” Mike remarked.  So here, in part, is a list of what I recommended to him–YA fiction that’s funny and full of voice.

The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie — This novel, paired with illustrations by the narrator, is loosely based on Alexie’s own upbringing somewhere between two identities–his poor Indian self who lives on the rez, and his striving-to-succeed “white” self who attends a better school up the road.  It’s infused with Alexie’s signature wry humor even against a pretty dark plot backdrop.

49750An Abundance of Katherines by John Green — This is, to me, the funniest of Green’s novels, although all of his narrators are pretty hilarious.  Colin Singleton has dated 19 girls named Katherine, and has been dumped by all of them.  If that’s not funny enough as it is, Colin is trying to write a mathematical formula for relationships and likes to find anagrams in random places.

The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks by e. lockhart — For me, Frankie is the female version of James Dean in Rebel Without a Cause.  Determined to subvert the male-dominated traditions at her private school, Frankie gets into all kinds of mischief, and I loved her headstrong voice.

American Born Chinese by Gene Luen Yang — This excellent graphic novel pairs multiple storylines, all of which are made hilarious primarily through dialogue and stylistic choices in Yang’s illustrations.  From antagonists so dumb they’re funny to Yang’s monkey alter ego, this is a humorous look at growing up different in America.

Anna and the French Kiss by Stephanie Perkins — I identified so much with the quirky narrator of this novel.  Forced to change schools right before her senior year, Anna is self-deprecating, sarcastic, and delightfully bewildered when she moves to the International School of Paris.  There’s also a great cast of hilarious supporting characters here.

Dumplin’ by Julie Murphy — I just loved Willowdean, the narrator of this terrific, important novel.  Most of her snide comments are made through internal monologues, but her interactions with her mom through dialogue are also quite funny, too.  Like Part-Time Indian, there are some heavier themes, but all in all I smiled throughout most of this book.

9464733Beauty Queens by Libba Bray — An all-girls’ Lord of the Flies, this book was fantastic for a variety of reasons.  The colorful cast of alternating narrators means there’s someone every reader can identify with, the interactions between those characters are often ridiculous and hysterical, and interwoven with it all is a series of broadcasts from a corrupt third party who are so evil it’s funny.

Noggin by John Corey Whaley — I finally read this book after it was stolen from my library countless times, and it’s hilarious from page one.  The story of a boy whose head is transplanted onto another teen’s body after he dies of cancer, Travis’ tale is at turns heartbreaking and hilarious as he tries to navigate the world five years after he last left it.  A fantastic series of supporting characters elevated the humor in this book for me, too.

Me and Earl and the Dying Girl by Jesse Andrews — For me, this was a more realistic version of The Fault in Our Stars.  I found Greg’s writing voice engaging and entertaining right away, and it made me read this book in one sitting.  His frequent addresses to the reader combined with his hilarious interactions with his friend Earl made Greg a favorite narrator of mine, and makes me eager for Jesse Andrews to write some more books!

Winger by Andrew Smith — All of Andrew Smith’s writings are hilarious at times, but for me Winger was the funniest.  Ryan Dean West is a scrappy fifteen-year-old making his way through freshman year at a private school, and his escapades with his rugby teammates, his crush, and his teachers made for a lot of laughs–up until I completely broke down in sobs for the last 30 pages or so of the book.  Still, Ryan Dean’s voice was so great that I couldn’t wait to devour this book’s sequel, Stand-Off.

What are some of the best-voiced YA books you’ve read that have cracked you up?  Please share in the comments!

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.

 

Writing With Mentors: A Nonnegotiable of Writers Workshop

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WRITING WITH MENTORS by Allison Marchetti & Rebekah O’Dell

Reading Allison Marchetti and Rebekah O’Dell‘s Writing With Mentors is reminding me of the summer, three years ago, that I committed to making the move to readers and writers workshop.  Like my new friends in Franklin, Wisconsin, I already had many of the structures of workshop in place–I just didn’t know how to fit them all together.

As I read and wrote and thought beside the likes of Penny Kittle, Amy, Jackie, Erika, and my other UNH friends, I learned quickly which parts of my instruction to keep and tweak, and which parts to flat-out jettison.  While I felt like my reading workshop practices were solid, I knew I needed to completely rethink the way I designed writing instruction.

I wish I’d had Writing With Mentors that summer.

That summer, I learned that I shouldn’t be designing lessons around a staid form like a persuasive essay or a literary analysis.  I needed to begin thinking about having my students write authentic, interesting pieces on topics of their choice–but I didn’t know how.

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I immediately saw Gregory Pardlo’s DIGEST, full of prose poems, as a mentor text.

I learned how to read like a writer, how to look at the craft and structure of my favorite authors’ works.  I began to see mentor texts everywhere, and in fact too many places–I was exhausted by trying to keep track of everything I wanted to share with my students, and even resolved to read less as a teacher.  I wanted to offer a variety of rich mentor texts to my students without losing my mind–but I didn’t know how.

I learned that my writing process was as unique as my handwriting, and that process has value just as much as a written product does.  I wanted to restructure my unit planning, my gradebook, and my classroom routines to reflect that–but again, I didn’t know how.

Over three years, through trial and error, I’ve figured out how to reckon with a lot of those issues, but I would have known instantly had I read Writing With Mentors then.  This book succinctly showed me great writing units and products, how to plan for them, and how to select and organize current, engaging mentor texts.

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Books are at the center of my writing instruction–literally.

It reminded me that when we read–even to study the craft moves of a mentor author–we must read as readers first, for the “pleasures of story time” and to “hear the rhythms of good writing” (65).

It affirmed my habit of designing new units each year, complete with brand new mentor texts, to meet the needs of my current students and the sociopolitical climate in which we live and read and write.

It helped me cement mentor texts, alongside the writer’s notebook, conferring, and authenticity, as nonnegotiables of a successful writers workshop–because, in Allison and Rebekah’s words, “mentor texts enable complete creativity and individuality to emerge in student writing and writing instruction” (3).

And it reminded me that when students leave our classrooms, “mentor texts will always be present” (167).  When we teach students to write with mentors, they remain capable of reading like writers as they engage with print and media and other real-world texts.   Since getting my students to become lifelong readers and writers is my ultimate goal, this book is now an important mentor to me.

Writing With Mentors is the book to pick up when you put the textbook down, toss out your binders of writing rubrics, or throw up your hands when you read your 94th crappy plagiarized paper in a row.  If you’re seeking to rejuvenate, organize, and revamp your writing instruction, don’t undergo three years of trial and error like I did…let Allison and Rebekah help you write, more happily, successfully, and authentically, with mentors.

Have you read Writing With Mentors?  Share your feedback in the comments!

 

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