Tag Archives: Mini-lesson Monday

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.”

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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: Developing Social Imagination by Making Connections

imgresI’ve been reading Peter Johnston’s excellent Opening Minds with my preservice teachers, and it’s a must-read.  One of the skills Johnston says the most open-minded students possess is that of social imagination, or being able to understand “what others are feeling, to read people’s faces and expressions, to imagine different perspectives, to make sense of abstract ideas, and to reason through this.”  In other words–empathy on all levels.  It strikes me that this is both a reading skill and a life skill.

To have your students practice social imagination, as well as grapple with a complex issue, try the following mini-lesson–which I believe I’d stretch out over two class periods.

ObjectivesDistinguish the differences between meaningfulness and happiness according to the article; Connect the concepts of meaningfulness and happiness to yourself, the characters in your independent reading books, and people in the world.

Lesson: First, I’ll emphatically booktalk Viktor Frankl’s 1946 classic, Man’s Search for Meaning.  This book, written in just seven days while Frankl was imprisoned in Auschwitz, argues that life is always worth living as long as one feels they have a purpose.

Next, I’ll distribute copies of The Atlantic‘s article “There’s More to Life than Happiness,” which pairs Frankl’s book with current research on happiness vs. meaningfulness.  To give students a purpose for reading, I’ll ask them to read the article with a pen in hand, noting the differences between a happy life and a meaningful life.  

To get kids synthesizing the information, I’ll ask, “Once you’ve finished the article, answer this in your notebook for a quickwrite: which do you think is more valuable–a happy life or a meaningful life?”

The article is lengthy, and I’ll allot 30 minutes for students to read and respond in writing before we debrief.  As a whole class, we’ll have a discussion in which we focus on what the article argues, what the students believe, and how culture may have nudged us to believe those things.

imgres-1The next day in class, we’ll refer back to the article before beginning independent reading time.  “As you read today, pay attention to the characters in your book–are their lives more happy, or more meaningful?”

When we wrap up silent reading time, I’ll ask students to turn to a neighbor and tell about the characters in their book, and whether they’re happier or more purpose-driven.  This time will double as peer book recommendations as well as a quick assessment of the text-to-text connection.

After asking students to share out any really great characters they heard about (to give the class more reading recommendations), I’ll ask students to open their notebooks and quickwrite about a text-to-self connection–“is your life right now filled with happiness or meaning?  Or both?  What do you want for the future–happiness or meaningfulness?  Freewrite about this issue in general.  These responses will stay private.”

After writing, I’ll ask students to grab a post-it note and make a text-to-world connection–from their parents to friends to public figures to entire communities, countries, or cultures.  I’ll collect the post-its for a quick assessment.

Follow-Up: I’d like to return to the idea of meaningfulness vs. happiness with a reading or writing unit on the issue.  We could collaboratively study almost any novel, poem, story, or article in reading workshop through the lens of identifying purpose vs. happiness, or explore the issue further in a writing workshop geared toward either narrative, informative, or argumentative pieces.

How might you have your students consider the issue of meaningfulness vs. happiness?

 

Mini-Lesson Monday: Narrative Analysis with StoryCorps

We all have a story to tell.

In fact as writers, we have countless stories to tell. We tell of our experiences, fears, hopes, dreams, and even those trivial events that sometimes add up to more “life” than we could have imagined.

We tell the stories of others too. Real and imagined people that speak to us in words we’ve heard and sometimes, in the words we long to hear.

I wax poetic with my students like this often, but especially early in the school year. I want them to feel my passion for the power of stories and encourage them to develop their own passion for expression. As Morris (protagonist from one of my daughter’s favorite children’s books The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore) beautifully states, “Everyone’s story matters.” 

With this in mind, my American Literature collaborative team (Shout out to Brandon, Catherine, and Erin!) worked this year to develop a unit of narrative writing that asks students to look at the stories they tell and how those stories can be interconnected. Everyone’s story matters, and in this case, they get to have even more meaning as students craft individual tales that relate to their chosen thematic focus.

Students, having already selected, listened to, and analyzed an episode of This American Life for elements of author craft in a narrative (hook, chronological/detail choices, and word choice), partnered up or formed a group of three, and selected a theme out of a hat (dangers of conformity, vanity as downfall, the power of choice, etc.) they would explore, both individually and in their groups.

The overarching assignment is to craft an individual narrative that fits the theme and ultimately orally record the stories in a podcast that highlights the interconnectedness of the individual work. Students are graded individually on their narratives, but the podcasts are a group effort and will be played for the class.

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Objectives — Students will listen to several examples of 2-3 minute stories from NPR’s StoryCorp in order to practice narrative technique identification and analysis one more time before drafting their own stories. Students will discuss and share their insights on narrative impact of what they heard in an effort to purposefully craft their own narratives.

Lesson  — According to their website the initiative of StoryCorp is to “preserve and share humanity’s stories in order to build connections between people and create a more just and compassionate world.” 

In class, we had spoken already about the power and purpose of stories and students had come up with some wonderful ways stories enrich and fulfill us. Stories:

  • explain, or attempt to explain, where we come from and/or why we are here.
  • allow us to express what we believe or hope.
  • reveal who we are or who we want to be.

I shared with students that we were going to listen to some short pieces that told unrelated stories on the surface, but each would link back to some of the reasons we tell stories at all. Students were asked to record what they heard in the hook, insights on which details were included and why, and word choice (all elements they will be scored on when writing their own narratives).

I started by playing a sample story and then walking them through my own analysis. “Traffic Stop” is a piece that details police brutality in 2009 against a black man who was raised by white parents. The piece pretty brutally (I did have to mute three or four seconds of the piece where a police allegedly uses a racial slur that is inappropriate for the classroom) relates the story of a young man who is pulled over by police, searched but cleared, and then is assaulted by police when he questions why the officers are searching his car.

After I played the piece, I projected some of my own analysis. The hook involved the young man’s mother saying that she never would have thought skin color would make a difference for her son, but she painfully learned she was wrong. Word choice vividly captured the pain, fear, and confusion of the young man who was beaten by police. The chronology includes context for the horror of the event, a play by play of the few moments of the traffic stop, and details about the young man’s mother seeing his injuries in the hospital. My analysis was that the elements chosen were specifically selected and organized to convey the disbelief that something like this could happen to an innocent person and the role that race played in the event.

We then listened to two more stories. Students wrote down their take-aways in their writer’s notebooks and discussed after each piece. We shared out ideas and pulled insights back to those class generated elements of why we tell stories.

Finally, I had students listen to one last piece, detail their analysis on a half sheet of paper and turn it in to me for some formative feedback.

Follow-Up — We are about to start mini-lessons on hook, chronology, word choice, and parallelism (thank you Common Core) in drafting these narratives. I plan to reach back to the insights shared during this class in order to help students make purposeful choices in crafting and revising their narratives.

Everyone’s story matters. 

What tools do you use to get students thinking intentionally about their writing craft? Please share your ideas in the comment section below! 

Mini-lesson Monday: Deeper Reading

 

I posted this on the TTT Facebook page on Saturday, but I think it also makes for a good mini-lesson, so here goes:

I went to a session by Kelly Gallagher at #IRC2016. He shared ideas from his book Deeper Reading, combining ideas he’s using with his students now. I was reminded of his thinking around thinking from a text: What does the text say? and What does the text not say?

Gallagher shared a few images from the news, a fact statement, an ad for a truck, and he modeled how he asks his students these two questions as ways to get them thinking about their reading.

I’d heard these same ideas before, but they resonated with me again. Critical thinking matters. We cannot get thoughtful writing, if we are not helping our students to think thoughtfully through texts.

Objective: Read a visual text, make observations and inferences that push critical thinking about a text. Draw conclusions and write your thinking.

Lesson:  Tell students that critical readers don’t just pay attention to what a text says, we also must pay attention to what a text does not say. This ties into the idea that everything is an argument — sometimes overt, sometimes covert. Bias also comes into play. So to get into some critical thinking today, we’re going to watch a short video about the refugee crisis.

Draw a T-chart. Label one column with “What does it say? and the other column “What does it not say?” As you watch the video make lists that answer these two questions.

Watch the video “Your phone is now a refugee’s phone.”

After students have time to do their own thinking and writing their lists (and maybe watch the video again), have them talk in pairs or small groups about the things they noted.

Hold a short whole class discussion about what it does for our thinking when we consider what the author, or in this case, the video creator, intentionally leaves out of a text.

Follow up:  Ask students to find their own text and apply this same thinking. Tell them they can find an advertisement, a chart or graph, an info graphic, another video — any text that they can answer the following questions:

What does the text say?
What does it not say?
Why does it matter?

Continue to ask students to consider these questions with a variety of texts throughout the year. This may also serve as a good exercise to help students find writing topics. Bonus!

 

Do you have any videos, ads, or short text suggestions that you use in similar ways to get students thinking critically? Please share them in the comments.

 

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Mini-Lesson Monday: Low-Stakes Community Building With Post-It Blessings

I am always searching for low-risk ways to build community in my classroom during the first weeks of school.  In order to build norms of sharing our writing, responding to one another’s writing, and writing a whole lot in general, I like to combine some low-stakes activities like imitation writing and positive feedback protocols so students become confident members of a community of real writers.

Objectives — Create your own version of Langston Hughes’ “I, Too, Sing America,” Critique your peers’ poems positively.

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Lesson — I recently read Nancy P. Gallavan’s article “I, Too, Am an American: Preservice Teachers Reflect Upon National Identity” with my students.  The article includes a sample of students’ imitation poems of Hughes’ classic poem, which they wrote in the weeks after 9/11.  The poems sought to make students aware of the stereotypes each one faced, and to defy those stereotypes.

I asked students to read the article before coming to class, to write their own version of the poem, and to bring a copy to class because we’d be sharing it.

(It’s important to disclose to students before they write that a poem will be shared in order to build the norm of openness with their peers.)

With a pile of post-its waiting on each desk, I asked students to take out their poems.

“We’re going to share our writing today, and we’re going to practice giving each other positive, specific feedback.  To begin, pass your poem to the left, and then grab a post-it note.

img_4840“The feedback we’re going to give today is part of the Bless, Press, Address protocol by the NWP. Blessing the writing means to give specific feedback on what you like about the poem. Pressing the writer means pushing him or her to strengthen their piece in some way. Addressing an issue the writer asks you for help on means giving responsive feedback in order to help the writer achieve his or her goals. Today we’re just going to bless one another, since it’s the first time we’re sharing our writing.”

(I think it’s important to begin with positive feedback because it removes the stigma of “peer editing,” which is often vague or negative if not structured properly.)

“So, take a post-it and write a response to a line, or give a compliment about word choice, or discuss something you agree with.  When you finish, pass your poem on to give your neighbor a subtle nudge to keep things moving.”

The room hums with rustling paper and murmured conversation, and I have the students pass the poem five times.

Follow-Up — After giving feedback, students receive their original poems back and read their peers’ comments.  I ask them how it felt to receive this type of feedback, how this activity helps build community, and what other assignments they could use this feedback protocol with.  Their responses to the last question were so creative–DBQs, lab reports, narratives, essays, published works of literature, math activities, thesis statements, and more.

After our discussion, I ask the students to put their poems and post-its into their notebooks to remain a permanent artifact of their peer feedback.

How will you use the Bless, Press, Address protocol with your students? Please share in the comments?

Mini-Lesson Monday: College Applications and the Six Word Memoir

College applications are a daunting endeavor for many of my students each year. Their mailboxes and email inboxes fill with opportunities to apply everywhere from the local community college, to pricey Ivy League schools across the country, to study abroad programs in countries they may never have heard of.

As if that wasn’t enough to sort through, lurking in these countless pages and pamphlets is another overwhelming prospect – The college application essay. Also known as the “tell us who you are as a human, what your soul’s greatest desires might be, and every intimate struggle you’ve had that define you as a young adult” essay. No wonder my announcement that our first paper in AP Language will be the college application essay is usually met with huge sighs of relief. However, that relief is also somewhat short lived as we start to take a look at prompts:

  • Reflect on a time when you challenged a belief or idea. What prompted you to act?
  • Please tell us why you think you would be a good fit for __________.
  • Consider something in your life you think goes unnoticed and write about why it’s important to you.

As I tell my AP classes, “Colleges want to know the real you. The honest, gritty, learned from your mistakes, can bring something unique to their campus you. Your transcripts say keep-calm-and-apply-to-college-27-resized-600a lot about your work ethic, experiences, values, and achievements, but once you put pen to paper, you are a writer, and your story might just help them see the real you and decide that you are far too good to pass up.”

Their horrified looks usually tell me I should follow up with an explanation along these lines:


Don’t worry. We are going to do this together. Sharing your story might not be easy, but take it from this girl, everyone has a story to tell. I was your stereotypical upper-middle-class white girl with loving parents and a blissfully happy childhood. I pretty much seized up when my senior composition teacher said that we needed to write something deeply emotional and challenging in our college application essays. He had me convinced my happy life was going to keep me from going to college. Without a car wreck, lost dog, or deeply wounded heart, what compelling story did I have to tell?

Well, it turns out that one can write from the heart no matter the circumstances, and that’s what I want you to use for your own applications. An experience, belief, value, or direction for your life, can all be deeply emotional and revealing of the type of person any college would want to accept. I spoke about my desire to be a teacher in my application. Teaching is in my blood, and I had known I wanted to be a teacher since I was little. My dad used to bring home an extra gradebook for me and I’d line up my babies and stuffed animals and teach class. See…? I have the beginnings of a narrative right there. I expanded on what it would mean to me to become a teacher and how I knew the patience and passion I already possessed would not only make me a good teacher someday, they would make me a great addition to any campus because true teachers know the value of lifelong learning.


So…how to help students concisely sum up who they are?

Examples, examples, examples.

Let’s try six words. Total.

Objective: Using the language of the Depth of Knowledge levels, students will create six word memoirs as written artifacts in their writer’s notebooks to either spark ideas for drafting their college application essays, or serve as possible opening sentences for those essays.

Lesson: The timing of this lesson is after several class periods of having students explore who they are and what they value through quick writes and other activities. On one occasion, I have students write a quick write on the story they would tell to demonstrate positive elements of their character. We share stories about helping those in need, commitment in the face of certain defeat, and encounters with temptation, and then bullet point some of the “college friendly” attributes these stories suggest.

During another class period, I had students read, analyze, and then emulate Amy’s recent suggestion of the poem “Possibilities.” This was the first year I used this poem during this unit, and I could not be more happy with the results. Students did some beautiful work in analyzing Szymborska’s structure in order to write a poem with their own preferences. I made sure to discuss with students the variety of topics that Szymborska uses in the poem from straightforward preferences of activities and food to those that reveal character and life experiences. I challenged students to do the same with some wonderful results.

Finally, for this specific lesson, I reminded students of my suggestion to keep their college application essays brief, as most applications would demand that they be so with limited word counts.

“So today, I want you to be really brief. Six words brief. We’re going to try to capture some of who you are and what you believe in exactly six words.”

I begin by sharing with them a few six word memoirs of my own and talking them through sixwordthe back stories. We then head to Smith Magazine’s Six Word Memoir page so students can look around. They are to write down a few favorites and also write what they think the larger message of those snapshot memoirs might be. We discuss at our tables and then share out a few to discuss what their favorites might reveal about the authors that crafted them.

Throughout the lesson, I remind students that just as we saw in “Possibilities,” brief snippets can reveal an awful lot about who we are. This is our goal in the college application essays as a whole, and this is our goal in the exercise.

Students spend some time drafting, sharing, and then praising the work of their peers. I suggest to students that these memoirs might be great hooks for their essays, they might spark an anecdote they could include along the way, or they might simply keep students focused on their own beliefs and values in order to use those to guide what they write about themselves.

Follow-Up:  Students are working hard on their college application essays and will be doing some peer editing early this week with submission to follow later in the week. To extend the work even further, I’ll be sharing a unique extension activity with my classes.

On September 22nd, 2016, the team at Six Word Memoirs will be participating in the 3rd annual Character Day, which is a global discussion about the importance of developing true character in the world’s citizens. I’ll be encouraging my students to participate with some of the six word memoirs they’ve already created and perhaps with contributions they craft especially to speak to developing, according to the Six Word Memoir site, “curiosity, empathy, and grit.”

How do you challenge your students to write about themselves in meaningful ways? Please share your ideas in the comment section below! 

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.

Mini-Lesson Monday: First and Last Lines

In the spirit of all the books we’re giving away (winners announced tonight!), today’s mini-lesson is one of my favorites to do with independent reading books.  It celebrates the beauty and power of language, no matter the text–poetry, nonfiction, YA, award-winners, graphic novels, and more.  It also celebrates the pure joy of discovery; the launch into a new world attained only by opening to the first page of a new book.

Objectives:  Using the language of the Depth of Knowledge levels, students will identify patterns in opening and closing lines of texts, synthesize their noticings, and draw conclusions about a text’s craft and structure.

primcacyLesson:  “Have y’all learned about the concepts of primacy and recency in psychology yet?  Who can refresh us?”

A student reminds us that the concept says that the first and last items in a series are easier and more likely to be committed to memory.

“Well, this concept isn’t just for psychology.  It applies to books too.  The first and last lines of books are the most powerful, and the most likely to stick with us.  Let’s talk in our table groups about why the first and last lines are so powerful.”

I wander the room for three minutes as students discuss, in groups of 3-4, these concepts.  They conclude that the first line often sets the tone, introduces a new world, or hooks the reader with some mystique.  The last line, they say, helps keep the reader wondering, or solves a lingering mystery, or even makes you cry.

I write these conclusions on the board, or elicit them from groups if necessary, so that we’re all on the same page.

“Okay, let’s take a look at some of our current reads and see how they can grab our attention.  Open up your independent reading book and read the first line again, and then read the very last line, too.”  (There’s always some anxiety about this, but I reassure them that last lines rarely contain plot giveaways.)

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(OMG, have you read this? It exploded in popularity the last few weeks of this school year. Read it!)

I ask a few students to give me examples:

  • Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children begins with “I had just come to accept that my life would be ordinary when extraordinary things began to happen,” and ends with, “We rowed faster.”  
  • A Prayer for Owen Meany opens with “I am doomed to remember a boy with a wrecked voice—not because of his voice, or because he was the smallest person I ever knew, or even because he was the instrument of my mother’s death, but because he is the reason I believe in God; I am a Christian because of Owen Meaney,” and ends with, “I shall keep asking you.”
  • The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August begins with “The second cataclysm began in my eleventh life, in 1996,” and concludes, “Instead, for those few days you have left, you are mortal at last.”
  • Room opens with “Today I’m five,” and ends with “Then we go out the door.”

I ask students to write for a few minutes about all that they can learn from the first and last lines, based on what they already know of the text from reading.  This is key–the lesson is much different than a simple craft study of a text they’re not already invested in, because they’re bringing lots more prior knowledge to their text analysis.

7937843I quickly model with Room, whose plot is simply explained and well known from a recent booktalk.  “I notice the sentence structure first–both lines are short, simple sentences.  Then I get a sense of the narrator’s voice, as he is obviously five years old, and that shapes how I’m going to view the text.  I also know that while they start out trapped in Room, they manage to escape somehow, either literally or figuratively, because of the last line.  I’m intrigued by all of these things, and it sets me up for what sounds like a pretty good read.”  As I talk, I note on the board the kinds of things I’m noticing–craft, tone, characterization, theme, plot, sentence structure.

Students write for five minutes about these topics.  Because they’re midway through these books, they have more knowledge of the text than just the first and last lines.  After a few minutes of writing about what they’ve noticed, I ask, “Now, how does revisiting the first line, and looking ahead to the last line, shape your reading of the text?  What do you find yourself thinking about?  What do you predict might happen?”

Follow-Up:  After students have written their reflections, I ask that they pass notebooks.  They’ll read all of their table mates’ entries, providing 2-3 mini-booktalks–a variation on speed dating.

This lesson could also be a great companion to Jackie’s mini-lesson on writing leads.

This lesson also acts as one of a series of lessons leading up to the students’ writing of a craft analysis of their independent reading books.

Mini-Lesson Monday: Notebook Passes

While we’ve written often about the value of writer’s notebooks–how to set them up and establish them as part of a learning routine–I’ve been thinking lately about the importance of sharing notebooks, creating a community space for writing, and keeping the writing process transparent.  Similar to how revision is a daily part of workshop, peer feedback is too.  It’s key that we know how to open our notebooks to other eyes so that our writing can grow its best thanks to many brains.  This mini-lesson focuses on a low-risk intro to an open notebook and its role as a workshop norm.

Objective: Using the language of the Depth of Knowledge levels, make predictions about a character’s actions and interpret  their actions thus far; create a response to a peer’s questions and inferences.

41Cx8mY2UNL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_Lesson:  I love to introduce students to each other’s notebooks through a shared bit of reading.  Early in the year, we’d just finished reading a selection from Fahrenheit 451 about halfway through the novel, and were all intrigued by what in the world was going on with the variety of characters.  What was Guy’s wife doing with herself all day?  Was the fire chief good or evil?  Would Guy become a reader?  Would the mechanical hound eat everyone alive?  There were more questions than answers (as is the norm in workshop, I feel), so we turned to our notebooks.

“Today, we’re going to write a letter to a character we’re fairly interested in.  Maybe you find Guy indecisive and aggravating.  Maybe you think Clarice is a great role model.  Maybe you think Ray Bradbury himself is a genius for predicting so many of today’s technological innovations.  Whoever you’d like to write to, ask them all the burning questions you have and don’t worry about the answers!”  I turn to model on the board, writing to the main character’s wife.

“Be as real as you want–I’m going to write to Millie, who lives in this trancelike state all the time, obsessed with TV and media.  She drives me nuts!  I’m going to really hit her with some hard questions.  But know that we’re going to share our letters, so don’t get too crazy.”

img_0966We’ll take 6-7 minutes to write our initial letters, and I circulate the room as kids work to select and address a character.

“Okay, time up.  Sign your letter, and then I want you to pass your notebook to the person to the left of you.  Whoever gets your notebook is going to write you back–but here’s the catch.  They have to pretend to be the character you addressed.  So if you wrote to Millie, like I did, then whoever gets your notebook will pretend to be Millie and try to answer all of your questions.”

We take a few minutes to read letters, giggle, ponder a response, and then write.  After about 5 minutes of responding, I ask students to close their in-character letters, then return the notebooks to their owners.  When kids get their notebooks back, the volume in the classroom inevitably increases–everyone loves seeing someone else’s words in their notebook, and there are questions about handwriting and the veracity of a response and shouts of laughter at someone’s humor.

“Okay, take a few minutes to read your responses, then summarize both letters with your table.  As a group, talk about all the new insights you reached about these characters.”  The classroom gets loud as everyone shares at small tables.

Follow-Up:  Once small group sharing concludes, I ask for a few volunteers to share exemplars and we discuss those characters in depth as a class.  I love this lesson because it gets students to deeply analyze characters, as well as creates a norm for notebooks as a space for shared writing.  It’s a lengthy lesson–usually consuming the quickwrite and mini-lesson portions of my class–but one that’s worth repeating frequently to get students doing deep analysis and writing to one another in a no-risk way, which lays the groundwork for more vulnerable sharing later.

As we move further into the novel, I’ll ask students to revisit these letters to see if their predictions came true or their questions proved insightful.  Further, when I collect notebooks, I can check for deep understanding of the text with these letters.

How do you use notebooks to create a shared learning space or blend reading and writing instruction?

 

Mini-lesson Monday: All Good Writing Begins with a Good Question

One of the hardest things I ask my students to do all year is choose their own topics. We start generating ideas on the first day of school. We watch video clips, read quotes and short passages, listen to poems, look at cartoons — and we write responses. We create various versions of writing territories in our writer’s notebooks. We have many ideas stored in our well-used notebooks by this time each year.

But with every writing task, students seems to always start the topic journey right back at square one, even when I remind them that they have a mine of ideas sitting in the pages of their composition books. I’ve decided that just like me they like the process of discovery.

My goal is to get them to move past topic discovery into writing discovery. Too often, students think they have to know what they want to say before they ever start writing. No wonder so many kids have a hard time approaching the blank page. (See NCTE’s 10 Myths of Learning to Write #4)

The last writing assignment my students complete each year is a multi-genre type piece wherein they show they’ve improved in the various writing modes we’ve practiced throughout the year. They have almost total choice in terms of what they write, and they have most of the choice in terms of the forms they write in.

I have just two mandatory suggestions (oxymoron intended):  one piece must be a Rogerian argument, and somewhere in their master piece, students must show they know how to use an academic database to find valid sources, and then they must use the sources in the correct context, and cite the sources correctly.

We look at a few mentor texts that use multiple genres within the same piece. Narrative, informative, persuasive — plus images and info-graphics, or other types of forms that present information, including videos and interviews. My favorite is the award-winning feature article, Snowfall: Avalanche at Tunnel Creek by John Branch.

Once students know their end-goal: the creation of their own multi-genre writing piece that shows off their writing journey for the year, they must choose a topic. Some will want to stick with a topic they’ve written about multiple times this year. Depending on the topic, and the student, I may be oaky with that.

This mini-lesson came about in an attempt to help students figure out a topic that they know enough about to ask questions but not so much about that they could answer all of them.

Objective:  Using the language of the Depth of Knowledge Levels, students will construct a list of things that make them wonder; they will formulate questions about a self-selected topic derived from their wonderings. They will then categorize the questions in sets that make sense. Finally, they will determine which questions may best be answered through a specific genre or form of writing.

Lesson:  I tell students that we are about to play in our notebooks. “Turn to a new page, and write a list of all the things you wonder about,” I say. They usually sit there writing nothing, so I get them started:  “I wonder if teens got paid to go to school if they would want to learn more.”

Most students start to write, but I keep wandering the room, stating things that make me wonder as students list their own wonderings in their notebooks.

“I wonder when the state of Texas will get wise to the lack of wisdom in state testing. I wonder why students choose to do their APUSH homework over AP English. I wonder if the Dallas Cowboys will ever win the Superbowl again.”

Once students have at least a half a page of wonderings, I ask them to talk with one another in their small groups. “Perhaps your peers will remind you of something else you wonder about. Add it to your list.”

“Okay, look at your list and zero in on one topic that you think you can find the answer to with a little bit of research. Now, let’s think all the way around this topic.”

I ask students which of my wonderings I should use as a model for their next step, and they tell me the one about the Cowboys. I write it on the board. “Okay, help me come up with questions that look at this from every perspective possible — like who has a stake in whether the Cowboys win the Superbowl again.”

When was the last time the Cowboys won the Superbowl?

Who led the Cowboys to the Superbowl in the past?

How many times have the Cowboys been in the Superbowl?

Is the Cowboys coach as good as the coaches in the past? Are the players as good as the players in the past?

What is different or the same about the NFL?

What do the Cowboys need to do to win more games?

Who would be a better quarterback than Tony Romo?

Does the current team consist of Superbowl quality players?

Which teams are in the way of the Cowboys going all the way again?

Some questions get silly — pretty sure the Dallas Cowboy Cheerleaders don’t matter all that much to the reality of getting to the Superbowl. Sorry, girls — but students get a hang of the idea. “Ask as many questions as you can think of. After you write a list of your own, ask your peers for help in writing others.”

Next, we need to put our questions in categories. I ask students to talk with one another and determine which of our questions about the Cowboys might go together. We decide we’ve got questions about 1. the history of winning the Superbowl, 2. similarities and differences in the game, the coach, the players, 3. current Cowboys, 4. the opponents.

We talk about what genres and forms might work to convey the best answers to our questions.

“Compare and contrast the differences. That’d be easy,” someone says.

“The history of the Cowboys’ past wins would be information, right?” another student says.

“What could be the topic of a persuasive piece?” I ask.

“The question about the ability of the current players. Easy.”

I tell students that they get the idea, and I charge them with reading through their questions and categorizing them into groups that seem to go together.

I remind them:  “All good writing begins with a good question.” And they’re off.

Follow up:  Students should use their questions and their categories to guide the choices they make as they write their end-of year multi-genre pieces. In conferences, I read through questions, helping students add to and clarify. I remind them that form helps determine meaning, so as they make choices, they need to think about the best way to share meaning with their intended audiences. Students will present their writing projects as their final exams.

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