Tag Archives: Mini-lesson: Writing

#FridayReads — A Book about Death to Teach Writing?

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

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

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

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New books added to by to read next list.

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

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

I kicked myself after.

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

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

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

But this is a comedy.

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

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

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

And something always happens.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Reading is fun. Isn’t it?

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

Poetic Mini-Lessons from Real-Life Mentors

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Fiction writer Emily works with Tyler, Logan, and Willy to discuss a poem.

If your town is a university town, like mine is, there are guaranteed to be some amazing writing mentors right under your nose.  Have you taken advantage of them?

Our university’s MFA program offers courses in writing poetry, fiction, and nonfiction, and I was lucky enough to connect with these fine folks through the Bolton Writing Workshops, which were a fantastic challenge for me to participate in.  And my students were lucky enough that several of the program’s MFA students were willing to come into our classroom and write beside them.

Our writers came to visit one of my least-poetically-inclined classes, bearing many mentor texts, three poem prompts, and two revision exercises.  They wrote beside my students and their seriousness inspired earnest effort from my kiddoes–I was so impressed.  Rarely have I seen fourth period so calm, engaged, or thoughtful.  Their method consisted of three steps–read, write, revise.

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Nonfiction writer Whit works with Dylan, Scott, Mariana, and Hailey to analyze a poem.

Read poetry.  The Bolton writers brought over 20 poems for my students to study.  A pro read the poem aloud, my students following along on their own copies at their desks.  We absorbed the language, the tone, the emotions of the poem.  The Bolton poets asked questions like:

  • “Why is the poem called this?”
  • “Do you believe this speaker?”
  • “Did you like this poem?  Why?”
  • “How many characters do we see in this poem?”
  • “What do we think of this (image, line)?”

Their language was important to me, as it created a community of writers by using the word “we,” focused on responsiveness to the poems rather than the extraction of meaning, and encouraged a variety of responses.  My students engaged with this kind of talk fully–I loved the quiet murmurings I heard as teens worked to construct meaning and understand these poems.

We read closely a variety of poems that did what we wanted to try–prose poems like “Instructions on How to Cry” by Julio Cortazar, or free verse like “The Instruction Manual” by John Ashbery, for a poem about instructions on how to do something.  Then we wrote.

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Logan’s poem about how to hunt

Write poetry.  Next came the writing–very low stakes, line-by-line, three times.  We wrote a poem where each line corresponded to a month in the year, one from the point of view of an animal, and one list of instructions on how to do something we felt expert at.

In poems with eight to twelve lines, my students wrote about hunting, death, school, love, welding, graduation, trust, and a wide variety of other topics.  Each poetic prompt allowed for a student to write about whatever was meaningful to him or her.  I loved the lovely images they produced, no matter the topics–like Logan’s “soft brass shells” in his hunting poem.

We wrote three drafts, then revised.

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Dylan’s poem about how to weld

Revise, revise, revise.  The revision process, like the writing process, was low stakes.  The Bolton writers advised my students to:

  • “Cross out your two worst lines.”
  • “Repeat your best image or line somewhere else in the poem.”
  • “Circle a line you love so we can share it.”
  • “Think about where you might add some alliteration.”

Language was celebrated, no matter how fancy or plain.  Dylan’s use of similes, metaphors, and alliteration in his poem about welding received lots of snaps.  I believe he felt comfortable sharing it because of the authentic atmosphere the professional writers created–he knew he’d be taken seriously, and his words were met with thoughtful  responses from both the Bolton poets and his fellow students.

The two-day workshop was a fantastic reminder of how simple it is to celebrate poetry in any classroom, within any timeframe, as part of any unit.  Simply read beautiful poetry, try your hand at a few drafts, then revise as much as you need to.  I loved participating in this workshop and watching my students blossom, acting and thinking and talking like serious poets.

Have you brought any writers into your classroom or school?  Please share how it went in the comments!

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

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

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

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

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

I will keep doing what I know works.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Mini-Lessons are in the Students Before You by Colleen Kiley

“You have all the tools you need to plan minilessons in the students before you. The secret is to be willing to flail around together through the murky mystery of how to get to the heart of story.”     -Penny Kittle, Write Beside Them, 2008

guest post iconA few weeks ago, in preparation for a unit on personal narrative, I was rereading (for at least the 4th time) a chapter from Penny Kittle’s Write Beside Them. Upon rereading these words, I immediately thought of my student Dani. Just yesterday she’d stayed after class to revise a piece of writing. The assignment, to write a snapshot moment, was the first formal writing piece of the semester (an idea I also gleaned from Kittle), and she was determined to get it just right.

Dani was writing about a semi-traumatic, semi-humorous event from a few months prior when, rushing to leave school, she rear ended a school bus. Dani was struggling with her beginning.

“What comes to mind first when you think of that day?” I’d ask a few days earlier.

“All I could see was yellow.”

“That’s perfect!” I was excited for her to begin this piece and just wanted her to get words on the page. “Start there, and then go back in time to show us the events leading up to hitting the bus.”

But today, after rewriting and reworking and just re-everything, we both realized the beginning wasn’t working.

“Okay,” I told her, “so scratch that first sentence and let’s find a new way to begin this.” I thought she’d be hesitant to delete something she spent a lot of time thinking about; many of my students are and I understand. Sometimes it takes days of my gentle prodding for them to get words on a page. And after so much work, they certainly cannot imagine deleting those precious words. But Dani loved it, and felt relief from deleting something that clearly wasn’t working. We spent another hour on the piece. I continued to make suggestions about totally deleting sections or being more specific with the details of the actual event, reminding her she was writing a snapshot, not an entire narrative.

“I’m worried there will be nothing left.”

I assured her that by keeping only the most important details, the ones that evoked the senses and allowed the reader to feel the intensity of the moment, she’d have a stronger piece than if she included every minute detail leading up to the actual event. And then she went back to work, eagerly adjusting and rewriting.

The type of revision Dani was engaged in felt authentic; she could see the piece improving in front of her and I could see she was pleased with the results. I wanted to infuse this into my other twenty-two students, so I asked if she’d walk the class through her revision process.


The next day Dani used the “See Revision History” tool in Google Docs to show the class how she revised her snapshot moment.

It wasn’t easy for her to talk through the process, though, and I was surprised at how often I had to remind her what decisions she’d made while revising. I asked her to tell the class why she’d deleted a section or rewrote another, and this proved to be a challenge. Dani is a very outspoken student, so I thought it would be easy for her. Then I recalled Kittle’s words: flail, murky, mystery. Right. It wasn’t easy for Dani to describe the process because she was just learning it and it’s not a simple process with easy to follow steps.

And isn’t that the lesson of revision? It’s murky and mysterious and you’re going to spend A LOT of time flailing around, as Dani had done. I’m hoping that’s what my students realized as Dani showed the evolution (again, the Google Docs Revision History tool was so helpful in this lesson) of her piece.

From these drafts we see so much about the revision process.

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We see that sentences must be deleted or rewritten.

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We see that sometimes you have to rewrite the beginning many, many times.

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We see that you have to rearrange paragraphs. Or delete paragraphs. Or save paragraphs at the bottom, in case you want them later.

We see that you have to do a lot of thinking.

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And then we see a final snapshot that gives us all the details and emotions of the event, and leaves us wanting to know the rest of the story. Dani may continue this story and develop it into a longer narrative in our next unit, or she may start with a new topic and leave this be. Either way, Dani, and hopefully the class, learned what it truly means to revise, and I learned the power of using my students as mentors in the writing workshop.

Colleen Kiley teaches high school English in Bristol, Vermont, a rural town nestled in the foothills of the Green Mountains. She is passionate about connecting each student to the right book and was a 2015 Book Love Foundation grant winner. Inspired by the wonderful teachers at Three Teachers Talk and Moving Writers, she is continually trying to improve her approach to the writer’s workshop. You can reach her on Twitter at @ckiley4.

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.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mini-Lesson Monday: Storyboarding to Organize Writing

For me, narrative is central to all reading and writing.  I can find story anywhere–poetry, nonfiction, even a science report–so it’s no surprise that I teach about storyboarding a lot, both in the context of reading and writing instruction.  My students storyboard what’s happening in their independent reading novels, map out what they’ll present about through storyboards, and organize their writing using them too.

Objective:  Using the language of the Depth of Knowledge Levels, students will organize the plot structure of their own narratives; create a map of their story structure, and differentiate between pacing speeds in scenes mapped out.  Or, from the Common Core, students will use a variety of techniques to sequence events so that they build on one another to create a coherent whole and build toward a particular tone and outcome.

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Mitchell’s narrative storyboard is reminiscent of lessons from Tom Newkirk’s Boys & Literacy class

Lesson:  Prior to this lesson, students will already have selected a narrative topic and talked it out, at least generally, with their peers.  They will be ready to create a start-to-finish storyboard for the structure of their narrative.  We will also have studied “Eleven” by Sandra Cisneros to review pacing, and how to slow down and speed up scenes.

I’ll begin by modeling on the whiteboard for students.  “So, in my narrative, I want to tell the story of this pregnancy.  I want it to be kind of funny, so I’m going to focus most of my scenes on the funny parts–my husband’s and parents’ reactions when I told them, and my own reaction to figuring it out.

“So where should I begin my narrative, do you think?” I ask.

“Probably with suspecting you were pregnant,” a student chimes in.

“Yep.”  I draw a box on the board, and draw stick-figure me at my desk at school, question marks over my head, pondering whether I could be pregnant.

“Then where do I go?”

“Finding out you are for sure,” another kid says.

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Carleen’s narrative storyboard shows her addition of a flashback after partner conferencing.

“Yep.”  I draw another box next to my first one, using a directional arrow to connect them.  We go on in this vein until my storyboard is nearly complete, adding a flashback to previous disappointing pregnancy test results, and swapping the location of a scene.  Then I turn the students loose to draw their own storyboards in their notebooks.

Follow-Up:  After students have drawn their completed storyboards, I’ll ask them to find a partner to tell their story.  Often, this is where hiccups and gaps in the narrative structure are revealed–this second-draft talk.  Students will make revisions to their storyboards, and during workshop time we’ll begin writing actual scenes out in prose format.

In our next mini-lesson, we’ll choose which scenes to slow down and which to speed up, and work on various techniques to control pace.

How do you use storyboarding in your classroom?  Do you have any resources for storyboarding digitally?  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.

 

Mini-lesson Monday: Taking on the Thesis Statement

Right now, my students and I are writing spoken-word poems. I’ve wanted to play with language this way for a long time now, but finally mustered the courage — and figured out a way to make this kind of poetry fit into my AP Language goals and the needs of my students as they prepare for the AP Lang exam.

While watching and listening to many spoken-word poems, I realized that most of them are an argument, filled with not only beautifully crafted language — devices galore — but they also show craft in the use of the appeals. With the help of my student teacher, Mr. Zachery Welch, we designed a unit that centers around the rhetoric in spoken-word poems. And we are all writing our own. (This is a challenge for me, but I absolutely believe the the importance of a teacher writing beside her students. Thanks, Penny Kittle, for teaching me that!)

The performance task for this unit reads:  Craft a spoken word poem that addresses a personal conflict and/or a social issue, include rhetorical techniques and literary and rhetorical devices to convince your audience of the need for positive change. Perform your poem for the class live, or create an automated slide show with visuals, or a video recording as a way to digitally perform your poem.

This lesson stems from our work  — and the need for students to include stronger thesis statements in all of their argumentative essays.

Objective:   Using the language of the depth of knowledge levels, students will identify powerful lines in a spoken-word poem that serve as position statements. They will discuss and then categorize these statements in order of importance as it pertains to the poet’s overall theme. Students will then formulate three powerful thesis statements of their own and revise their drafts to include these powerful thesis-like lines.

Lesson:  Watch and listen to “Paper People” by Harry Baker. Ask students to pay particular attention to the lines of the poem that hold the weight of the poet’s position. They must listen carefully because Baker’s poem is primarily crafted with the alliterative “p”. Give students a copy of the lyrics, and on the second listening, having them mark specific lines they think represent Baker’s position. Then, ask students to discuss the lines they marked with their small groups. As a class, determine the line that best serves as Baker’s thesis.

Next, instruct students to write three thesis statements for their own poems. They should discuss their thesis statements within their groups and help one another develop powerful statements that hold the weight of the meaning in their poems. Then, instruct students to revise their poems, including all three of their new strong lines.

Follow up:  Students continue to revise and strengthen the arguments within their spoken-word poems. They should also remember to write three powerful thesis statements in their argumentative essays and challenge themselves to use all three in their writing.

Using Picture Books as Secondary Mentor Texts

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

Mini-Lesson Monday: Setting Up New Notebooks

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Our first semester notebook sections

My students and I have filled up one notebook thus far this school year, and as the second quarter comes to a close, we’re going to buy new ones and decorate, personalize, and organize them together.

At the beginning of the year, I asked my students to create quite a few sections in our notebooks.  This helped us stay organized at first, but as the year went on and sections filled up, the variety of sections caused more stress than they relieved.

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Brand new notebook! I love this one by “Punctuate” from Barnes & Noble.

Over break, our friend Erika shared an excellent article about the health benefits of journaling.  Amy said this about the article: “I wish composition notebooks were cheap right now. I’d get new ones for my students, read this piece, and start over when we get back to school. We’ve got notebooks, but we are not as into them as I would like. Could be a jump start.”

I feel the same way Amy does.  Our notebooks have turned more into workspaces and less into journals.  I want to change that as we begin the second semester.

Objectives — Using the language of the Depth of Knowledge Levels:  Formulate ideas about topics during quickwrite time; Construct language that reflects beliefs and ideas. Or, from the Common Core: Write routinely over extended time frames (time for research, reflection, and revision) and shorter time frames (a single sitting or a day or two) for a range of tasks and purposes.

Lesson — I’ll begin by telling students this story:  “I read Tom Romano’s Write What Matters again over break, looking for ideas for meaningful notebook activities.  From his chapter titled “Notebook: Playground, Workshop, Repository,” Tom gives this advice about journals:

“Buy one. Write in it every day. You’ll strengthen your writing muscles and keep them supple. You’ll learn to accept words your mind offers. You’ll consolidate writing skills you’re developing. You’ll sharpen your perceptions, live more alertly. You’ll expand your vocabulary, too.

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My first page of all my notebooks–a photo and a tracing of my hand, inspired by Penny Kittle and Sarah Kay’s poem “Hands.”

“This quote resonates with me.  It reminds me why I write, and why we should all write often.  Why do you find value in writing?”

We’ll have a conversation about the meaningfulness of writing, then set up our notebooks together.

“Last semester felt hectic when all of our sections filled up.  This semester I want to keep it simple.”  I’ll put the following guidelines on the board:

  • What-to-read list goes on very last page
  • Vocab words go on the page before that (see our posts here and here to know how we “do” vocab)
  • Quotes go on the page before that (craft studies usually go here)
  • Small section for heart books at the very end

“And that’s it.  I want to just write in chronological order every day, keeping just a few pages in the back for our usual routines.”

We’ll spend the remainder of class setting up our sections and collage-ing our notebooks to personalize them, as Jackie describes here.  I’ll do this alongside my students, adding ultrasound pictures and magazine cutouts to represent the upcoming year of change that’s in store for me.

Over the coming weeks, we’ll focus on using mini-lessons from Write What Matters–ones that involve drawing, writing therapeutically, and telling the narratives of our writing places and experiences.  I’ll hope to jump start, in Amy’s words, my students’ passion for writing with new notebooks and new notebook routines.

What routines will you change as the first semester ends?  What elements of your teaching will you revise?  Please share in the comments.

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