Tag Archives: student writers

Micro-writing for the Win

Sometimes it takes a lot of patience. That was my first thought when I read Sarah’s post last month The Hits Will Come. She shares how baseball and writing have a lot in common–both require a lot of practice. And sometimes the “hits” come quickly for student writers. Sometimes they don’t. Sometimes we have to help students want to even try to write a hit.

My thoughts turned to a student I taught last year. I’ll call him Dan. The very first day of class as I made the rounds, trying to speak to each students individually for just a moment, Dan said to me, “Miss, I know you just said we were gonna write a lot in this class, but I gotta tell you, I can’t write. I mean, really, not even a decent sentence.”

theofficeofficequotes.com

Of course, I appreciated the honesty, and that Dan thought enough about how I started the class to tell me straight up how he felt, but inside I was thinking, “Dude, you are a senior about to graduate high school in a couple of months, what do you mean you can’t write a sentence?” Of course, I didn’t say that. Instead I asked him why he thought he couldn’t write. His answer still makes me angry.

“My teacher last year told me,” he said. “I failed every essay. I just couldn’t seem to write what she wanted me to write.”

So many thoughts.

Over the course of the first several days of class, I made sure to find the time to talk with Dan. I learned that he had plans to go into the military as soon as he graduated. I learned that the only book he’d read all the way through in his 11 years of school was American Sniper by Chris Kyle.

And during the next few weeks, I learned that Dan could write–when he chose what he wanted to write about, and when his peers and I gave him feedback that made him feel like he was a writer. This took a lot of time and patience.

First, Dan had to want to write. He had to know that I wasn’t going to judge whatever he put on the page. He had to trust that I was sincere in 1) wanting to know what he thought, 2) helping him string sentences together so they said what he wanted them to say.

Reading helped. Since Dan liked Chris Kyle’s book, I helped him find other books written by those who had served in the Armed Forces. Lone Survivor by Marcus Luttrell and No Easy Day by Mark Owen were ones my own soldier son had read. Then, I found the list “Best Modern Military Accounts” on Goodreads.com and the article The 13 Best Books the Military Wants Its Leaders to Read. Dan didn’t read any of these books (not for my lack of trying to get him to choose a book), but during independent reading time, he did read about them–and this was enough to give me talking points to help him understand why growing in his confidence as a writer might be in his best interest– and topics for him to write about that semester.

Relationships helped. Since Dan had been so forthright with me about his experience with writing, I asked if he’d share his thoughts about writing with the peers who shared his table. He was all too eager! I’m pretty sure he thought his peers would share his writing woes. But like a miracle from heaven, Dan happened to have chosen to sit with two confident and capable writers. These students did not know one another before my class, but they grew to trust each other as we followed the daily routines of self-selected independent reading, talking about our reading, writing about our reading (or something else personal or thematically related to the lesson), and sharing our writing with our table groups.

Prior to independent notebook writing time, sometimes I’d say, “Today as you share your writing in your groups, let’s listen for just one phrase or sentence that you think holds a punch. Talk about why you like what they wrote.” This instruction gave students a heads up. Oh, I need to be sure to write at least one pretty good sentence.

One pretty good sentence was a good starting place for Dan. This micro writing gave Dan his first “hits.” And once he started to gain some confidence, he started to write more. Once Dan started to write more, he started asking for help to make his writing better. I think that is what it means to be a writer–wanting to improve your writing.

I think sometimes we get rushed. We expect more than some students are able to give. When I first started teaching, I assigned writing instead of teaching writers. Thank God I learned a better way. I would have missed out on a lot of joy in my teaching career.

I don’t know that Dan will ever have to write in his career in the military. It doesn’t matter. What matters is that he can write, and he knows he can. Even if it’s just a pretty good sentence and another and another.

Amy Rasmussen lives in a small but about to burst small town in North Texas with her husband of 35 years, her poison dart frogs Napoleon and Lafayette, her Shelties Des and Mac, and her extensive and time-consuming rare tropical plant collection. She believes educators should Do Nothing all summer. (Affiliate link, so you buy, 3TT gets a little something.) You can find Amy on Twitter @amyrass, although she rarely tweets anymore, or on IG @amyleigh_arts1, where she posts about grandkids and grand plants.

Getting Smarter about Informative Texts

I’ve been thinking about how we use informational texts in our classrooms–if we use them and how often–since Tosh wrote about this topic about a month ago. Her statement is so me:

“I, like many other language arts teachers, overvalued and overemphasized the genres of fiction in the lessons I taught, and now I’m on a mission (crusade?) to help teachers connect students with interesting and complex informational texts that can broaden their knowledge of the world around them as well as model the writing they will have to do in that world.”

Like Tosh, I have my own 20/20 hindsight. And while I never taught my own children in an ELAR class, I did facilitate years of workshops where students “wrote prolifically in their journals and experimented with different writing styles. . . [and] a lot of poetry writing and narratives and imaginative stories” and little focus on reading “more complex informational texts.” Like Tosh, I felt “by focusing on the beauty of language and expression, I neglected the power and practicality of strong informational reading and writing skills.”

And then I got smarter.

It wasn’t that I needed to do away with the the reading and writing practices I had been doing. This kind of reading and writing works magic in developing relationships and beginning the habits of mind of authentic readers and writers–engagement soars when students feel the emotional tug of a beautifully written story or poem, and we invite them to write beside it and then share their writing with their peers. What I needed to do was use these practices as a springboard into an exploration of the more complex informational texts I knew my students needed.

I also knew that to keep students engaged, the spring in my board needed just a little bounce not a 10 foot one. Instead of a sharp shift from one type of reading and writing into another, we took a slow curve. We started mining our own expressive writing for topics we could research, read, and write about in other forms.

For example, since our first major writing piece was narrative, we’d packed our writer’s notebooks with multiple quick writes that sparked reflections about personal events in our lives. Imbedded in these events were topics–topics that could lead to a search for information.

Take my student Jordan (name has been changed for privacy) as an example. He wrote a touching narrative about his first memory after arriving in the United States from Mexico with his parents. He was five. A few of the topics Jordan identified in his piece included: immigration, parent/child relationships, parental responsibilities, financial hardships, mental health, physical health, citizenship both in home and new country. Jordan had a lot of ideas to work with as he chose a topic for our next major writing piece, an informative essay.

Topic mining like this can take time. Many students had a difficult time putting a name to the topics they had written about in their narratives. They also had difficulty in narrowing down those topics. But this is the beauty of talk in a workshop classroom–students talked about their writing. They reflected on it more. They shared their ideas–and they gave one another, writer to writer, authentic feedback.

Photo by Bruna Fiscuk on Unsplash. Narrowing topics is often like this quarry: stair step it down until the topic is small enough yet rich enough to write enough. Photo by Bruna Fiscuk on Unsplash.

Of course, as my writers moved into thinking about their informational writing, I started sharing informational texts we used as mentors. This is when we challenged ourselves with text complexity. We read and studied structure and language use. We discussed objective and subjective views and determined if we read any bias. We delved into how writers use data and statistics or why they might choose not to. And more.

And the bounce from narrative into informational writing worked. And it worked again later as we moved from informative writing into argument and later into spoken-word poetry.

Topic mining like this saves time. More often than not, students stuck with the same topic throughout the school year they wrote about during the first three weeks of school. And with each deep dive into form, students practiced layering skills, be it a variety of sentence structures, precise diction, or good grammar. (Skills all learned and practiced via mini-lessons.)

Informational reading and writing is vital to the success of our students beyond high school. We know this. (Think contracts, lease agreements, college textbooks.) I think we also know that some informational texts are downright boring (contracts, lease agreements, college textbooks.) And if your students are like mine, any text over one page–no matter what the writing style–is not likely to get much more than a quick skim without some pretty intense pleading.

When students choose their topics, our chances of engagement–pivotal for learning–grow exponentially. And the student who chooses to write a narrative about her family getting evicted after her father’s illness just might end up being the adult who writes that complex lease agreement.

While not your typical complex informational texts, here’s two I’ve used with high school students with great success: Joyas Voladores and How to Change a Diaper both by Brian Doyle. (P.S. If you are not familiar with The American Scholar, it’s a gold mine of fine writing.)

I’d love to know your favorite informational texts you use to teach your readers and writers. Please list them in the comments.

Amy Rasmussen reads voraciously, writes daily, and chooses texts to use with students wisely. She’s an advocate for student choice in every teaching practice. She lives and works in N. Texas. You can find her on Twitter @amyrass, although these days she’s mostly a lurker.

Want to RENEW! Get the book by @ShawnaCoppola

I have never written a book review. (Okay, maybe that’s not true. I think I remember writing one in 4th grade over a biography of Marie Curie, the first biography I ever read.)

I have never written a review of a teaching book. But I am going to try.

I am a teaching book junkie. I have stacks of them, but I rarely read the whole of them. I cannot even tell you why, and I admit there is great irony here because as I write this, I am also trying to write my own book for teachers (I have been for four years, sigh.) If I ever get it written, I hope you’ll read it.

In the mean time, I have to tell you about Shawna Coppola’s new book RENEW!

I read the whole of this book in one afternoon! Thank you, Shawna, for writing so much of my own thinking about “Becoming a Better — and More Authentic — Writing Teacher.”

Shawna’s voice sings with passion and positivity. She paints the pages with possibilities! I know, I am gushing (and that’s probably too many p’s.) But here’s the thing —

I know so many ELA teachers who do know know how to teach writing. I know many more who are not confident teaching writing. I know even more who are not writers themselves, so it’s no wonder that teaching writing is difficult. Teaching writing is hard. A book like RENEW! not only gives us a starting place, it gives us desire.

desire-is-the-starting-point-of-all-achievement-not-a-hope-not-a-wish-but-a-keen-pulsating-desire-which-transcends-everything-napoleon-hill

I am doing a lot of thinking lately around the idea of transcending. How do we go beyond our limits into something more, something better, something real and sustaining?

Let me share with you some of the passages I marked in RENEW!. I think you’ll see why this book is a must read for any teacher who needs a bit, or a lot, of renewal when it comes to teaching students to write.

“. . . if we are truly willing to honor the individuality of our student writers, the RENEW!uniqueness of each community of learners, and the ever-changing nature of our global landscape, we must continually rethink, revise, and renew our practice. Otherwise — to paraphrase Dewey — we rob “today’s students of the tomorrow today’s students deserve” (10).

“Broadening our ideas about what writing “is” can be scary, as if we are opening up a Pandora’s box. But in all reality, continuing to teach our student writers through a narrow, outdated lens — one that, in overvaluing written composition, does not accurately tell a story about the world of writing beyond most schools and classrooms — harms their development as writers by limiting the kinds of composing they are exposed to and encouraged to practice” (51).

“Teaching our writers how to develop their own tools is infinitely more sustainable than using preexisting tools. Quick survey:  How many of you use the graphic organizer your sixth-grade teacher taught you to use to write a persuasive piece? That graphic organizer may have been helpful to you then (although I doubt it was helpful to 100 percent of your classmates), but how useful is it you now?” (62).

“What message or “story” are we sending our student writers with a single overall score? Not only does it imply that their worth as a writer can be whittled down to one letter or number (which itself can mean different things for different teachers and even within different units of study), but that the worth of writing itself can be whittled down this way” (73).

“. . . readers of writing are human, an done person’s response to a composition may not perfectly align with another’s (If it did, what a drab, boring world we’d be living in!)” (79).

“Which is more likely to help students learn:  offering them specific feedback about their work, behavior, or performance, or slapping a score on a piece of paper?” (82).

“. . .when we engage in a semi-regular habit of writing, we can much more genuinely speak to those incredibly fantastic moments that writers experience on occasion, like the amazing feeling of completing a particularly difficult draft or writing something that makes a reader spontaneously laugh out loud. Anyone who’s ever taught a group of students of any age knows that when we are faking our way through something, or at the very least “phoning it in” by only engaging on a superficial level with what we are purporting to teach, students can smell our lack of authenticity a mile away. They know, even subconsciously, that they are being sold a decidedly moldy bill of goods” (92).

That’s all well and good, right? But here’s the beauty of Shawna Coppola’s book — she gives us the research that supports each of her positions AND she gives charts and graphs and resources to help us rethink, revise, and renew our approach, instruction, and practice as we become better teachers of writing. This book is chock full of everything good when it comes to writing instruction. It is a book I will return to again and again.

I hope you’ll read it. I hope you’ll share it with every ELA teacher you know. Really, it is just that good.

 

Amy Rasmussen lives in north Texas and teaches AP English Language and English 4 (new prep in ’17.) She loves talking books, daughters’ weddings (two this year), and grandbabies (five). She also loves facilitating PD for other teachers making the move into a workshop pedagogy. Amy adheres to the words of Emerson: “We aim above the mark to hit the mark,” and Jesus: “Love one another.” Imagine a world if we all aim higher. Follow Amy on Twitter @amyrass. And she really hopes you will follow this blog!

Sharing Student Work — Making a Pledge to Do More

For some time now I’ve thought I needed to do more. I ask my students to write a lot. I ask them to take ownership of their process, practice their craft, take risks. I hope they will care about their audience, but unless it’s a post on their blogs (and sometimes even then) I don’t think they consider much about their readers.

My colleagues here at Three Teachers Talk and I had the idea a few years ago to publish student work on this site regularly. We planned it all out. We’d hope for student volunteers that might want to produce something like a mini-Nerdy Book Club but with student readers and student writers. Then I did a little research:

I found sites like Young Writers SocietyTeen Ink, Figment, Teen Lit, and of course, NaNoWriMo that publish the work of young writers and allow them to join online writing communities and learn about competitions, awards, scholarship, and more. This list of 40 of the Best Sites for Young Writers has even more resources.

I still want to do more, but what I need to do is introduce my writers to site like these and extend the invitation that they explore, discover, and get involved. I know a few will. Maybe many will.

In the meantime, here’s a sampling of the writing I’ve read this week. Not because I like the topic — it horrifies me on many levels — but because this writer shows heart, I want to share her work.  Read it. You’ll see why I know I need to do more to help my students write for audiences that will appreciate their craft.

Bruised-Knees by Alexia Alexander

It was a breaking point.

By the time my spoon scraped the bottom of the bowl, my face was wet with tears. I was sick, in part from eating, and in part from everything else. I had to cry quietly; I suffered silently in order to avoid questions, sometimes, even hidden behind smiles and laughter. The chocolate and caramel ice cream weighed my stomach down. I felt 200 lbs of milk, sugar, grief, loneliness, depression, cocoa, corn syrup, and artificial flavors. My entire 500 caloric intake itched in my throat. I felt heavy now. I felt worthless now. I felt defeated now. I ran as quickly up the stairs as I could, but voices, almost as loud as the screaming downstairs, followed me.

Why’d you eat that ice cream? You’ve already had enough. You’re just going to GAIN weight if you eat something like that. You can’t you even starve yourself right,” I told myself.

Staying up late reading about it, I prepared myself for chaos. Although I laid under two blankets and behind a locked door, I found little comfort. In fact, I hadn’t even kept the monsters out; they began to creep inside of my head. I spent the nights crying, reading pro-anamia blogs, drowning my ears out in Maria Mena, and looking up the most fabulous ways to destroy myself, self-esteem first.

Now getting a chance to test my research, I rushed to the bathroom, still crying. I looked at myself in the mirror; I cried even more. I was sobbing and choking, sounding like that one kid in elementary that always forgot his inhaler on mile-day. I dropped to my knees, as if I were about to pray, but I couldn’t remember what people were supposed to say to a divinity.I gripped the sides of bleach-white seats, as if my faith would be found there, and hung over the porcelain throne, like a sea-sick passenger. The bathroom became dizzy in my eyes, and the pink walls were a blur mixed in the leopard print bathroom curtain. The white tiles painted my knees black and blue and staring at them made the wave of sickness more intense. In the reflection of the toilet-bowl-water, I even looked green and sickly, but I can’t say my self-perception was quite accurate in those days.

I had screenshotted instructions on my cracked iPod screen on how to do it. I looked up everything. I needed all the how-to’s before I went through with anything. I knew I could use a toothbrush or two fingers. I knew I could make markers in my stomach. I knew how many seconds it would take. I knew that it would sting. I knew the long-term damage the acid could do to my teeth. I knew how deadly it was. I knew how sick I was.

But I continued, another event to add to my list of “First-Times.”

Slowly shoving a finger in between my lips, I danced it around trying to find the spot. I felt the tickling as I touched the dangling piece of skin. I added a finger, this time gagging slightly, but knowing no matter hard I cried, I couldn’t take my hand out. I gagged again,  bringing up the bile taste in my throat. I couldn’t choke. I had to keep going. I gagged another time, body split over the toilet as I heaved.

I had found the food that comes up almost as easily as it goes down. The ice cream coated my throat, for a second time, and it still felt cold. It masked the normal taste of vomit, gladly, and I finally felt lighter;I equated that to feeling better and didn’t think twice about why I was still crying.

Maybe you can be lovely now. See, you’re already feeling better,”  said the demons in my head, who told me things like this frequently. I tried to ignore them, but sometimes my own silent voice felt like a scream between my ears. I cried myself to sleep that night, still trying to convince myself I had done well.

I wish I had known then what I really was trying to rid myself of. I wish somewhere on that ground I really had some holy revelation, but wisdom like self-love and perseverance can only be taught from low moments like those. It took years to find what really weighed me down, more than food or fat. It took years to love myself and my body. It took years to get over the urge to skip a meal, and the shame after eating. It took years to face the demons and shut them up. But each moment that buckled me to my knees gave me strength, and brought me closer to where I am now. Moments I’d rather forget, have to remain real, so  I always remember my growth, and never repeat the past.

 

©Amy Rasmussen, 2011 – 2015

The Importance of Narrative: Stories That Stay With Us

I was reading a weekly one-pager yesterday and came upon this little note from a student:

IMG_9850

This student, Aleigha, had taken an elective writing class with me as a sophomore.  Now, as a senior, she wanted to revisit the story she’d begun two years ago, and give it a different ending.  I was surprised that Aleigha had remembered that story, and that its ending had nagged her for two years.  I was even more surprised, as I started to read her one-pager, that I remembered her story, too–a fictional narrative in which two soulmates are torn asunder by circumstance.  She’d ended the story unhappily, leaving the two protagonists separate.  In this year’s one-pagers, though, she’s slowly bringing them back together.

Aleigha’s narrative was powerful to her, and personal, despite its fictional genre.  Her peers’ feedback indicated that her characters’ situations were relateable–that everyone wants people in love to end up together, because it’s something we all strive for as humans.  Narratives give us something to root for.

During a Google Hangout this summer, Jackie talked about her students’ writing of narratives, and how “the transformative power of common stories” brought out their best and most vulnerable writing.  “Every child has a story to tell,” agrees Don Graves.  Because of this truth, narratives are my favorite genre to teach.

We all have a story to tell–a story that stays with us, that we can’t get out of our minds, no matter how long it’s been since the idea was seeded.

As my students write their narratives, I’m shocked by how naturally the words are flowing out of their pens.  When the topic is powerful, I feel like I have little to do in the way of writing instruction–I simply have to get out of the way and let them write.  I have mini-lessons planned on pacing, setting, sensory details, and characterization.  But I’m finding beautiful writing already extant in their drafts:

“Every time I step onto the ice, it takes me to my childhood,” Mitchell’s story begins.

Kaylee stuns me with: “The musky smell of burning wood rose into the air as the sound of water crackling split the silence.”

“Realizing you’re gay, and accepting you’re gay, are two very different things,” another story leads with.

The brilliant Tom Newkirk explains why students are able to effortlessly write this way in Minds Made for Stories:  “The hero of the story is a narrative itself…Narrative is there to help us ‘compose’ ourselves when we meet difficulty or loss. It is there to ground abstract ideas, to help us see the pattern in a set of numerical data, to illuminate the human consequences of political action. It is home base.”

We make sense of the world by weaving its happenings into a story–by the time our students come to their notebooks with an idea, they’ve already rehearsed this story many times.  They are just bursting to tell it.  It is home base.

While narrative may not be considered the most “rigorous” of genres, I believe it is the most important one.  It is the writing that demands to be done–the genre that is the most personally fulfilling, the most emotionally wrenching to write, but the most necessary to exorcise from our minds.  Let your students write their stories–write your own beside them–and watch your community of writers bloom.

Cliché College Essays and Why I Hate the “Three Ds”

IMG_0040On the Monday their essay was due, I handed out a rubric. “I cannot and will not grade you on this essay,” I said to my AP Literature class.

In all honesty, I don’t care what they get for a grade on this piece. After days, weeks, and months of toil, a number cannot and will not determine the actual value of this paper: the college essay.

I have a love-hate relationship with the college essay. I love that students have the opportunity to express themselves through writing and that they are encouraged to provide personal stories. I especially love the emphasis on creativity that draws them away from the rigidity and structure of standardized tests and check-box-surveys. What I hate is the overwhelming weight that accompanies telling “your story,” the crowning piece of one’s 17 years of life.

My first year of teaching, I fretted over college essay advice. I told students to steer clear of the three Ds—death, disease, and divorce—and to instead explore a wider variety of ideas that included mundane moments. I wanted them to beware the standard cliché essays of human suffering.

What I found was in restricting these three topics, I also restricted the very stories that shaped these students’ identities. After all, our students are still teenagers; they have many more stories to live and we mustn’t undermine those stories of death, disease, and divorce that have framed their present reality.

Sarah’s essay on her father’s death and her inability to hold his hand during his last moments tears at my heart every time I read it, and I have been working with Sarah on this piece for a year. She writes:

It is nearly two years after my father has passed, and my inability to hold my father’s hand on his deathbed still haunts my dreams and consumes my thoughts. I am sixteen years old, I have done regretful things in my life, but the singular moment I regret most in my life is not holding my dad’s hand during the one time he needed it to be held by me.

Sammie’s poetic piece on coping with her best friend’s severe eating disorder and eventual hospitalization and rehabilitation has a place in Sammie’s college folder. Maddie’s experience meeting her mother’s boyfriend for the first time after the shock of her parents’ divorce belongs filed alongside her SAT scores.

Instead of limiting their stories or categorizing them as cliche, we, as teachers, must help our students explore these experiences through expert narration and craft. After all, doesn’t the beauty in literature rest in its familiarity? Its common story? Its trumpeting of empathy, underdogs, and resilience?

How do you approach college essays, and how do you help students who are struggling with essay topics?

Weekly One-Pagers to Develop Writing Fluency

IMG_9425

Janelle, now in college, appreciates the one-pagers belatedly

This summer, Amy and I talked a lot about what we wanted for our students.  While there were lots of complex ideas tossed around, we knew that our goals boiled down to two simple ones:  for our students to become real writers and real readers.

We had lots of structures in place to help our students become authentic, fluent readers–weekly reading homework, daily booktalks, reading conferences, reading workshops, and more.  But writing was a bit different.  Daily quickwrites and longer compositions were already in place, but I wanted to add something more to get students writing more regularly outside of class on topics of their choice.  I wanted them to gain the same fluency with writing that they did through their weekly reading homework.

So, I was reminded of something I used to require my AP and Honors English students to do–a weekly one-pager.  Every Monday, a one page, single-spaced, typed paper was due.  I offered topic suggestions, but ultimately, students could choose what to write about.  I decided to revive this routine, inspired by Kelly Gallagher’s powerful claim that students should be writing four times as much as teachers could ever assess.  Why shouldn’t all students–not just the AP and Honors level students–write this much?

This year, I only have one Honors class, but all four of my English classes write weekly one-pagers.  We have a section in our notebooks called “Weekly Writing,” which is rapidly filling up with writing on a variety of topics.  During bi-weekly notebook collections, I check to see that these weekly one-pagers are being completed, but I don’t “grade” them–that’s not the point.  The point is to build writing fluency.

These one-pagers are low stakes–ten points apiece, so on a particularly busy week, if students just don’t have time to write, it’s no big deal.  But the frequent follow-up and sharing activities we do in class with these writings, combined with the autonomy students have in their topics, make the missed one-pager a rare occurrence.

I was initially inspired to create this routine by some of my greatest college professors, for whose classes a written response was due each day.  Alan Frager’s “study guides,” Tom Romano’s “one-pagers,” and Don Daiker’s “reading responses” were handed in at the start of each class period.  By writing a short paper every single day for most of my college years, I developed incredible writing fluency.  I knew I wanted my students to develop this written fluency as well, partially in preparation for their own college experiences, but also to bridge the gap between a writer’s thoughts and his words on the page.

As evidenced by Janelle’s testimony above, building this writing fluency pays off.  Already this year, students are remarking that it’s becoming much easier to write a full page, after only writing eight of them thus far.  I’m enthused by the growth I see in all my students’ writing fluency, and looking forward to seeing how much they can develop as writers by the end of this school year thanks to the weekly one-pager.

What routines are in place in your classes to help build students’ writing fluency?

Kids Want to Write! (and why my writers need yours)

photo(1)Two weeks before the end of summer break Kayla shared a three-page Google doc of writing exercises with me. Yesterday morning Kate showed up at my door at 7:15am, brimming with writing prompts and workshop plans. And yesterday afternoon my writing meeting with two students turned into an impromptu gathering of ten. The odd part is that these aren’t my students. In fact, I haven’t even met the vast majority of these students who show up at my door. But they keep arriving, and the reason is that kids want to write.

I know this because for the last two years, I have co-advised my school’s Writer’s Club, a community of students who set aside time each week to explore words, laugh over prompts, and share their writing.

When I inherited Writer’s Club last year, I didn’t think the concept was unique to many schools. A teacher established the club before I was even hired, but as I grew to know my members, I realized Writer’s Club served a larger purpose. Students ranging from freshmen to seniors and academics to honors showed up at my door with notebooks. Students who had been writing their entire lives arrived with laptops packed with stories. While many of these students had tried out newspaper club, yearbook, and literary magazines, they told me they had found their niche here among like-minded peers. Unlike other clubs that focus on publication, Writer’s Club focuses on the process.

This club provides a safe space free from the pressures of classmates, peer groups, and lesson plans. Even my best classes (and believe me I love my classes) don’t capture the pure acceptance and kindness these students have for one another. Just like with adult writer’s groups, these students rely on each other to explore their thoughts and work. Some students carve out time to work on a book they’ve been writing, others plug away at fan fiction, and the majority dabble in a wide variety of styles and genres. This club gives them their fix of creativity that can’t always be reached within the classroom.

This year we have a variety of activities lined up. We’re already planning to decorate writer’s notebooks and create a colorful display for the club fair. We’re creating lists of workshop dates so members can sign up and discuss one of their pieces with the group. We’ll have lunch with visiting writers and invite local authors to discuss their craft. As the foliage turns, we’re planning a field trip to downtown Exeter where we’ll take a walking tour then settle into the park with donuts, cider, and notebooks in tow. But above all, we will write and share to our heart’s content.

Yesterday afternoon one of my freshmen stumbled into my room to look at the homework board. She froze in the doorway, scanning the room of students who were brainstorming on the white board and sitting at tables painting and coloring club posters. Music was blasting and kids were engrossed in their individual projects, laughing with each other, and telling stories of their summer.

“What is this?” she asked me.

“It’s Writer’s Club! Want to join?” I said.

“Well I’m part of yearbook club. We meet at the same time,” she said.

From across the room a student yelled to her, “Cool sweatshirt! I like that” while another struck up a conversation about writing fan fiction on the student’s favorite TV show Supernatural.

“Do you want to stay?” I asked.

She smiled, looked around, and took off her backpack. “Yeah, I think I fit in here.”

What do you do to inspire writers outside the classroom? Do you have a Writer’s Club or a writing group for us to team up with? We’d love to Skype, e-mail, share, and chat with writers from across the country!

Students Need Real-Life Writing

suit-and-tieWe live in a technical world. People rarely see one another face-to-face anymore, which is why writing has become our hypothetical suit-and-tie. To get a job, one uploads and sends a cover letter and resume. To apply to college, one submits a college essay. To correspond with a colleague, one sends an e-mail. To be engage in online discussions or to communicate on social media, one must post or blog or tweet or comment. More than ever before, we are our words. We live in an age where we can look and act like slobs behind the screen while our words tell a different story. It’s empowering and liberating but also terrifying. Terrifying because too often our students don’t understand the value of formality in writing.

This has become even more apparent as I, a 26-year-old, am both exposed to and part of a generation of socially illiterate people. We, as well as our students, understand text language, chatting, posting, and tweeting, but our colloquial language seeps into our every day interactions, handicapping us in other ways.

While students can effectively communicate with their peers, they have not received the training to engage in formal written conversations—the types of conversations that drive the academic and business world. In turn, students arrive in college lazily piecing together informal e-mails to their professors that poorly represent their abilities and knowledge. We assume that because they have grown up as Internet babies and that because they are constantly on their phones, they understand the unwritten rules of Internet writing, but they don’t. This year I have made it a point to inject the discussion of voice, formality, and audience into my reading and writing units in an attempt to widen my students’ understanding of and comfort with writing.

In all of my classes I have sought to push my students outside of their comfort zones by exposing them to diverse mentor texts and assignments that force them to play with words. For many students, voice is a challenging concept. They struggle with finding a voice in their own writing, which makes it even more imperative students be exposed to comedic, sardonic, opinionated, and academic pieces. The only way to develop voice is to study it. Not all of the pieces I show my students are high brow; I pull from a variety of sources ranging from blog posts to articles from The Atlantic. But the pieces I choose are intended to show that a wide range of writers and voices exists. The more students understand that there is no one-size-fits-all structure, the sooner they will be willing to dabble in their sarcastic or silly side.

In learning about voice, students must also understand the value in formality and audience in their writing. Too often the e-mails I receive from students look like a long rambling text message. We’ve all received them—the ones riddled with grammatical errors, making us cringe and wonder if they’ve learned anything this year! Teens quickly become comfortable with the fact that teachers are the only people reading their writing. Students become overly comfortable with teachers reading their writing at times. We’re seemingly safe and familiar; we know their quality of work. Exposing their writing to new eyes and ears increases the stakes and makes their work more relevant.

This year, I was determined to push my lower level freshmen beyond the classroom and get them engaging with mentors. I could tell my students to work hard, which I did many times over, but in the general scheme of things, I was their teacher (akin to their mom). So I recruited a Navy Seal, an elementary school teacher, a forensic anthropologist, a photojournalist and others to do the job for me. Students were required to research a career. While they completed their research, I sat down with each student and helped him or her to draft an e-mail that they would send to a professional with which I paired them. Oftentimes I would return to find my students’ e-mails plagued with the same grammatical errors I’d seen so many times before,Depositphotos_7626816_m only this time, I was with them on the sending end.

My mini-conferences turned into minilessons on the importance of editing and the impression it had on the e-mail recipient. Students struggled with how to start their e-mails, how to address the recipient, and how to sign their name at the end. We practiced online manners, thanking the professionals for their time and answers while also noting something the student found to be interesting or appealing from the professional’s answers. In the end, their attention to detail paid off. A forensic science professor who teaches college students included the following in his e-mail:

“I was taken aback when I saw that he is only in ninth grade; I have students much older who do not bother to write properly and it disappoints me.  I am not your friend on FB nor are you texting me so no need for brevity at the expense of complete and correctly written sentences.  Salutations?  Maybe next year.

I have a 12 year old son so I think I will have him peer over my shoulder as I write to Carter so he can see how polished someone so young can be.  Thanks!”

Our students are going to college arguably without knowing or understanding the importance of voice, formality, and audience. To prepare them for life beyond high school, we must strive to incorporate real-life writing assignments into our classrooms. While some of my students may never write a research paper after they graduate from high school, I know that nearly all of them will use e-mail, apply for jobs, and engage on social media.

My role as an educator is to help mold and train productive and intelligent citizens and while giving them lifelong skills that translate beyond the classroom. Part of this is continuing to develop and adapt my classroom to better fit the needs of 21st century students. So regardless of what my students do in their free time whether they enjoy lounging in sweatpants with a tub of Doritos or taking selfies in a bathroom mirror, I want them to sound like poised, intelligent, and confident individuals. I want the world to be open to them—both online and in real-life.

Choose to Become a Classroom of Writers

Note:  I enjoy emails with questions about my teaching practice. They help me clarify my thinking, and they often lead to new posts here. This post is Part I of my response to this question:

How does your district handle classes that are very content specific? For example, I teach Honors/Pre-AP American Literature. This is a sophomore (with accelerated freshmen course) that has a pretty traditional literary movement focus, which includes several of the classics (The Scarlet Letter, Huck Finn, Of Mice and Men, The Great Gatsby, The Things They Carried). And while I feel I have made great strides over the years in terms of student driven lessons, focus on discussion and annotation, skill vs. content based assessment, the one area I continue to struggle with as I look to workshop is how to facilitate the choice. 

Do you have a similar class in your district? Are any of these texts still used as whole class works? As options within specific unit studies? Or is the year open to student choice throughout? 

First of all, while my district ELA coordinator would love for all teachers to move to readers/writers workshop, and he has introduced that idea through various means, many teachers are not there yet and some are determined not to budge. Like many other issues related to change in schools, they nod their heads and keep doing what they’ve always done. We know that sometimes this is best for kids (I’ve done the nodding and door closing, too), and sometimes it is not, which is the case when it comes to continuing to make all the choices in English classes at the expense of student readers.

My own department manager reminds me often that we have to take our movement one step at a time. This is my first year on this campus, and while most everyone is making positive and impacting change. It’s slow, and I get antsy. I’ve been doing readers/writers workshop with my students for seven years now, and I still work on refining plans, lessons, mentor text selections, mini-lessons, and more. Truly, workshop is constant motion, which I am sure, if you practice it, you already know.

Recently, I was asked, “What is the one step that will give us the most movement as we continue this transition?” I paused for a moment, and then the answer focused clearly:

Become classrooms of writers.

Many high school English classes are literature laden. All the lessons revolve around specific texts, mostly whole class novels, and sometimes teachers spend five, six or nine weeks reading and discussing that one text. Sure, they might include other instructional practices and activities, but the most common mode of writing taught is analytical (the least likely of all the modes of writing students will use in their lives after English class. Teachers, when was the last time you wrote an analytical essay for your job?).

When we move to becoming classrooms of writers, teachers realize that if we want to practice other modes, read mentor texts, model the writing process, lead revision workshops, publish our best work, and truly live the lives of writers, we simply do not have time to devote class after class time to the study of one particular book.

A mentor once told me:  “You choose to do this, which means you choose not to do that.”Faulkner on reading

Say I choose to create a unit where my students write narratives (I always start the year with narrative because it is builds community, and contributes so much weight to other modes of writing. See tom Newkirk’s book Minds Made for Stories.) I prepare by gathering a variety of narrative texts of various lengths. I can use passages from an assortment of books in my classroom library, or I can pull passages from popular short stories, or classic novels. [See note on this at the end.]

Some passages I will use to teach leads. Others I will use to teach how authors deal with time. I may pull out specific parts and teach effective use of dialogue or character development, setting, whatever. [Gathering a variety of texts in different genres around the same theme is another way to approach the same type of reading then writing task I describe here. I’ll write about this soon.]

First, we read like readers. We practice comprehension strategies and discuss the meaning of the text.

Next, we read like writers. We deconstruct the text and discuss how the author makes that meaning.

In my AP class, we almost always talk about these texts via a Harkness discussion. Students do the thinking and speaking after I’ve done mini-lessons and modeled answering focusing questions. I’ve learned to trust that students will discover the elements and devices that I hope they will. Sometimes I have to prod, but they rarely never get there.

The skill I need to teach determines the reading passages I select. That’s an opposite approach to how I used to plan when my teaching was driven by various pieces of literature.

And now, I have time to talk about books, allow students to select books they’d like to read, and confer with students about their reading. They read tons more than they ever did before, and they become much more effective writers. Win/Win.

cool quote memes from our friends at http://www.TeachMentorTexts.com

Watch for Part II of my response soon.
 ©Amy Rasmussen, 2011 – 2015
%d bloggers like this: