Tag Archives: writing

Q & A: What are some good poems to write beside? #3TTWorkshop

Questions Answered (1)

I think I’ve mentioned before that I used to avoid poetry. Now, I’m really not pointing fingers at anyone — okay, yeah I am — but I blame it on my teachers. Not one of them shared poetry just for the love of poetry — of rhythm and words and images often cloaked in color and emotion. Not one. Not one used poetry as inspiration for other writing. It was always analyze this and write a paper on it. Bleh. My least favorite kind of writing.

Good poems have the potential to be great teaching tools. Sure, analysis but so much more. If we want students to love language or even play with it in their writing, we have to expose them to language worth loving — and encourage them to make paper swords and sequin-shiny shoes with it. Inviting students to write beside poems with us is one good starting place.

This month Shana and I attended the Poetry Foundation Conference for teachers in Chicago. We read, talked, listened to, and explored poems for a week. (And slept on the worst dorm beds possible.)

The thing about immersing yourself in poetry for a week is this:  You start seeing poetry

GiordanoPizza

Giordano’s Pizza — so good!

everywhere. Billboards, names on shops, menus in restaurants, bikers on the path along Lake Michigan, ceramic swans cuddling on the other side of a pane glass window, and pizza!!

Poetry is like an English teacher with a brand new set of 36 Flair pens. Color everywhere!

In my workshop classroom, we share a lot of poetry. Sometimes just for the love of it. Sometimes to talk about. Sometimes to inspire us to write.

PoetryFoundationpresHere’s a few poems (and a lesson plan) my group and I collected for our project at the poetry conference. We titled our presentation Boundaries & Borders:  Exploring Poetry Beyond our Front Yard (That’s a shout out to Gwendolyn Brook’s “a song in the front yard.”) I’ll tell ya, we hashed around a topic for a long time and finally decided that reading poems that help us explore our personal and societal boundaries might make an interesting backdoor into exploring identity, which is a topic many of us develop out thematically using a variety of other texts in our courses. If nothing else, the images we collected (all found at Unsplash) might be interesting to use to prompt student thinking.

If you’re looking for other topics, take a look at the Poetry Foundation. There’s so much there! And if you like podcasts, you might like this one:  the Slowdown with Tracy K. Smith. It’s my first-ever podcast listen, and I’m hooked.

So, what are some good poems to write beside? You decide. And please share some of the poems you love in the comments!

 

Note:  This post is a part of a series. It’s based primarily on the most frequent questions about readers-writers workshop asked at our workshop trainings. For more see here.

Amy Rasmussen is a teacher, writer, artist, and house-plant enthusiast. She lives near Dallas, TX and is a believer in all things that make us better humans. Follow her @amyrass

 

Planning Time for Thinking

One thing I know for sure:  Writing is hard. Lately, I’ve been reminded how hard as I’ve tried to keep up with Sarah Donovan’s challenge #verselove2019 to write a poem a day during the month of April.

It’s only day 9, and Oh, my!

It’s not even the poetry part I’m finding difficult, which is surprising. Deciding on an idea and then sticking to it has wrecked me for eight straight days. And now I’m wondering:

How often do I expect students to dive into drafting without giving them time to talk and question and change their minds about their ideas? Do they have enough time to play and mull and sit with their thoughts before they make a commitment–or before a draft is due?

I know what so many great writers say:  Just start writing; you’ll discover what you want to say. But what if that doesn’t work for everyone? Lately, it hasn’t worked for me.

So now I’m wondering:  How can I plan for enough time to give everyone the time they need to settle in to their ideas before I plan enough time for them to write?

Now, I’m not talking about timed writing — or state-mandated test writing. Those are different (and in my humble opinion) horrible inauthentic beasts. I’m talking about the process of thought. The thinking it takes to draft with intention.

I’m pretty sure I’ve rushed it.

And I want to slow it down.

#verselove2019

Amy Rasmussen lives and writes from her home in North Texas where the bluebonnets are blooming beautifully. She thinks about writing all the time and needs to get better at getting her thoughts on the page. Writing poetry, which is far out of her comfort zone, may help. You can follow her on Twitter @amyrass

What do colors have to do with teachers writing? Today, a lot.

When I read You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me by Sherman Alexie, I knew I’d found mentor gold. Infused with stirring poetry, this memoir tells the story of Alexie’s less than ideal relationship with his mother and how he grieves the loss of her, what was, and what could have been.

I reached for this book Monday as I began a session of PD. On a whim, I flipped the pages and landed on the poem, “Ode to Gray,” thinking it may spark some kind of response in my audience. It’s simple enough. And lovely.

Ode to Gray

This isn’t the complete poem. I just wanted you to get the idea. There’s one more stanza. Really, get this book.

After I read the the poem aloud, I asked listening teachers to write in response.

“Think of a color, and write about that. Write your own poem, or a paragraph. Doesn’t matter. Just write about your color.”

After writing five minutes, which is rarely long enough, I asked these writers to read over their words and do a bit of revision, challenging them to add an appositive phrase somewhere in their writing. This is a directive I often use with students:  We write. We read our work. We revise, often with a singular purpose that ties to a specific skill or craft move.

I walked the room, peeking over shoulders, listening to conversations — and noticed about a third of the group didn’t write a thing. Funny how some teachers are so much like some students, huh?

Maybe they didn’t get the simple task. I guess that makes sense if they’ve never been asked to write like this. I do not think that’s the case though. I heard one too many sigh and saw one too many eye roll to know I wasn’t the first presenter to ask this group to think and write.

It didn’t matter. We cannot make people eat. We can keep inviting them to the table.

Writing teachers should be willing to write.

Accountability in RWWorkshop

Some teachers in that session wrote a lot — and they wrote beautifully. Adam showed me his piece about the color black. I should have asked for a copy. All I remember is the line “Little black lies.” It’s a great line.

Of all I wrote, one line holds a bit of promise:  “Orange, the color of sunsets, why are you so lonely?”

And then there’s Mary. She took that little quickwrite and turned it into something tender, touching, real. She published it on Facebook and said I could share it here:

An Ode to Red
Workshopping With Amy Rasmussen
1.15.18
Red is the fire of your cheeks as you demand to be heard in the morning before school, on a day I was supposed to get to sleep in late. Red is the fire of mine as I scream back, frustrated, unsure of how to solve this trembling toddler enigma. You want red grapes, I gave you purple. In your mind, they are not the same.
“What’s your favorite color, Mommy?” you ask. You expect an answer.
“Purple,” I say, knowing the question that comes next. We do this daily dance, aware of each other’s rhythm.
“And what else?” you ask.
“And orange.”
“That’s good, Mommy. Mine’s red. Red and blue. I love red and blue.”
Red is the sucker, no, the second sucker you negotiate for after getting your hair cut. Just one of the many tricks/bribes that I’ve learned along this short parenting trip we’re on together. Sticky, stained red lips, sticky, stained red teeth and sticky, stained red fingers.
“Go wash your hands before you hug me!” I yell as we walk in the house. “5, 4, 3, 2, 1…”
Red is the color of the bath water after you dump the entire bottle of finger paint into the tub.
“Bubble bath!” you shriek excitedly, giggling, red steaks strung along the sides of the just-washed tub.
Red is my heart each time I leave, and each time I return. Red is the love. All of the love, engulfing me in flames.


I see red a bit differently today.

Thank you, Mary. My kids are grown, and now I get to watch them practice parenting. It’s hard and noble work, and you will feel every color of emotion — sometimes all on the same day and sometimes more than once. But it’s that “love. All the love” that turn these emotions into rainbows. And sometimes just writing about them helps us see every moment just a bit more clearly. Thank you.

In an article by Tim Gillespie, published on the National Writing Project website, he sums up what I believe and have experienced myself as a teacher writer.

Accountability in RWWorkshop (1)

Here’s the thing, you teachers who refused to even try:  It doesn’t matter if you think you can write. Just write.

What does matter is that our students see us working at it. Just like we must be readers in order to help our students find the “just right” book, we must be writers if we want to know the struggle our students face when writing.

We learn when we are vulnerable. We learn when we practice.

So I am challenging myself as much as I am challenging you:  Write beside your students more. Let them see your thoughts, your mistakes, your struggles. Ask them for feedback.

If I truly want a community, where we all work to grow as readers and writers, I need to do more to get us there.

Amy Rasmussen began writing in journals at age 8. In addition to this blog, she now writes in notebooks and on sticky notes. A lot of sticky notes. She also tries to write the assignments she gives her students. She wishes she would have had teachers who wrote with her, but she does not remember one K-12 teacher ever doing so. Follow Amy on Twitter @amyrass and @3TeachersTalk

A Little Learning with Big Outcomes

Last week was tough. If you teach in TX, you probably know what I mean.

December means STAAR/EOC testing, and while I teach readers and writers in 11th and 12th grade English classes at a large senior high school, many of my students carry the label of “re-tester.” (It’s an ugly label; isn’t it?)

All week students who have yet to successfully pass all five exams required to graduate filed into testing rooms to try again. This meant many disruptions for students not testing.

All week the English hall, along with other rooms, became the testing center. Classes displaced. Students out of comfort zones. Just a bit of chaos.

We know how well this works for learning.

In an effort to get my students settled in, back in our classroom and back in our routine

Julian shares his haiku

Julian sharing his haiku

of workshop, we played with words.

Testing disrupted our writing project, a series of letters in a variety of forms with a variety of tones, all related to a self-selected thematic link. We needed a revision workshop, but my seniors were not having it. With just 10.5 days until winter break, plus 8.5 until the end of term, many are already playing XBox and watching Netflix in their heads. (Me, too, but at least I’m fighting it.)

Since we read our choice books at the beginning of every class period, and I work daily to hold students who have not read a book on their own throughout high school accountable, I am constantly trying something new.  Today the new turned pretty cool.

We wrote book reviews in the form of haiku.

The tremendous thinking about word choice — well, it was kind of magical. (If only students would always think about word choice with such care.) Here’s a sampling of our book review poetry:

A book can contain

many life lessons that we

can use in our lives.

~Cesar Perez

The Playbook by Kwame Alexander

Are her thoughts her own

or does the tightening coil

control her whole being?

~Maria Cruz

Turtles all the Way Down by John Green

my life was stolen

but after 18 years I

got to hug my mom

~Grace Foust

A Stolen Life by Jaycee Dugard

being arrested

for helping his ex-girlfriend

Being black is hard.

~Di’Myrius Owens

Dear Martin by Nic Stone

her eyes captured me

I lost myself in her heart

Owned me from the start

~Axel Ibarra

The Oxygen Thief by Anonymous

Looking for a path

Twisted and in need of help

How do I escape?

~Jesse Borjas

Dark Dude  by Oscar Hijuelos

Running for freedom

Garret escapes boot camp

Fear, risk run with him

~Cris Velasquez

Boot Camp by Todd Strasser

Black lives do matter.

Police brutality sucks.

assume all black steal

~Alondra Rosales

All American Boys by Jason Reynolds & Brendan Kiely

The first hand account

No excuses for mistakes

Kill Osama Bin

~McKenzie Bowie

No Easy Day by Mark Owen

This simple activity led to a complex discussion about the power of words and why we need to revise our writing in order to craft with purpose. We discussed adding figurative language, creating imagery, using complex sentences. I taught how to write appositive phrases, a grammar move my students did not know.

And as students moved into their writing groups, they talked about their plans for revision. Teaching writers does not get much better than that.

When our students take on the identify of writers, they talk like writers, and they write with purpose — choosing words and phrases and making moves like real writers do.

Side note:  Some of my students produces haikus that revealed needs in their reading lives. For example, one student wrote that Fahrenheit 451 was set in WWII, and another showed confusion in the change of point of view in All American Boys. Their book review haikus gave me an action plan for reading conferences. Bonus!

Amy Rasmussen teaches senior English and AP English Lang & Comp in North TX. She loves to get her students talking about the things that matter to them. She also loves to get them talking about the things that matter to us all:  books and words and poetry and writing and serving people everywhere. Follow her @amyrass and @3TeachersTalk.

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

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

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

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

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

Some students can really hear when they write.

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

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

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

AmEstudent notebook

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

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

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

Will you be at #NCTE17?

Sarah Raises Hand

I hope to see you there!

 

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

 

Try It Tuesday: Red Thread Notebooks

img_3173-1So much of a workshop philosophy centers on the assumption that reading and writing are forever intertwined.  Vocabulary, grammar, poetry–they’re all pieces of the puzzle that make up literacy and a passion for words, too.  It was with this in mind that I created Red Thread Notebooks.

The idea came from two places–one was Penny Kittle’s “big idea books” (found on page 8-9 of those handouts), which are reading response notebooks  centered around themes in literature.  The other was Tom Romano‘s “red thread” assignment, in which teachers had to write about which parts of our teaching philosophy would run through all of our teaching, like a red thread.

img_3177

This student booktalks The Selection in the “STRUGGLE” notebook.

So, when composition notebooks are just a nickel in the summer, I buy 60 of them each year.  My students and I begin the year by brainstorming themes and topics that are important to us–love, cell phones, faith, music, family, video games, death, high school, forgiveness, four wheelers.  We label our notebooks and use them all year long.

There are a variety of ways I invite students to write in these notebooks:

  • Vocabulary practice: list related words, synonyms, word associations, etc. similar to the notebook title
  • Skill practice: write dialogue, revise sentence structure, practice figurative language, craft descriptive writing, about the notebook’s title
  • Book talks: write about how the book you’re currently reading might add to a conversation about the notebook’s title
  • Grammar instruction: revise a sentence, imitate a paragraph, tinker with style, while writing about the notebook title
  • Free writing: write your thoughts and musings on the notebook title
  • Poetry: find an existing poem, craft your own poem, or create a found poem about the notebook’s title
img_3179

Hailey and Ryan practice dialogue in the “VIDEO GAMES” notebook after I teach a mini-lesson on its conventions.

Because these are shared notebooks, I ask students to refrain from using profanity in them or writing about any of their peers.  I don’t require names, but many students like to sign their writing.  Those are the only rules.

Once the notebooks have begun to fill up, students can refer to them to find book recommendations, writing topic ideas, or vocabulary words to add to their personal dictionaries.  They can also look for examples of skills practice, craft studies, or grammar lessons that we’ve done for additional guidance.  One year students even selected multigenre topics based on our red thread notebooks.

These notebooks are a lovely way to make permanent a yearlong conversation about literacy.  The topics change every year–Michael Jackson had his own notebook my first year of teaching, and this year Lebron James had one–but the opportunities to write, reflect, and make connections remain the same.

Do you think you’ll try Red Thread Notebooks next year?  Do you do something similar?  Please share in the comments!

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.

img_1530-1

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.

img_1531-1

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.

Integrating Reading & Writing Instruction: Craft Studies & Mentor Texts

This is a continuation of our post from yesterday.

#3TTWorkshopWhat are you reading now, and/or what are your latest finds that could be strong mentor texts?  

Jackie:  For fun, I am currently reading Ready Player One by Ernest Cline, and for AP Literature, I am currently reading Othello.  I read Ready Player One as a departure from my typical YA reads.  I was never a gamer or 80s enthusiast, so I wanted to “challenge” myself by choosing a new genre.  Ernest Cline brilliantly writes action pieces.  Somehow he manages to translate the video game structure into a novel AND make it interesting for non-gamers like me; I am planning to use an excerpt to discuss movement of time either when we work on our multi-genre project this year or our fictional writing next year.  

Most recently, my CP freshmen read the picture book The Promise by Nicola Davies as a mentor for our narrative fiction unit.  In my academic freshman classes, we recently completed process papers based on The Compound by S.A. Bodeen.  Mentors for these included “What you will need in class today” by Matthew Foley and “Instructions for a bad day” by Shane Koyczan.  Students used each as a mentor text by which to craft their own poems and then eventually built them into unique survival guides ranging from “How to survive a zombie apocalypse” to “How to survive a friend’s breakup.”  As Shana said yesterday, I like pairing professional work with my own to show them the messy process of writing, so prior to class I get a head start on my own piece and then I continue developing it while projecting my writer’s notebook on the board at the beginning of workshop time.    

img_1056-1Shana:  I just finished the beautiful Everything, Everything by Nicola Yoon.  I love it as a mentor text because it’s a bit multigenre, and it’s an engaging YA love story, AND it’s gorgeously written.  With tons of parallel structure and a short-chapter format, it’s a quick read but one that lends itself to lots of frequent re-reading.  I’ll use this text for craft studies at the sentence and paragraph level to teach things like repetition, parallel structure, and varied sentence structure.

Another book I just read was Caitlin Doughty’s memoir Smoke Gets In Your Eyes, and Other Lessons from the Crematory, which I usually booktalk with Mary Roach’s Stiff.  This tale of Caitlin’s experiences working in a crematory will be useful for my students to analyze at the chapter level, during which she employs narrative to blend her adult experiences in the crematory with the formative experiences of her youth in order to make a claim about the nature of human life and death.  It’s a powerful example of the use of narrative within nonfiction.

I also recently read Memoirs of a Teenage Amnesiac by Gabrielle Zevin, which tells the story of a high school senior who falls and loses all memory of everything after sixth grade.  As a result, most of her life story is revealed through dialogue with other characters, so this will be a fantastic mentor text at the whole-text level–how can we craft a short story that uses dialogue to reveal movement through time, a character’s background, or a character’s personality traits–all without that dialogue being spoken by that character?

 

How will you integrate your current reads into your practice?

Shana:  I like to share this article about noticing beautiful writing with my students.  We use it as the basis for two sections in our notebook–“Quotes & Craft Study” and “Wondrous Words.”  I like to break down with my students why a particular line or paragraph or chapter in a piece of writing is so powerful–at the word level, the structural level, the punctuation level.  When we read like writers, we can notice all of those details and begin to imitate them in our own writing.  

img_1057My students asked for more craft study and grammar instruction in their midterm exams.  With our new notebook setups, I’m hoping to create a routine for the wordplay we’ll need to constantly return to in order to strengthen our use of punctuation, specific diction, sentence structures, and other craft moves.  I want to employ more “triple-plays,” as Penny Kittle calls them–books that act as a booktalk, a quickwrite, and a craft study mini-lesson.  For example, I’ll take the chunk of Everything, Everything pictured at right and make copies of it for my students to glue into their notebooks.  Beneath it, we’ll imitate the parallel structure of the sentences, and the exercise will serve to teach parallelism, talk up the book itself, and be a quickwrite we’ll call “it could be.”

Jackie:  Inspired by a course we took this summer with Tom Newkirk, my colleague and I are putting together a superhero unit for our academic Freshman English classes.  The unit will involve both a persuasive essay and a comic strip students make about a hero in their life.  In turn, I’ve been skimming comics and graphic novels to find inspiration for students.  

In this unit, students will practice storyboarding their own comics while studying the use of craft like onomatopoeia, movement of time, and internal and external dialogue.  My hope is that these building blocks will provide a foundation for us to further discuss the use of colors to portray goodness and evil within a comic (or novel) as well as the use of framing or perspective in the pieces as well.

Please join the conversation–how do you approach the study of craft with your student writers?

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.”

 

 

10 Pedagogical Must-Reads for Workshop Teachers

IMG_0650I met with my new student teacher a few weeks ago, and he asked me to borrow any books that might help him get going on the readers-writers workshop–the “theory” version of Jackie’s starter kit.  He’s been in my classroom before, so he knows the general routine and character of our work, but he wanted to know the ins and outs of how I thought and planned and conceptualized the whole thing.

I sat at my desk and looked at all of the titles I had on hand, remembering how influential reading them for the first time had been.  As a result, it was hard not to just dump my entire professional bookshelf onto a cart for him, but I managed to pick out a few titles that have guided me most adeptly in one aspect or another of my current classroom practice.

  1. Book Love by Penny Kittle – This was the book that helped to solidify my vision of an ideal classroom.  Before I read it, I had already been doing many of the best practices Penny mentions–writer’s notebooks, choice reading, personalized writing.  But I didn’t know how to bring it all together until Book Love.  As such, this is my #1 recommendation for any teacher looking to jump-start their individualized workshop curriculum.
  2. Write Beside Them by Penny Kittle – This book introduced me to the concepts of mentor texts, reading like a writer, and best draft/publication of writing.  I learned about quickwrites, constant revision, writing conferences, and a great deal more of what are now standard routines in my classroom.  This is the book for anyone curious about the big picture of writing instruction.
  3. Finding the Heart of Nonfiction by Georgia Heard – I was raised in the tradition of literature as containing mostly fiction and poetry, but Penny’s books helped me see the great value of nonfiction.  I wanted to know how to integrate it well into my thematic units, and this book helped me do that.  Georgia’s book is full of wisdom about finding the soul of good nonfiction writing and matching it to your students’ needs.
  4. Choice Words by Peter Johnston – This book taught me how to talk to students.  It is my #1 recommendation for anyone looking to address those pesky Speaking and Listening standards in the Common Core–this book teaches you about the delicate, volatile power of a few choice words between you and your students.  I re-read it every year, and it might be the most important book in this stack.
  5. Holding On to Good Ideas in a Time of Bad Ones by Tom Newkirk – This book is subtitled “Six Literacy Principles Worth Fighting For,” and Tom Newkirk certainly made me want to engage some of my former teachers in fisticuffs when I finished it.  This text is full of common-sense brilliance that will transform the way you think about why we teach reading and what kinds of texts we teach.
  6. Boy Writers by Ralph Fletcher – Why do my students keep writing about violent gun battles?  Why do they always ask if they can swear in their writing?  What’s up with the complete unwillingness of my boys to be vulnerable?  If you’ve asked yourself these questions…this book is for you.  Ralph writes about everything you ever wondered about boy writers and how to move them forward in their writing.
  7. Readicide by Kelly Gallagher – Schools have been killing reading for many years, Kelly argues, and then presents ways you can stop the slaughter.  He fires away at pop quizzes, assigned chapters, multiple-choice tests, and all the practices that steer our students toward SparkNotes.  Then he reveals ways to get students authentically engaging in literature in a way that doesn’t kill their love of reading.
  8. Falling in Love with Close Reading by Chris Lehman and Kate Roberts – After finishing Readicide and wanting to abandon the eight or so whole-class novels I once felt chained to, I wasn’t sure how to teach close reading skills.  This book answered that question for me, and more.  Chris and Kate reveal how to use poems, articles, short stories, and selections from novels to get kids interacting with the beauty and power of language in all kinds of texts.
  9. Reading Ladders by Teri Lesesne – When all of your students have finally found a book they will actually read–then what?  Teri Lesesne taught me how to help students climb a reading ladder of text complexity with this book.  It’s a tough battle to get all kids reading, but it’s even tougher to get them to all challenge themselves once they are.  Reading ladders are the solution to the increasing complexity question–now they’re a consistent part of my instruction.
  10. Revision Decisions by Jeff Anderson and Deborah Dean – After reading the first nine books on this list, I still wasn’t sure where grammar instruction fit in.  I knew to have students read like writers and learn from language and sentence structures that way, but I wasn’t sure how to structure my mini-lessons, until I read this book.  Jeff and Deborah helped me find strong craft study lessons and bring them into the classroom in a way that appealed to students and also benefited them immediately in their writing.

This is by no means an exhaustive list–That Workshop Book by Stephanie Harvey, Read Write Teach by Linda Rief, The Book Whisperer by Donalyn Miller, and many other integral titles were simply not on my shelf when I gave this stack to Mike.  But these top ten are ones I wouldn’t be the same teacher without.

What other titles are essential to your practice?  Please share in the comments!

Update:  Here are must-read folks that readers have suggested via Twitter and Facebook, as well as in the comments:

  1. Lucy Calkins
  2. Nancie Atwell
  3. Linda Rief
  4. Katie Wood Ray
  5. Donalyn Miller
  6. Don Graves
  7. Donald Murray
  8. Peter Elbow
  9. Ariel Sacks
  10. James Moffett
  11. Louise Rosenblatt
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