Thoughts on Why We Write

If you’re not an English teacher, you may not realize that we had a holiday recently: October 20th, which is The National Day on Writing. The celebration, created by the National Council of Teachers of English, is designed to promote writing not just as a literacy component, but as part of life’s essential story-sharing force. In case you missed it, you can catch up quickly just glancing around social media at the #whyiwrite hashtag, now nine years strong.

This year, I spent National Day on Writing Eve in the best possible way: with a colleague and a classroom full of young people who showed up to the inaugural meeting of our sparkly new writing club, The Young Authors. We wanted to create a very simple group for high school students, to honor that work of secret solo writing that so many engage in. What if, we asked, there was a meeting place for all those kids with stories burning inside them? What would happen if we simply provided a place to write together? As it turns out, (and as usual:) if you build it, they will come. In our first and second meeting, we introduced ourselves just by sharing what we typically write in our free time. Out it spilled: “I write poetry…. I’m working on a novel… I’ve been writing songs for the past couple years… I write dark and disturbing fantasy short stories… I don’t know what I write, but I know that I want to!” These kids are authors already, and now that they’ve been assembled together, I can’t wait to see their collective power grow. There’s a unique, quiet magic to a room full of people all scribbling and tapping away, bringing their inner worlds to life while working side by side. It makes me smile to see the people walking down the hallway past our room, peeking in curiously at a whole bunch of teenagers with focused expressions, silently immersed in creative work, while the late afternoon sun streams in and music seeps from the computer speakers. Sometimes I wave at them. They’ll know who we are soon enough.

This is the spirit of the National Day on Writing: the knowledge that more writing–and more support for it–is always a good thing. We are so excited about this new student group for lots of reasons. There are many plans down the road for things like attending writing conferences, creating commemorative mugs (!), and pursuing publication opportunities for these young writers. We want them to know that we are here to value and champion the words that they want to share with the world.

At the first and second meetings, we asked these students to submit a #whyiwrite response, and reading these really sums up everything about why fostering a love for writing in young people is so important. I leave you with a selection of them here.

I write because I am in control of what I create. There are no boundaries and no one can tell me what to write.

I write because it calms me down.

I write because I love playing with words.

I write because it helps me express myself artistically.

I write because it helps me cope with my depression. Writing is escape.

I write because it lets my thoughts and feelings play out on paper.

I write because I love creating new worlds out of nothing but my imagination.

These voices tell us that writing is so much more than whatever happens on a worksheet. Writing helps us connect with our whole selves when we do it right, and helping students get to that point is part of our cause as teachers.

I write because the fins of ideas are not meant to batter against the glass of a sealed jar.

How about you?

Tackling the Classics: Helping Students Adapt to Reading Literature with a Capital L

I love it when students share what they read with me. I encourage them to interact with each other (and me!) through Goodreads, where we can share recommendations, reactions, and reviews from our reading lives. Many times, students help me learn about cool new titles that I should add to my classroom library. On the other hand, sometimes they make me shake my head in a very special brand of English teacher sorrow. All I really need to share here is this pair of student Goodreads ratings from last year:

Fifty Shades Darker, 5 out of 5 stars.

 Hamlet, 3 out of 5 stars.

Help.

Now, please understand–I am 100% in support of student choice in reading. Our school’s independent reading program, which emphasizes volume and choice has done wonders for the reading culture and ability of our students. And if reading a little bit of what I would generously rate as garbage helps a student become a stronger reader who’s ready for more challenging things than they would be otherwise, I’m all for it!

But… I also have a deep love and respect for classical literature–I am an AP Literature and Composition teacher, after all! When I do teach a full-class text that comes from a more challenging place, I want to give students the best chance to adore it like I do. It’s not easy. Many canonical texts are extremely challenging. They use unfamiliar language structures and words, and abide by different standards for craft. There are old references, and types of humor that aren’t even common anymore. Is reading something like that as enjoyable as reading a fast-paced, on-trend piece of contemporary young adult lit? Maybe not. Or maybe it is just as enjoyable, just in a profoundly different way. Students often don’t understand why we ask them to wade something like Shakespeare’s works. It’s our job to help them see that something like Hamlet will not provide the same automatically visceral thrill as something written at their own independent ability level from their own time. But the mental challenge that it presents is absolutely sumptuous–if one knows to be looking for it.

I started this year with a discussion that I think will be really helpful for my literature students in learning to love Literature with a capital L. It’s about reading for different purposes and the different types of enjoyment we can get out of different texts. I’d like to share the notes from our discussion–maybe they’ll help you clarify reading for different purposes with your own students.

Reading for fun and entertainment

*Purpose: evaluating quality and enjoying emotionally

*Focus on plot, always asking “What happens next?”

*We look for thrill, suspense, and surprise, personal connections to characters, and happy or otherwise satisfying endings

*Texts are typically fairly modern and fairly easy to read

*We want to know… was it good? Did you like it? How did it make you feel?

Reading for analysis

*Purpose: exploring and uncovering mentally

*Focus on message, asking “What moves does the author make and why?”

*We look for craft and language choices made by the author, connections to social realities and philosophical questions

*Texts are typically older and fairly difficult to read

*We want to know… what statement does this text make about life’s big questions? What did this text make you think about?

I find it helpful, too, to talk about literature also in terms of fashion–styles that seemed normal in one era seem dated to us now… but that doesn’t mean that they weren’t cutting-edge and boundary-breaking in their own time. The literary fashion of today’s storytelling tells us that predicability is the killer of a good story. Well, tell that to Oedipus Rex. I’ve found that when students learn to judge literary texts with different tools of measurement, the ability to appreciate (and, yes, enjoy!) comes a little more easily.

Happy teaching!

P.s. Here’s a handy-dandy little graphic about the functions of literary reading to help seal the deal.

Beautiful Words and Community Building–Two Goals for a New Teaching Year

Happy New Year… new teaching year, that is! The restorative powers of summer vacation have worked their magic, and I am completely refreshed and ready for my ninth year of teaching to begin. I feel extra excited about this September because I’ve reached a point of joyful re-commitment to being a teacher after a couple conflicted years of quietly taking exploratory steps toward other career paths. Last spring, I abandoned that preparation with the help of wise people in my life who helped me arrive at the decision that working in education is really, really where I still want to be. I couldn’t be more sure of that right now, and that certainty has prompted a fresh passion akin to that of my first-year teacher self. I’ll freely admit that there have been some times in recent years where I had to remind myself that Younger Me would want to punch Current Me in the face for how cynical or powerless I was feeling about my teaching career. But that’s how life is–circles, cycles, death and rebirth. And here we are at a new beginning once again.

So I am READY TO GO. This new vigor is making new things happen. I even re-covered my bulletin board! I have big plans for unrolling cool new elements of my classroom that I’ve never attempted before, and I want to share two of the first ones I’m going to be trying out. Maybe they will inspire you!

NEW GOAL #1: Beautiful Words on the Superb Insights Board

I remember a workshop with Kelly Gallagher where he mentioned that he likes to begin or end his classes each day with what he calls “beautiful words”–a small snippet of great writing that can come from any source, including student work. That idea made so much sense to me. Kids write amazing things all the time, and while an individual may benefit a little bit from me writing “WOW–what a sentence!” on his or her essay, my whole classroom would benefit far more if every student could appreciate that awesome phrase or paragraph, thinking about how it was put together and what makes it so good. So I’m taking a simple step to showcase the beautiful words of my students with a display area on my (newly re-covered) bulletin board. It looks like this. [Click image to enlarge]

I have four different areas where I’ll be showcasing student words. I’ve preloaded it with examples I pulled from last year’s student work.

Beautiful language – poetic, lyrical, figurative language that sings on the page

Intelligent point – an especially smart or insightful observation

Words to live by – wisdom, wit, or humor

Now that is how to write a sentence! – impressive use of complex grammatical constructs

My plan is to update the board essentially constantly. Whenever I run across a portion of student writing that is particularly impressive, I’m going to type it up, anonymously share it with the class, and add it to the board. I think this practice will offer opportunities for micro-mini-lessons on writing, while also celebrating the successes of a wide range of students. (The students currently featured on the board were not all “A” students! But their voices all had something worthwhile to share.) Since any motivation to write is good motivation, I’m hoping that kids will start really trying to outdo each other to make it on the board!

 

NEW GOAL #2: Community Building with Class Newsletter 

A part of me has always wanted to put out a classroom newsletter–something similar to what my kindergarten teacher used to send home to my parents that covers what kids are learning in class, with updates and news. But I have never gotten myself together quite enough to make a classroom publication happen. I mean… who has that kind of time? Not me. Or do I?

As I was reflecting this summer, I realized that I can make this goal happen as long as I scale it correctly. While I do not have time to put together a frequent newsletter with photographs, excerpts of student work, and meaningful quotes from the authors that we’re studying, I do have time to send a succinct email every couple weeks. A colleague of mine blew my mind last year when she showed me how to easily mass email all the parents of my students at once. (How the heck did I never learn about that before?) I’m going to utilize this newfound power to create a bi-weekly email newsletter of sorts that covers just essential news from my junior class. Here’s the draft of my first message:

News from Mrs. Casey’s Communications Classroom

Hello, parents and families! If you’re getting this email, it means that your child is a student in my Communications III class. I’m trying something new this year and sending an update via email every couple weeks, so you can learn more about what is going on in our classroom. I promise to keep these emails short and sweet. You’ll see the following categories in each email:

What are we learning?

Any big projects or tests coming up?

 Ask your student more about…

Don’t forget that your student’s current grades are always available via Powerschool, 24 hours a day. Also, a full description of daily lessons–including homework assignments, announcements, links, and more–is featured on my Haiku page accessible via your student’s portal.

Best regards.

I hope that the newsletter will build community with my students’ families. Through my updates, I hope that they feel closer to what’s going on in my classroom, and that they are more likely to engage their child in conversations about what they are learning and creating in positive, interested ways. I find that during parent-teacher conferences, many parents feel like getting their child to talk to them about school is a shot in the dark. I think these updates will help shed more light, hopefully strengthening the triangle of communication and support between parents, students, and me. It will give me a chance to share awesome news about student success, and to help parents feel more connected and involved with our classroom work.

There are more ideas where those came from, but for now I’ll just say this–Happy New Year, teachers! Punch that inner cynic in the face and go do good work. It’s going to be an amazing year!

 

What to Do After the AP Literature Exam? The Make-Your-Own Writing Project!

Being an AP Literature and Composition teacher is awesome. It means that I get to challenge students at a very rigorous academic level, using sophisticated texts and thought-provoking classroom discussions. I get to teach The Greats–keeping the love of classical literature alive for the next generation. I get to interact with students on an intensive, one-on-one level as they work to master analytical academic writing. It’s a demanding course that attracts remarkable learners thirsty for a challenge. But the experience of an AP class does have its drawbacks when it comes to… well… freedom. All year long, we adhere to a laser-focused schedule, which is designed to prepare them for the AP exam in May. It’s a working system, but one without much wiggle room when it comes to individual interests and true experimentation. That’s why I love those three or four weeks at the end of the year so much.

After the exam, all bets are off! Many teachers come up with truly genius ideas for how to fill this time. (For instance, check out this amazing project from the AP English Facebook Page.) My approach is one that embraces the individual talents of my student writers, and grants them a daunting and magical amount of freedom to create. I call it the Make-Your-Own Writing Project, and it serves as the final exam for the second semester.

The Make-Your-Own Writing Project asks students a simple question: What have you always wanted to write? Then, it enables them, with an instructor’s guidance and resources, to make it happen. Every year, it’s different for every single student. With focused mini-lessons on writing craft, technology, conventions, copyright, and even the publishing industry, I really try to push my students to adopt a true writer identity. For the first time all year, I’m stepping all the way to the background, watering the garden of their talents and watching it bloom. I conference with individuals, but they steer the process. Some students create websites. Some do academic research. Some make graphic novels. There are poetry collections, speeches, vlogs, blogs, novel chapters, short fiction pieces, journals, artist portfolios, and screenplays. It’s a festival of creativity and commitment, all with a 100% personalized spin.

The best part of all of this is that it creates a spotlight for any student to step into, to create something that they sincerely enjoy, all the while keeping up the momentum and challenge of the year until the very end. I’m always inspired by what they create and present.

Want to try it this year? I’ll post my guidesheets here to get you started.

The Make-Your-Own Writing Project assignment description

Customizable Process-Based Rubric for assessment

Please feel free to use or modify my materials for your own teaching use, and tell me how it went in the comments. 🙂

Thanks, AP Lit kids of 2016-2017, for making this year another great one!

**All recognizable student images used with formal consent of students’ guardians  and/or student self-consent if eighteen.

Working on the Right Things: A Day with Penny Kittle

Here’s my department, grinning with joy on a full day of professional development in June. Why are we beaming with megawatt happiness, you ask? Well, it has everything to do with the tall, brilliant blond educator in the middle: the one and only Penny Kittle.

We’ve waited patiently for two years since first scheduling Penny to come do a literacy workshop with our district and surrounding area teachers. On Wednesday, June 21st, in the early morning, I got to pick her up from her hotel and–by way of Fiddleheads Coffee shop–escort her to the presentation site. Engaged and brimming with positive teacher energy from the moment she began, Penny delivered a beautifully curated tour through daily reading, writing, revising, and modeling with students. While there’s no substitute for hearing Penny speak in person, I’d like to share some of the most pressing, inventive, and inspired moments from the workshop, in hopes that some of you might also gain from this sunbeam of professionalism and passion.

A Dose of Truth:

I found myself nodding deeply at this opening statement about teachers: “We’re working hard, but sometimes I think we’re working on the wrong things.” Penny started the day by reminding us of some sobering statistics, which represent behavior that many of us see in our classrooms every day. Plainly said, American students are not sustaining the increase in reading volume and skills that they initially obtain in late elementary school–in fact, many finish high school without truly finishing a single book. Meanwhile, an average of 5,000 pages per year of reading are expected in the first year of college. No wonder so many who are admitted to universities simply drop out.  Students are not prepared for college, and it’s our problem to solve.

Today’s educational landscape is different–very different–than it was 50 years ago. Many well-meaning educators who are following a traditional model find frustration when they ask classes to tackle daunting schedules of lengthy whole-class texts throughout the year. Many students fake their way through a schedule like this and simply don’t read, relying on Sparknotes and YouTube summaries instead to skate by, get “right answers” on quizzes and achieve a conversational knowledge of the plot without actually experiencing the book. This kind of classroom practice can’t keep stumbling blindly forward. There’s no use in trying to cover oodles of high-level curricular content when kids can’t read longer material over sustained periods of time. Teachers will check off items in their syllabi, but not all students will learn. As Penny put it, “People get focused on teaching stuff, not kids.”

The first step to a better way is understanding the difference between what is essential, what is important, and what is nice to know. For example, while being familiar with Jane Austen’s work in particular may be nice to know, what’s truly essential is helping students learn to read more, read better, and (eventually) read deeper.

Classroom Practices:

So how do we build up our students and help them become readers? Penny quoted Richard Allington’s research, which provides a starting equation: engagement in reading + volume of reading = complexity in student thinking. Allington’s work makes clear that “older struggling readers will never become fluent and proficient readers unless volume is increased.”

Penny’s model of incorporating high volumes of independent reading into her classroom work helps build a foundational practice of reading, prioritizing choice as an initial motivator which leads to students building their own reading lists that grow in depth and sophistication through close conferencing with the teacher. Penny is adamant that there are no non-readers, simply dormant readers, and that any kid can find their own reading home, where books start to push them outside of their own environments and perspectives in life-changing ways. (You can read more about this in Penny’s Book Love.)

Penny’s message is that consistent, one-on-one conferencing with students about their reading is the ideal way to push reading skills and volume forward–constantly engaging with, checking in on, and making suggestions for students. I’ve seen this in my own practice… one particular student I worked with this year called himself “not much of a reader” in September and logged a measly 30 pages (if that) per week. After a whole year of dogging him with suggestions and asking about his reading progress every day, he ended up being the kid with quiet tears streaming down his face in the back of my classroom during silent reading, turning the final page of a 500+ page book. That’s Penny Kittle magic right there.

In addition to reading, there are a lot of other things Penny’s students are working on each day. Her daily classroom practices provide time for at least a little bit of each of these actions every day:

READ

WRITE

STUDY

CREATE

SHARE

It’s a simple list of five words, but if you do them in the classroom every day, it adds up to serious literacy power.

Coolest resources:

In the section of the workshop that focused on student writing, so many useful and game-changing resources were mentioned. While this isn’t all of them, I’d recommend these in particular as truly cool resources for the writing classroom. Check them out!

Best American Infographics : this volume, published annually, is great for modeling argument in non-fiction writing, craft lessons, and a starting point for informational writing.

Flipgrid: video sharing in a bite-size, super easy format. Penny’s students make short videos to tell her what to focus on when giving feedback on their writing.

Penny Kittle’s website: resources to make all of this stuff I’m talking about happen!

Reclaiming Conversation by Sherry Turkle: a place to start when thinking about how to teach conversation skills and academic discussion.

Moving Writers web community: home of a massive, categorized mentor text dropbox–a content area teacher’s dream.

Bottom line:

One of the most important ideas that Penny shared was that a school’s social capital lies in the connections between educators and the extent to which they share that knowledge. It’s a reminder that none of us is out here alone–we need to connect, share, and build knowledge whenever possible if we want to construct a powerful school community. Those of us in this profession need to stand fast and commit to practices that will move our students forward–into the world, into a life of reading, writing, and learning. It’s not always easy, but we can do it, because we know why we’re here. To quote Penny one last time, “Teaching well is an act of rebellion that is based on an act of love.”

We’re still glowing too, Mrs. Kittle.  Thanks for everything.

Holden’s Brain and Thoreau’s Campaign: Perspective-Taking in the Literature Classroom

Back when I was a newly-minted teacher, I wrote about the versatile, fail-safe nature of the character letter as an assessment strategy. It’s priceless to come upon a type of assignment that is easily adaptable to different teaching contexts and always engaging for students–a “perfect assignment” if you will. I remembered that post recently, and I realized that I’ve got two more additions to the perfect assignment list! I’ve used both of these assignments in my junior level communications class, but they could be used with many different texts, whether long or short, fictional or non-fictional. Both assignments approach the important task of perspective-taking: an essential thinking skill that is a prerequisite for rigorous writing tasks like analysis and synthesis. Please feel free to use and adapt these activities in your own classroom!

Assignment #1. Narrator’s Brain

What it is: This is an assignment that I typically use with J.D. Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye. It’s an especially good exercise to use with the character of Holden Caulfield because he’s so unreliable; understanding this kid takes some serious inferring and knowledge of human behavior. Since Holden’s not always forthcoming about what’s really on his mind, I ask students to draw it. They are provided with a blank picture of a brain, and I ask them to fill it in with Holden’s thought territories. I ask them to use size, color, and placement within the brain to indicate the weight and awareness that accompanies each section.

What to pair it with: Psychoanalytic literary criticism focuses in part on identifying the psychological defenses and core issues that manifest within a text. Discussing a text through this lens helps students be on the lookout for the “real story” behind what’s mentioned in the narration. Example- For Holden, his obsession with wondering where the Central Park ducks go in winter mirrors his own fears of abandonment and adulthood. Students need to get to that level of insight before an assignment like this can be meaningful.

Mentor texts: Here are a couple great images to start from.

^Scientifically informed  illustration for Time Magazine by Leigh Wells

^Emotionally informed illustration by graphic artist The City Limit 

 

My assignment sheet: <<click here for download

Student examples: (Click on any image to enlarge)

 

Assignment #2. Author as Politician

What it is: While teaching difficult texts in AP Literature, a problem that I’ve noticed again and again is students’ difficulty to grasp the authorial intention that drives the narrative in fiction texts, or even the messages in non-fiction texts. In other words, students can tell me what happened in a chapter of A Tale of Two Cities, but they struggle to identify Dickens’ scathing social criticism and allegiances that are evident in his voice. One day (honestly, out of desperation), I made up an assignment on the fly that asked students to design a political campaign for Dickens. It worked well to get them focusing on using the text as evidence for what the author was thinking, and I had a big breakthrough. This year, I duplicated the idea with my juniors’ study of a segment from Emerson’s “Civil Disobedience”–we read the text, and then I asked students to decide what they thought Emerson stood for, politically, including designing a political sign for him.

What to pair it with: It was important to me that my students had an understanding that we’re not talking about today’s national politics in this assignment. I made sure that my students had an idea of the political context in Thoreau’s day, and that neither Republicans nor Democrats existed at that time, at least not as we know them today. We talked about how individual political beliefs can’t always be distilled along party lines, and set up our analysis of Thoreau as a build-your-own kind of political ideology. (All this to say: it was clear that I wasn’t asking students to classify Thoreau as a liberal or a conservative. In fact, he had elements of both and neither.) To get here, it is essential to meaningfully annotate the text. Whether students can do it with guidance or independently depends on the class and the content.

Mentor texts: Political ads and advertising slogans are everywhere. When one of my students was confused about the purpose for political catchphrase, I used the motto of an easily recognized national business chain as an example. She then understood: “Oh, so the main idea that the audience should think of when they think of this person?” Yep!

My assignment sheet<<click here for download

Student examples: (Click on any image to enlarge)

 

I hope these two assignments might find a use in your classroom… but it’s almost summer, so put them in your folder for 2017-2018. Happy Summer Break, all!

If You Build It, They Will Come: Thoughts on Green Bay’s UntitledTown Book & Author Festival

A little less than a month ago, I attended the inaugural UntitledTown Book and Author Festival in Green Bay, Wisconsin. When a few friends and a former professor initially told me about the concept for a weekend-long, free-to-the-public celebration of reading and writing, I geeked out. When I subsequently learned that Sherman Alexie and Margaret Atwood would be speaking in the closing keynote, I had a full-out geek attack. A whole weekend with readers and writers everywhere, teaching and learning about how to read and write with more passion and prowess? Be still my ink-dripping English teacher heart!

It’s easy to wane in enthusiasm in late April and May, when so many of us have to put on a tough face to keep kids (and even ourselves) motivated about learning. This year, though, attending UntitledTown was exactly the reinvigoration I needed to finish the teaching year out with gusto. I spent the whole weekend thinking, “I remember! I remember why I love  teaching about the written word so dang much!” It was a downright gift, and one that’s too good not to share. So, in hopes that some of my inspiration overflow may find its way to you, fellow teachers, I’d like to share my top four takeaways from my weekend at UntitledTown.

On teaching writing – Good storytelling comes down to details and human understanding. In her session “The Art of Truth,” author Blair Braverman put it so well: “The structure and principles of telling stories are the same in fiction and non-fiction. The most important thing to make writing vivid is your eye for rich, surprising detail that reflects human decisions.” She encouraged those who wanted to write compelling stories to sit down and talk with others–even strangers–at length, because to write is to also understand the thoughts and experiences of others. In an author panel entitled “Thrills and Threats and Tenderness,” Larry Watson encouraged writers to not think so much about technique, urging instead to “Think about people.” Ben Percy offered his variation on this theme as well, saying “Narrative progress and emotional progress are equally important. Transformation is essential for good writing.” Great reminders for the writing classroom, especially when we need to get back in touch with why we do what we do.

On the power that language holds over our lives – The word that ends the argument in a moment. Sherman Alexie speaks the way he writes, with a hectic, hilarious, sweeping energy that can draw laughter and tears with equal ease. In his talk on his upcoming memoir, he told a story about his own mother and father arguing in a dying tribal language that he didn’t understand; he remembers rarely hearing his father speak it, but when he did, he could bring the room to silence. “That’s the tragedy of losing a language,” Alexie said. “You lose the word that ends the argument in a moment.” Preserving words, using them, and respecting them is a way of harnessing power. Why teach a high school kid to read Shakespeare? This is why.

On the importance of the humanities – Engaging human wholeness. Margaret Atwood is a mage of modern English language literature, a tour de force of a woman. In speaking about her celebrated dystopian novel The Handmaid’s Tale, she made the point that in the totalitarian regime of the book, there are no novels, no poems, plays, or shows–it is a world where women aren’t allowed to read, and nobody ever has to get offended by art. In her talk, Atwood gave nothing short of a battle cry for protecting the humanities in our own world: “Who are we? The humanities answers this question differently than science…. not everything about us is the sum of our biological parts. Any educational system that ignores this is not engaging human wholeness. We are art-making beings. We are story-making beings. Through art, we not only express, but we explore and question.” I cried.

On reading and writing communities – If you build it, they (the readers, the writers, the lovers of words) will come. The whole concept of this festival was an unproven one, and the board wasn’t completely sure what to expect–would the little city of Green Bay really be enough of a destination to attract enough speakers and attendees to make the vision possible? The answer is yes. Even in the cold, dismal weather, the city was hopping. Events were packed, and people were buzzing with excitement. Several times over the weekend, I thought to myself, “Seriously, where did all these people come from?” People of all ages, shapes, and styles who wanted more chances to read and write. They were everywhere. It spoke to the fact that our communities are full of people who are (often quietly or secretly) hungry to write and read more. How fortunate that, in Green Bay, they could come together and find each other!

The writers are out there. Someone had to put the first book in their hands. Someone had to tell them their stories were worth telling. Someone had to show them how and why to love language. We teachers are the headwaters of that stream, the keepers of that flame. And it makes me proud. Thanks, UntitledTown, for reminding me that my teacher-writer-reader spirit is not (even close to) alone.

English on.

Into the Woods! A Transcendentalist Day at the Schlitz Audubon Nature Center

Sometimes the world is just so big that we forget it’s even there.

Teaching our junior unit on transcendentalism is always a highlight of the end of the year. Beyond just teaching about the American philosophical giants of the mid-1800s, we work on understanding the legacy of the transcendentals and their lasting ideals of self-reliance, solitude, and free thought. We try to transform our classroom walls into windows that turn within, as student consider their own personal philosophies. Last year while reflecting on this unit–so much about thinking and writing born of the natural world’s inspiration–it seemed to us that we shouldn’t just be turning walls into windows. We should be opening those windows, and streaming out into the place where Emerson found his spirit, and Thoreau found his soul–the woods. What good is reading about the connection between man and nature, if you can’t feel it?

Yep, you know what that means! Field. Trip. Time. With this goal in mind, we spent several months planning a day of workshops, inside and outside, where students could read, write, hike, observe plants and animals, and maybe even lose themselves (safely) in a place of solitude and reflection. We found a perfect partnership in Milwaukee’s Schlitz Audubon Nature Center, which prioritizes experiential, environmental education in its mission statement and boasts six miles of trails over 185 acres of beautiful natural ecosystems along Lake Michigan.

It’s hard to know what to expect when you announce to over one hundred teenagers that you’re taking them to the forest. They seemed excited, in an uncertain kind of way, about spending a day outside. For most of them, this would be an unfamiliar kind of experience. We primed them all week leading up to the trip by introducing them to transcendentalism, reading about the science behind effects that nature has on the brain, and practicing field notes in the classroom. Here’s my example from the classroom practice, written in the same little red field notebook that we provided to each of our students on field trip day:

Our full plan for the day was developed by our team of five teachers and three staff members at the center. We rotated five groups of around 20 students between five mini-workshops including geocaching (staffed by the nature center), and hands-on lessons in transcendentalist ideas, nature writing, reflective writing, and field notes, all written by our teaching team. (If you’d like access to our curriculum to adapt for your own nature field trip, find it here, shared with the permission of my colleagues.)

We took 107 high school juniors out to navigate, tread through mud, hop on rocks, watch sun-baked turtles, listen to birdsong, to write and read and eat bag lunches and laugh. It was curriculum brought to life. The students were really kids on this trip, laughing, shrieking, stretching, and having actual dynamic conversations.  They were excited and adventuresome. They dug in to what we were doing. They walked all day. This is teaching at its best and most pure–creating an experience, guiding pupils on how to explore it, and watching them feel a spark of curiosity drive a search for knowledge. 

“Wait, I want to write a little more!”

“I’m muddy, but I don’t even care.”

“Why don’t we do this all the time?”

“Do we really have to leave?”

“It’s so beautiful.”

“Thank you so much for putting this together.”

“Thank you for planning this.”

“Thank you for taking us here.”

 

I was so happy that my heart was breaking a little bit. I was thinking about all the time that the average high school student spends in a desk filling out bubbles, when he or she could be making or doing something that connects to his or her learning instead. I’m so grateful that we were able to have this golden day in nature to help new learning catch fire. We need so much more of this. The first step is cultivating partnerships between schools and outside organizations like the SANC–it’s fantastic when we can support one another’s missions and open the world to kids in the meantime.

I also got to hold a snake! (So did the students, at least those who had good feelings about snakes!) Touch is such an important sense–we touch to connect, to understand. Learning about the natural world is only so much trivia until you get to feel the squirm of a snake’s muscles contracting as he sneaks gently around your arm. It’s a different kind of bond, a deeper kind of understanding that takes you from interested to caring. Immersive education is crucial to natural preservation efforts… because in order to act, you have to care. Thanks to this experience, we got to reach out and touch our big, big world.

Pretty darn awesome. Thanks again to the Schlitz Audubon Nature Center for helping us make our transcendentalist teaching dreams come true!

 

Old Stories, New Voices: an Opening Writing Activity Inspired by History

In this post, I’ll share materials and ideas from my opening writing activity session for the UW-Milwaukee Writing Project Conference on the Teaching of Writing, presented on February 25th 2017. 

Picture credit: UW-Milwaukee Writing Project

When I work with student writers, I place priority on viewing writing as a process rather than a product. Writing morphs through multiple phases that don’t always have a set order, and the joy of it all is watching the piece emerge like a sculpture emerges from the clay beneath a sculptor’s hands. But before I get too poetic for my own good, I’d like to start this post with a question–not about the sculpting process at all, but about the clay that we begin with.

Where does that clay come from? Writing needs a starting point. Where do we find ideas and inspiration in the first place?

This is the question that I chose to explore when I was invited to present an opening writing activity at the 2017 UW-Milwaukee Writing Project Conference on the Teaching of Writing. I was excited to attend this year’s conference and be surrounded once again by the collegial, buzzing atmosphere of Milwaukee area teachers all jazzed up about the teaching of writing: a consistent feeling at all UWM Writing Project events. I knew I needed to come up with something that would honor the plentiful energy and creativity my audience would bring to the table. While brainstorming one afternoon, I hit “play” on one of my go-to motivational tracks: “Nonstop”, from Lin Manuel Miranda’s Broadway hit musical Hamilton.

“How do you write like you’re running out of time? Write, day and night, like you’re running out of time? How do you write like you need it to survive–every second you’re alive, every second you’re alive?”

Those words from Hamilton cut to the very core of my instinct to create–whenever I feel the dangerous creep of malaise, I can tap into a surge of motivation when I think about how frantically, ridiculously prolific Alexander Hamilton was during his short life. As someone who never enjoyed the study of history via cold, hard facts, I find it almost laughable that I can be inspired by thinking about the first United States Secretary of the Treasury… But thanks to the literary and musical genius of Miranda, I’m able to hear a new voice that reinvigorates that stolid figure on the 10 dollar bill. That’s the power of writing; it’s not just in which stories we’re telling, but in the style we’re using to tell them. As I thought about all that, I realized that I had brain-wandered my way straight into the very idea that I wanted to talk (and write!) about.

The result is my presentation “Old Stories, New Voices,” which explores how historical source material can work as inspiration for new writing, using language as a transformative agent. Here, I provide some examples from Hamilton, as well as a fantastic book of vintage classified ads called Strange Red Cow by Sara Bader. Also, of course, there’s an opportunity to write! Enjoy this historically inspired mayhem, and feel free to adapt it to your own classroom writing adventures.

Session Handout linked here <Click for handout.

Accompanying presentation:

 

Many thanks to the UWMWP for inviting me back, and for the sensational work you do alongside Milwaukee-area educators!

The Catwalk! A Closer Look at Everyday Modeling in the Writing Classroom

At my school, we’re a big fan of modeling. No… not that kind of modeling. There are no chic poses or fine fabrics involved. I’m talking about the catwalk that writing teachers walk when they demonstrate the process of writing in front of their students. This is a strategy that seems so simple, yet takes a lot of practice and guts to do. When we teach manual skills, like changing a tire or swinging a bat, it feels so natural to demonstrate what the skill looks like. But a more intellectual skill, like writing, for some reason doesn’t always invoke that same instinct. We explain and explain, telling our students to do something, all the while overlooking the possibility that showing them how to do it might be better! In my experience, student feedback confirms that it is better–they often mention how helpful it is to see writing modeled.

Earlier this year, my department was fortunate enough to be part of a workshop with Kelly Gallagher at the Wisconsin Council of Teachers of English Convention. Here’s a great snap of us with Kelly, so happy to meet one of our teaching idols once again:

At the workshop, we were reminded keenly of the power of modeling when it comes to the reading, writing, and thinking skills we hope to see from students–Gallagher phrases it as “I go, you go.” First, the teacher demonstrates the writing skill, then the students try it out on their own. Ideally, this should be happening constantly in the writing classroom. But embracing modeling can mean getting a little bit vulnerable as a teacher… when you’re writing in front of students without having your words prepared beforehand, you’ll have lapses in ideas, moments of confusion, and probably some typos. Here’s the secret: that’s the best part about it all! When students see us struggle a little bit in the production of writing, it brings us down to earth for them. It helps them to understand that writing doesn’t just emerge fully formed from anyone’s hand, no matter how much experience is behind it. They start to see writing less as a mysterious, built-in talent and more as a problem solving process. If the quality of the writing doesn’t turn out too well on the first try, it just creates an ideal opportunity to model some on-the-spot revision!

When I do modeling in my classroom, I bring up a blank notebook page on my document camera and just start writing away. If you don’t have a document camera, you can use Google Docs or the good old-fashioned chalkboard. I instruct my students to also take out their own notebooks to write along with me as I model. (Yep, they create their own example by writing exactly what I write, word for word. This might sound odd, but I’ve actually read in many writing guides that copying down the work of better writers somehow helps us internalize new skills in phrasing and style. Author Hunter S. Thompson reportedly once copied the entirety of The Great Gatsby by hand.) In the teacher-writer role, I verbally get as meta-cognitive as possible, narrating not only what I’m writing, but why I’m making language choices along the way. Sometimes I’ll also define words or pose questions. Let me show you how it works!

In our current synthesis writing unit, our Communications III team is using This American Life as a way to introduce the concept of synthesis–like a synthesis essay, the show revolves around a central idea, presents the viewpoint of the author (host), and uses disparate sources to create a conversation about the central idea. To kick off our unit, we showed them an episode entitled “Reality Check.” After each segment, I paused the video to discuss and relate it back to synthesis. Since I’ll be asking my students to write a synthesis piece later in the unit, I’m modeling writing skills whenever I can, in order to get them trained up. In this case, I wanted them to get comfortable with the ideas of “giving context” and “connecting to the big idea” when introducing a source. In a complicated task like synthesis, building little skills like these are valuable tools to refer back to when we get into the real deal. It’s nothing fancy, but it doesn’t have to be. View and click below to see the examples I created with my students and listen to my think-aloud to get an idea for what modeling looks like on the average day in Room 310.

What I said (please pardon the pauses as I stop to write):

What we wrote:

For the third portion of the episode, students write their own context + connection to the big idea, so I can get an idea of how well they understood this skill. I don’t worry at this point if their words turn out being “mysteriously similar” to those in my models–we’re in the training wheels stage, and they may not be ready to experiment with words independently just yet in this context. They will get there when they feel strong! The idea is to give them exposure to as many writing skills as possible so they’re ready to apply them when drafting begins. On Monday, we’re working on commas, colons, and semicolons in complex sentences. One thing at a time. 🙂

I wouldn’t say I’m a supermodel like Kelly Gallagher quite yet. But I’m walking the walk as best I can. I hope you will consider doing the same, and see some great things result from your students’ work. Be the model you were born to be!