Category: Writing

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!

Learning and Writing in the Flow State

The idea of the flow state is one of those hip psychology topics of recent years. In articles like this one from Time, or  this one from Psychology Today we hear about seemingly superhuman feats that can result from achieving a peak experience or flow state. Interesting stuff. I was thinking about this idea while watching a documentary on free climbing, when something hit me–good writing happens in the flow state, too. (Also, it’s much less dangerous than free climbing… physically, anyway.)

I realized that a quick lesson and discussion about flow states could be really useful to my student writers, who happened to be working on an intense, self-driven writing project of length at the end of the year. So, I showed them this short video, paired with the the request to think about how understanding the flow state concept can help us as writers:

 

Working together in discussion, we identified some helpful pointers we could apply to our writing…

WHAT WE LEARNED HOW WE CAN APPLY THIS LEARNING TO OUR WRITING PROCESS
Flow starts with struggle.

When we are trying but failing to think of a good idea, or we feel frustrated or stuck with our draft, that is actually a good sign! We have to move through the struggle to get to flow. Even if the process of struggling feels futile and impossible right now, it doesn’t mean we should give up. We are on our way to the flow state!

 

Letting go of the problem at peak struggle is crucial to enter the flow state.

Just as we reach frustration, we need to take a little time away from what we’re working on, doing something that will leave our mind free to think about our writing. We can play a sport, enjoy nature, cook, do a puzzle, practice art or music, or just stare at the wall for a little while to free up some space for new ideas to come.

 

Watching TV or browsing the internet will destroy flow.

While most of us use social media and entertainment to “take a break,” that’s actually the worst thing we can do to make progress with our flow… as tempting as it is, staring at the TV or our phones has to be avoided if we truly want to reach peak focus and productivity. We should try to take working breaks doing more of the things listed above.

 

Flow results in enhanced performance.

 Once we reach flow, it is awesome! Time just falls away, the words come to us easily, and we make massive progress. When we reach that “zone,” we are able to be productive and creative!

 

Processing the recovery phase is necessary to re-enter flow.

 Flow can’t last forever, so once we’ve achieved a good burst of inspiration and the surge of productivity is worn out, we shouldn’t assume that it’s gone forever–we just need to recharge.

 

Grit, resisting stress, and refusing to give in to negative emotions can help us struggle better and recover better.  We should try not to let self-doubt get to us. Once we understand that feeling stuck doesn’t mean we’re bad at this, it gives us the confidence that we’ll find our focus and inspiration along the way. When we view the feeling of challenge as an opportunity to grow, the flow state will be easier to find.

 

Even though the field of positive psychology wasn’t where I expected to find my next great writing warm-up, this exercise significantly changed the way my students were able to talk about their writing process. I guess it boils down to “Know thyself.” It was a reminder to me that talking about writing is also talking about thinking, which (at least according to Descartes) is kind of the same as talking about being. We need to touch on all three to help students find the magic that comes from flow.

Composition and Revision are Remixing: Creativity as a Growth Mindset

Does the phrase “growth mindset” ring a bell? It’s a term from the book MindSet: The New Psychology of Success by Carol Dweck–a title that is quickly making the rounds among educators at all levels. Dweck’s argument is powerful; essentially, her research shows that people who approach their capacity to learn and achieve as built-in, or “fixed,” are eventually limited in their capacity to find success. In contrast, those who adopt a growth mindset see their learning capacity as an infinite pool, where effort applied equates to possible gain, and failure creates opportunity to evolve. People who adopt a growth mindset are more likely to find fulfillment and success. 

Like many of my colleagues, I’ve set a personal goal to incorporate the idea of the growth mindset into my teaching. One of the areas where I think this works especially well is in the learning of creativity. Often, I hear a student who is attempting a free form writing assignment say, “I don’t know what to do. I’m not creative.” That is a fixed mindset if I ever heard one! And it’s a particularly dangerous one. When students abandon the idea that they are capable of creating something new, something unique, or something innovative on their own, they are in essence asking to be told what to do. They’re saying I’m not good enough to stand on my own. Just give me a formula.  Let me be a robot.  I forsake my power as a thinker, writer, and person. If we want the next generation to be able to create their own success, this can’t happen.

That being said, creative work is hard. It’s really intimidating. Suddenly, instead of languishing in the comfort of meeting standardized requirements, students have to think about whether or not their work is “good.” They need a vision. And so many times that prospect can be paralyzing for those that never learned about the failure-ridden, growth-rich process of creativity. 

How does one help students adopt a growth mindset about creativity? I’m still figuring this out, but I have a start for you. And it involves Calvin and Hobbes.

Last year I wrote a post on the new Writer’s Sandbox unit that I teach in my junior Communications class. This year is Year Two of this versatile, dynamic writing unit that was designed to build confidence, creativity, and breadth in our students’ writing. To kick off the unit this year, I wanted to teach about the creativity-as-process early and up front. I started by drawing this on the board:

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[Click to enlarge the image]

I told my students that it’s crucial to see creativity as a process, not just something someone is magically endowed with. Instead, it’s about practicing doing the work of transforming raw material by adding, subtracting, rearranging, or changing it. The creative product is the result of that work. “We have to start with something,” I told them. “That’s the first step. Sometimes we generate that something; sometimes we find it. Today, I found it for you. We’ll start there.”

The raw material I provided my students were cut-apart photocopies of pages from Bill Watterson’s Calvin and Hobbes comics. Anyone who has read them can recognize the creative masterwork that Watterson created, which means his raw material–the drawings and words–are pretty solid too. I put hundreds of panels in a pile, all mixed up: raw material, ready to go.

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“Follow the process,” I told my class. I had provided them with raw material. Now, they were expected to add, subtract, rearrange, or change that material. I asked for a “remix” of the strip–students could edit words, draw additional content, and re-contextualize each panel to fit their new vision. 

The fact that this was a crafty, cut-and-paste activity that let students play with comics really lessened the pressure of risk that many students put on themselves during creative tasks. It turned out to be the perfect entry point into the subsequent writing unit. For instance, when we moved on to writing flash memoir pieces, students understood that making memory lists was our way of generating raw material. It didn’t matter whether the original material was “good.” It was just material to be re-envisioned. Once we started drafting, students were also more willing to revise in significant ways, trusting that rearranging, adding, and cutting were again parts of the creative process.

There’s a huge value in designing small activities that a teacher can use as a case study for a new process or skill. I find myself reminding my class about the comic remix activity every time we approach a creative task. It works as an analogy to the larger process, and reminds me that sometimes our lessons need to be designed to help students learn more than just content. Sometimes our lessons need to help them learn a new way to think.

Just as Calvin sees so much more than just a stuffed tiger toy when he looks at Hobbes, our students have a whole world of creative possibility inside their brains. It’s our job to help them know how to find it!

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[Click to enlarge the image]

Real Writers Speak through Wisconsin Writes!

In our most recent set of digital department minutes, my department head included a link with the accompanying text, “This is cool!” The link took me to something called Wisconsin Writes. It didn’t take me very long to figure out that she was right: it is cool.

Wisconsin Writes is a web video series featuring interviews and process videos from successful writers throughout the state of Wisconsin. The writers come from a variety of genres and backgrounds. Some of those featured so far include Wisconsin Poet Laureate Kimberly Blaeser, young adult literature author Silvia Acevedo, and New York Times Bestseller author Patrick Rothfuss. I was gleeful to see a video from Rothfuss in particular, having been spellbound by his novella The Slow Regard of Silent Things last year. Did I want to hear more about his writing process? Absolutely! So I watched the Rothfuss videos. Then, I went down a bit of a rabbit hole and watched all the other videos available on Wisconsin Writes. They all have moments of brilliance that are really useful when thinking about the widely varying inspirations, processes, and ways of thinking that accompany writing. Knowing that the featured writers are Wisconsin natives whom I might pass in my own grocery store sometime made the videos even more keenly interesting. Wisconsin Writes is a great resource for ELA teachers in who want to gain insight about writing as they prepare to teach.

Here’s the trailer for the series, which releases a new video every other week or so. It’s exciting, relevant, and linked to our own communities–a very cool resource indeed. Check it out at http://dpi.wi.gov/wisconsin-writes .

I think that Wisconsin Writes has strong potential as a classroom resource, too, but with a little bit of preparation time applied. At a typical length of over four minutes (and some well over that), the videos are a bit long-winded to capture the enthralled attention of your average high school class. That being said, I think certain segments of the longer videos would be absolutely perfect to use as an intro to a mini-lesson or brief process lecture. That’s where TubeChop comes in! TubeChop is a ridiculously easy-to-use tool that allows you to select a clip from an existing YouTube video, and create a shareable video of the clip in isolation. I used it to segment a piece of the Patrick Rothfuss process video that I intend to use in my upcoming writing process unit with my juniors, to spur conversation about the individuality of one’s ideal writing environment and how it can influence the product. Take a look below!

My TubeChop highlighting Rothfuss’ writing environment and its link to process:

I’m very much looking forward to the next videos in the series. I can’t wait to see how it grows, and how it impacts teachers of writing in our state! DPI recommends continuing the conversation about Wisconsin Writes content via Twitter at #WiWrites or on the Wisconsin DPI English Language Arts Google+ community.

Teachable Insight: Helping Students get to the Big Ideas in AP Literature & Composition

I recently attended an AP Workshop in Milwaukee, where I had some space to reflect on the goals of my teaching in my AP Literature and Composition classes. I was happy to hear from the expert leader of my session that, when it comes to the written responses on the AP exam, meaning is everything. It doesn’t matter if AP Lit students can identify a gigantic laundry list of terms in a literary work. No matter how specialized their technical knowledge may be, students will generate worthless writing if they do not display the ability to practice insight. To score well on the writing portion of the exam, students need to be able to get seriously in touch with meaning. They need to answer: how does this text shift the world, comment upon humanity, and make new realizations move within us?

Students need to do more than summarize, more than dissect. They need to unveil the heart of a work. They need to be profound.

Once realizing this, the AP teacher can feel a bit in over her head.  How on earth do you teach a teenager to be profound? Most kids are not wise beyond their years, and are not well-equipped to tackle the questions of the ages without some sort of guidance. When I do a sample interpretation, students often say, “How the heck did you get THAT out of THIS?” Earlier in my career, I’d actually say, “I don’t know,” because I couldn’t verbalize it effectively. But after five years of teaching AP and wondering about where insight comes from, I think I’m starting to put it together. I’m now convinced that insight is somewhat teachable! In this post, I’m going to share a few methods that I’ve found helpful in this pursuit.

RECOGNIZING BIG IDEAS

Some people call these “themes,” but I call them big ideas–abstract thematic concepts which are socially, universally important in some way. You know, things like “love,” “wartime ethics,” or “fragility.” I like starting the year by having my students make a giant list of these ideas, so that we can be on the lookout for them as they pop up in the literature. Here’s a list that one of my AP groups generated:

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Students are good at this once they gain some momentum. Big ideas are a simple way of categorizing literature with the stem “This story is about…” Recognizing the presence of big ideas is the first step to becoming an insightful analyzer of text, and it bears constant revisiting throughout the year.

MAKING A MASTERFUL THESIS

Students often start writing before they know what they’re talking about. While I am normally a big fan of writing as a method of exploration and brainstorming, the timed scenario of the AP essay is not the arena in which to apply this strategy. AP analysis writing must be focused, purposeful, and show the promise of insight. While the master writer can do this instinctively, beginning writers are overwhelmed by these lofty expectations. I lead my students through this by assuring them that a strong thesis will support a strong paper. I also supply them with a formula that I derived from analyzing skillful literary analysis writing. The formula is helpful, because it guarantees that the core argument of the paper will transcend summary. Here it is. (Click on the image to enlarge it!)

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This formula works for the open response as well as the prose and poetry questions. I’ll expand a little here on each element.

AUTHOR and TITLE should be included, for context. Of course, if these are mentioned earlier in the introduction, they may be left off.

The FOCUS ELEMENT is perhaps the most variable element of the thesis. In the open response essay, it is a broad “something” that is notable in the chosen novel. It might be a character, a motif, a plot device, a stylistic choice, or many other things. In the prose or poetry essays, the focus elements will be specifically qualified literary devices/moves–maybe “elevated diction,” “natural imagery,” or “a haunted tone.” The focus element narrows and specializes the essay, allowing for a unique interpretation that avoids the obvious and overbroad.

AUTHOR ACTION VERBS describe precisely what the author is doing with the FOCUS ELEMENT. Examples: questions, criticizes, demonstrates, alludes to…

The THEMATIC STATEMENT is a statement that the author makes about one of those BIG IDEAS through the story, and specifically through the use of the FOCUS ELEMENT.

As students become more proficient, they can riff on this formula. In the examples you can see on the chalkboard above, students can already see that the order of the elements is not strict, but they should all be present. This method has been successful for me in helping my students have something to say. Selecting the big idea first is the way in. (Often, the big idea or focus element is already provided by the prompt, and students can build from there.) I work with them on making sure that the focus element and thematic statement work together in a logical way.

THE 3×3: ANOTHER WAY OF APPROACHING BIG IDEAS

At my recent workshop, the presenter shared another big idea strategy that I can’t wait to use. He called it a “3×3.” This strategy asks students, after reading a piece, to generate three sentences of three words each that sum up the meaning of the work. Rules: No repetition, no character names, each sentence should contain subject + verb + object, and the sentences should feature big ideas as the subject or object as often as possible. It’s a simple activity that pushes big thinking.

Example for Oedipus Rex:

SUBJECT VERB OBJECT
Healing requires action.
Truth destroys security.
Sacrifice accompanies fate.

It’s nifty how any of those could turn into the thematic statement element for a thesis statement!

The more strategies we can equip our students with when it comes to working with the great ideas of the world, the better and more confident writers they will become. Do you have another idea to recommend? Please mention it in the comments!

Sacred Stories: Transcendental Personal Narratives Using Cowbird

Eleventh graders can be more insightful than you might think. When I asked my second semester classes to list what makes a fulfilling life as a kickoff activity to our Transcendentalism unit, this is what they said:

I love ending the year in  Communications III with Transcendentalism for several reasons. For one, the bitter Wisconsin tundra starts to warm and bloom and the concept of nature being revelatory becomes a little easier of an idea to buy into. For another, it’s an ideal time in my students’ lives for them to try developing a little personal philosophy. They’re on the cusp of senior year, and about to start feeling the pressure to make huge decisions: Which career to head toward? Which relationships to prioritize? Which college to attend? Which beliefs to live by? Which kind of adult to be? For these students, huge questions suddenly need answers, as they always have. What a great time to kick it way back to the mid-1800’s.

Emerson, Thoreau, and the rest of their Transcendental Club sought to define their beliefs as different from the mainstream philosophies surrounding them. Their devotion to ideals of self-reliance, confidence, free thought, and non-conformity resonate with young people readily, even through the thick vocabulary of “Nature” and Walden. My students seek to define themselves as well, and for that reason my colleagues and I balance this unit with a mixture of historic Transcendental information/texts and more modern examples of personal philosophy, such as the YouTube video “How To Be Alone” and Charles Harper Webb’s poem “How To Live.”  Toward the end of the unit, we explore specifically the link between nature and the abstract ideals of these varied sources. Where does nature come in to our understanding of ourselves as people, according to Emerson? Thoreau? What about according to us?

As a culminating project for the unit this year, I was very interested in doing something that would allow students to identify how Transcendentalist ideas have functioned in their own lives through a narrative composition. As luck would have it, right around the time I was thinking about this assignment, I was introduced to the digital story-collecting site Cowbird. It turned out to be the perfect tool: students could use a mixture of image and audio to create a multimedia narrative.

We started by browsing the stories already on the site that were tagged under the topic “Nature.” Using our own reactions, we discussed the features of an engaging narrative, which gave me the chance to insert some additional instruction about narrative composition as well. We then took our stories through a writing workshop. I modeled the process for them, walking them through the website and audio recording app, sharing my own idea-generating web as I brainstormed, showing my drafts-in-progress as they changed each day, and finally posting my final product. I’m a big believer in demonstrating the writing process, as replete with frustration and reward as it can be.

What I loved about watching my students move through this process was how invested and honest they were as they worked. The new technology skills I asked of them were challenging enough to be interesting but not so difficult as to inhibit success. They worked hard on their written drafts and recordings, persevering through many takes in order to get it right. The final compositions were entertaining, moving, and some of the most real writing I saw from my students all year long. Experiencing the stories through an audio format really honored the life experiences and voices, quite literally, of each student author. I found myself smiling, chuckling,and holding my breath as I listened. These students processed the ideas of Transcendentalism to the point of owning them, and that was really cool to witness. Sometimes students don’t understand how powerful their own voices and stories can be. I hope that, after this project, that’s changing for some of them.

Want to try this project, or a version of it, in your own classroom? See my assignment sheet, rubric, and example story below: 

Sacred Spaces: A Transcendentalist Storytelling Experience

Simple Rubric – Cowbird Project

The Writer’s Sandbox

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Sometimes the simplest things are the most beautiful. 

When seeking to create a new unit for our junior Communications students, my teaching team and I kept bumping up against one very important thing: we didn’t feel like we were teaching enough writing. The variety of writing types wasn’t enough. The amount of writing wasn’t enough. The frequency of writing instruction wasn’t enough. And we wanted to do something about it. This is how the Writer’s Sandbox unit was born–an experimental writing unit that focused on flexibility, authorship, craft study, and play.

We didn’t know what we were doing. And that was the greatest part of it. We could invent along the way, as long as we had a “how” before the what. So we gathered our knowledge about good writing instruction. We knew that we’d have to help students understand the different conventions that accompany different genres. We knew we could find and use good mentor texts as models, and we knew we could write alongside our kids and share our own processes. We hoped that our students could come away with a greater sens of independence, adaptability, and joy in writing: this was the biggest goal.

This particular group of students is much more familiar with the “just follow the formula” types of written assignments that are all too easy for teachers to assign. I am guilty of this at times–sometimes students’ skills or motivation can be so desperately low that it is vastly easier to provide them with an all-inclusive, paint-by-number assignment structure that will minimize panic and guarantee them a feeling of success, if only they follow the steps. And maybe there’s a place for that somewhere. But that’s not the path to any kind of good writing or thinking in the real world.

Unsure of how our students would react, we used the presentation below to introduce the concept of The Writer’s Sandbox to our perked-up (but perhaps slightly wary) group of students…

The beauty of a unit like this is that it’s process-oriented, which means it can be customized to fit any length of time and any types of writing that one can dream up. The process we used can be seen on my classroom notepad in the picture at the beginning of this post. Each day had a slightly different vibe as we tackled different genres or phases of the writing process. But, to keep a sense of routine and structure, every day had the same elements: progress charted, writing shared aloud, a creativity or skills-building warm-up, information about conventions and purpose, a mentor text, and time to write. It was a path that students were quick to adapt to. Having the visual reminder was reassuring to them.

The types of writing that we worked on included poetry, flash fiction, application essays, infographic, satire, and thank-you letters. The end of the unit moved into lessons on revision, and student-led writing conferences were a big part of the final grade, whereas initial drafts were non-threatening “check off” compliance grades. Teaching was fun, because it became more about trying things, about “what did you come up with?”, laughing together at the failures, puzzling together at the challenges, and cheering on the moments when, as one student put it, “Once the words start flowing, they just don’t stop until they run out.”

The culminating project was a formalized portfolio of three polished pieces. We required the application essay, since we want every junior to have a starting point for their real college essays next year. The choice and direction of the other two pieces were completely up to the student. In many cases, a type of theme emerged organically among the three pieces, as students crafted verse and image that reflected what / where / who they care about most. Precious things. Things that, to them, have shaped the foundation of their lives, identify, and vision of the future.

Was every portfolio of student writing life-changingly good? No. But lives were changed in the process of making them. I know I’ve said this before, but every time I give my students a new measure of freedom and control over their own learning, I am astounded at what they create, and at how much they actually teach themselves and each other. One thing I can say with honesty is that every student was truly proud of his or her final product. They cared about that writing, and that is an excellent place to start. I think it’s fair to say that the unit worked.

Like any fledgling unit, this one has given me things to think about, to alter, to keep and replace. But it’s a dang good idea. Maybe you can use it!

Teacher as Academic: Why it’s Worth It to Work Toward Getting Published

Earlier this school year, I accomplished one of my longtime career goals–submitting an article for publication in an professional academic journal. The Wisconsin English Journal ran the article that I wrote this past summer, which was based on the work I did with the UW-Milwaukee Writing Project in 2013. For anyone who’d like to read it, here’s the link to the table of contents for Vol. 56, No. 2. You’ll see the link to the .pdf of my article entitled “Crucial Creativity: Addressing State Standards While Fostering Creative Student Authorship” toward the bottom of the page. In her letter from the editor, Mary Louise Gomez previews the article as such:

“Amy Harter provides a strong
argument against a perceived call of the
Wisconsin Common Core State Standards
(CCSS) for more non-fiction writing and less
creative writing. Harter argues that creative
writing is indeed a powerful and engaging
genre into which students can be inducted.
This author presents powerful arguments for
the writing of poetry, plays, song lyrics, and
other so-called “creative writing” that also
are key ways to form arguments and affect
one’s audiences.”

 Words cannot explain how proud I am to have my first journal article publication under my belt. It not only represents many, many hours of impassioned research, writing, revising, talking-out, and polishing, but it also represents a step toward “making it” as a professional who contributes meaningfully to the academic side of our profession.

Isn’t it strange that, as educators, we still sometimes have a hard time viewing ourselves as academics? For me, seeing my name in print brought me to tears–it gave me a soaring feeling of professional validation. And  it cannot be overstated how important professional validation is for teachers–for the many of us who were asked back in college to justify why on earth we’d choose this career over others of greater promise, for the many of us who have been casually scoffed at for our small salaries, for the many of us who wonder how we might hope to be viewed as professionals in a culture that doesn’t always respect or understand what we do. For us, a sense of validation and celebration of our research, ideas, and achievements, is huge.

Here’s the thing about that–writing is the path that allows us to explore, define, and share our ideas about our profession. For this reason, I think far greater numbers of practicing K-12 teachers need to be lending their voices to the field of education through professional writing. Maybe it’s an article for a journal. Maybe it’s a conference or workshop session proposal. Maybe it’s an editorial or letter to a public official. Maybe it’s a piece of original curriculum. Or, hey, maybe it’s a blog! 🙂

The message is this, fellow teachers: You can, and should, do it.

Why?

Because teachers deserve to learn about things in their field from others who are currently practicing within it.

Because you already do action research in your classroom every day as you introduce new teaching techniques and observe their effects on your students. You are, by virtue of your position, making observations and tracking data. Teacher = researcher.

Because the expertise lent by your experience in the classroom, especially when put in the context of current educational research, is invaluable.

Because you are a professional, and have the capacity to influence and lead in your profession.

Because it can give a meaningful focus and purpose to your professional reading.

Because it is a way to earn the validation that you deserve as a professional educator. 

Because you already have the support you need to write and publish a piece of professional writing, even if you don’t know it yet. Talk to your peers, talk to presenters at conferences, get involved in a National Writing Project site near you, or send an email of inquiry to a publication you’d like to submit to. Many of them have very responsive editing staffs who, even if they don’t accept your piece, will send you a response with suggestions to make your future writing more successful.

There are many, many opportunities out there for teachers to offer their voices to the conversations surrounding what education can and will look like in the future. Consider offering yours. If I can do it, so can you. 🙂

Helping Students Answer the Question “What is the author doing?”

One of the most difficult things for my AP Literature students to do is to write specifically about author language use and how it contributes to meaning. Sure, they can identify terms with the best of ’em, recount the happenings of a story in detail, and offer insightful connections to the themes of the reading… but they have a very hard time getting out of their own heads and into the author’s head. This poses a problem when students are required to write an analysis of merit, since term-dropping and opinion-posing will only get them so far. This year, I took notice of the same comments popping up yet again in my feedback to students: “Yes, but what is the author doing here?” “Why might the author have made this choice that you refer to?” “What message does the author reinforce here?”

I started noticing that when I pushed these questions into my students’ hands in conferences or discussions, I’d be met mainly with quizzical expressions, even from very bright kids. They’d scramble weakly with questioning voices: “Uh… giving details? Imagery! Um… definitely foreshadowing, you know… like we know maybe something bad might happen later?” I’d then try to push a little bit to get them to think in a more nuanced way, but this process always ends the same way–with me finally giving up and saying something like, “Ok, well, this is what I see here” and explaining the passage away, examining all these little language nuances I’m picking up on and watching the students scribble down exactly what I’ve said in their notebooks.

This is not awesome teaching. I know this. But what can you do when your students can’t find the answer independently? Especially with my AP students, it is absolutely imperative that they learn to speak and write in a sophisticated way  about language use without my hand-holding. By May at the very latest, they need to work independently of my guidance. So I started pondering, and I kept coming back to those same (bad) answers I always get to my “What’s the author doing?” question: Foreshadowing! Building suspense! Painting a picture in the reader’s head! Setting the scene! The more I thought about it, the more clearly I realized that these phrases probably all showed up in a middle school language arts workbook word bank at some point, and my students were still hanging on to them because their writer’s craft vocabulary had never evolved past that point. I thought to myself,You know what? They just don’t have the vocabulary. They don’t know what the author is doing because they literally don’t know what to call it. They don’t have the tools to build what I’m asking them to build.”

Then I thought: Internet to the rescue! I need a list of things that authors “do” in literature… moves that authors make which add up to meaning! It was my vision to use this list to help train my students with new, more writerly vocabulary so they could analyze with a much more informed dexterity. Alas, Google did not provide, so GUESS WHAT? I made my own. And I’m sharing it with you that you might find a use for it, or adaptation of it, with your own students.

WHAT IS THE AUTHOR DOING? Here are some ways to answer that question…

  • Drawing comparisons
  • Establishing or developing character
  • Revealing the nature of a relationship
  • Creating atmosphere
  • Providing social commentary
  • Being metaphorical
  • Using irony
  • Working with a symbol
  • Complicating the plot situation
  • Building emotional tension or conflict
  • Genre-blurring
  • Exploring the workings of the mind
  • Writing in dream time/sense
  • Playing on nostalgia
  • Philosophizing
  • Making an allusion
  • Moralizing
  • Presenting a paradox
  • Romanticizing
  • Breaking the fourth wall
  • Shifting perspective
  • Presenting a cosmic view of man/universe
  • Reflecting religious or spiritual beliefs
  • Echoing a previously established motif or theme
  • Employing humor for effect
  • Satirizing
  • Highlighting injustice
  • Using an unreliable narrator
  • Paying homage to someone or something
  • Downplaying/Understating
  • Making a political statement
  • Building on archetypes and mythology
  • Shifting perspectives
  • Incorporating dialect or other cultural elements
  • Using evocative/visceral description
  • Questioning cultural norms
  • Witholding detail/using opaque narration
  • Creating contrast
  • Justifying
  • Using and/or breaking conventions intentionally
  • Utilizing structure to reinforce meaning
  • Overemphasizing/Hyperbolizing

 

Here’s the link to my first assignment using the list: WhatisDickensDoing. We’ll see how it goes! I’m excited to observe how using the list helps my students grow in their literary analysis skills. Every day, I ask them to traverse new intellectual territory. It makes sense to give them a phrasebook as they start with translation and move toward fluency.