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Monthly Archives: May 2018

Sweet, sweet structure.

When we talk about writing, it’s easy to think of it in terms of what we’re saying. That’s the most exciting part, right? The stories of our lives, the new discoveries we make in research, the opinions we’re burning to assert… Those are our reasons for writing in the first place. But what about the craft of writing? What about making sure that those messages we so dearly want to get across are actually heard? There’s an answer for this, and it comes from a component of writing that is rarely prioritized in the high school classroom, but I’m going to try to prove here that teaching it well needs to be a bigger deal.

Structure! It’s a word that we don’t typically hear kids use when they talk about their writing, but it’s my new favorite writing focus with my teenage students. 

Before I get into telling you all the great things about teaching student writers about structure, let me clarify what I mean when I use the term, just in case it’s different than the way others may think about it. For me,

STRUCTURE =

*order of information  (There should be reasons why certain pieces are ordered first, before/after other things, or last.)

*overall organizational vision (What sections does this project have? Is it moving in a linear or nonlinear way?)

*where breaks and white space occur (Where are the shifts in topic, tone, or time? What lines or sections need emphasis?)

I started looking more closely at structure this year when I noticed that my students increasingly tend to write in big unorganized blobs of text–no paragraphs, no headings, no discernible order… just one big blob. The case of the missing paragraphs sent me out to teach structure directly, and it resulted in a slew of unintended positive side effects! So in case you’re not convinced yet, read on…

Five Reasons to Focus More on Teaching Structure in the Writing Classroom

  1.  Better close reading skills. When I teach writing, we work with mentor texts quite a bit. The idea is to understand a professional writer’s “moves” so that we might imitate them. But whereas strong imagery or repetition are things that students notice easily, they sometimes need prompting to find structural choices. When intentionally bringing attention to things like paragraph breaks, reasons for segmenting/sectioning writing, and watching for shifts in topic, tone, or time, students get a better sense of the specific impact that structural choices can have on readers. It also makes them more effective analyzers of text overall–they start noticing these moves in other reading contexts, too.
  2. More rigor in creative tasks. I love the freedom of poetry and narrative as much as my students do, but sometimes it leads students to believe that anything creative that they write on the page is beyond evaluation just by virtue of the fact that it’s creative. I recently had a conversation with an advanced student who is working on a poetry collection. She asked, “Since my poems are kind of all just my personal thoughts, is there really any way to tell if they’re good or not?” “Yes,” I told her, because while nobody can tell anyone what to write, there definitely is such a thing as good and bad creative writing. Part of my solution for this student was to examine her structure, because strong creative work uses it very intentionally. I advised her to think about her stanzas–why were they in that order? Why did she shift to a new stanza or a new verse when she did? Why did the stanzas have five lines each? Even young writers who do implement structural moves in their writing sometimes don’t have any actual reasons for them. Working with structure is a great way to challenge students to gain greater control and nuance in their creative writing.
  3. Huge impact on revision quality. Writing in any form can be completely transformed when it is purposefully reordered or even just when paragraph breaks are used well with intention. I try to help my students learn that paragraphs are units of meaning, not length–I still sometimes get students who wonder “how many sentences should be in a paragraph?” Of course, they should be evaluating that themselves, paragraph by paragraph. This is a great time to teach how and why we use breaks to help our audience understand that we are moving–maybe we’re changing the topic. Maybe we’re moving from a present narrative to a past memory that’s connected to that narrative. Maybe we’re isolating a one-line paragraph with white space because that line is really, really important. A structural revision can really transform a draft for the better.
  4. The “organization” category in standardized writing scores. I won’t spend too much time on this one other than to say that the ACT Writing Rubric allots 25% of its scoring to the organization category. Blob writers cannot score well, even if everything else about their writing is on point.
  5. More effective arguments. It’s a pretty simple premise that when you’re trying to convince someone of something, you need a very strong opening point to gain the audience’s consideration, and the strongest possible closing point to seal the deal. Yet, I have many students who organize their argumentative writing simply in the order that they thought of it initially or in the order of the sources that they discovered, with no real thought to why certain pieces are placed where they are. Working with students to strategize about the most convincing order of ideas can be a game changer in the impact of their argumentative writing. It ends up feeling far less like an endless stream of “And you know what else?!” and far more like a cohesive, crafted persuasive piece.

The school year is almost done! Maybe for some of you lucky ducks out there, it’s already done. However, if you’re a writing teacher, take some advice from me and jot the word “STRUCTURE” somewhere in the early September days of your 2018-2019 planner. I think you’ll find that it will make your students’ writing click into place in new, exciting ways.

Have you ever picked up a bag that was far heavier than you thought it would be? Maybe it’s a purse, or a suitcase, or possibly a backpack. There’s that moment of surprise, then you make a closer inspection of the object: What’s in here, bricks?! There’s a physical readjustment. Oh yeah, we think, lift with your legs. And we hoist it up, managing as best as we can.

Teaching is kind of like that sometimes. A lot of our students are carrying heavy things around. Some of those things they put in our arms, and we end up carrying them, too.

Certain privileges land in our laps as educators, and one of them is being witness to the stories of young people. Especially as English teachers, who encourage our students to learn the power of writing about their lives, there are things that come across our desks that can accumulate quickly in emotional weight. Kids might write about trouble with friends, family issues, self-esteem problems, bad memories, mental illness… We forget this, but everything that touches the adult world touches children, too. Young people aren’t too young to have pain, and while most assignments are intentionally skewed to accommodate positive memories, sometimes stories about wounds, whether old or new, need somewhere to go.

It is both a blessing and a burden to be trusted with such stories. On the one hand, you feel grateful that the student would trust you enough to share a difficult memory. On the other hand, the little moments where you say to yourself “I can’t believe a kid had to go through this” can add up quickly and silently. Professionalism demands that we keep these stories confidential (barring, of course, any support that we notify in situations where mandatory reporting or guidance interventions are required). We understand and honor this. We just lay these stories on top of our own.

We might also hear about something that a student has gone through after the fact, getting looped in to a confidential notification so that we can best support and accommodate the student. Especially when such things happen to students that we’ve worked with closely for a long time, knowing that they are hurting can be crushing. We can’t talk about these stories either, because students deserve our confidentiality and discretion. We keep a professional distance and try to keep it about the learning, while trying not to worry too much. But we don’t forget that stuff. We just carry it. Some years give us a lot to carry.

It’s a tough situation to be in. Of course, as teachers, we are more removed from student situations than families are, and sometimes I wonder to myself how much I really have the right to worry or not worry over a particular kid. My professional responsibility is to make sure that students have the environment and tools to learn as best they can. But that doesn’t mean that I don’t lie awake some nights hoping things are going to be ok for one of my students.

Teaching is a career about people, and I wish there was more concrete emotional support–for pre-service teachers all the way up to veterans–for the caretakers themselves. There are plenty of feel-good messages out there, of course, that encourage us to think of the difference that we’re making and to stay positive and grateful. There’s nothing wrong with that, but when it comes to practicing real skills surrounding self-care and managing anxiety, I think people who work in caring professions tend to have deficits. We don’t always understand the extent of the weight we carry, until we find ourselves sick or down in a way that takes a while to come back from. And we don’t always know what techniques work best for us to keep our (emotional and physical) selves healthy enough to keep going. I count myself among this number–I am still learning how to identify how much weight is in my backpack, so to speak, and how I need to tend to myself to make sure I can keep carrying it.

Self care fuels emotional strength! As I’ve found out personally, it also may spur an addiction to bath bombs, so watch out for that one. If you or your students need a little more information about aspects of self-care to help make your backpacks lighter, check out this beginner guide that I created for my homeroom kids (and for me): Self Care. Use/distribute however you like!

At the end of this Teacher Appreciation Week, I have two messages to send:

To students, never doubt that your teachers care about you and worry over you, even if they don’t seem to express it outright.

To teachers, never feel bad about practicing self-care or reaching out for support of your own. Just because your soul can provide for others doesn’t mean it can go forever without being renewed and fed.