Escape Writing: 9 Creative Writing Prompts for Students (and Teachers) in Quarantine

For my school, we’ve reached the final four weeks of online classes before summer break. It has been a strange time to be a teacher, student, parent, or anything, but yet, we persist.

Some of my classes have translated to online curriculum better than others. Recently, as I was reflecting how to wrap up my Creative Writing class, I felt a bit at a loss. Without the face to face interaction and sharing, without being able to pass around stacks of books, without annotating by hand with the document camera, without being able to view and discuss a film clip at the same time or provide art supplies for a visual project, my normal unit plans simply were not going to translate. More than that, they are not what my students really need right now.

As I’ve watched many of my students struggle to adapt, feel crushed under the loss of their senior year milestones, and manage their responsibilities at home, I’ve been wondering what the right answer is. How can I push them forward and teach them things about writing while also being empathetic to the fact that the situation we are in is not, in any way, normal?

I decided to return to my roots. I’m talkin’ WAY BACK roots–the reason I’m an English teacher, the reason I’ve written obsessively all my life, the reason why I am such a believer in art–writing heals. Writing provides the chance to play and transport yourself, and your reader, wherever you like. Writing is a place where you can hear your own voice. This was what I decided was ultimately most important for my students to take away.

So I came up with this.

The Escape Writing prompts I’ve developed are a set of nine open-ended imaginative writing prompts. Students can use each one to create nine different individual flash fiction pieces, or the prompts can be used as an interlocking set, to create one longer piece of fiction when all assembled together. Each prompt is designed to achieve a sense of being elsewhere–wherever our minds wish to take us. They can be used to seek comfort, excitement, wonder, and surprise.

For anyone who would like to use them in your teaching or your own writing, I’m providing them here. Please let me know if they are a help to you.

Stay safe, stay well, keep imagining.

Advocacy Writing in the High School Classroom

In my last post, I talked about revamping a writing unit that I teach with my high school juniors. In the Writer’s Sandbox Unit, we focus on learning how to adapt our writing to different purposes, whether personal, professional, or public. The idea behind this is to get students ready for writing in the adult world, whether it’s writing a memoir to preserve family history, writing an application essay for an educational opportunity, or writing to affect change and impact the world.

That last one is the focus of this post, where I promised to dive deeper into the advocacy piece that I guide my students in creating. If you’re looking for a way to introduce your students to advocacy writing, maybe you’ll benefit from my process and the materials I’ll share.

ESSENTIAL QUESTIONS

I really wanted to teach my students that words are power in the most concrete of ways. I was determined to provide them an opportunity to rehearse a writing practice that will become more and more important in their adult lives as they see the need to stand up for the things that they believe in. The essential questions I wanted to help students answer were these:

  • Why do we need to advocate for things?
  • How do we determine the stakeholders that are impacted by our issue of interest?
  • How do we select a form of communication that will best reach our target audience (the stakeholders)?
  • What strategies do we use to effectively craft a message for a specific purpose?

SELECTING TOPICS

I was very careful in the topic options that I provided to students. I wanted to offer a breadth of choices that would allow every student to find something to invest in, but that would also avoid hot button political issues that can create a tension that eclipses the process of learning. (I’ve found over the years that when students attempt to engage with ultra politically-charged topics, their research is often poor and their argument often ineffective. Also, I find it difficult to evaluate students appropriately in those instances if I interpret their beliefs as hateful.) I also really wanted to emphasize the idea of the advocacy writer not as a complainer, but as a protector. This is the list that resulted from that aim:

What’s something that you want to protect? Pick something from this list. Your choice doesn’t have to be currently at risk, just something that you care about.

*an animal or plant species

*a public space or public access to a space

*a natural area or ecosystem

*a building, landmark, or structure

*an annual event

*an element of infrastructure

CASE STUDY / MENTOR TEXTS

Individual conferencing was a big part of this unit, as students determined what they care about most. From there, we used some advocacy materials surrounding the Mitchell Park Domes in Milwaukee. This unique structure is currently in need of significant public or private funding to continue its existence, so it was the perfect thing to demonstrate how deeply people can care about protecting something, and how complicated the process of convincing others to protect it can be. I pulled some articles and websites advocating for the Domes, and we used them as mentor texts to practice identifying stakeholders and the choices the writers made to cater to them.

PROPOSAL: IDENTIFYING TASK, PURPOSE, and AUDIENCE

Next, after doing some research on their own topics and armed with a little more knowhow, every student created a proposal for their advocacy piece. It fit this format:

I will be creating an advocacy piece around the topic of _________________________ .
The reason I chose this topic is ___________________ . The aim for my piece is ________________. My main audience groups are________________. The form that my piece will take is _____________________________. My rationale for selecting this form, considering my audience, is ___________________ .

CREATING

From there, the messy process of creating began! I provided students with more examples of different advocacy forms, but stressed that ultimately, they would need to determine how to create their piece for maximum effect. Individual conferencing, again, is key here… It created many teachable moments. (Example: How does a poster with a bunch of pictures of tigers and tiger facts actually compel a specific group to donate money toward tiger habitat conservation? It probably won’t. What approach would work better?) By the end of the project, I was really proud seeing my students taking their first baby steps toward important political action, and watching them start to realize that speaking up and paying attention to elements of the world around them–even something as small as an annual city festival or the width of the streets in their neighborhoods–is key to protecting the things that we love.

MORE MATERIALS FROM THE UNIT:

Slides

Handouts

Sooner or later, these kids are going to need to defend what they care about. In a world filled with so many voices, I want to teach them how to make sure theirs is heard. <3

Unit Garage Sale: How I Used the “Toss, Keep, Sell” Method to Revamp Curriculum

Photo by Miguel Á. Padriñán from Pexels

 

I’ve been teaching a unit with my juniors for several years now that I call The Writer’s Sandbox. This summer, I realized that the unit was in need of a revamp. Because of slow changes in our curriculum, the unit now included too much overlap with other classes in the types of writing it prioritized, and my own desire to help students try many kinds of things slowly created kind of a sprawling unwieldy beast that even my typical embrace of chaos was beginning to lose hold of. Still, the heart of this unit was so, so good. It just needed a makeover.

So, I did a mental organization, as one does when cleaning the basement out for a garage sale. I had to sort things into toss, keep, and sell.

TOSS

I needed to drop time spent teaching and practicing genres that students already had seen multiple times in their previous classes. I also decided to cut some of the excess breadth of the unit–I wanted it to have a greater sense of purpose, a more streamlined sense of momentum instead of “Try ALL the writing things!” 

KEEP

I absolutely needed to keep the inner philosophy of this unit–the fact that what we write at first is often exploratory and rarely usable as a final draft, but that the process of writing and writing again points us in the right direction. I am notorious among the students for saying, “Just get something on the page! It might be garbage! That’s ok!” (Anne Lamott’s chapter “School Lunches” from Bird by Bird is a critical introductory text.)

Another key idea of the unit is the examination of mentor texts in depth to understand the moves that writers make and the conventions that they adhere to, which we use as scaffolding for our own writing attempts.

In addition to that, the idea of task, purpose, and audience drives how we write. Not all good writing looks the same–we change our tone, structure, word choice, and form based on the needs of our rhetorical situation. It’s important for students to be versatile and purposeful in the way they approach writing tasks.

SELL

What did I need to sell? I needed to sell to my students the truth that words are power. The use of words in the right way at the right time can unlock opportunities and create doors of access that didn’t exist before. This crucial idea was something necessary to the unit’s rigor and authenticity that I felt had gotten lost in previous years. I wanted my students to see the immediacy and potential of these skills in their real lives, pertaining to what they truly care about. 

*

Here’s the link to the revamped presentation I used to introduce Writer’s Sandbox 2.0, focusing on the best of the old ideas and the best of the new ones. It will give you an idea of the overall shape of the new unit.

I decided to urge the students to think about how any piece of writing fits into different contexts:

We then moved through the unit with small writing experiments that built up to a personal piece (flash memoir or flash fiction), a professional piece (an application essay for an educational or career opportunity), and an advocacy piece (a piece where form is determined by the needs of the project, advocating for a public resource).

Adding the advocacy piece was the key to unlocking this unit’s potential. While the personal writing helped them look within, and the professional writing helped them look to the future, the public piece helped students look to their communities–local, national, or in some cases global. I urged them to think about how voices move hands. Writing is a huge part how we can shape the future right now.

Just as many of us do when we complete the hard work of cleaning out a cluttered basement, I felt a sense of relief and order. I tossed, kept, and sold all the right things, and started the year with a strong foundation that I’m continuing to see the benefits from. 🙂

Look for my next post soon, where I’ll go into depth about the advocacy piece and how I helped my students find their public voices!

The 2019 Back to School Power Playlist

I never grew out of the mixtape. It really is its own extremely special kind of literacy. I love making and sharing playlists for particular moments in time, particular tasks, or particular people. Today, my fellow teacher about to go back to school, I made one for you.

Since music is intensely personal, you might enjoy the songs I’ve selected, or you might not. In case of the latter, I’ve included an “answer key” of sorts at the end of the post that will help you build your own playlist, according to your own preferred musical selections. Same spirit, different tracks.

I’d like to talk a little about each song and why it’s a power song for me. If you want to skip straight to cranking it in your classroom, just click here. I’ll include all the titles and artists in the post so that you can also pick and choose on your own music platform as desired.

A Tour Through the Songs

1. 365 Days – ZZ Ward

“I told you back in June–you knew d–n well what I would do… the summer’s over.”

ZZ Ward emanates cool. I really enjoy her music and her unstoppable confidence. This song kicks off the playlist by stating the inevitable, the reason we’re all here: the summer’s over.

2. Move – Saint Motel

“Gotta get up, I gotta get up. MOVE!”

The pace of the school year is insane. We get up early. We stay late, sometimes for several more hours past the final bell. The trill of the A.M. alarm blurs us into the next morning before we even know what hit us. This track reminds us to keep grooving while we’re moving.

3. Church – Samm Henshaw (feat. Earthgang)

“Good morning. Wake up, wake! Wake up and get yourself to church, yeah!”

For me, teaching is ultimately servant leadership. It’s like going to church. You go to serve others, you bring the best of yourself, you offer it up, you go to be together and to be changed.

4. Complainer – Cold War Kids

“You say you want to change this world. Well, you must really believe in magic. ‘Cause you can only change yourself. Don’t sit around and complain about it.”

There are inevitably problems and frustrations that exists in education, both at the national level and in our own local environments. But, both as professionals and as citizens, we have the power to make changes in positive ways instead of giving up. I love the way this song just takes no excuses.

5. Something Good Can Work – Two Door Cinema Club

“Something good can work, and it can work for you. And you know that it will.”

Staying positive and hopeful is important for teachers. We believe so hard in our students, in their potential, in their fundamental goodness. This song is all about that, positivity and trust in the future.

6. Short Skirt / Long Jacket – Cake

“I want a girl with a mind like a diamond. I want a girl who knows what’s best… She’s fast, and thorough, and sharp as a tack. She’s touring the facility and picking up slack.”

We always tell our students that the most attractive features they can possess are intelligence, hard work, and confidence. That’s what this song is all about. (Plus it’s just a great jam.)

7. This is Why We Fight – The Decemberists

This is why. Why we fight. Why we lie awake. This is why. This is why we fight.”

I actually wrote a whole post inspired by this song back in 2015. The short answer is this: the kids. The kids are why.

8. You Ain’t the Problem – Michael Kiwanuka

“Don’t hesitate. Time heals the pain. You ain’t the problem.”

Besides having a fabulous groove, this track reminds us to not take everything too personally. Even when the job gets hard, you’re still there taking care of students and helping them learn. You can’t take on everything. In all likelihood… you ain’t the problem. Just keep going.

9. Say – John Mayer

“Walking like a one man army, fighting with the shadows in your head,
living out the same old moment, knowing you’d be better off instead,
if you could only say what you need to say.”

Words are power. More than ever, communication is access. Literacy is opportunity. Our job is to help kids say what they need to say.

10. Going Away to College – Blink 182

This is the kind of song you can only truly divine by factoring in the years during which you were in the highest throes of teenager-hood. For me, this song is the one. The punch-in-the-stomach track that takes me immediately back in time, standing outside my beige locker at Menomonee Falls High School, with all the hopes and cares and dreams that overwhelmed me as a skinny and scared sixteen-year-old. In our profession, it’s important to hold on to a part of that. Remember what it’s like. And treat the young ones with care.

HAPPY BACK TO SCHOOL!

Want to make your own Back to School Power Playlist? See below.

Playlist Answer Key:

  1. A song that kisses summer goodbye.
  2. A song about waking up nice and early in the morning.
  3. A song about mission.
  4. A song about action over nihilism.
  5. A song that projects positivity.
  6. A song that celebrates intelligence and drive.
  7. A song that reminds you why you’re here.
  8. A reminder that even in a flawed system, you can recover to keep doing good in the world.
  9. A song about the power of words.
  10. A song that reminds you how confusing and magical and painful and intense it is to be a kid.

Student Podcasts take Literary Thoughts to Audio

Image by Icons8 team on Unsplash

Universe as Text is broadcasting live to you from… summer! I hope all you teachers out there are taking the time to do the important regenerative work of doing non-school things for the most part. I don’t know about you, but it’s almost the end of July and I think I just now started to feel relaxed. And since I’m finally feeling relaxed, I thought it would be a good time to share a fun podcast project that I did with my students for the first time last year.

I’ve been intrigued by the idea of doing a podcast with my students for a while. This is not a new thing–in fact, my friend Mr. B. did a guest post a few years back talking about his version of a podcast project! But it seems like podcasts are getting bigger and bigger these days, that the habit of listening to podcasts is now completely mainstream. So when my colleague Mrs. G. did a technology inservice on using SoundTrap to create student podcasts, I felt it was time for me to get on this train before it leaves without me. What resulted was a fantastic final project for my AP Literature students that helped them learn some digital skills, but also discern what they had to say about the power of literature.

I will start out by telling you that I let my students know up-front that this project was probably going to have some snags, since it was my first time working with the digital tools and overall concept. I think that’s a really important message to share with students: “This may not go perfectly, but we’re going to try it! Failing and learning are interrelated! Even if your attempt is kind of bad, I won’t penalize you for taking your time to figure things out!” Frankly, I just wanted to see what would happen. And what did happen was really cool.

At the bottom of the post, I’ll share my assignment sheet/rubric, along with the example podcast that I made (with my very good sport of a husband), and a student example of the final product. Please send me any questions you have about specifics. Beyond that, let me just share my major takeaways in bulleted list form.

MAIN TAKEAWAYS FROM THE PODCAST PROJECT

*Podcasts are fun to make and fun to grade.

*The skill of verbally articulating one’s insights is so valuable. Recording audio is a wonderful way for students to practice that skill (with unlimited re-do opportunities) without social pressure.

*SoundTrap is very easy to use with a little bit of fiddling. It’s similar to Garage Band, so if students have that tech literacy, they can build on it, but even if they don’t, they can figure it out with some experimentation time (and so can you)! Video tutorials also help.

*Listening to to podcast examples along with the students was also very helpful. I chose literary-oriented ones like Hey, YA! and Literary Disco. But make sure you preview the whole podcast of your choice before sharing with students; sometimes non-school appropriate words or concepts can crop up in an episode. Just like video content, it takes time to search, preview, and select the examples. Plan accordingly.

*I encouraged students to take doodle notes/sketch notes as we listened. Otherwise it’s awkward to sit and listen passively to something for 10-15 minutes. It also helped give them something to reference when we discussed the anatomy of the episodes and things we might apply in our own work.

*The biggest mistake I made this first year: not requiring students to do a FULL LISTEN of what they think is their finished file for submission. When we listened to the files on presentation day, several groups had big editing errors in their shows that they didn’t realize had happened at some point during their collaborative editing or exporting process. Leave an extra day between deadline and presenting day for this reason, so there’s time to fix the “oh no” moment that will probably inevitably happen to most groups. That’s just the reality of technology!

*You will be absolutely delighted at how funny and smart your students are. This platform gives every voice a chance to be heard, because it’s engineered that way. I will absolutely be doing this project again!

ASSIGNMENT AND EXAMPLES

*Assignment sheet and rubric–please feel free to use/modify!

*My example–A podcast on our love of science fiction, made together with my husband, the fantastic and handsome Scott Casey.

*Student example--A podcast on relationships in literature, made with big thanks to the PageHuggers group of 2019. 🙂

Why Holden Still Matters: Rediscovering The Catcher in the Rye

“Anyway, I keep picturing all these little kids playing some game in this big field of rye and all. Thousands of little kids, and nobody’s around — nobody big, I mean — except me. And I’m standing on the edge of some crazy cliff. What I have to do, I have to catch everybody if they start to go over the cliff — I mean if they’re running and they don’t look where they’re going I have to come out from somewhere and catch them. That’s all I’d do all day. I’d just be the catcher in the rye and all. I know it’s crazy, but that’s the only thing I’d really like to be.”

There have been some voices around the internet in recent years singing the death knell of Catcher in the Rye as a relevant piece of assigned reading for high school students. And many of them present important arguments: Catcher, in this era of HBO, is no longer truly edgy and raw. Catcher has misogynistic and homophobic moments. Catcher is about a whiny, wealthy, straight(?), cis-gendered white male who doesn’t know true oppression. Catcher is not for cool kids anymore, but rather hipster teachers who think they are cool.

So, I do hear the value in all of that. I do. Certain flaws of the novel are crucial to address while studying it, particularly issues of privilege and representation. And hey, maybe I am just a hipster teacher who thinks she’s cool. But let me say this: teaching Catcher in the Rye is still important if the approach is a good one. I see my students’ eyes in our discussions, and I know this book still matters, because it’s a book about the human mind and heart, and how it works. It’s a book about fear and grief hurting so badly that a kid can become an insufferable jerk, even if he hates that about himself. It’s an opportunity for empathy, for mental health awareness, and especially for hope.

Not a single student in my classroom fits the social demographic that Holden comes from–opulent, elite wealth. But that’s an important part of understanding the story: even those who we assume are too rich or too [your word here] to ever have real problems definitely do still have problems. This idea is something that my students are able to identify along with a rudimentary introduction to some psychology terms. Holden’s negativity springs from a clear set of core issues and psychological defenses stemming from his anger and unprocessed grief. This, I think, is the difference between a dated teaching of this novel and a modern one. I don’t teach my kids to take this novel as a battle cry against phonies. I teach them to take it as a call for compassion.

Nobody likes Holden. Not even Holden likes Holden! But Holden needs help, needs someone to listen, needs protection. And, despite how irritating and clueless he can be, he still deserves love, as all of us do. The novel goes to some very dark places as Holden experiences self-destructive and even suicidal tendencies. Open conversations about mental health warning signs are an important result of these sections. My students are able to recognize Holden’s behavior and empathize with its source–not empty apathy, but a desperate need for help. Consider this moment from Chapter 25.

Anyway, I kept walking and walking up Fifth Avenue, without any tie on or anything. Then all of a sudden, something very spooky started happening. Every time I came to the end of a block and stepped off the goddam curb, I had this feeling that I’d never get to the other side of the street. I thought I’d just go down, down, down, and nobody’d ever see me again. […] Every time I’d get to the end of a block I’d make believe I was talking to my brother Allie. I’d say to him, “Allie, don’t let me disappear. Allie, don’t let me disappear. Allie, don’t let me disappear. Please, Allie.” And then when I’d reach the other side of the street without disappearing, I’d thank him.

At this point in the novel, my students are able to recognize the shadow language of symbols that have been building all book long. The ducks, the undialed phone, the false identities, the red hunting hat, the broken record–so many of them part of Holden’s longing for reassurance, for the sense that adulthood will be ok and safe, that his fantastical vocation of being the catcher in the rye is actually unnecessary. As you probably already know, the ending does get us–and Holden–to that place at the carousel in Central Park.


Holden’s final realization is, I think, one that my modern high school students still crave for themselves, and that is this: Ultimately, even when the world seems so dark that it can swallow you up as you disappear, there is still innocence and joy on the other side. Growing up doesn’t mean we lose everything. We can always depart and return to our inner child. We will continue to experience both loss and restoration as long as we’re on the ride. In the words of Holden, it’s “just so damn nice.”

The Catcher in the Rye is not without flaw. But it hasn’t outlived its usefulness just yet. It helps my students think about how grief and trauma disrupt one’s ability to behave in healthy and socially appropriate ways. It helps them think about how relationships can be sabotaged by fear. And it helps remind them that help is there for the taking, and that especially those who seem not to care about anything might actually just need someone to stop and listen.

Assessing Creative Work in a Standards-Based World

“Creative work comes from your soul,” I tell the kids, channeling my best sage-like energy. “From deep inside there, from your feelings and your own life experiences and revelations. You own your writing. You, and your audience will decide on the merit of anything you create–a poem, a song, a story. I can’t grade that. I can’t grade your soul. And I won’t. So how will I decide upon your grade in this class? Let’s talk about that…”

This year, for the first time in a long time, I’ve had one of my greatest content area loves intersect with my assigned classes–Creative Writing! I am enjoying the work of building a course that is both rigorous and accessible for my many different levels of student writers.

One of the things I’ve considered carefully in creating the course is assessment. My school, like many others in our area, is moving to a standards-based (also called target-based) grading model. If you’re new to this idea, one of the main parts of this philosophy is that rather than being awarded a number of points per task–like writing a paper that is worth 20 points, for instance–students are directly assessed and re-assessed on specific learning targets throughout the semester, according to a proficiency scale. So the focus isn’t really on “How many points did I get on my paper?” but rather something more like “How am I doing on my grammar skills?” and “How am I doing on being able to organize my writing? Am I growing in this skill? Have I mastered it?”

At first I was a little bit leery about how this kind of grading would go in a class that focuses on creative work, but as I drafted the syllabus, I started to realize that the arts work perfectly in a standards-based setting. Think about it… all artists work tirelessly on their fundamentals. Whether it’s a musician running scales, a ballet dancer working on arm placement and turns, or a writer finessing the way they use punctuation, all goals with a level of craft to them depend on this idea of mastering the essential elements of one’s art.

As a writer myself, I always feel like I am returning to the basics to try to get better. When I write a poem, it’s not like I say, “Okay, I wrote a poem. That’s done. No need to ever do that again.” Rather, I look at myself evolving as a poet–how is my style shifting? What could I try next time? How do I push myself to get better?” That’s the same mentality I want my students to have. Learning in the arts, and everywhere, is not about checking off boxes and then forgetting about them. It’s about constantly pushing ourselves to be better, to truly master the fundamentals of our discipline.

So, what does this actually look like for me? I took some time to reflect on the aspects of writing that all authors, whether beginners or professionals, always need to work on. These are standards that I set for myself as well as for my students. In a semester-long course, I decided to go with ten of them. Not all of them appear in every assignment, but all of them reappear over the semester in different ways as the students try their hands at different types of open-ended assignments.

So, on any given assessment, I might assess one to four of these standards. My instruction is all built around strengthening these skills in a wide variety of contexts. The beauty of this is that it allows me to be very open-ended in my assignment choices–as long as the standards that we’ve been working on are evident, student writers can follow their own creative instincts. What I’m ultimately looking for is a consistent mastery of these skills–if I can say that a student has mastered these ten things by the end of the class, I’m confident in their ability as a writer. What they do with that ability, ultimately, remains up to them.

For example, here’s the assignment description for my first assessment of the semester. (The instruction prior to this assignment focuses on building creative community, requesting and giving effective peer feedback, responding to feedback, revision practices, figurative language, metaphorical thinking, mining life experience and memory for creative purposes, and recognizing/avoiding cliche.)

“I can’t grade a poem, “ I tell them. “Poems don’t get grades and all poems deserve to be in the world. But I can tell you if you are using structure well. I can tell you if your revision is aggressive enough. I can tell you if you’re using a symbol or not. That’s how we’ll do this–everything I teach you is meant to make you a better writer, so that you can make the best version of what you want to make.”

I’m happy to chat more about grading practices in a creative writing context with any readers about there who may be experimenting with similar things–leave a comment below!

Teaching Narrative Threads in Nonlinear Texts: An AP Literature Mini-Project

Leslie Marmon Silko’s Ceremony is one of my favorite texts to teach in my AP English Literature and Composition class, but it’s also one of the more difficult ones. Like many other masterful contemporary texts that make their way into the literature classroom, like Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried or Toni Morrison’s Beloved, this text is not told in a straightforward chronological order. Rather, it’s a complex weaving of many different times in the characters’ lives, stories within stories, and even native legends that all work together to create the sense of the story. Especially for students who are very linear thinkers, this kind of structure can throw them off, so I try to help them along by teaching them terms like nonlinear narrative and narrative thread. 

For the purposes of my class, I define a narrative thread as a storyline that orients the reader through a certain recurring character set, setting, and place in time. I tell them that, unlike linear stories, where the plot gradually unfolds and we get a sense of meaning from what happens and how, a nonlinear narrative enforces thematic ideas across these different narrative threads. Even if we don’t grasp the exact order of events as threads are switching around, what’s more important in this kind of reading is recognizing how certain ideas are emphasized, repeated, and mirrored across the threads. That’s how we make sense of it all. It’s a different kind of story, where you feel your way through in a layering process almost like painting.

They don’t always “get it” right away, though, which is why I have them wrestle with it a bit. When we’re about three quarters through the novel, I have them complete a small group project where I ask them to select a thematic idea and then create a visual product that demonstrates how different narrative threads work together to explore the idea. This year, I got some really stellar ones, and thought I’d share them in case anyone else would like to try this project! Also, please know that the students made these things up entirely on their own. I take no credit for their amazing approaches to the task!

Digital Thread Map

This approach was digital, linking drops of rain to five different narrative threads where the idea of rain and drought correlate with the characters’ feelings of guilt and longing for restoration. Like raindrops pattering down on the earth, the threads don’t need a set pattern to be felt and seen.

Pop-up/Slide-out Symbol Poster

This one was way bigger and more complicated than just this photo shows, packed with important symbols from the novel. Each symbol slides out to show an explanation and moment in the text where the idea of healing is present in different threads, and then back in to create the effect of the overall symbol-spotted poster.

Icon Illustration

This gorgeous illustration took a snake symbol–which correlates with a specific moment in the text–and used it to explore moments that talk about the human relationship with the earth, including accompanying important imagery from the novel. The two snakes represent Tayo (you can even see the little scar from his scalp ceremony) and the Mother Earth Spirit.

Fortune Teller Origami

This one completely blew my mind–such a perfect idea to illustrate the oneness of theme across many enfolded elements of a novel. This group chose the thematic idea of belonging, and identified four prominent narrative threads that featured the idea. Once choosing the thread, there are two examples, each one correlating to an important quote from the book. Amazing!

Writing and Talking on the Board… A Low-Tech Discussion Engagement Strategy

Sometimes I feel like the most absurdly simple teaching strategies are the ones that work the best. Today, I have one to share with all of you. It’s called writing on the board… with a twist!

At the beginning of this year, I had one section of students in particular that was filled with very, very bright students who did not want to contribute to class discussion. It’s often the story with young introverts with a rich inner world–they suffer the paradoxical situation of having rich insights to share but feeling unable to verbalize them on the spot. This group in particular tended that way, which was frustrating as a teacher trying to foster productive class discussion. They understood what they were reading. I knew this because I could see it in their writing. But ask for them to share their thoughts out loud? Deer in headlights.

Luckily for these young introverts, I am an older introvert who is savvy to their ways. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve wished dearly that I could just write down a response in a conversation rather than blurt out some words that hopefully come out fully formed. Sadly for us, life is not thus. Even with some community building and time to adjust to one another, these students were just not budging, other than a couple brave souls who would try to carry the whole class with eyes that pled with me to help them out. So I did! I got them to talk. This is how. 

Everybody likes writing on the board in a classroom. It’s just a fact. It’s fun! There are markers! Come on teachers, you know you love writing on the board. And students do , too. This is something not to be underestimated. It’s a way to make introvert dreams come true–let them write their ideas down, but publicly. Then, the discussion part can happen much more fluidly. Here’s what I do:

1. Make sure you have plenty of nice, fresh dry-erase markers in multiple colors. Or SMARTBoard markers, or chalk if you’re truly old-school (I’m envious!)

2. Give discussion prompt. Since we’re currently starting to read Leslie Marmon Silko’s Ceremony, I gave them a set of questions relating to that word–what is a ceremony? What does it need to go well? Why is it important? How does culture determine its workings? 

3. Have students discuss their ideas with a partner to get a bit of practice verbalizing. Encourage them to write down their best thoughts.

4. [Small class version] Invite every student to write a short phrase on the board that represents their most prominent/surprising/unique insight.

[Large class version] Have partners (or small groups if the class is HUGE) determine one group member who had the best insightful moment and send that representative up to the board to write a phrase that represents it. Remind them to write large and neat enough that their words will be legible.

5. Once the collection is complete, use it to guide discussion. It’s helpful as the instructor to have a laser pointer here, to guide the students to certain parts of this visual discussion. As the teacher navigates, each student gets a turn telling the class about why they wrote what they did, elaborating on it and potentially making connections to others’ thoughts in the process. 

Of course, this is not a substitute for a fully organic whole-class discussion, but it’s a way to work up to it. We did this exercise often at the beginning of the year in this class, and our traditional discussions have definitely expanded as a result. What I love most about this is that every student gets a voice, and there’s no hiding from the fact that they have ideas to add. After all, it’s all right there on the board, in their own handwriting.

Thanks for reading!

Helping Students Know That Their Stories Do Matter

I’ve recently been working with my high school juniors on how to write a personal statement for educational or career-related opportunities. In the next year or so, they will all have to choose a path. That might entail college and scholarship applications. It might involve cover letters for career opportunities. It might mean joining another kind of program or apprenticeship. Regardless of a student’s aspirations, being able to write about one’s self is an important skill to open all kinds of doors. The stories that reveal the qualifications and experience that they bring into potential opportunities are stories they need to be able to tell. So we begin to practice now. And I start seeing a pattern that I often see whenever personal writing pops up in the classroom.

The confident students forge straight ahead, eager to envision their futures and tell the story of their potential. Many others approach with reticence, but slowly work their way through with the help of mentor texts, modeling, and one-on-one instruction. I’m not worried about those kids–they will all be fine. I worry about the ones who freeze–the ones who look at this assignment and refuse to put words to the page. These are the students who say things like, “I can’t do this. I can’t write.” Or “Nothing about my life is interesting.” Or the worst one (which I still get every year): “I really don’t have any positive traits. There’s nothing good about me.”

Moments like this touch something that a standardized test can never measure–the inextricable link between personal writing and self-concept. These are the students who, somewhere along the way, started believing that their stories don’t matter. Maybe it’s because of some aspect of who they are. Maybe it’s because of something they are struggling with. Maybe it’s because they don’t believe that anyone will listen to what they have to say. These students are often evasive or belligerent. But they are so important.

We cannot allow kids like this to give up. We need to show them that someone is listening. Every student’s story matters, and helping them learn to tell it, if you ask me, is possibly the most important aspect of my job as a teacher of writing.

So how do we do this? It’s a problem I’m still working on, one that I certainly haven’t completely solved. However, I’ve got a start, and as I’ve been applying this method this past week, I thought it might be helpful to share. Here are some things that I rely on to lift these students up and show them that their stories matter!

1. Double-check your teaching for culturally responsive practices. Culturally responsive pedagogy is too complex for me to explain in depth here, but it is something that every teacher should be familiar with. At the most basic level, remind yourself that the reason a student may be struggling may have something to do with a lack of inclusion or understanding related to their home culture, language, or socio-economic status. For teaching something like the personal statement, think about the various versions of success that can be presented in the written examples that you provide to them. Are all students presented with an example that they can relate to? Or does a homogenous definition of success end up excluding students of certain backgrounds, sending the message that this kind of writing doesn’t include people who look, speak, or live like they do?

2. Find something in common, and model from there. Talk to your students who won’t write. Divert the conversation away from the writing task and toward what they care about. What do they do with their spare time? Where have they lived? Where do they work? What are they most proud of? Who do they love? I talk with my students about these things, sometimes writing down brief notes on our conversations to hand back to them. Often, that organically provides a starting point–maybe a student suddenly realizes that she emulates her mother’s determination, or that she can really talk to lots of different types of people with ease… those are wonderful, marketable traits that are great to write about. Point that out! Help them see the good that you see. So much the better if you as the teacher can find something similar in your own life and say, “Hey, that’s kind of like me! So here’s how I would set this piece of writing up if I were doing it…” Show them how to put it down, and it quickly becomes less scary.

3. Minimize pressure — Just talk, then just write… Do everything you can in your classroom culture to emphasize that writing is messy, experimental play that can be twisted and flipped and cut and expanded at will. Even something as high stakes as a personal statement starts as a draft. Spend less time saying things that send the message of “You will fail in the future if you don’t do this well.” Spend more time saying, “Write a half of a notebook page about what’s most important in your life. Don’t think about making it good. It’s ok if it’s terrible. It just needs to be on the page.” Initial writing should be able to just blurt out onto a highly destructible piece of paper. Once there’s a draft, that polished essay is within sight. Then it’s time to teach revision!

…But that’s for another post. 🙂  Happy teaching!

P.s. An extra tip from my colleague Mrs. F.  For students who still get stuck on that first line, try giving them a sentence starter to get the pen moving. (Ex. “I feel good when I’m skateboarding because _____.” Sometimes that’s all they need.)