In Praise of the Quick Write

Some of the most creative and thoughtful pieces of student writing I’ve seen have come from the ten-minute quick write I like to do at the beginning of class. I’ve had particular success with one in particular, so I thought I would share. The work you see below is all from students taking ENG 2P.

Kwame Alexander’s book The Crossover is a frequently read book in many of my classes, but it also has some great passages for quick writes. In her book “The Quickwrite Handbook,” Linda Rief recommends this passage from the novel:

“Mom, since you asked, I’ll tell you why I’m so angry”

Because Dad tried to dunk.

Because I want to win a championship.

Because I can’t win a championship if I’m sitting in this smelly hospital.

Because Dad told you he’d be here forever.

Because I thought forever was like Mars – far away.

Because it turns out forever is like the mall -right around the corner.

Because Jordan doesn’t talk basketball anymore.

Because Jordan cut my hair and didn’t care.

Because he’s always drinking Sweet Tea.

Because sometimes I get thirsty.

Because I don’t have anybody to talk to now.

Because CPR DOESN’T WORK!

Because my crossover should be better.

Because if it was better, then Dad wouldn’t have had the ball.

Because if Dad hadn’t had the ball, then he wouldn’t have tried to dunk.

Because if Dad hadn’t tried to dunk, then we wouldn’t be here.

Because I don’t want to be here.

Because the only thing that matters is swish.

Because our backboard is splintered.

We read it together and pointed out some of the “craft moves” the Alexander is making: repetition, listing, capital letters, italics, similes, etc.

Students are then challenged to imitate Alexander’s form, and I do the same thing in my journal while I project it with a document camera. Today was a unique experience because some students didn’t feel comfortable writing about emotions, so they wrote about other things like sports and school. It was wonderful to see them making the writing their own. Some of their writing was personal, but many of them agreed to share their work. This is what students at Sir John A. Macdonald and Sherwood produced in five minutes with no time for revision or planning:

This is some very thoughtful work created in a short amount of time. Students may come back to this and revise their work, or they may choose to use some of these craft moves in other pieces of writing. Either way, I think this is an excellent way to spend 10 minutes of every day.

As I find mentor texts that work, I’ll post them. Happy Writing!

Problem Based Reading

One of the perks of being a literacy coach is that people give me a lot of professional resources to read. I have a stack of 5 at home that I need to get through, but I’m pausing on this one book because it has me excited.

Dynamic Teaching for Deeper Reading by Vicki Vinton has changed the way I think about reading instruction. Penny Kittle and Kelly Gallagher changed my writing instruction, but I still felt a little lost when it came to reading. Most of my frustration came from how students rely on me (or the internet) to interpret their reading for them. I wanted to get them thinking on their own,  revising their ideas,  and tracing patterns through their books, but for some reason, they always come back to me.

I stopped using question/answer sheets within a year or two of teaching because I hated them and my students hated them. I moved to QCharts and teaching students how to talk about books, but they still seemed to be dependent on me come analysis time.

Then I open up Vicki Vinton’s book. I felt like I was yelling “Yes!” for every page.

In the introduction, Vinton cites a study done by Education Trust which found that “‘many – if not most- assignments were over-scaffolded … [with] much of the work actually done for the students rather than by them” (xvii).  Some of her advice contradicts how I was instructed to teach about reading. Remember “set the purpose” instruction for reading?  I was given a passage about a house, and I was told to read it like a thief and highlight important information. Then I was told to read it like a real estate agent and highlight important information. The goal of this model lesson was to help me see that readers pull out different ideas, so I, as the teacher,  would remember to set the purpose for reading, so students pull out the ideas I want them to pull out. This type of instruction will help students find the information that I want them to find, but will it help them understand a text when there is no one to direct their purpose? What if their purpose is simply to figure out what the text means?

Vinton observes that “Students are repeatedly asked to analyze particular aspects of a text – the development of a character, a text’s structure, an author’s choice of words – rather than to think more deeply about how those pieces all work together in complex and meaningful ways” (4). So the question, of course, is: How do we do this? Section Two of the book is dedicated to walking teachers through what problem-based reading instruction might look like in a classroom.

A few weeks ago, I was at Dundas Valley Secondary School in my friend and colleague Crystal Dumitru’s class. She is using Cherie Dimaline’s novel the Marrow Thieves with the students in her ENG 2P class. They were on the second chapter, so I asked Crystal if I could jump in and experiment a little, and, being the wonderfully accommodating human being that she is, she let me.

I decided to try the text know/wonder chart that Vinton outlines in her book. Before I get into what happened, I want to repeat Vinton’s caution: “It’s also important to note that the chart can outgrow its usefulness…, and that, as a scaffold, it should only be used as a temporary support” (95). The goal is always for the students to do the thinking on their own.

I started our know/wonder chart by selecting a passage from Marrow Thieves that revealed information about the story and characters, but that also left the reader with questions:

I couldn’t have him mad at me; he was all I had left. I clambered out the window and folded upward to grasp the slats on the roof. I shimmied up, belly to the wood, butt pulled down tight. I lifted my head once, just high enough to look over the small peak in the center, just enough to see the first Recruiter lift a whistle to his mouth, insert it under his sandy moustache, and blow that high-pitched terror tone from our nightmares. Under the roof I heard Mitch start banging the plywood walls, screaming, ‘Tabernacle! Come get me, devils!’ (3).

I asked students to either tell me something they know as a result of that passage or a question they have as a result of the passage.  You can see their thinking on the chart.  We filled three of them! Often students found that a statement of knowledge resulted in a new question. The arrows indicate when a question was in response to knowledge or sometimes when we were able to find an answer.

First of all, they were amazingly good at this task. I couldn’t keep up with all the statements and questions. Second, I love how when a student makes an error in reading, this process helps them self-correct.

For example, one student claimed that the Recruiters were hunters, but other students disagreed. They thought it was more than that. So we turned the student’s statement into a question: “Who are the recruiters?” After we read the next passage, students were able to answer this question with evidence from the text.

The teacher’s only role here is to write down the know and wonder sides and ask students to explain their thinking using the text. I tried my best (and was mostly successful) to avoid making interpretations for them. One student raised her hand and started with “Well, on this page it says that…” My job was then to name what she did as a reader to make it more concrete for other students. The next time I was in the room, that same student had graduated to using sticky notes in her book (without any prompting from me). Sticky notes! An English teacher’s dream.

The hardest part of this whole activity was not reacting to their amazing answers- I definitely failed at this. I was basically bouncing around the room exclaiming at everything they said because I was so excited that we were having such a rich discussion about a book. I was even excited when a student had that “misreading” of the recruiters because I was able to practice how to help the student think a little deeper using the text.

We did this know/wonder chart for the first four chapters, and then I asked them to continue on their own for the fifth chapter. I will be back in this class tomorrow to see what they’ve been thinking about the book. My next step for the middle of the book would be to help them use the know/wonder charts to identify patterns or symbols that repeatedly appear on the know/wonder charts. We would then turn these into pattern tracing charts- which I will write about once I try it.

I’m very grateful to my colleague, Carolyn Venema, for putting this book into my hands (and lending me Vinton’s other book). I feel like I finally have the tools to teach my students to do the work of interpretation rather than telling them what they should notice and think. This type of reading instruction takes a different kind of preparation. You have to read the text and think about where the author may leave unanswered questions so you can select passages to work through with your class, but it is well worth the time and effort. I can’t wait to try this again.

Reading, Writing, and Creating Routines: Expecting More out of 75 minutes

For those who have been reading, you know that I’ve been reading a lot of work by Kelly Gallagher and Penny Kittle. Their most recent book, 180 Days: Two Teachers and the Quest to Engage and Empower Adolescents is a great place to start with for those who haven’t explored their work. A colleague brought me a (signed!) copy from a conference she went to this summer, and I instantly lost it to my husband who is a grade 6/7 teacher.  I read and follow their work because it is practical, sustainable, and reproducible.

I experimented with their class timing strategies in Emily Lackie’s class while teaching descriptive place writing. This wonderful teacher (who is a bundle of positivity energy) actually allowed me to teach her ENG 2P class during the second week of school. The timing strategies used by Gallagher and Kittle worked wonders in the first class, but I struggled with it in the second class. I think I made a key mistake in my lesson, which I’ve outlined below for those of you also experimenting with this teaching method.

Lesson Outline and Notes:

Book Talk

The 2-3 minute book talk in Emily’s class was easy because she already had an independent reading program established, and because my wonderful principal last year bought sets of high-interest books for classroom libraries (Thanks Geeta!). I book talked Dear Martin, They Both Die at the End, Sold, Ghost Boys and Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter.  Normally I wouldn’t book talk all these at once, but it was their first time meeting me, so I wanted to them to know: I like books, and I want them to like books too.

Independent Reading

Thanks to the preplanning of their teacher and the new books, this 10 minutes was an easy sell in the first-period class. The last period class was a bit more of a challenge. I was met with sighs and groans and exclamations of “I hate reading!” My response of “You just haven’t found the right book yet” was met with rolled eyes. The temptation when met with this type of attitude towards reading is to let them read anything that is readily available in the classroom, but this only starts the “fake reading” cycle.  Teachers and librarians need to have an infinite amount of grit and patience as they try to “sell” books to students. I refuse to let students just grab whatever is available because I want them to be intentional about their reading choices. I’m not going to lie. This is difficult. Really difficult. Like, I sweated through my shirt difficult.

Quick Write

The philosophy behind the quick write is the same as the thinking behind independent reading. Practice. Students need opportunities to practice both reading and writing without being assessed. They may return to pieces from their quick writes for future assessments or evaluations, but only if they want to further develop a piece.

To get the maximum use out of quick write time, I’ve started to use really short mentor texts to model an idea or a craft move. Linda Rief’s The Quickwrite Handbook has been a lifesaver this semester. For Emily’s class we were looking at descriptive place writing, so we based our quick write on the poem “Cities” by Catherine P.  We discussed the point of view and descriptive phrases in the poem and then students were offered  choices for their writing:

  1.  Write down anything this poem brings to mind for you.
  2. Borrow any phrase or line, letting the line lead your thinking as you write.
  3. Instead of the city, describe the country or some other location that holds significance for you.
  4. Describe the city or any other place that lets the reader know how much you like or dislike the place from the way you describe it. (Rief 98)

As students wrote, I turned on my document camera and wrote too. I happened to be inspired to write about my son’s bedroom (I recently found uneaten toast in his bed when I went to wash his sheets, so I had a lot of writing material). Writing in front of the students is key here, but I will leave that for another post.

Mini-Lesson

This is where I think my lesson went sideways. A “mini-lesson” should be mini right? Max 20 minutes. Mine went on for 50. In the past I wouldn’t have considered this a problem; I taught right to the bell! However, what happened was that I deprived students of the chance to actually try the craft moves I was showing them while the techniques were still fresh in their minds. Next time, I would split up the three mentor passages I used over a series of days so that students could have more time to practice. I might even use one to spark a quick write for the next day. So keeping that in mind, this is how I taught description in my 50 minute “mini-lesson.”

The 50 minutes that should have been 20 minutes

We watched the first 3 minutes of the opening scene for the movie I Am Legend.

After we watch the scene a few times (I paused it on a few key moments and had them both look and listen), I ask them “How would you write this opening scene?” Of course, this is a complex question to throw at students the first time they are experimenting with descriptive place writing so we answered the question together.

First, I had them describe the atmosphere of the setting, and they gave me words like “lonely, desolate, creepy, apocalyptic.” Then we talked about the words we would use to describe the city: “decrepit, abandoned, overgrown, eerie, haunted.”  This gave us the opportunity to talk about how important word choice can be. The word “empty” tells us some information, but “abandoned” tells us so much more.

I could have stopped here and had students experiment with writing an opening like this scene, but I pressed on – this time using a passage from JK. Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone:

There were a hundred and forty-two staircases at Hogwarts: wide, sweeping ones; narrow, rickety ones; some that led somewhere different on a Friday; some with vanishing step halfway up that you had to remember to jump. Then there were doors that wouldn’t open unless you asked politely, or tickled them in exactly the right place, and doors that weren’t doors at all, but solid walls just pretending. It was also very hard to remember where everything was because it all seemed to move around a lot. The people in the portraits kept going to visit each other, and Harry was sure the coats of armour could walk.

I used this passage to show them how the author uses lists in order to help the reader understand how overwhelmed Harry felt when he first walked into Hogwarts.  We again discussed word choice, especially the word “rickety”- what a great word!

Once again, I could have (SHOULD have) stopped here and let them experiment, but I split them into groups and gave each group a different passage and asked them to highlight and underline the descriptive sections in the passages. They were able to point out the new things in the paragraphs that they discovered. The passage from the Hunger Games, for example, used a sentence fragment, so we talked about why the author used it. The passage from Coraline used the word “stunted” and students wanted a clearer idea about what that meant.

Overall, it went well. We talked about word choice, using lists for effect, similies, imagery, and sentence structure. But it was too much. I forgot to let them practice, and I doubt if all this information will transfer over to the next class.  They would have been better served if I allowed them to write a draft and then showed them subsequent craft moves that they could edit into their work.

Share

When your lesson goes long, you miss the sharing of beautiful words. Normally during the last 3 minutes, I would share something I’d written or have students share a line or two from their own writing. I need to stick to my mini-lesson so this sharing can be done.

So there is one of my experiments with the Read, Write, Study, Create, Share model. I’m really going to work on the timing and implementation of my “mini-lessons”. 20 minutes max next time! Feel free to comment with your own experiences or suggestions.