The Novel Unit: Part 1

I have a colleague who consistently asks me questions that I can never answer on the spot. The answers come to me hours later, sometimes in the middle of the night. Today, he asked me how I would teach a novel. We only had two minutes to talk, and he knows me well enough by now that he didn’t expect me to answer right way, probably assuming that he would be subjected to one of my long rambling emails that may or may not go directly into his clutter box.  However, this is the first time I’ve fully developed my thinking about teaching a class novel, so I’ve turned my response into a multi-part blog post, which may or may not ramble.

There isn’t an easy formula for teaching a novel unit. In fact, the very teaching of the “novel unit” can cause some controversy in some English teacher circles with some being adamantly for it and others against it. My position is that students need to read books that are challenging, books that are at the right level and books that are “vacation books.” The only way this can be done is by providing a variety of reading opportunities where students are provided different levels of guidance and choice. So students should read independently, in small groups, AND as a class. There is no “or.” I think they need them all, which means that I need to dramatically shift the way I approach reading in my classroom.

Before I can address how I would approach a class novel, I need first to explain what I wouldn’t do. I’d like to remind everyone here that this is my best thinking about this right now. I realize that many people may approach this very differently and my post is not meant as a criticism, it is merely a reflection of what I want my students to be able to do when they are reading. My priority when teaching reading is to help readers love books and access them with a deep understanding without needing direct guidance. In short, I want them to read,  decide what they think about what they read on their own,  talk to other people about what they read and then decide if those conversations have shifted their thinking. What I don’t want them thinking about is what I, as their teacher, want them to notice in a book. I don’t want them to believe that my interpretation is the only interpretation that is worth investigating.

When I’m deciding what I want my students to learn, I have to be able to decide how I will know if they have learned it. In the past, my students’ ability to understand and interpret a novel was usually assessed through a literary essay. This is not how I would do this anymore.  Before anyone sends me an angry email, I am not advocating for the removal of the literary essay from the English classroom.  Literary essays are complex in terms of both form and content, so I would need to teach this genre of the essay using mentor texts which would be challenging to do while I am also teaching them the art of analysis and interpretation.  Students must be used to thinking and talking about texts in complex ways before they can begin to write about them. The real goal of a literary essay is to see the students’ thinking about what they’ve read, but if we already know what the content of their essay is going to be or should be is there really any thinking for them to do or have we done it all for them?

Another reason I recommend separating the literary essay from the novel unit is that when we teach both at the same time, the thinking suffers and the writing suffers.   This is because we are so concerned with having students analyze a book in essay form that we decide to control everything about the evaluation. We control the topics. We control the structure. We control the writing process. Both analysis and writing are creative acts so when we remove the creativity what we are left with is boring formulaic papers. And this isn’t good for anyone- not the students who have to write them, nor the teachers who have to read them.

Rather than combine the literary essay with the novel unit, I would leave this type of essay to closer to the end of the course when students have read enough to pick a text that moves them to want to write and think deeply.  This, of course, means that students have to read — a lot.

The last time I taught ENG3U,  my students select their own texts and topics. Some wrote about Indian Horse by Richard Wagmese, some wrote about Secret Path by Gord Downy and Jeff Lemire, others wrote about poems that were weaved throughout the course. I’ve heard the argument that this isn’t “rigorous” enough. That all my students should be writing about a novel because it is more difficult. However, which is the more complex task? Having students write an essay about Great Expectations with the essay topics generated by the teacher, or asking students to generate their own topics based on their thinking about a particular text? It may be more difficult to write an essay about a book that is hundreds of pages, but I am more interested in increasing the complexity of the task by requiring students to notice and name the patterns and points of significance that they see in texts. I’m not interested in seeing my thinking regurgitated back to me.

As a result of allowing students to perform the analysis of their choice, I learned more about my students both in terms of their thinking and their writing. This had the added benefit of being a much more interesting task to evaluate. For example, I had a student write about the function of the songs in Secret Path and another wrote about the significance of the word “glory” in Indian Horse. Neither of these essays was based on topics I would have considered.

If you are interested in learning more about the thinking behind separating the teaching of analysis from the novel unit, I highly recommend Beyond Literary Analysis by Allison Marchetti and Rebecca O’Dell. It’s an amazingly helpful book with practical teaching points for different types of analysis papers. My copy is always lent out!

Now that I’ve explored what I wouldn’t do with my novel unit, my next post will focus on a specific text and genre in order to finally answer the question I was actually asked!

10 Mentors for Your Students’ Writing

As a new semester is about to begin, I thought I would post the passages that make wonderful mentors for writers or quickwrite inspirations for the first 10 minutes of class.

Writing this post has reminded me how important it is to find a teacher partner who is exploring similar ideas. Many of these passages have either been tested by or given to me by my mentor text search partner Toby VanHarten. Sharing what we find has been important for me because while I usually stick to fiction, Toby finds me fantastic non-fiction pieces. You can’t read everything on your own,  so find a reading buddy. It’s worth it.

If you have your own favourites, please add them to the comments. I can never have too many of these!

Also if you try any of them, please take pictures of your students’ work (with their permission), and send them to me (cmcourt@hwdsb.on.ca). I love reading the work that these passages inspire.

Passage #1 from Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls

I was on fire.

It’s my earliest memory. I was three years old, and we were living in a trailer park in a southern Arizona town whose name I never knew. I was standing on a chair in front of the stove, wearing a pink dress my grandmother had bought for me. Pink was my favorite color. The dress’s skirt stuck out like a tutu, and I liked to spin around in front of the mirror, thinking I looked like a ballerina. But at that moment, I was wearing the dress to cook hot dogs, watching them swell and bob in the boiling water as the late-morning sunlight filtered in through the trailer’s small kitchenette window.

I could hear Mom in the next room singing while she worked on one of her paintings. Juju, our black mutt, was watching me. I stabbed one of the hot dogs with a fork and bent over and offered it to him. The wiener was hot, so Juju licked at it tentatively, but when I stood up and started stirring the hot dogs again, I felt a blaze of heat on my right side. I turned to see where it was coming from and realized my dress was on fire. Frozen with fear, I watched the yellow-white flames make a ragged brown line up the pink fabric of my skirt and climb my stomach. Then the flames leaped up, reaching my face.

I screamed. I smelled the burning and heard a horrible crackling as the fire singed my hair and eyelashes. Juju was barking. I screamed again.

Mom ran into the room.

“Mommy, help me!” I shrieked. I was still standing on the chair, swatting at the first with the fork I had been using to stir the hot dogs.

Mom ran out of the room and came back with one of the army-surplus blankets I hated because the wool was so scratchy. She threw the blanket around me to smother out the flames. Dad had gone off in the car, so Mom grabbed me and my younger brother, Brian, and hurried over to the trailer next to ours. The woman who lived there was hanging her laundry on the clothesline. She had clothespins in her mouth. Mom, in an unnaturally calm voice, explained what had happened and asked if we could please have a ride to the hospital. The woman dropped her clothespins and laundry right there in the dirt and, without saying anything, ran for her car.

Possible Uses:

Quickwrites about memories of injuries (I’d probably use the first time I broke my arm when my mom waved it up and down and asked “Do you think it’s broken?”)

As a mentor, I would use it to talk about how powerful short sentences and paragraphs can be. You can’t get much better than that first line! I would also use it to discuss how to write about single moments. The description of the tutu and the flames “climbing” her stomach also make for interesting craft moves for students to study.

Passage #2 from Born a Crime by Trevor Noah

To this day I hate secondhand cars. Almost everything that’s ever
gone wrong in my life I can trace back to a secondhand car.
Secondhand cars made me get detention for being late for
school. Secondhand cars left us hitchhiking on the side of the
freeway. A secondhand car was also the reason my mother got
married. If it hadn’t been for the Volkswagen that didn’t work, we
never would have looked for the mechanic who became the
husband who became the stepfather who became the man who
tortured us for years and put a bullet in the back of my mother’s
head – I’ll take the new car with the warranty every time.

Possible Uses:

As quickwrite inspiration, Toby told his students to choose something different than secondhand cars that they either love or hate. Using the technique of repetition and listing, students craft a similar paragraph explaining the reasons they love or hate their
chosen item. As a bonus, he suggests that they try to craft a final sentence similar to the one from Noah.

As a mentor text, I would point out the repetition of “secondhand car,” and also the climatic order of his examples. He starts with detention and ends with the attempted murder of his mother by his stepfather. I would also want to point out how he uses that last phrase to create humour after revealing trauma.

Passage #3 from A Long Way Down by Jason Reynolds

BEEF
Gets passed around like name-brand
T-shirts around here. Always too big.
Never ironed out.

Possible Uses:

As a quickwrite, students can write about grievances, feelings, or attitudes that they’ve inherited from family or friends.  Some students use this quickwrite to work out a current conflict they are experiencing.

As a mentor text, I think the amazing simile is pretty apparent, but I would want to point out why it’s so brilliant. There are multiple layers to it.  Students can examine how the t-shirt’s size and wrinkles relate to beef.

Passage #4 from Michael Redhill’s Bellvue Square

Only Nick can detect that I’m off. Beneath his shell, he’s a feeling boy. I go into his room at ten to turn out his lights.

“You okay, Mum?”

“Of course I’m okay.”

“Your face is white and shiny.”

“I had Filet-O-Fish for lunch.”

“You ate fish twice today?”

“I guess I did.”

“On purpose?”

“It’s lights out now, so let’s finish with the questions. Scooch”

He wriggles toward the foot of the bed and I pull his covers up.

“Can I ask you one more thing?”

“What?”

“Do you have cancer?”

The question shocks us both. “Why on earth would you ask me that?”

“‘Cause you look sick.”

I kiss his forehead. “You’re a good boy.” I worry about what goes on in their heads when they’re alone. “Everything is fine. We’re all together. We’re safe as houses.”

“Some houses fall down,” he says.

Possible Uses:

As a quickwrite, students could record the dialogue of a conversation they’ve had, or may wish they could have. Students could also write about their parents, their childhood fears, or their own siblings who may ask startling questions.

As a mentor text, I love using this piece to show how dialogue works. Redhill only uses a speech tag once, but we can follow the speakers all the way through.  We examine this passage together and then come up with a list of suggestions to make dialogue work.

Passage #5 from Carmen Aguirre’s Something Fierce: Memoirs of a Revolutionary Daughter

Lima kneed me in the gut.This city of cathedrals was full of people.Crowds jammed the cobblestone streets, and vendor sold shakes from stationary bicycles with blenders attached, whistling boleros as they pedalled.Flies landed on papayas as fast as the vendors could peel them, but they threw the fruit into blenders anyway, topping it with milk that had been sitting in the sun for hours.All around us there were people hawking jackets and gold chains and little trinkets. Beggar children missing arms and legs were pushed around on homemade skateboards by bigger children whose feet were black with dirt.The boys who passed by winked their eyes and made kissing sounds, murmuring “Mamita” in your ears.Everywhere you looked, even on the cathedral steps, there were couples making out.Church bells rang and nuns asked for donations.Music blasted from every store, and groups of yelling men pressed up against shop windows to watch a soccer game on T.V.Buses never stopped honking their horns.The air stank of sewers and diesel………

Possible Uses:

As a quickwrite, Toby had his students choose an exciting or busy place they have experienced (the first day of school, Canada’s Wonderland, a visit to a different country),  and they write with each sense, unconcerned with having each sentence connect with that before it.

As a mentor text, Toby says that it is terrific for descriptive writing and mood.  He points how she describes unrelated experiences that just seem to come at her (you can hear it, feel it, see it, smell it, and taste it) smacking her in the face and overwhelming her.

Passage#6  from James Wood’s The Nearest Thing to Life

Here he was, jumping off a boat into the Maine waters; here he was, as a child, larkily peeing from a cabin window with two young cousins; here he was, living in Italy and learning Italian by flirting; here he was, telling a great joke; here he was, an ebullient friend, laughing and filling the room with his presence.

Possible Uses:

As a quickwrite, Toby has his students write as if they were looking at pictures in a photo album or on social media, reflecting on someone’s life (or their own).

As a mentor text, the full-length passage is an excellent example of how to write about a single moment using listing effectively.  It also would work as a handy passage for teaching how to use semi-colons and commas in a list (boring I know, but better than a worksheet!)

Passage #7 Nikki Giovanni’s “Allowables

I killed a spider
Not a murderous brown recluse
Nor even a black widow
And if the truth were told this
Was only a small
Sort of papery spider
Who should have run
When I picked up the book
But she didn’t

And she scared me
And I smashed her

I don’t think
I’m allowed

To kill something

Because I am

Frightened

Possible Uses:

As a quickwrite, I ask students to write about their own fears, or something they’ve done when they were afraid.

As a mentor text, we talk about how Giovanni is using her act of killing a spider to say something much bigger. This text would also be perfect for introducing Vicki Vinton’s Know/Wonder charts (see my earlier post about those here) so that students can discover the meaning in this poem on their own.

Passage #8 from  Anthony Swofford’s essay, “I was a Marine. I Don’t Want a Gun in my Classroom”

Before the United States Marine Corps allowed me to carry a live M-16 assault rifle, I went through hundreds of hours of firearms training. Classroom sessions devoted to nomenclature, maintenance and basic operation accounted for more than two weeks of study before I even set eyes on ammunition. For weeks, I carried an M-16 without a magazine — a dummy weapon, basically. I secured it with a padlock overnight while I slept in the barracks, and unlocked it each morning before chow.

Only at the shooting range was I allowed to check out magazines and ammo from the armory. The first day at the range I spent 12 hours disassembling, cleaning and reassembling the weapon. I had to do this blindfolded. I had to do this while a drill instructor hurried me, yelling that enemies were at the gate. I had to do this while fellow Marines wept nearby from doing hundreds of burpees as punishment for not being able to reassemble their weapons fast enough.

Possible Uses:

As a quickwrite, students could experiment with writing introductions to opinion pieces where they use their own experiences and knowledge to establish their authority.

As a mentor text, you might want to use the entire piece from the New York Times. Toby uses it to teach how you could start an opinion piece with a personal narrative ( a lot more engaging than- “I think school uniforms are a good idea for the following reasons…”). Swofford actually takes three paragraphs to get to his thesis. Three! Throw out those 5 paragraph essay models!

Passage #9 William Carlos Williams’ “This is Just to Say”

I have eaten
the plums
that were in
the icebox

and which
you were probably
saving
for breakfast

Forgive me
they were delicious
so sweet
and so cold

Possible Uses:

As a quickwrite, Toby had his students write to apologize for something they were sorry, but not really sorry, about. Later in the semester, he had a student write him a “This is Just to Say” apology for stealing one of his books. (These are the nerdy moments we live for!)

As a mentor text, Toby uses the poem to talk about structure and tone (sorry, not sorry).

Passage #10  Susan Marie Scavo’s “Food. Music. Memory.”

She says: Cupcakes. Brownies. Pies. She says:
Remember this. Bread. Stew. Sauce. She says:
All that time. She says: singing. All I taught
you. She says: Crayon. Alligator. By Scouts.
She says: Baseball. Soccer. Track. She says:
I was there. Remember?

I say: Shouting. Silence. Shouting. I say:
Remember this. Scotch. Vodka. Kahlua. I say:
Cupcake. Meatloaf. Sauce. I say: Singing. All
you would not tell me. I say: Crayon. Dancing.
Guitar. I say: Belt. Hairbrush. Hand. I say:
I was there. Remember?

Possible Uses:

As a quickwrite students can write about a relationship, event, or disagreement from two different perspectives.

As a mentor text, there is so much to work with here. Again I would recommend using Vinton’s Know/Wonder chart for this. Toby delayed giving his students the second half of the poem, and then really enjoyed their reactions as they were creating meaning for themselves. It is interesting to point out that words change meaning depending on how they are grouped.

Hopefully, these ten passages will get you started on what is a very rewarding and effective classroom routine. Stay tuned for additional posts about mentor texts, including one I’ve started about passages perfect for middle school.

What does it take to teach writing?

I’ve heard that English teachers can reduce the time they spend marking papers, but I haven’t figured out how to do that.  Even the essential shift from evaluating to providing feedback hasn’t reduced the amount of time I spend looking at student work. If anything I found that the time increased because students started valuing the comments on their papers, so they ask for feedback more frequently. More feedback= more time. Yes, writing conferences work, and I love them; however,  if I can’t get to everyone in 75 minutes, I write my comments down instead. So there are multiple points in the year where I would feel like this:

Through John  Warner’s book Why They Can’t Write: Killing the Five-Paragraph Essay and Other NecessitiesI learned about the CCCC (Conference on College Composition and Communication) Executive Committee’s position statement about the Principles for Post-Secondary Teaching of WritingWarner highlights Principle 11 which includes this description of the workloads of writing teachers: “No more than 20 students should be permitted in any writing class. Ideally, classes should be limited to 15. Remedial or developmental sections should be limited to a maximum of 15 students. No English faculty members should teach more than 60 writing students a term.”  I spit out my tea when I read this.

I know this is a position on college instruction, and I know that it’s not going to happen, but that didn’t stop me from daydreaming about what I could do to support my students’ writing if I only had 60 of them per semester. I could give multiple rounds of feedback. I could conference weekly with students about their writing (and maybe their reading!). I could read everything they write and respond with thoughtful, practical feedback consistently in both print and conversation. I could study books about writing instruction and use what I learn to move my students’ writing forward. I could treat “every piece of writing [as] a custom job” (Warner 29).

He makes the point that “[t]eaching writing is a lot like coaching. There are many things you can communicate to the entire team at once, but at some point, you need to work one-on-one on the specific difficulties each player is having”(116).  After all, when I look at student work, the goal is first and foremost to help the writer not that one specific piece of writing, so being a copy editor is pointless for me and harmful to the writer.  My time is better spent thinking about what can I say to this student that will help them grow as a writer. Then I need to plan the mini-lesson that may accompany that conversation.

This whole question about what it takes to be an effective writing instructor came about as I helped a deeply reflective colleague, Seema Narula, mark culminating essays and projects. In fact, this post was supposed to be about the experience I had while evaluating so closely with  Seema, but I was distracted by watching the volume of her work and the amount of time she spent moving her students forward, including a couple of individual writing conferences that went after school for over an hour. The students who took advantage of that personalized conference time showed great development as writers and thinkers, but there is no way that a teacher could spend that kind of time with every student on one piece of writing.

What struck me about Seema’s process was that the entire time, she kept thinking about her practice. Even though she had only a few days to turn around all these papers, even though students would soon submit their exams, and even though she was preparing for reading conferences, she turned the whole thing into a learning experience. We spent a couple of preps together where we marked a maximum of two papers each in 75 minutes. Two. This is because the task wasn’t about just grading papers. We talked about the student growth over the semester, possible changes to our teaching, and even how to word our comments. And this is important too. Teachers need time to think and grow as writing instructors. If we become machine-like and systematic in our evaluations, it de-centers the learner.

My reflection about this has come about at exam time, but this isn’t a once in a semester thing.  I’ve come to the belief that if we are going to help student writers improve, they need to write more often in as many genres as possible. The writing pieces need not all make it to the final draft, but students do need to write, and they need someone to read what they write so that they can develop their writing voices. We also need to throw out all our lessons about formulaic writing. This is not writing; it’s a test-taking strategy which can be taught on its own, but it does not deserve the amount of time we spend on it because it doesn’t create better writers. It creates compliance.

I don’t have all the answers about how to do this with more than sixty students or even with sixty.  I’m still learning from the amazing teachers I’ve met who are able to put this into practice, but the work of an effective writing teacher is necessary and worthwhile. Managing writing workshops and student writers will come up in future posts, but first I had to write about the sheer commitment it takes to dedicate yourself to your student writers. Thanks, Seema.

Can we talk about graphic organizers?

My writing process does not look anything like the one I used to require my students to use in class. When I write, I have multiple posts started. Some are just titles, some are a couple of paragraphs, and some are almost fully formed but not ready to make their entrance into the world. Sometimes a post takes me an hour to write, sometimes a week. My last post took a year from the initial idea to publishing. This particular post has been bothering me since Tuesday.

The way I plan a post often varies as well.  I might make a few point form notes in advance, but most often I start paragraphs with the ideas I want to cover and then quickly move on to the next one. When I’ve sketched that rough outline, I go back and fill it out, over and over again. Whole paragraphs get moved or deleted.  This is all just a part of my thinking.

So why have I denied my students this experience in the past? Why do I ask them to conform to a writing process that I do not even use myself?

Lately, I’ve been thinking about how the graphic organizer often contributes to this limiting of process exploration and, as a consequence, thinking. Before anyone runs to the defense of the graphic organizer, I am not here to suggest they should be taken away; however, I would like to challenge when they are used.

I’ve used graphic organizers for essays, short stories, news reports, etc. One issue that has consistently cropped up when I use these organizers is that students often do not know how to transfer their work from the organizer to a draft copy. An organizer may have all the different paragraphs laid out, but when a student writes it out, they lump it all together into one giant paragraph. This is not the organizer’s fault. It’s not the student’s fault. It actually tells us a lot about the gap in the student’s learning. This type of error seems to communicate that the student does not know the function of a paragraph. This is a significant learning gap.

So now the question is how to fill in this gap, and another graphic organizer is not the answer. In fact, I would argue that giving out a graphic organizer too early in the reading-writing process may cause this problem. There is a difference between using an organizer to help students outline their ideas, and using an organizer to tell students how to organize their ideas. If we control their writing too early, students are never given the opportunity to think about the organization of their writing. We’ve already told them what should go in paragraph three, so why should they think about it? On the essay organizer it says that they need to start with a hook, so why would they consider using a personal narrative or an analogy to begin their introductions? We need to let go some of this control.

Before we give students a graphic organizer, there are some instructional questions that may help us to determine when and where to use it in our instructional cycle:

  • Have students been exposed to enough mentor texts in this particular genre?
  • Am I using the graphic organizer to replace instruction about the complexity of organization and structure? If I am, I need to slow down and increase my use of mentor texts before I start passing out the graphic organizers.
  • This graphic organizer is one way to visualize this text. What are some other visual representations students can use?
  • How can I help students draw/create their own organizers? If our goal is to create writers who select strategies independently, they need to be able to identify when they need an organizer and what that organizer should look like.
  • Is the graphic organizer overly scaffolded? I’m not going to lie. I’ve used a fill-in-the-blank essay organizer where all the transition words were already in place. I’m pretty sure none of my students learned how to move smoothly from one idea to the next when it was already done for them (in a very mechanical way at that).
  • Does this graphic organizer limit thinking? Some students may think better with the use of an organizer, while others may find it restrictive and limiting. We need to know which students need the scaffold, and when that scaffold is just going to get in the way.
  • Am I giving students a graphic organizer because I have given them a task on which they have little chance of succeeding? If so, the completion of a graphic organizer does not mean that they can now complete the task. This is another place where we need to slow down and fill in the gaps rather than using a strategy like a graphic organizer to place a very temporary band-aid on a problem that is not going away.

My thinking about this topic this week has reconfirmed that I need to slow down my writing instruction, while simultaneously increasing the number of mentor texts I use in class. I also need to dramatically increase the amount of practice writing I do with my students ( see a previous post “In Praise of the Quick Write” for ideas on this). Some of my students may need a graphic organizer, and I’ll help them decide which one at the right time, but I think I will have to recycle the stack overly prescriptive organizers in my filing cabinet.

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!

News Articles, Mentor Texts, and the OSSLT

As a literacy coach, I am often asked about how to prepare students for the Ontario Secondary School Literacy Test. In fact, at times (especially second semester) my job seems to be a flurry of last-minute preparations for students and teachers. When I work with teachers, we often talk about whether or not we are”teaching to the test.” I would like to say “no” because I believe that our instruction reflects our primary goal to generate confident readers and writers, but when I looked at my practice, I could not say this was true. My beliefs and my methods did not align.  This realization sent me on a reflection spiral where I re-evaluated my instruction and discovered some misconceptions about the OSSLT that were preventing me from preparing students adequately for the test and, more troublingly, distracting me from focusing on developing the skills of my student writers.

There is a difference in how I’ve taught the news report in the past to prepare students for the test versus how I would teach the news report if I wanted my students actually to write for a newspaper. There really shouldn’t be a difference, but there is.

My number one instructional strategy for teaching students how to write any genre is mentor texts. If you are going to write a personal narrative, you should read personal narratives and scour them for techniques to use in your writing. If I’m going to write a blog about teaching, I should read other teachers’ blogs. Mentor texts need to be used for news articles as well.  In the past, I’ve heard this strategy rejected(and rejected it myself!) because news articles today do not look like the ones that EQAO wants on the OSSLT.  However, I think this a misconception about the way the test is evaluated.

When planning instruction for the news article, teachers often talk about the lead where students should put the who, what, where, when. Some teachers tell their students to start with the word “yesterday,” others insist they start with the date.  Some school plans involve making sure their students include at least two quotations in their news articles. Others insist that the quotations should go in paragraph 4 and 5. But here is the thing – none of this is reflected in the rubric used to score this section.

The evaluation tool requires students’ work to have a clear and consistent focus on the event, supporting details, and logical organization.  A consequence of not using mentor texts is that we artificially control the news article form.  For many of our students, this type of instruction leads them to write mechanically, which means that we aren’t teaching them to use”thoughtfully chosen” supporting ideas with  an organization that demonstrates a “thoughtful progression of ideas.” It is difficult to organize your ideas thoughtfully when you know your quotation must come in paragraph 5! The rubric itself provides students with quite a lot of organizational freedom.

So what do we do instead? We teach the news article form in all of its complexity.

Instead of using the sample articles that we wrote or the ones we pulled off the OSSLT website, we should flood the classroom with examples of real news articles: reports about sports, the weather, crime, tragedy, and good news stories. There are a variety of conventions and mini-genres under the umbrella of the news article. If we want our students to become better writers, we need them to see that the basic structure of the news article stays the same while the vocabulary and content shift depending on the purpose of the article.

And don’t forget about the reader! Students should think deeply about the type of reader their article may interest. What will that reader want to know? Can we assume they already have some background knowledge? How can we meet the needs of that reader with the way we write?

In our efforts to prepare students for this standardized test, we have controlled the form and developed artificial formulas for writing. If all of this leaves you concerned about your next lesson, feel free to try out my eight-day news article plan  for this semester, and let me know how it goes. Let’s shift our focus from “passing the test” to nurturing thoughtful students who can handle the complexity that comes with the act of writing.

Mapping Memories and Storyboarding

Drawing is painful for me, so when a teacher asked me to try storyboarding, I tried to get out of it.  I suggested some alternatives, but she thought storyboarding would work so I told her I would research it and try it. I’m happy she asked. This lesson was the highlight of my week.

I avoid anything to do with drawing or art because it’s not how I think. These are the drawings that I used in front of students to explain our activities. 

So as you can see, there is a reason storyboarding isn’t my go-to writing strategy.

I started researching the idea on Penny Kittle’s website where she has an article called Storyboarding-to-Create-Flexible-Writers. I liked her version of storyboarding because I didn’t think our students were reading to storyboard complete ideas for narratives. Instead, this version helps students to find the stories that they might want to tell.

Memory Mapping

For the memory mapping activity, we had students draw the street where they live now, or somewhere else where they lived for a while. On the map, they labeled the landmarks for their memories. For example, in my map above, you can see where I hit another kid in the head with a rock (I wasn’t a violent kid just a very unobservant kid. I didn’t see him!).

I already had my map drawn to show students what I wanted them to do, so their teacher Emily, drew her map on the board to model the sketching process.

Emily is a former SJAM student, so students were interested to hear her memories of their neighbourhood.  It took a couple of minutes, but as she mapped out her ideas on the board, they started to generate memories too.  When she was finished, Emily estimated that she probably had about 30 different stories she could tell.

Almost every student was able to find a story from their memories that they wanted to share.

One student told me about her map of her neighbourhood in Chile where she lived for ten years after moving there from Syria. Her whole map revolved around her relationship with these three other girls in her apartment building.  She called them her “sisters.” She developed the idea more in the subsequent activity where I mistook her drawing of her friends for one of her family. Clearly, these girls were important to her. We talked about how she could turn her relationship with them into a piece of writing.

Other students’ maps revealed stories about skateboarding accidents, getting lost in cornfields, near-misses with cars, and in one case, the memory of a Syrian neighbourhood before the war. Previously many of these same students were reluctant to write during our quick write time, but as we circled the room and heard their stories, we noticed that every single student had done the activity.

Storyboarding Moments

We followed this activity by storyboarding moments. Their moments could either connect to the memory map or be something entirely new. I wasn’t a fan of my memory map, so I moved to storyboarding moments with my oldest son Jonah.  I was surprised, but I think I actually have a personal narrative that I might draft in front of students.

During the activity, I asked students to draw six different panels of moments that had a similar theme or thread to connect them. Below you can see the further development the Chile neighbourhood I mentioned above.

We were nearing the end of class, so we circled the room talking to students about the moments they selected and how they might write about one (or more of them).

The next stage of the activity would be to cut up the six panels and rearrange them to experiment with how different sequences might affect their writing. They would also have to think about panels they might have to add in order to link the moments together for their future readers.

I was particularly happy with the results of this lesson because I had tried a different generating activity earlier in the week that went spectacularly wrong. I may write about it in the future, but the embarrassment of that lesson is still a little raw. However, I feel redeemed today because I am confident that when these students start drafting their stories, all of them will have a place to start.  And sometimes that’s all we need. Just a way to conquer that blank page.

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.

Giving Feedback that Students Can Use

My last few posts have been about conferencing with students, so I thought I would follow them with how learning to categorize my feedback helped me increase the effectiveness of my feedback and my conferences.

Two years ago I had the opportunity to attend  Ministry-HWDSB collaborative sessions called Closing the Gap. These sessions were led by Jenni Donohoo and Brian Weishar (I recommend following them both on twitter). The sessions focused on supporting students as they write to develop a main idea with supporting details. The workshops were essential for my learning around teacher collaboration (more about this in a future post), and for rethinking how I give students feedback.

During one session, Brian shared a transcript of a conversation that he had with one of his students. You can see the sample student work and the transcript here. What I noticed from looking at the transcript was that Brian asked questions and limited the amount of advice he gave. The student did most of the taking and the thinking.

This was not true of my conferences. Usually, I would talk, and the student would just nod. I advised at a lightning pace and then moved on to the next student. I was in too much of a rush to let the student think about their own work.

I’ve started to change the way I talk to students during conferences. A couple of weeks ago, I was conferencing with students about their news articles. Each student had a checklist of success criteria in front of them, and they were assessing their work. Under the success criteria, it listed writing in short paragraphs as one of the characteristics of the news article form. As I circulated the class, I could see that a student had checked off the box that he had short paragraphs, but when I looked at his work, it was all in one paragraph. In the past I’ve just said, “You need to divide this into paragraphs,” but this time I said “I can see you checked off the box for writing in short paragraphs. Can you show me where your different paragraphs start?” At which point, the student pointed to all of their different sentences.

At that moment, I realized how unhelpful my advice had been for previous students. This student had a knowledge gap, and he wasn’t the only one. I’ve asked multiple students that question in the last few weeks, and I’ve found that this misconception that a sentence is a paragraph is quite widespread. But the good news is- I can teach this! I can fill in this knowledge gap for this student, and he will be able to apply this new knowledge to his writing in other areas.

I wish I could go back to all of my previous students, and start asking them about their work, rather than telling them what to do. My suggestion to divide work into paragraphs contained an assumption about the student’s knowledge. Some would argue that I should be able to assume that a grade ten student knows what a paragraph is, but my assumption was at odds with the evidence that I had in front of me. Just because I believe a student should know something, doesn’t mean that they do.

Jenni and Brian also taught me about Hattie and Temperley’s categories for feedback.  I’ve listed some resources for this at the end of my post, but essentially the idea is to divide your feedback into three categories: task, process, and self-regulation.  Thinking about feedback in this way has allowed me to focus my feedback for students so that they do the thinking that matters for where they are in their learning.

When to use Task, Process, and Self-Regulation Feedback

Task

The example that I used above of the student who thought sentences were paragraphs is an example of a student who needs task feedback. Now that I’ve realized that he doesn’t know what a paragraph is, my instruction with him needs to help him build an understanding of what a paragraph is and why he would use one. When I’m teaching reading strategies, I would also be sure to talk to this student about the purpose of paragraphs in the texts we read. I can teach the task of paragraphing in two ways: through writing and through reading like a writer.

Process

Process feedback should be given to students who have a degree of proficiency. For example, today I worked with a student who was writing to his parents to convince them to let him stay out past 10 o’clock. After using a success criteria checklist, he noticed that all of his paragraphs sounded the same at the beginning. I asked him how he could revise his work to vary his wording, and we had a conversation about the types of transition words that he might use to replace the phrase he kept repeating. When it is time for process feedback, I would also suggest that students use the RADaR strategy that Kelly Gallagher highlights in his book, Write Like This: Replace, Add, Delete and Reorder. The RADaR system gives students a method for their editing, and it also gives them language to use as they talk about their revision process.

Self-Regulation

Self-Regulation feedback is for the student that has shown proficiency. This week I’ve been working students who are polishing an essay, while also preparing for an on-demand essay that will happen later in the week. There was a student who wrote, revised, and polished her essay quickly. Instead of saying  “Great job. Keep up the good work” like I used to, I asked her how she was going to approach writing the on-demand essay. This lead to a conversation about the difference between on-demand and polished writing and which strategies she could use for both types of writing.

I’ve found the category of self-regulation feedback helps me to encourage growth in the writers who, quite honestly, would not receive a lot of individual teaching because they have met the expectations of the task. However, if I can teach them to think about how their writing skills can be transferred to other forms, their learning can continue rather than stop because of their success on this one task.

Thinking in these categories forced me to consider what each student needed at that moment in their writing process. Framing the feedback as a question also allowed me to uncover misconceptions and knowledge gaps that I could then address on the spot or in a future lesson. I have a purpose and focus when I sit down to write feedback or conference now, which makes the process much more meaningful for students and me.

Other Resources

The Power of Feedback by John Hattie and Helen Timperley

Promoting Metacognitive Awareness by Jenni Donohoo

Leveraging Conversations: Article of the Week

I thought I would start my tentative foray into blogging by posting the activity that I am most often contacted about by other educators. It’s also the activity that initiated the shift in the way I thought about teaching English. The initial idea came from Kelly Gallagher’s book Write Like This. If you decide to follow my blog at all, you will be reading about Kelly Gallagher a lot. He uses an activity that he calls Article of the Week to help students fill in the gaps of their background knowledge. It also exposes students to a variety of real-world forms of writing. The version of Article of the Week that I use is a modified version of Gallagher’s idea that I developed with my fantastic teaching partner Pam.

The reason I love Article of the Week so much is that it gives me an assessment opportunity for every English strand, (Oral Communication, Reading, Writing, and Media) every Friday.  This activity helps me to know my students. In other words, Fridays are good days.

The Article of the Week is essentially a period where small groups discuss an article. It sounds simple, but a lot of teaching and student reflection goes into making this work. The process starts on Mondays when I post the article (either teacher or student selected) that everyone needs to read by Friday. Half of the posts are articles students have to read, and the other half are videos (commercials, news, PSAs, movie trailers, etc.). The expectation is that everyone will come to class with notes on the article/video and questions to discuss with their groups. The first week I model what those questions could look like, and we play around with Q-Charts in class so that they become comfortable generating their own questions. I also explicitly teach the characteristics of productive conversations. If you are looking for a place to start talking about conversations,  check out Celeste Headlee’s 10 Ways to a Better Conversation.

The first round of Article of the Week is a diagnostic for me and a practice round for my students. As students discuss the article in their groups, I sit at their tables and furiously take notes on who is talking, who is asking questions, and who is trying their best to hide. I turn these notes into feedback that I give to students before the next round of conversations. I almost always have to discuss with someone about dominating conversations. Many students believe that talking a lot = a high mark. We have to work hard in the first couple of weeks to frame what good conversations look like and sound like.

Once students have had their conversations on Friday, they are expected to write a blog post over the weekend to capture their thinking. These posts are perfect for students to explore voice in their writing. They post throughout the semester, and their blog turns into their culminating project for the course.

Let me reassure you- I do not mark every single blog post.  That wouldn’t be fair to my students or me. My students need the time and space to practice and improve, and I need to eat, sleep, raise my children, and maybe read a book every once in awhile!

I read the first blog post and give feedback, and then I provide additional feedback during writing conferences throughout the semester. These conferences are student directed. I ask them to show me two posts: one they consider a success and one they want to improve. Together we pick an area of focus (voice, organization, word choice, etc.) and we look at the posts with that focus in mind. Students need to write more than we can read and assess because it will take time for them to establish themselves as writers. I need them to have some writing volume so that we can find areas of consistent need and make a plan for improvement.   I also expect them to refer to their feedback when they reflect before and after an evaluation so that I know they are thinking about their growth as writers.

I formally evaluate this whole process before midterms and finals. By then I have multiple rounds of assessment observations, conversations, and products from which to generate a mark.  This wealth of information gives me confidence in my assessment of my students’ strengths and weaknesses. It also gives me a lot of information about where I need to go next with my instruction.  Stay tuned for a future blog post about assessment and evaluation if you’re interested in thinking about this some more.

If you are interested in trying Article of the Week, I would recommend telling your colleagues about your idea so they can send interesting articles your way. Many of the articles I used were sent to me by other teachers, especially the teacher librarian (Thanks, Anne!).  A great starting place for senior classes is Desmond Cole’s article “The Skin I’m In”. This article never fails to start conversations. For junior readers or struggling readers, I recommend using the site Newsela where you can select articles and then change the Lexile level to suit your audience.

I would love to hear your feedback on this process. Feel free to ask questions and leave comments.

Happy Friday!