Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Slice of Life Tuesday: A Wintry Tableau

Note: I'm linking up with the Two Writing Teachers Blog for Slice of Life Tuesday today!

Over the long weekend, the ice came to St. Louis. Though it kept me cooped up for a few days, I found some inspiration while looking outside of my window. I'll preface this piece by saying that poetry isn't my strong suit, but I'm trying to push myself to attempt to branch out with my writing. After doing some sensory observations, this is what I came up with:

When the ice comes,
Everything holds
Its breath
As frozen fingers trail
Down the spine of today,
Leaving behind
A garland of crystals,
A smoothing of rough edges,
A quiet beauty.

When the ice comes,
Everything holds
Its place
As gray mist gathers
Around the edges of today,
Leaving behind
A shroud of silence,
A hush felt deep inside,
A wintry tableau.

Sunday, January 8, 2017

Story is Story: Helping Writers See the Story in Personal Narrative Writing

One of my goals as a teacher of writing is to help my students see how they are growing as writers. An easy way to accomplish this is to ask my writers to produce an on-demand writing piece at the beginning and the end of each unit of study. When putting the two pieces side-by-side, it is easy for writers to see how they have grown.

For our narrative unit, the on-demand prompt simply asks students to write the best true story from their life, AKA a personal narrative. Though we write realistic fiction stories in this unit, I explain to students that we write true stories for these on-demand writes (which have a time constraint of one class period) simply because these stories have already happened; we just need to write them, unlike fiction stories which require a lot more time to plan and create.

As we neared the end of our unit, I reminded my writers of their upcoming writing piece. As soon as the words “personal narrative” exited my mouth, the mood in the room changed almost instantaneously. Personal narratives? Ugh, we’ve been writing these every year since third grade. Hang on, let me rack my brain for something boring to write about…

I knew I had made a mistake by using the phrase “personal narrative.” I’ve found that, by 7th grade, students are burnt out on the genre, equating it with stale essays that have little life or meaning to them. On Twitter, I mused about why this is with my PLN of English teachers. We discussed how some students believe their lives aren’t interesting enough to write about. Some find it difficult to write about their own lives, preferring to escape into fiction.

I wondered how to best help my writers see that personal narratives don’t have to be boring. I knew they all had cultivated some real skills as writers of stories throughout the unit. The evidence was in front of me: 90 published stories that had realistic characters, tension and showed off the voice of each writer. I needed to help them see that these same skills could be used when writing the true stories from their own lives.


That was what I needed to help my writers see. They were writing stories. Story is story, regardless of whether it is true or not. The elements that make a story good are the same across the narrative genre.

So I stopped using the word ‘personal narrative.’ Instead, the next day, I invited them to read a true story written by an 8th grader, one with well-drawn characters, tension and emotion. I asked them, “What makes this a story worth reading?” As they read, they jotted down their thoughts in their thinkbooks.

When we came back together and shared. As I jotted down what they had noticed on the board, I smiled, because I knew that they were touching on the skills we had just used in our realistic fiction stories.

When we finished, I pointed to the anchor charts lining the bulletin board on the side of the room.

“You know what makes a story good. And every single one of you is a storyteller.” Here, I gestured to the stack of their published stories. “You’ve already shown me. And now, I’m asking you to show off all of those skills you’ve developed over these past six weeks, this time with a true story from your life.”

We discussed how the words “personal narrative” sometimes equate to summarizing an event, resulting in a stagnant plot arc. Much like a flat-lining heart rate monitor, these pieces of writing don’t have “life.” I reminded them of what they know as writers, which is that good stories have plot arcs that go up and down, just like a heart rate monitor attached to someone who was alive.

With this fresh, new perspective, I sent my writers off to plan by asking, “How will you tell the best true story that you can tell?” Just based on the conversation in the room, I could tell that they were now thinking in terms of story.

Because at the end of the day, story is paramount to what I want my writers to take away from my class. I want my writers to see the universality of the skills they are cultivating as writers of stories, not as writers of boring, “for school” personal narratives. I want them to see that story is everywhere they look, from retelling moments from their lives to the music that they love.

So, on Friday, we wrote stories. True ones from our lives. I hope that my students didn’t feel like they were writing “just another personal narrative for school” but instead saw that they were writing a story.

Because that’s how I want my writers to take away from this experience: stories are powerful. Stories shape our lives. Stories are everywhere. And they, too, have the skills to be the storyteller of their own life.

Tuesday, January 3, 2017

Slice of Life Tuesday: Writing to Create the Chain That Binds

Note: I'm linking up with the Two Writing Teachers Blog for Slice of Life Tuesday for my post today! 

I spotted the above quote from Charles Dickens in a book I read over winter break (A Wife of Noble Character by Yvonne Georgina Puig, which is a retelling of Wharton’s House of Mirth). Normally, I give quotes at the beginning of chapters a cursory glance at best, but for some reason, this one stuck with me. I think it was the simplicity and the truthfulness of it.

So I wrote it down, thinking that would be the end of it. A nice quote that would take up a page in my journal. Not much else.

But as the days passed, I found myself repeatedly thinking about Dickens’s words and the chains I have forged over the years. Many times in my life, seemingly inconsequential actions proved to be moments that would redefine my life, moments that I would look back at and think, “That’s where it all began.” Moments where a beautiful chain that connects me to someone or something else originated.

When this happens, it always seems like nothing at first. It is only time that lets me truly see the impact, the links of gold or thorns that fit neatly into the next to create the memories that cannot be erased or broken, no matter how painful they might be. The parts are what make the whole so stunning and, in some cases, mind-boggling in its power and importance.

Writing is like that for me. When I write, I add a new link to the chain I will never stop forging with my words, the chain that tethers me to the stories that I need to tell.

And in the moment, my words often feel like nothing of importance. Writing is hard. I doubt myself. When I look down at a day’s work, at times, I scoff at it, sure that it is inconsequential. Nothing memorable. A chain, perhaps, but a flimsy one riddled with thorns.

But I write anyway, because I know that, sometimes, what's hardest is starting.

I write because I know that the beauty is in the process, and that stories are built by link after link of words chained together to create something that will bind and connect.

I write because I know that, despite my doubts, someday, I will be able to stand back and trace the chains of my words back to that first time I pressed my pen to paper, to that now-unforgettable moment where my story first began.

Monday, January 2, 2017

The #OneWord2017 eduTwitter Needs

If you pick a word for 2017 and don’t blog about it, did you really choose a word?

As I was driving back from Minnesota to St. Louis on January 1st, I was passing the time in the passenger seat by scrolling through my Twitter feed on my phone. Since I use Twitter predominantly for interacting with fellow educators, it wasn’t surprising exactly to see tweet after tweet about choosing one word to focus on for 2017.

While I don’t mind the sentiment of committing to something publicly, truthfully, I dislike New Year’s resolutions. I believe you can reinvent yourself on any old day of the year if you truly want to. Aspirations don’t always neatly line up with a Gregorian calendar in my opinion, but I understand that the new year is often a time for people to start fresh. I can appreciate that.

Despite my reticence to make a New Year’s resolution, seeing so many “one word” posts (coupled with the fact that I was stuck in a car for the next six hours) got me wondering what my word would be. I glanced back at my Twitter feed, and I started thinking about the role it has played in my educational growth over the past year.

This is my 7th year of teaching, but it’s the first school year that I’ve really started using Twitter professionally. After blowing the dust off of my long-latent teacher account at the end of the 2015-2016 school year, I dove headfirst into the eduTwitter world. I participated in chats, followed the “literacy rockstars” whose books I kept behind my desk, started a blog and even made some very real friendships. Twitter was the place I could go when I wanted to find someone else who “got it.”

Indeed, part of what makes Twitter so great for those in education is that you’re surrounded by like-minded people. If you’re a teacher on Twitter, you’re probably someone who cares a lot about kids and about getting better at your craft. But at the same time, this poses a problem: if educators aren’t mindful about the content that they post and promote, eduTwitter will become an echo chamber full of teachers retweeting the same frothy quote about being there for kids overlaid on a peaceful forest scene over and over again.

Is there anything inherently wrong with this? No. But is this what pushes us forward as educators? No.

2016 was the year where "fake news" became a real concern. People believed articles from The Onion were in earnest and used Facebook as their “news source” of choice. As I considered my one word, I thought of this “fake news” phenomenon and what I see every day in my Twitter feed. I couldn’t help but wonder if we are starting to see somewhat of the same problem in education, albeit on a less dramatic level--people spreading news that isn’t really news...or even worse, sharing information just based on the amount of likes and retweets it has received, without being mindful of whether it is helping you grow as an educator.

It’s understandable why this is happening. I’m guilty of it too. It’s easy to click the retweet button on a cool graphic with a catchy quote that makes you nod your head and say, “Yes! This person gets it!” It’s easy to mindlessly retweet posts from someone who has thousands of followers and uses the right buzzwords without clicking through to read the attached article (if it has PBL in it, it must be good, right?). It’s REALLY easy to write clickbait tweets that are just a few words away from claiming to show you “that one weird trick that will change your teaching practice” just so people will press the ‘like’ button. When a tweet that says “retweet if you believe all students can achieve!” (um, who doesn’t believe that?) gets more interaction than a thoughtful blog post with actionable takeaways, we’ve got a problem.

I know what you might be thinking. “Katie, just follow better people!” And sure, that might be part of my issue, but it still has me wondering: are our online interactions with our fellow professionals becoming more about the social and less about the media? Are we mindlessly pressing the retweet button in hopes of winning the social media game? Will eduTwitter just become one endless feed of Bitmojis advertising blog posts that no one actually clicks on to read but everyone retweets? What’s the point, then?

I’ve heard Twitter described numerous times as the “best free PD for teachers.” To keep it that way, educators need to keep pushing each other forward. How? Participate in chats that are filled with actionable ideas and conversation. Connect with people in your content area and go beyond the tweets to actually do something that translates to “in real life” education. Blog about your thoughts and ideas without applying the “will this track well on Twitter?” filter to what you write. Retweet that quote you really love, but follow it up with real conversation.

So, my word for 2017? Question.

I’m going to be on the lookout for the “fake news” on eduTwitter and do my best to keep it real and actionable on my end. I’m going to seek out those who have a vision that isn’t driven by retweets and likes. In my experience, the social media affirmation naturally comes with the territory of having something worth saying. I’m going to click through, think critically about what I read and ask myself what I think before sharing. I’m not going to assume something is automatically true and right for me as a teacher just based on popularity.

Am I a skeptic? You bet I am. But I believe it’s healthy to question things, even things as seemingly innocuous as my Twitter feed. As George Jean Nathan said, “the path of sound credence is through the thick forest of skepticism.”

Now that’s a quote overlaid on a peaceful forest scene that I can get behind.

Tuesday, December 20, 2016

What's in a Name? Two Techniques for Brainstorming Story Titles

As we neared our publication date for our realistic fiction stories, I began hearing the same question pop up with increasing frequency:

"What should I title my story?"

It's always tempting towards the end of a writing piece to hurry through to "the good part": publishing. This often means that titles are just an afterthought, something that is slapped at the top of a Google Doc right before clicking "Turn In."

However, I decided that it would be a good use of time to brainstorm some titles for our stories. As I shared with my students, though they're just a few words, titles are both very important...and very hard to come up with sometimes.

As we gathered on the carpet for our mini lesson time, I asked my students to turn to a new page in their journals and to title it "10 Titles in 2 Minutes." I did the same for my journal, using the document camera to display it on the projector.

Then, I issued the challenge to my students: I'd set a timer for two minutes, and their goal was to come up with ten titles. The time crunch meant that they'd have to work quickly, which was a good thing--sometimes, hidden gems come out when you don't have the time to overthink what you're writing. I encouraged them to write down whatever popped in their heads, whether they thought it was "good" or not.

I set the timer, and we wrote. I wrote under the document camera, calling out the time in thirty second intervals. When the timer went off, I showed students my process for vetting my titles. I put stars by the ones that I thought had "potential" and marked an X by ones that I wasn't too thrilled with. I told them that I never, ever scratched out any title ideas completely--you never know where inspiration might come from!

Students also gave me feedback on my titles, telling me which ones they liked. I loved hearing their thoughts and encouraged them to pair up with their writing partner to get feedback as well.

The second strategy I showed students (which I first read about in Kate Messner's Real Revision) involved a little more movement and physical manipulation of words. Earlier that morning, I had taken my story manuscript, which I had printed out, and gone through and highlighted words that I thought were important to the story. I explained to students that I chose words that I felt like captured the feeling of my story.

Then, I held up a strip of scrap paper with all of the words that I had highlighted listed out on it. I explained to my students that real writers sometimes like to move around their words in order to get ideas for story titles. As I explained this, I grabbed my scissors and snipped apart my strip of paper, leaving one word on each smaller piece.

I put my words under the document camera so that students could see what this next step looked like in action. I shuffled them around, noticing what words landed next to each other.

I voiced out what titles were popping in my mind just by moving the words around. I added "Changing to Calm" and "Writing to Calm" to my potential title list that I had started earlier. This title brainstorming technique works well for writers who are more tactile and visual.

As we headed off into workshop time, I asked my writers to make a plan: would they continue brainstorming titles by aiming to write as many ideas as quickly as possible, just as we did at the beginning of class? Or would they come grab a scrap of paper, search their stories for meaningful words and play around with different combinations? With a plan in place, writers headed off to brainstorm titles and continue polishing their stories for publication.

At the end of class, I asked writers to post their working title on Google Classroom. I was thrilled to see titles that showed evidence of careful consideration as opposed to a cursory afterthought.

Titles are important and a significant part of the writing process. It's tempting to skim over this step in the process or to tell students to "just call it something," but I'm glad we invested time in titling our stories.  Giving my writers different tools that real authors use for the difficult task of putting a name to their hard work is just another way to help them feel like the authors that they all are.

Wednesday, December 7, 2016

Be the Weird Author: Read Your Writing Out Loud!

This fall, I was fortunate to hear quite a few of my favorite YA authors talk about their writing practice. One of my favorite anecdotes came from Leigh Bardugo, author of the Grisha series, who talked about her habit of dramatically reading her manuscripts out loud in her backyard. One day, while doing this, she overheard the man next door call out to his wife, "Honey, she's doing it again!"

I shared this story with my students last week as we gathered on the carpet for our mini lesson as a way to segue into the strategy I wanted them to try with their newly-completed "crappy first drafts" of their realistic fiction pieces: hearing their words out loud.

I told them that, yes, reading your story out loud can seem...well...a little weird to some, as Leigh Bardugo found out. But writers know this act has so much value. Reading your own words out loud lets you hear those awkward phrases and missing words that you might not catch otherwise. When I asked my students if any of them had tried reading their writing out loud in the past, many of them raised their hands.

I held up a printed copy of my realistic fiction story. "I'm going to try a slightly different approach today," I said, handing my "manuscript" to Sisi, a student who I had asked earlier to read part of my story out loud. I set my timer for five minutes, grabbed some Post-It notes and a pen, and got into position. "I'm going to listen to Sisi read my story, and as changes occur to me, I'm going to jot them down. Watch."

Sisi read. When she stumbled over sentences, I jotted it down. When the name of the high school I had invented sounded awkward, I made a note. When I heard my introduction, I realized how heavy with description it was. I made a list of where I could do some chopping.

My list grew more and more after each class period!

When the timer went off, I held up my filled Post-It note and shared some of my discoveries with my students.

"Writers make a plan for revision as they listen to their words out loud. And they write it down!" I told my writers that my preferred tool was a Post-It note, but the same concept could be achieved by sharing their Google Doc with their writing partner and adding comments as their partner read their piece out loud.

As we got ready to transition into our workshop time, I invited my writers to make a plan: would they read their own stories to themselves, like Leigh Bardugo, stopping and making notes as they heard places to change? Or would they work with their partner, listening as their words are read out loud and writing down a plan for revisions?

"Today, we're all going to be that weird author reading our words out loud," I said as I sent them off to workshop. For the rest of the day, my classroom was filled with the sounds of my writer's words being read aloud.

Music to my ears.

Wednesday, November 16, 2016

I Want to Know What You Think: Asking My Students for Writing Ideas

One of my favorite parts of being an ELA teacher is getting to write alongside my students. In years past, this might have meant that I gave the semblance of doing this by putting some work up on the document camera and modeling how I might approach a piece. Usually, these were spur-of-the-moment pieces of writing that never turned into anything longer--definitely not something I'd bring to completion.

Nowadays, I find there is so much value in actually going through the same process my students are going through with a piece of my own writing. Since we're writing realistic fiction, from the very beginning, I've been brainstorming plot charts, developing my characters and drafting my story with them.

The benefits of this are obvious:

  • Students see me as a writer, which lends authenticity to my feedback and teaching.
  • They know I'm writing my story, which gives me motivation and accountability to finish it!
  • I gain a lot of personal satisfaction from writing for myself.
  • I get to go through the experience with a student's-eye view instead of just looking at this unit as a teacher, which forces me to think about writing process pieces that I might not have otherwise considered.
  • Students get to hear about my successes and difficulties with my story, which models productive struggle (this is so important for students to see--writing isn't easy for anyone, even adults!)
But what's the best part? Getting ideas and feedback from my students about how my story might go. Today, we talked about "stepping into the drama" of our stories, aiming to "become" our characters as we draft. This strategy helps writers get into the flow of drafting--instead of getting bogged down with what happens next, they simply ask, "What would my character do next and how?" 

To help students understand this, I used my realistic fiction piece I'm writing alongside them. My students are familiar with my story, which is about a girl who struggles with anxiety and uses a series of clues and a forgotten journal to try to befriend a guy she thinks she might have a lot in common with. I talk about it every day. They ask me about how my story is going, and since I'm continually writing it with them, it becomes another talking point and often can be an entry-way into a conference point I might be trying to make with a writer. 

At the beginning of class today, I told my writers that I was getting ready to draft my final scene, where Sloan (my protagonist) is waiting at the bookstore for Ryder (the guy she'd like to befriend) to come in. 

After a quick modeling of how I could figure out what happens next by asking myself what Sloan would do (she would totally arrive early, hide behind the bookshelves and move books aside so that she could see the front door when Ryder arrives), I asked them for suggestions. For a moment, I asked them to be Sloan. 

Each hour bubbled over with ideas. Sydney suggested that Sloan pull out her journal and start writing so that she could calm her nerves down. Harry wondered if Sloan might accidentally write in Ryder's journal, which she was supposed to be returning to him (way to increase the tension, Harry!). Jonah thought she might rip the page out and try to hide the evidence. Elizabeth said the reader would want to know what Sloan had written on the page, and mused aloud that maybe she had written something that showed how much she wanted to be friends with Ryder. Camryn thought Sloan should accidentally cause a scene that drew attention to herself (something she hates) just as Ryder walks in. 

As students shared their thoughts, storytelling their ideas (as opposed to summarizing them), I used the 'Suggest' feature on Google Docs to transcribe as much as I could. Over to the side, I added comments that reflected the direction each student suggested. At the end of fourth hour, I was so excited: I had so many new ideas--and they all came from my students! While I won't be able to use them all, taking them seriously and writing them down showed my students that I valued their thoughts. 

This practice is authentic. It puts students and teachers on the same level: that of a learner who is constantly seeking new ideas and feedback from other learners. I know I will be making changes to my story based on my students' suggestions. Seeing the evidence of their advice reflected in my writing will most certainly show them that their opinions on writing are important. They, too, are writers. We all are. And we're all learning from each other.