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. 

Monday, November 14, 2016

The Power of Paper: Helping Students Make Informed Decisions About Their Writing Process

When we wrote our Crappy First Drafts, I made the decision to have every student start this draft on looseleaf paper.

This was not an easy decision to make. One thing I know about writers is that no two processes are the same. Some writers draft entirely on paper, while others shudder at the suggestion of using anything but a digital device. I even know some writers who type out entire papers on their phone (which makes me feel incredibly old, as I don't think my eyes could handle that).

Much of my philosophy about teaching writing centers around the idea that my job is to help writers discover what works for them, rather than dictating how they approach writing. The former approach is teacher-centered, while the latter is student-centered. Mandating that every student use paper for their Crappy First Draft seemed to go against everything I stood for in the classroom...wasn't I making a teacher-centered choice by deciding what was best for my writers instead of empowering them to discover their own process?

However, as I explained to my students as I stood in front of them while holding a sheaf of looseleaf paper, part of my job is to help them make informed decisions. I'm not going to lie. I had a few audible groans when I told them what was going down. As a 1:1 school where every student has a Chromebook, the gut reaction of many is to type their first draft, simply because the technology is available and accessible. To be certain, there are many, many advantages to drafting on a computer, and I told my students up front that the final decision about how to continue drafting their stories next week would be theirs. They seemed to like that!

But for now, we would all be drafting on paper. I told them my reasoning behind this decision:

  • There is no "red squiggly line" when drafting on paper. Many writers (myself included!) cannot move forward with writing when there's an error glaring at them. Since the idea behind this first draft was to just get it written, I explained that the computer can sometimes distract writers from that goal. 
  • Writing by hand forces you to slow down a little, which can be a good thing--your words might come out more intentionally. 
  • Revision looks totally different on paper, and it's often more visible in a lot of ways. 
Basically, drafting on paper is a unique experience, and it's one worth trying to see whether it works for you.

At this point, I asked my students if they were in: were they willing to give it a shot in order to become more knowledgeable about their process? They agreed. 

Tomorrow, I plan to break down the advantages of drafting on paper and on the Chromebook before inviting students to make an informed decision. I want them to think about these choices as a writer, and having them try out approaches before committing to the process that works for them is so important for young writers. Heck, even I don't know my process completely yet! Writing is discovery, and experimenting with process will help each of my students find the way that works for them and their writing. 

Friday, November 11, 2016

The Art of the Crappy First Draft

Today, I asked my students do some crappy writing. And it was awesome.

This summer, I was introduced to the concept of giving writers permission to write subpar first drafts through Anne Lamont's "Shitty First Drafts". Essentially, Lamont notes that writing first drafts that are just plain bad is an important part of the writing process. She says that all good writers do it. It's what allows them to write second and third drafts that are better. Trusting in the process is key here, and there's freedom in allowing yourself to write without worrying whether or not it's any good. Because once you embrace the idea of the awful first draft, you're no longer focused on anything but getting the draft out. And that's what I wanted my students to do.

I decided that today, our first real drafting opportunity, was the perfect time to introduce Lamont's idea to my students (though I gave it the more "school-friendly" name of Crappy First Drafts). At the beginning of class, I invited my writers to the carpet for our brief meeting before we wrote. I asked them to look at the plot path that they had chosen (we spent a few days trying multiple paths for our stories) and to ask themselves, "What scene is begging to be written first?" I told them that some writers always, always, always start at the beginning. But others start in the middle. Or even the end! They quickly looked over their plot arcs and made a decision and told their writing partner their plan.

I then told them a brief story about 13-year old me, who loved to write but had a nasty perfectionist streak. I told them of entire drafts that got scribbled up, torn up and thrown away, never to see the light of day again. I told them how I thought I should get it right the first time, not the fifth time. I told them how I wish my teachers had given me permission to write a crappy first draft.

I looked each one of them in the eye, and I said, "Here's the thing, guys. First drafts aren't about getting it right. They're about getting it out. The only writing that is truly awful? The writing that doesn't exist."

I saw many smiles when I told them that I wanted their crappy first drafts. The crappier, the better!

I handed out sheets of lined paper and clipboards (more on my decision to have everyone draft on paper to come in a later post), and my students chose a space that worked for them so that they could hunker down and write. As everyone settled in and got started, I reminded them, "I WANT your crappy first drafts. I want you to just put words on the page without worrying about it."

And that's what my students did. They wrote without abandon and without fear. They embraced the idea of "The Crappy First Draft." Some even proudly titled their paper to reflect the idea!

Most students produced several pages of writing, well beyond the one scene I had hoped for. At the end of the period, I lowered the ambient sounds I was playing while we wrote and asked for my writers' attention. It was like pulling them out of a trance--they were so into what they were writing!

We get REALLY comfortable when we write. One of those lumps is his clipboard! 
As they left class today, my students were talking about their "crappy first drafts," but it wasn't in a defeated, frustrated way. They were excited! As my third hour students finished up today, one of my kiddos handed his writing folder to me, a huge smile on his face, and said, "Mine is REAL crappy, Ms. K."

I laughed and said, "Good! Look how much you wrote!" I opened up his folder and saw he had over four pages of writing.

I think the success we had today is the product of many things: taking the time to truly discover a story we liked, getting to know our characters in depth, and having a plan for how our story might go.

But one of the biggest pieces of today? Freedom. Giving my students permission to make their writing crappy allowed them to write without distraction, without hesitation, and without fear.

Thursday, November 10, 2016

Originality is Overrated

"Ms. K, I just don't know where to go with my story."

Victoria, one of my 7th grade students, said these words to me tentatively today during writing workshop. Over the past week, she had developed a realistic fiction story idea that involved an incident in a mall where a main character and her friends are trapped and must escape a potentially dangerous situation. As she reiterated her plot to me, I could tell that she wasn't in love with this story idea. And I told her as much.

 In years past, this might have caused this ELA teacher to clutch her heart in horror and despair over the "wasted time" planning a story that won't ever come to fruition.

Thankfully, nowadays, hearing these words actually excites me a little bit. Victoria clearly wants to care about her story, and she's okay admitting that she currently doesn't.

Maggie Kate, Victoria's writing partner, piped in at that point, eager to share her own writing struggles. Since I was still thinking over how to approach Victoria's predicament, I listened.

"Ms. K, I'm worried that my story isn't original enough."

I laughed when she said this. "Maggie Kate, every single story that exists has borrowed from another story."

 Both girls started chattering excitedly.

"Yeah! It's kind of like how there are lots of books where someone dies, and people have to deal with it or figure out why."

"Or there are tons of books about people who are trying to overcome a disability or difference, like Wonder or Holding Up the Universe."

I nodded my head, excited that they were picking up on what I meant.

"What's also cool is that sometimes, the stories you read or the movies you watch might inspire a cool story idea. And that's okay!"

I told them about how the movie Amelie had inspired my story's plot. I had used the basic trajectory of the movie as inspiration for my story about a girl with social anxiety who is desperate to connect with a guy she sees at her school.

"Your plot might not be 100% original. And that's okay. What makes it a true original work is that no one else will write it the way you will."

Both girls smiled. Their teacher had just given them permission to rip off another story and make it their own! I smiled, because I knew this was how real writers worked. Sneaky!

I knew that the next step in helping Victoria land on a story idea she would want to write was to get her thinking about some stories or movies that she loved. I asked her what she was thinking.

"Well, I really wanted to write a story about someone who can't remember anything, and someone else has to remind them of the past every day...kind of like The Notebook. I love that movie." 

Instead of immediately dismissing this idea as unoriginal (which would be very hypocritical, given how my story idea came about!), I kept listening.

Maggie Kate responded enthusiastically. "Oooh! What if you wrote a story about a girl who can't remember a guy, and he's in love with her?"

Victoria nodded, and she then segued into talking about 50 First Dates, which follows a similar "memory loss" narrative (Lucy has anterograde amnesia and cannot transfer short-term memories into her long-term memory, so Harry, a love interest, must work to remind her of who he is every day).

"Hmm. I think there might be a story inspired by these movies," I mused, thoughtfully.

Gracie and Claire, writing partners who had paused their work and were listening to our conversation, chimed in with some story ideas that Victoria might explore. The five of us imagined several versions of a new story that Victoria might tell: one where a girl suffers from some sort of memory loss, and the protagonist, a boy who falls for her, has to decide whether to pursue her or move on. As we continued talking, the story morphed several times--organically, as new ideas were added to the conversation.

At one point, I suggested a quick Google of amnesia so that Victoria could understand the difference between the two types of amnesia. Learning about retrograde amnesia inspired another potential story idea: a boy and a girl who have a strong relationship that is derailed after the girl suffers a head injury and cannot remember their past relationship.

Victoria quickly scribbled down our ideas as our conversation flowed. As I stood up to move on to another group, she looked up from her work and asked me, "So...is it okay if I start over and go with this story idea?"

I smiled. A student who is okay with completely scrapping previous work and starting over...all because she's found the story she really wants to tell?

You can probably guess my answer: a resounding "Yes!"


My takeaways from all of this? Starting over is okay--especially when you've found a story you're excited to tell. The best ideas are often found through organic conversation.

But the biggest, most momentous part of this experience? Originality is overrated.

None of Victoria's new ideas are searingly original. None of ours are. All ideas are derivatives of inspiration gleaned from our experiences. The movies we watch. The stories we love. The poems we read. The places we go.

So what's the point in writing if it's all been said before?

Because you haven't said it. And no one else will say it just like you will.

Part of my job is to help my writers see that the true mark of originality is taking these "unoriginal" ideas and making them their own: through their voice, their perspective, their words.

Originality is so overrated.

Wednesday, November 9, 2016

Slice of Life: Pressing the Pause Button

Today was just one of those days. When you teach middle school, you quickly realize that your students are often a barometer for society as a whole. As my students trickled in this morning, after a crazy election night, their emotions were raw and palpable, some masking with humor, while others were in disbelief. I knew that we needed to just press the pause button for awhile.

My initial idea was to just give them space and time to write about whatever they'd like to write about, be it their reaction to the election or anything else that was on their minds. But after a quick poll of my students, I realized most needed more time to process. The emotion was too close still for many, and while writing can be a way to sort through your feelings, sometimes, distance is necessary. I get that.

So, instead, I finished reading Orbiting Jupiter out loud to all of my classes. We totally fell behind the Global Read Aloud schedule, but I knew we'd have to finish such a wonderful and powerful book. Today, it felt very appropriate, given Orbiting Jupiter's themes of acceptance of those who come from different experiences and backgrounds.

During this time, everyone got comfortable, making full use of my motley crew of lounging accouterments: pillows that my mom made for me out of fabric scraps, patio furniture cushions given to me by the 8th grade science teacher, and the cheap IKEA blankets that I bought for $2 each.

My students listened as I read like I always do: dramatically, with changing voices and added gestures that let students visualize exactly what Gary D. Schmidt wanted them to see. I've always been a bit of a performer, so I enjoy reading for my students.

As I read, I glanced up from time to time (by fourth hour, I had started to memorize parts), and I loved looking at my students' faces, rapt with the richness of the story. When Joseph's father showed back up, you could hear a pin drop as I read about the situation that spiraled out of control. When Jupiter says "Jackie" for the first time, everyone sighed. And when Jack promised Jupiter that he'll always know where she is, I got a little teary. So did a few others.

My voice is raspy now. My feet hurt from standing and performing for four hours straight.

But it was so worth it to listen to some excellent writing, escape together and press pause. Just for a little bit.

Monday, November 7, 2016

Playing with Plot: Figuring out the Paths of Our Stories

After a few days spent really getting to know our characters, I knew my writers were ready for the next step in our realistic fiction unit: figuring out how their story might go.

I cannot place enough emphasis on how important and valuable it was to take the time to truly delve into our characters and their nuances, and I told my students as much. Truly knowing their characters means that they are in tune with their characters' motivations, and this is what will drive their plot. Determining the path of their story is easier because they know what their characters want.

During our mini lesson today, we took time to look at a few different plot arcs that go beyond the typical "plottercoaster," or story mountain that most students assume is the only way to plan a story.

One way, but not THE WAY.

The "Man in the Hole" plot:

The "Cinderella" plot:
I had them try to guess the plot based on my retelling. They got it quickly!

Showing students these different approaches was essential, because, as I've often found, the story mountain format doesn't always capture the nuances of really well-crafted stories. There is more than one way to plot a story! But all three of these approaches do agree on one point: good plots go up and down. They don't stay stagnant! The tension and the conflict is what makes the story worth reading.

Though there are many different ways to plot our stories, I emphasized that there are common ingredients that all stories contain.

Using Batman as an example, I quickly showed students how Batman's quest to bring peace to Gotham (in any iteration of his battles to do just that) follows the Somebody Wanted But So Then format.

Then, I engaged students in helping me plot out the arc of an excerpt from Jeannette Walls's The Glass Castle, a shared text that we had used earlier in the year. While we discussed, I pointed out how Walls had intensified the conflict with her plot choices. As authors, making it too easy for our protagonist to achieve his/her goals doesn't make for compelling fiction!

Before sending my writers off to figure out one way their story might go, I reminded them of a few things:

  • It's okay to let your characters make bad choices! Our characters are our babies, so naturally, you want what's best for them, and it's tough to have them be idiots sometimes. But writers know that intensifying the conflict is what makes for good fiction, so sometimes, the bad choices must happen...
  • ...but in the midst of all of this trouble, there has to be a point. Don't let bad things happen to them without being purposeful about it--what's the bigger message? How do these bad things show motivation or theme? Planting the seed about theme during the plotting phase is essential. It helps writers think bigger when making decisions about how the story will go.
  • Sometimes, you might not know what's going to happen next. Plot your story scene by scene. I used the analogy of driving your car on a darkened highway--you can only see what your headlights illuminate. Writers sometimes plot by asking, "What happens first? Okay, what happens next? And then?"

I projected a screen with a couple of other "styles" of plotting that writers might like to try out today: storyboarding or experimenting with plots that show different choices the protagonist might make & what might happen because of these decisions.

With that, we were ready to plot! Everyone had the same goal today: figure out ONE way their story might go, using a plotting tool to help them do this work.

As I circled the room, I was happy to see a variety of techniques being used. I stopped to have a few conversations with students who seemed stuck. I found that the "headlights" technique worked for many of these students: asking "What happens first? And then? And then?" got them storytelling out loud. All that was left to do was commit it to paper.

For a few other students, I gave quick tips on how to intensify their problem through scenes in their plot. For these students, thinking of more than one way the problem might be intensified will prepare them for our work later in the week, when we push ourselves to come up with more potential paths for our stories.

At the end of class, students left my room, still chatting about plots, scenes and how their story ideas are progressing. Any time my students talk about their writing outside of my classroom is a sign to me that they care about their work. And that is what ensures that these stories are going to be ones that my students remember long after they leave 7th grade.

Friday, November 4, 2016

The Hard-Hitting Interview: Developing Characters by Becoming Them

A common bit of writing advice is to really "be" your character: to look at the world as if through your character's eyes.

What better way to do that than to truly "be" our characters for a while? Today, we did just that. Writing partners interviewed each other...but the person who answered the questions? It wasn't the student. Instead, they answered as their main character.

At the end of workshop today, I called my students back up to the carpet, reminding them to sit next to their writing partners. As they came up to our meeting area, I passed out a sheet with 10 interview questions, which also included space for notes.

I asked partners to quickly determine who would take on which role first: the interviewer or the interviewee. I projected a slide that explained the role of each person:

I told my writers that they'd each have five minutes to interview. Interviewers could just go down the list of questions, but they could ask questions in whatever order they'd like. They might not get to ask all of their questions, because they also needed to jot down some info based on the answers they got.

Interviewees needed to really "become" their character and push themselves to answer the questions as if they really were their character. I reminded them that they may need to think on the fly for some of these answers! But even their "off the cuff" responses might reveal something new about their character that they hadn't considered before.

With the groundwork laid, we were ready to ask the hard-hitting questions.

During this time, the room was awash with talk and laughter. Interviewers were scribbling down answers quickly, noting the most important parts of each response. Interviewees were deep in thought, trying to craft an answer that best captured the heart of the character they had spent so much time getting to know.

At the end of the interviews, I had partners switch papers. Each writer walked away from workshop time today with a list of information that revealed new aspects of their characters. I know that they'll be looking back on these interview questions as they put these characters into action.

As we move forward with drafting our stories next week, I'll be reminding myself and my writers the value of truly becoming our characters.

Thursday, November 3, 2016

Sentence Strips & Dossiers: Writing Characters that Ring True

"If you don't know your characters really well, can you really expect your reader to care about what happens to them?"

I posed this question to my students today. After reflecting on the characters we love in books that we've read, we all agreed: the authors had to have known their characters pretty well to write them so convincingly. The characters are a huge part of what makes readers invest in a story.

Though we started this work yesterday with scene boot camp, I knew I needed to give my students time to continue getting to know their characters. For workshop today, I threw out a few options:

The Dossier 
Sometimes, a sweeping overview of a character can help solidify who they are. Since some students like the simple organization of a table when planning their characters, I offered up an easy graphic organizer for them to record their character's:

  • Appearance
  • Personality traits
  • Likes/dislikes
  • Strengths/weaknesses
  • Habits and hobbies
  • Motivation (hopes, dreams & desires)

I modeled with my own characters, noting that I tried to get pretty specific with my character development.

Beginning phases of my character development. Sharing my process with students is valuable.
We talked about traits that make characters noteworthy: quirks, habits, and more that make them memorable. Hashing out these details gives students a starting point and a clearer picture of what sort of character they're drawing for their story.

Situation Strips
Another approach that I offered up to students was to imagine what their characters would do in a variety of situations. I created a little strip to glue into their journals with several scenarios like receiving a failing grade, getting caught in a lie, or having to comment on a friend's disastrous haircut. Students could jot what they thought their character would do next to some or all of the scenarios.

My situation strip brainstorming
Though the proposed situations might not appear in their planned stories, thinking about how their characters would react helps students develop complex characters with varied personalities. This work will shine through when they start drafting--their knowledge of their character will aid them in crafting stories that hold meaning for their readers.

The Pro Approach
One of my students showed me Rick Riordan's tips for developing a character. Similar to the dossier approach, Riordan strives to record the most minute, miniscule details about his characters. Again, even though every detail might not show up in the story, the knowledge helps develop stronger characters.

Before they went off to workshop today, I reminded students how valuable taking the time to do this work is for writers. While many of my students are anxious to start telling their stories, taking the time to draw and refine their characters will ensure that, when we do start drafting, they feel confident in writing a story that includes characters that will draw in their readers.

And if they feel confident, great writing will follow.

Wednesday, November 2, 2016

Engagements & Boot Camps: Getting Ready to Write Realistic Fiction

Yesterday, my students got engaged.

I know. They're a little young.

Yesterday, after a week of speed dating ideas for realistic fiction stories, we all settled on The One. I figured they could handle that level of commitment. Despite queries about prenups and divorce (they really bought in to my analogy), I knew my students were ready to see how their carefully-chosen idea would play out on the page.

I will beat an analogy into the ground, so this was like our engagement announcement

Today, when students walked in, I told them that this was the day where we would finally jump into the water of writing our stories. Except I'm the kind of parent that throws their kid into the deep end.

You know what gets kids really excited? When you tell them that they'll be participating in a scene boot camp in ELA class.

Just kidding. Probably not a phrase anyone wants to hear associated with school, but I'm glad to report that, in this sort of boot camp, we got to write, experiment and imagine. Three of my favorite things.

When I called my students up to the carpet for workshop, I asked them to make sure that they grabbed a comfy pillow and that they had a writing utensil they liked. At this point in the year, "healthy" pencils are starting to become rare, so I loaned out many pencils and several of my favorite writing pens. After all, we were getting ready to write like our lives depended on it. Having a good writing tool on your side is always helpful.

When we were all cozied up and ready to go, I explained to them that we would be using a technique today that many, many published authors use: taking their characters for a test drive by putting them in an everyday situation and seeing how they'd react. After all, the truth always comes out in the smallest of incidents. Even the way a character eats toast can reveal something about them to the writer.

To start, we brainstormed some general traits for our newly-created main characters. I told them about Sloan, my MC, who struggles with social anxiety and fitting in at her new school. Quickly, we jotted a bulleted list of traits we knew our MC would have.

After a short turn and talk with our writing partners where we shared out a few traits, I demoed how I could take my MC, drop her into an everyday situation, and let the writing show me who my character really was. By writing in front of my students, I showed them how I discovered that Sloan is a bit of a perfectionist simply because the chipped paint on her locker bugged her.

Then, I invited them to pick up their pencils and to drop their character into an everyday scene. I threw out a couple of options: a family dinner, walking into a coffee shop or opening a locker. Students chose one and threw their character into the scene. And we wrote. And it was awesome.

As they wrote, I voiced over with a few moves that my writers might like to make in their scenes.

  • Add a detail about the setting. What's on the walls in the coffee shop? Is there a really annoying bell at school?
  • Have your MC do something, big or small. Maybe she organizes her pencils into neat rows on her desk. Perhaps he adds tons of cinnamon to his coffee. 
  • Let your MC make a choice. Big or small, these actions will be revealing. 
  • Has anyone said something yet? Have someone address your MC. See how he reacts. 
  • What's going on inside your MC's head? Let us peek inside. 
And we wrote. Pencils were moving furiously; the only sound I heard was the scratch of lead against paper and the rustle of turning pages. Most students wrote well over a page. 

Sweat-free boot camp

At the end of class, I asked, "How many of you feel like you know your character a little better?" Almost all of my students raised their hands. 

Gonna call that a win.

Tuesday, November 1, 2016

Slice of Life Tuesday: Choosing to Go Up

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

Generally speaking, I hate absolutes. But every now and then, I find myself neatly quantified by simple if/then statements.

If there is a display of annoying singing reindeer at the store, then I will turn on every single one.

If there is crème brûlée on the dessert menu, then I will order it.

If there is the right kind of tree, then I will climb it.

The right kind of tree, in case you were wondering, is one that begs to be climbed. One that only requires a look to imagine the choreography of your ascent--the repeating pattern of placed feet, grasped branches, awakened muscles, upward motion.

This past Sunday, while hiking, I saw the right kind of tree. A muscular arm of a trunk jutted out where the blanket of dead leaves gave way suddenly to the loamy banks of a river. Just a simple journey up the nearly-horizontal base to the crooked elbow, where I sat.

Bird's-eye view.

The noise from the ground disappeared. The voices of hikers calling ahead to their friends faded. The whir of bicycle wheels dodging the gnarled roots of the trail melted away. The cheers ribboning up the hill from the cross country meet below evaporated. I floated above it all.

And then.

A new perspective.

Dappled birch branches shedding their bark beneath me. Eyes squinting against the kind of October sun that is hellbent on making me appreciate its strength, reminding me that the watery light of January isn’t too far off. The sky the sort of blue that makes me skeptical because it seems manufactured. Water wrinkled by the wind. Me, aloft.

And I breathed it in. I wanted to hold my arms out and gather up the Missouri horizon as I saw it from up there. Every dying weed, every dry gulp of air, every leaf that never had the chance to change before falling.

Every feeling. I wanted to hold that moment, imprint it on myself for the days when I am grounded.

If given the opportunity, then I will choose to go up.

Friday, October 21, 2016

Celebrating with the National Day on Writing

It is so important for students to share in and celebrate their writing on a regular basis in the classroom. When I heard about NCTE's National Day on Writing (which is celebrated on October 20th each year), I knew that I wanted my classes to join in on the fun. An excuse to write for an entire class period? Sign me up! While we write daily in ELA class, I wanted to give my students an entire class period to play, explore and create with words without the lens of "writing for class." I wanted them to write for themselves.

I decided that the best way to structure the day would be to give students a variety of ways they could experience writing and to let them move about from station to station as they wanted. Most importantly, I wanted my students to have fun with writing. I wanted my room to be bubbling over with laughter, collaboration and joy...and the words of my students.

We started our celebration by doing a "writing warm-up." As soon as students walked into the room, I had them immediately come to the carpet with their Chromebook or their journal, depending on their preference. We watched a very intriguing music video and wrote together for five minutes. I liked starting our time together with a shared writing experience simply because it got the creative juices flowing.

Getting warmed up! 
I then briefly shared the different writing opportunities they could explore for the remainder of the class period:

#WhyIWrite Statements

I love the #WhyIWrite hashtag and getting to read all of the reasons why people love writing. I shared my statement with my students (and some from other teachers & staff members in our school--so important for them to see writing is powerful everywhere, not just in ELA), and then, I invited them to write their own! I wanted to make these statements visible to the entire school (to build community), so I covered my classroom door with paper and asked students to "graffiti" it with their reasons for writing.

I loved reading their statements--as always, my writers blew me away with their depth of thought and perception! This activity was a neat way to build our writing community and reflect on why writing is so important for each of us.

Revise the Story with Little Golden Books

This summer, I was introduced to Jon Scieszka and Mac Barnett's hilarious picture book Battle Bunny. If you haven't read it, I highly recommend it! The gist of the book is that a little boy receives a "cheesy" picture book for his birthday called Birthday Bunny and takes a pencil to it to rewrite and illustrate it into something he'd like to read: Battle Bunny!

I invited my students to do the same thing with Little Golden Books. Battle Bunny  was on the table as a mentor text for students to look through before creating their own "revised story." I provided copies of the Little Golden Book versions of Sleeping Beauty, The Poky Little Puppy, Snow White, The Princess & the Pea and Cinderella for students to rewrite and edit into new stories!

Changing it up! 
 My favorites from the day were The Porky Little Puppy and KinderElla (she longs to be a kindergarten teacher). This station was a big hit and showed students that, sometimes, the best stories are derivatives of other stories. Inspiration is everywhere!

Collaborative story
This station was simple to prep: I just covered two of my tables with large white paper and wrote a sentence at the top that was enticing enough to make my students want to tell the story yet vague enough to be open to interpretation. Throughout the day, students would go over, read the story and add a sentence or two. In some classes, writers teamed up to write together for awhile, which resulted in a lot of laughing and imagination.

At the end of the day, the stories weren't finished, so I moved them to my cabinets so that, if inspiration strikes, students can keep adding to the story. It was so fun to see where the stories went and to see my students' wild imaginations at work! Through this collaborative story, my writers saw the power of harnessing the thoughts of more than one mind and how ideas can grow and change in our writing.

Love Letters from Anonymous People to Put in Library Books
Another way to get students writing was to invite them to write "love letters from anonymous people" to place in books in our middle school library. Our students recently experienced Rachel's Challenge, an assembly where they are challenged to create a chain reaction of kindness in our school. Writing these short, anonymous notes of encouragement and placing them for other students to find randomly is a great way to keep the momentum of this powerful assembly going.

A lot of very sweet cards were written, and I'm excited to give them to the librarian to hide in the books that get checked out often! This simple act shows students that writing can heal, and it has the power to turn someone's day around.

Playing With Digital Writing

For the students who enjoy going digital, I put together a Symbaloo of digital writing websites.

I included comic strip generators, a site to create a 'choose your own adventure' story, focused writing sites & more. I encouraged students to play around with these ways to create writing digitally. A group in my last hour class decided to work on a shared Google Doc to write a collaborative story. With six boys typing over each other, it was pretty chaotic, but they had fun--and they wanted to share their story today during our author's chair time, so I'm going to call that a win!
A lot of laughing was going on. Writing is fun!
By offering time to play and experiment with digital writing, my writers discovered that writing is everywhere, and it doesn't always mean putting a pen to paper. Going digital gives my writers an opportunity to share and create like never before.

Taking the time to honor and celebrate writing on a specific day is so worthwhile. It shows our students that writing is not just an act "for class" but a creative act that is joyous, collaborative and fun. I'm already thinking of how I can continue to create space for this kind of celebrative writing experience as we move forward this school year. 

Friday, October 14, 2016

What They Can Learn From the Pros: Sharing Published Authors' Writing Processes With Students

A great part of living in a bigger city is all of the opportunities I can take advantage of as a teacher--ones that aren't nearly as common in smaller cities. Over the past few weeks, so many wonderful YA authors have visited St. Louis to chat about their new releases. I knew I had to attend as many as I could for two reasons:
1. To get my books signed (duh).
2. To ask the authors to talk a little bit about their individual writing process.

My second reason was perhaps my most important goal for each of these visits because I knew it would translate directly into our next unit: writing and publishing realistic fiction. One of my biggest beliefs about writing is that every writer is different and that no two processes look exactly alike. I strive to share my process with my students quite often so that they see that it is something that writers use.

However, I'm one person and one writer. While I can talk about my process as a writer and share that with my students, I knew that having authentic voices from the published authors that my students read and admire would lend credibility to what I was trying to impart: process is individual, and discovering your own is an important step in identifying as a writer.

Next week, as we start dipping our toes into our first discussions about where ideas for stories come from, I know I'll be telling my writers about what I learned from each of these incredible authors. I quickly discovered that they each have their own, unique approach.

Marissa Meyer, author of the Lunar Chronicles
Marissa also has twins. And she still manages to publish regularly. She's a unicorn, basically.
Marissa shared that she has her own writing cottage (!!) that she goes to when she's writing. She also writes in 53 minute bursts (she mentioned that she read a study that said 53 minutes was the optimal amount of time to stay focused on one task) with 18 minute breaks. Under this specific regimine, she said she is able to write anywhere from 5-10,000 words per day, which floored the rest of the authors on the panel! Marissa got her start writing fanfiction (Sailor Moon fanfiction, to be exact), and she says that the community there nurtured her love of writing and kept her going.

What I'll share with my students: 

  • Having "a writing spot" is powerful. It's why writing retreats are so popular! Quiet spaces that allow for deep thinking are ideal for some; for others, it's being around other writers. Finding "your space" might be part of your process. 
  • Write what you want to write--even if it's Sailor Moon fanfiction! 
  • Making a schedule and sticking with it can be an essential piece of your writing process. 
Leigh Bardugo, author of the Grisha Trilogy
She's really cool, and now I want to dye my hair silver.
Leigh shared that she actually takes her manuscripts outside and reads them out loud. She told a hilarious story about how her neighbors often hear her and comment to each other that "she's doing it again!" 

What I'll share with my students:
  • Reading your words out loud can be powerful. You can hear your story and where you might want to make changes, add or take out. 
Kelly Barnhill, author of The Girl Who Drank the Moon
Kelly had the best reading voice. I loved listening to her read an excerpt! 
Kelly spoke at length about how her first novel, The Witch's Boy, almost didn't exist. She had sent the first few chapters to her writing group and had immediately emailed them back to tell them to ignore her email; she was giving up on the project. Within the hour, she had emails back from every person in her writing group, and they all said the same thing: "ARE YOU CRAZY? We DEMAND that you keep writing this story, and we will bug you endlessly until you do!"

What I'll share with my students:  
  • Sometimes, you have to share what you're working on with others, even if you think it's awful. We're our own worst critics, so finding someone (like your writing partner!) that you feel comfortable sharing your words with is a key part to a healthy writing process. 
Jordan Sonnenblick, author of Drums, Girls & Dangerous Pie
Yeah, I was in the first row. No shame. 
Jordan has written 10 books, so he has gotten to know his process very well. He said that he wrote his first book, Drums, Girls & Dangerous Pie for someone: a student of his whose younger brother had cancer. Similarly, his new book, Falling Over Sideways, is the voice of his daughter. Jordan said that having a specific purpose or specific voice in mind helped him develop his story. 
He also mentioned the power of research. he spent a considerable amount of time researching the effects of chemotherapy and other cancer treatments on young patients in order to make Drums, Girls & Dangerous Pie authentic, and similarly, he spoke with paramedics, doctors and stroke experts when writing Falling Over Sideways. Getting your facts right when you write realistic fiction is key, according to Jordan. 

What I'll share with students:
  • Have a purpose in mind when you're writing. Who are you writing for? What do you want to achieve with your story? 
  • Don't be afraid of research, even if it's a topic you know well. Your story will be all the more powerful because of it. 
Krystal Sutherland, author of Our Chemical Hearts
Krystal is Australian, and she is hilarious. Go hear her speak if you can! 
Krystal is a debut author, but she has been writing for a long time. She mentioned her first few manuscripts that will "never see the light of day," which were a conglomeration of the fantasy books she adored at the time (by the way, she's a Slytherin). But that didn't stop her. She said that, as a writer, she has good writing days, and she has bad writing days--it's pushing through the bad ones and writing anyway that is the key to her writing process and moving forward. Krystal also shared that she tries to "see the movie of the book in my mind" before sitting down to begin drafting. Her challenge, according to her, is translating that movie into words. 

What I'll share with my students:
  • Your first attempts will be bad. That's okay. Keep going.
  • Write even when you don't feel like it. You'll be glad you did.
  • Some writers want to see the end before they begin drafting. Others don't and want to discover how the story ends as they write. Your process is your own! 

I'm going to keep asking the authors I meet to share their process because, as a writer, I find it fascinating, and as a teacher, I know my students will listen when I tell them that, yes, every writer has a process, and yes, every single one is different. I hope sharing these stories will empower my writers to find their own path this year. 

Friday, October 7, 2016

The Test That's Not Really a Test: Reflecting on our Reading

This week marked the end of our first unit, which was centered around the following learning goal:

Students will be able to select and comprehend good-fit books, build their reading stamina, and show their thinking in writing and conversation.

When thinking about the best way to assess this unit, I knew that a test in the traditional sense would be at odds with the work that we'd done this year. The only approach that felt authentic and worthwhile to me was to have students do some heavy reflection on what work they'd done in their reading lives so far this year. I decided that the best way was to have students do just that: take some time to reflect in a letter or audio recording to me. 

I really wanted my students to be authentic while still digging deep to do some thinking about their own progress. I realized that I needed to give students some options for paths that they could explore in their letter--a variety of optional questions that would help them discuss their own work towards the learning goals. 

Through collaboration with my fellow 7th grade ELA teachers, we designed a planning sheet for students to use to prepare to write or record their letters. One option we gave students to help get their thinking flowing for what they wanted to say in their letters was to invite them to make a visual reading life that showed their journey so far this year through the moments that stood out to them. 

We did this at the beginning of the year with our reading life up until 7th grade. Having the students do it again with moments from just this year was neat to see! 

The planning sheet also broke down the three parts to the learning goal by asking some questions that they could potentially answer in their reflection letter. 

Selecting and comprehending good-fit books:
  • What books have you started, abandoned and/or finished this year?
  • How did you know those books were or were not good-fit books for you? 
  • Did you meet your reading growth goal that you set for yourself this year? 
    • Why did you choose this goal?
    • How has this goal helped you as a reader?
    • What work are you doing towards meeting this goal? 
  • What are you most proud of regarding your reading life from August 18th, 2016 up until now?
Building reading stamina
  • How often do you read at home?
  • Where do you like to read?
  • How long are you able to read at once without getting distracted or interrupted? 
  • Have you met your page goals? Why or why not? 
Showing thinking in conversation and writing
  • How many jots have you done this year to capture your thinking about your reading?
  • What do you notice about your jots?
  • How has your thinking about your reading changed? 
  • Tell me about a jot that you really liked. What were you thinking? How did you show it? 
When it came time for students to write or record their letters (using Kaizena, which I also plan to use to leave audio feedback for my students), I told them that I intentionally wouldn't be giving them an example letter or a model, simply because I wanted them to reflect for themselves, not write a letter that checked all of the boxes. Similarly, I told them that the questions were just starting points. Their reflection was entirely up to them--what was most important was that they were thinking about their reading lives and reflecting on how they had grown. 

I'm excited to hear about how my students are growing as readers. I love this type of assessment because it asks students to reflect on their learning while also giving them the space to tell me what they think. Building a reading life is a process, and letters like these give me a glimpse into the individual journeys of my students. 

Friday, September 30, 2016

Sharing Writing Without Fear: The Mystery Author Box

As I've written before, giving students time and space to write is very important to me. It's equally as important to set aside time for my students to share what they've written with our writing community. We've been using our author's chair for over six weeks now, and I am happy to say that it is very well-graffitied. However, I've noticed that some of my writers who have created beautiful pieces are still reluctant to share their words.

As a self-proclaimed introvert, I understand when some students balk at the idea of reading anything aloud in front of their peers. Asking those same students to read something that they authored is simply out of the question. Writing is an intensely personal act, and sharing it with others means being completely vulnerable. Anyone who has spent more than a few minutes in a middle school knows these years are rife with uncertainty and worry about others' perceptions and opinions. Sharing personal writing might feel, to some, like throwing a log on the already-flaming fire of insecurity. For these reasons, when it comes time to share our writing, I always make it optional. The author's chair is open to anyone who chooses to share. Forced sharing removes the authenticity from our writing community and dismantles the mutual respect we build with our students and their writing.

However, what happens when a student might want to share their words but may feel scared or hesitant? I knew that this situation would happen, because I personally feel that way many times when it comes time to read my own writing to others! Borrowing from a technique I learned from my time with the Gateway Writing Project this summer, I knew that a Mystery Author box would be a safe space for my students to share anonymously.

The box itself is just a cardboard box with a latch from a craft store that I decoupaged with some "writing-esque" scrapbooking paper.** If a student writes something that they'd like to share anonymously, they can simply drop it in the box when they feel like it. There's plenty of unstructured time during workshop where they can do this rather stealthily. The box is also located in an area that isn't highly trafficked, which adds to the air of privacy. If students don't feel like tearing their writing out of their thinkbook (our class journals), they can drop a Post-It note with their name and title of their piece so that I know to look for it. During times where we use the author's chair, I open up the Mystery Author box and read pieces that have been added over the course of the week. We don't speculate about who wrote them; we just listen.

The impact of this simple addition is twofold: firstly, the author gets to hear his/her words spoken aloud, which is a powerful experience, and they also get to see a favorable reaction from their peers. Sometimes, this can push a writer to go a step further and start sharing with a wider audience, which is a huge piece in making writing authentic.

Secondly, the audience gets to hear words that may not have been shared otherwise. Some pieces in the Mystery Author box are very personal. These stories may never have seen the light of day if not for this anonymous platform. Think of sites like PostSecret or Whisper--they are so popular because they let people be vulnerable under the cloak of anonymity. The Mystery Author box affords my students that same "cloak" while still giving them a space to share.

Moving forward, now that some have chosen to use Google Docs for their writing time, I hope to start a Padlet page where students can anonymously add their writing. They can always share their Google Doc with me directly, but for those who need complete anonymity, Padlet is a good option.

Sharing writing is important. I'm always seeking out ways to establish a writing community that is a safe space for students to take steps forward in their journeys as writers, no matter how small those steps might be. The Mystery Author box is just another way to empower writers to take a leap of faith and share their words with others.

**Note to anyone who decides to get similarly crafty: the liquid Mod-Podge is the way to go, not the spray. I'm sure seasoned crafters are scoffing at my naïveté, but for my fellow novices, don't make the same mistake I did!