Category Archives: English

What Fuels a Writing Culture In Your Classroom?

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Tell Your Story Camp72.JPG McKyln Madsen, reads her writing to the group, including Poet, Jack Collom, center.
Area middle school students participated in the "Tell Your Story" camps, using multimedia, art, poetry and writing, at the University of Colorado.
For more photos and a video of Tell Your Story, go to www.dailycamera.com.
Cliff Grassmick  / June 20, 2013

What drives the work/learning?

  • Identifying a goal/product/performance/culmination that you want to achieve with your students that is connected to the world outside the classroom
  • Figuring out all of the ways that you and your students can be writers to accomplish that end (writing reflectively, analytically, and creatively)
  • Modeling the writing life through the design of the unit and the way you think, talk, and act with your students.

What does the writing life look like in the classroom?Qui vive

  • Catching thoughts, ideas, questions, solutions, passing fancies down on paper/screen to create a reservoir of potential writing material
  • Reading models to help you think and do your own writing
  • Discussing models to figure out the moves that make the writing work
  • Engaging in idea generating conversations to figure out what you might want to write
  • Writing….a lot!
  • Returning to a piece of writing to elaborate and craft it based on the understanding you’re developing around the moves
  • Sharing works in progress for feedback
  • Putting the writing out into the world for impact
  • Keeping all writing work to be able to access and use at a later date

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWhat are the kinds of writing that should be happening in a unit?

  • Reflective writing: thinking in writing about life and work; post product analysis; question posing; answer seeking
  • Analytic writing: writing about reading; reports; essays; criticism; speeches; technical; informational
  • Creative writing: stories, poems, plays, memoir, blogs, hybrid-texts

What are potential culminations?Canon EOS Digital Camera

  • Performances: plays, public readings, debates, websites, shows, live museums, installations, works of art
  • Publications: books, anthologies, individual pieces, newspaper editorials, letters to officials, websites, blogs
  • Actions: meetings with significant people (physically/virtually), rallies, service

Developing An Understanding Of How And Why We Write

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jack kerouac on the road

One of the important aspects of a writing-based practice is exploring with your students the way writers talk about their craft. Fortunately there are many books and websites out there that feature all different kinds of writers talking about how and why they do what they do. These windows into the idiosyncratic ways that writers get words down on the page open up the possibility for your students to appreciate and strengthen their own idiosyncratic writing processes and to find writers that they want to emulate. We know from research on talent that a key element in skill development in youth is connected to whether or not they develop strong affiliations with people that are particularly good at something that they themselves want to get good at (think Lionel Messi, Serena Williams, and Lebron James). When youth identify with someone, they adopt their moves. So, just like a young soccer player may spend ours out on the pitch practicing the moves of Lionel Messi, a young writer enamored by the writing of Steven King may spend hours imitating the moves that Steven King makes on the page as well as emulate the habits of mind and body that King embodies as a writer.

Below you will find a pretty basic Google presentation of a variety of different writers sharing their practice – the how and why of what they do as writers. There is loads of good advice in here. The way I use it in the classroom is to simply display a slide or two, read it out loud, and then ask my students what they find interesting about it. I also ask the question, “How can we use what this writer says in our own practice as writers” or something to that effect. This kind of craft conversation lays the groundwork for both affirming writing practices that your students have formed and introducing new ways of being as a writer. You will find over time, if you make this a semi-regular ritual in your class, that certain advice given by writers will become part of the language of the class. For example, one of Jack Kerouac’s beliefs and techniques for modern prose is “You are a genius all of the time.”  This mindset when facing the blank page can be tremendously liberating. It would not be unusual for you to hear students referencing this when talking to each other about their writing or to hear me suggest it at the beginning of a writing experiment.  You can reinforce particular writerly advice by putting it up on big sheets of paper around the room, collecting an electronic list that you and your students collaboratively build over time, or including it in handouts associated with writing projects in class.

A beautiful way to extend this classroom practice of exploring how writers talk about their craft is to have your students take pictures of themselves in the act of writing, and then to have them write an accompanying piece that discusses why they keep a notebook or how they see themselves as writers or why they write. You could then hang these portraits along with the pieces around your room or throughout the hallways to celebrate your students as writers. And, in true writing-based practice style, you, of course, should take a picture of yourself as a writer and write a piece as well!

If you choose to do this activity, please send some of them my way, I would love to build a slideshow of images of young writers talking about how and why they write.

 

How To Put The Learning To Work, Part 5: Rememberance of things past

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rearview

Wouldn’t it be great to give your students the chance to revisit who they were as a writer as a way of developing an understanding of who they have become? Wouldn’t it be cool to connect writing work that they have done the year before with the writing work that you have done with them? How can we design an end of year piece that enables students to witness their own growth over time? Here’s an idea for how to make that kind of end of year, meaningful work happen.

This culminating activity idea will take a bit of forethought and planning, requiring that your students have access to writing that they did the year before, but that shouldn’t be too difficult. You could accomplish this requirement by either working with your students previous year’s teacher to make sure that they hold on to a particular piece of writing from that year, or ask your students to find a piece of writing that they did the year before. The second option is a bit risky, I know, but it would be interesting to see if your students held on to writing they did last year of their own volition. The key is that they are able to find a “finished” piece of writing that they did they year before.

Once your students have found a piece of writing that they did in the previous year, have them choose a piece that they wrote this year of which they are particularly proud. Now they have two pieces of writing – one from the year before and one from their year with you. Have them compare the two pieces of writing in a semi-structured thought piece guided by a few critical questions. Introduce the questions with something like:

We have been exploring what it means to be writers together this year – what it looks, sounds, and feels like. Let’s honor that work by taking a little time to recognize how much you have grown and changed as a writer over this year. To do that, read the two pieces that you have chosen – one from last year and one from this year. Then, use the following questions to help guide your reflection. As always, work to fill the page.

  • What surprises you when you compare the two pieces?

  • How would you describe your voice in the two pieces? How has it changed?

  • What are some other ways you have changed as a writer?

  • What does this work make you want to focus on in your writing moving forward?

This culminating activity provides your students with a chance to see for themselves how they have changed as a writer over the course of the year, does the important work of connecting who they are across grades, and encourages them to read their own writing deeply and critically. Do not grade this thought piece. It’s more important than that. Making this piece an evaluation-free zone, opens up the possibility for truthful, genuine reflection which ultimately leads to enduring learning. I would also recommend giving your students a chance to share what they learned with a partner, not necessarily reading their thought piece aloud but instead sharing what they learned in the process, maybe guided by one simple question: What surprised you?

Plan to have your students complete this assignment with enough time for you to respond to it before the end of the year.

As always, I would love to see examples of these. If you choose to do this kind of end of year writing, please share it with me.

Modification: If having your students find a piece of writing from last year seems a bit daunting, have them select a piece of writing from the beginning of the year and the end of the year with you.

Extension: Give these thought pieces to next year’s teachers so that they have a sense of how their incoming students think of themselves as writers.

 

12 Essential Questions for Designing a Writing-Based Curriculum

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IMG_3482

When designing your class to truly position yourself and your students as readers, writers, and thinkers, have these questions in mind.

  1. How am I living a writing life with my students?
  2. What are all of the different kinds of writers that I am being with my students over the course of the year?
  3. How are we writing reflectively, analytically, and creatively?
  4. What skills and concepts are we developing through the writing?
  5. How does the writing work culminate into meaningful, real-world products?
  6. How is coaching and mentoring part of the writing work?
  7. How does the writing work build and grow over time?
  8. How is writing work, reading work?
  9. How is writing a source of play?
  10. How am I connecting my students to other writers?
  11. What resources do we have at our disposal to support the writing-based work?
  12. How are we evaluating writing in ways that gets at the craft of the writing and that reveals and builds off of the strong moves that my students are making in their writing?

How to put the learning to work, part 1: End of Year Ideas for Reflecting on and Reinforcing Learning

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remix (1)

As the school year draws to a close, it is really important to think about how to design a quality ending for both you and your students. What kind of work can you do to end the year in a meaningful and enduring way? The end of the year is a time for taking stock of the work that has been done, thinking critically about it, acknowledging accomplishments, and planning for what needs to happen next. Here are some ideas for how to make all of that happen in the last few weeks of the school year. We’ll start with the Cento.

Idea #1: The Cento

Remember that one of the goals of the end of the year should be to push students back into the work that they have done, remind them of that work, and have them resee it in new ways to reinforce the learning. You want them to think and act in divergent and convergent ways when it comes to the learning that they did earlier in the year as well as remind themselves of what they did and why. This helps the skills and conceptual understanding stick in their brains. The Cento is a creative way to do just that. The Cento is a form of poetry that is completely made up of lines taken from other poems. There is a long and rich history of this kind of work. Here is an interesting example from Simone Muench:simone muench

Wolf Cento

Very quick. Very intense, like a wolf

at a live heart, the sun breaks down.

What is important is to avoid

the time allotted for disavowels

as the livid wound

leaves a trace      leaves an abscess

takes its contraction for those clouds

that dip thunder & vanish

like rose leaves in closed jars.

Age approaches, slowly. But it cannot

crystal bone into thin air.

The small hours open their wounds for me.

This is a woman’s confession:

I keep this wolf because the wilderness gave it to me.

Sources: [Anne Sexton, Dylan Thomas, Larry Levis, Ingeborg Bachmann, Octavio Paz, Henri Michaux, Agnes Nemes Nagy, Joyce Mansour, William Burroughs, Meret Oppenheim, Mary Low, Adrienne Rich, Carl Sandburg]

In order to make this poem, Muench rooted around in the writings of the poets above and pulled lines that she liked and that she thought meshed well together. The Cento is a wonderful experiment for close reading and writing, strategic thinking, and play. And that is exactly what you want your students to do with the work that they have done over the course of a quarter, a semester, or even a year.

To set it up, share with your students the idea of a Cento poem. Show them Muenche’s example or create one on your own. Talk a bit together about what you notice, how it works, etc. Then, challenge them to go back into their own work from the quarter, the semester, or the year, and create their own Cento poem out of found lines from their work. You can decide the level of constraint that you want to put on this project. You could limit the work to the creative writing that they have done, or maybe you want them to pull lines from the essays they have written, or maybe you want to open it up to everything (creative writing, essays, notes, etc.). You might want to figure out the constraint with the students. Ask them, “What work should we dig back into to make our own Cento poems? And remember, a Cento poem does not need to be created out of other poems. It can be created out of all kinds of found texts. In fact, the more diverse the texts, the better!

Give them several days to do it. It would be a really good thing to actually do in the classroom. I like the image of students with their work sprawled out on their desks or on the floor, digging through it, finding lines that they like. As they do this process, make sure to tell them to keep track of where the lines are coming from so that they can reference them at the end of the poem – footnoting their own work if you will. This requirement sets up a really nice opportunity to talk about how to cite one’s own work.

I would encourage your students to make the poem a half a page to a page long, depending on the amount of work and the developmental level of the students. You want it to be long enough so that the students have enough space to really play around with the material, but not too long so that it becomes tedious rather than challenging. Urge them to think about the following:

  • Line length – make sure to vary it so the poem looks interesting on the page
  • How can you link the lines together so that the poem reads like a unified idea coming from many different sources?
  • How many different sources can you use?
  • Variety of material – try to pick a phrase from one source, a single word from another, etc.
  • Have fun with mashing found phrases and words together to create new meanings.

When they have completed the poem, make sure that they have a chance to share it either with the whole class, in small groups, or in pairs. You might want to collect them and publish them in an anthology. This could start a ritual in your class where your students always publish their work Centos at the end of the year. Over time, you could have a shelf filled with Cento anthologies that your present students can look through. Another idea is to hang them up around the room, gallery style, and have your students and invited guests walk around and read them.

One final reason why I love this idea is because it reinforces for students the idea that the work that we do is malleable and organic. It can transform into other things, other forms. Turning their work into a Cento poem encourages them to always see their work as useful, interesting, and filled with the possibility of becoming something else.

Turning the Olympic Creed into Poetry: Hacking the Olympic Creed, part 2

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norway

If you haven’t had a chance to see my post describing the cut-up experiment we did, click here and check it out. This post highlights some of the great poems that PreK-fourth graders did.

William Burroughs once said, “Cut up Rimbaud, and you are in Rimbaud’s place.” We embarked on this poetry experiment to put us more in the place of the Olympics broadly, and the Olympic Creed specifically. In the process of cutting up the creed and playing around with it word for word, with the goal of making a poem out of those words, really powerful learning happened. Students PreK through fourth grade were  carefully studying words, exploring the different meanings of words, discovering different ways to use words, creating sophisticated poems where the meaning was below the surface, and using the shape of the piece to create that meaning. 

This poem, Norway, is from a kindergarten class. They wrote the poem together. The teacher teacher started the process in true Tristan Tzara style by putting all of the cut up words in a paper bag. The students picked a word our of the bag, laid the word down on a big board on the floor, and then passed the bag to the next students who did the same. The students used the dimensions of the board to determine line-length. Then, once all of the words had been picked, the teacher made a brilliant move by creating a set of constraints for the next phase of the experiment: the students could either move a word, remove a word, or leave the poem the way it was. The game continued with each student scooting out of the circle and deciding what her next move was. They would read the poem aloud to get it in their head before the move and then would read it again when the move had been made. Gasps, oohs and ahs, and laughs filled the room. Some students would express their disagreement with a move. Other moves were met with universal approval. They were all being close readers, thinking creatively and strategically about the next move that they wanted to make. This process went around the circle three times. And is it progressed, more and more words were removed. I was reminded of Niedecker’s “no break from this condensery.” The students paired the poem down to its essentials. What made it even more interesting and funny was the addition of the title, Norway. One could read the poem as a commentary on the country as well as the Olympics. Once the process went around the circle three times, the poem was complete, the group read it aloud again to hear the music in it, and then decided to hang it on their classroom door.

norway The other kindergarten class did it slightly differently, more of a prose approach, keeping all of the words in and shuffling them around on the magnetic white board. After a while, they were stumped, they had a few words that just didn’t seem to work with the poem that they were creating.

cut-up kindergarten

They tried and tried, but adding the words just didn’t sound right. Should they just leave them out? The group worked to answer that question and in the process came up with the idea of using those words as the title for the piece. Hence, the title of the piece:  To Take In The Olympic Games. Below, you’ll see one of the kindergarten students pointing to the words as the group as a whole reads it aloud.

Other students took a narrative approach as well, some to greater affect than others. The trick with the narrative turn is that it encourages the reader to read it like any narrative, and the choppy, broken, style of the text can be a bit off-putting. At other times, this move can be used to create some rather interesting pieces.

 

cut up third grade 1It’s important to remember that this writing game is a mix of deep literacy learning and artistic creation. Sometimes the works of art turn out more artful than others, but at all times, this experiment plunges the students into language at the word, phrase, and sentence level, encouraging them to think about how they make meaning on the page.

Here is an example of a version that I think works pretty well. It was created by a group of three second graders who truly embodied the spirit of making a poem out of the cut-up words.

cut-up second grade (2)

 

Not only is it interesting to look at since the young poets chose to roughly use three word lines, but if you read it aloud, you can really hear the possibility in the piece. The rhythms come out in the wonderful use of the repetitions. When read aloud, it sounds as if the speaker is thinking out loud, trying to articulate something profound about life. At times, it captures the cadence of real life. The ending in particular feels a bit like an idiom.