Tag Archives: literacy

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.

 

12 Essential Questions for Designing a Writing-Based Curriculum

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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 4: Transform The Classroom Into A Gallery

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art gallery

Over the past week, I’ve been sharing some ideas for how to end the year meaningfully with your students. The goal has been to design interesting ways for students to resee and remember the learning that happened. The first post suggested having students remix their work to see it again in an interesting way. The second post focused on creating a self-assessment that pushes students back into the work from the year. The third post offered up several different kinds of end of year letters that teachers and students could write to look back on the work as well as look forward to next year. In this post, I explore the idea of transforming the classroom into a gallery of student work as a way to culminate the year.

Idea #4 – Create a Gallery of Your Students’ Work

When I say gallery, I’m thinking of an art gallery, a place where fine art is hung, and in this case, the fine art will be student work from the year. Imagine redesigning your classroom to resemble an art space, clearing all of the walls, making tables available for display. Ask your students, “If you had one piece of work that you did this year that you would like to share with others, what would it be?” This question will prime the pump for the piece of work that the students will eventually hang in the gallery. This gallery should be a collaborative effort. Everyone should get involved in how the gallery will look. What pieces would look good next to one another? Who needs a table or a particular place in the room? One of the things that makes this particular kind of culmination meaningful is having students take ownership of it. They should clear the walls, reorder the space, figure out a way to know what works are going where, etc. This will take a bit of time, but it will be well worth it. Plus, the whole time they are planning for the gallery, they are reminding themselves of the work that they have done over the year.

Once the students have selected what pieces they are going to display, to deepen the learning of the gallery, have your students write the equivalent of an artist statement that will accompany the work. To begin, share a model of an artist statement, maybe something like this:

artists statement

 

There are others online that are more appropriate for elementary and middle school students. To prepare the students to be able to write their own, talk about the moves the artist makes in the statement and how the students could use those moves in their own statements about the work they are displaying. Basically, a good artist’s statement does the following:

  • Shares a bit about where the piece came from. What inspired it?
  • Talks about how the piece was made. How did the person create it?
  • Discusses what the piece means to the creator and how it has affected his/her practice.

Depending on the time you have, you could have your students work on a draft of this statement and workshop it in class to really polish it up. Again, the dedication of time to this is well worth it because students will be reseeing and discussing the work that they did over the year, reinforcing the learning that happened. The day of the gallery, have your students hang their pieces of work with the statements right next to them, and a blank sheet of paper next to that for viewers to respond to the different pieces.

When the gallery is hung, prepare your students by first talking a bit about what it is like to walk through an art gallery. How do people act? I tend to highlight the fact that it is not entirely quiet in a gallery. People talk with one another in hushed tones as a way of deepening the appreciation of the work. Encourage your students to have those kinds of conversations. I would also stress that the goal is not to make it around to all of the work. That would be impossible. It is much better for students to spend the time really looking at a few pieces than trying to look at all of them superficially. When it comes to the comment page, coach your students to leave a comment about something that surprises or interests them about the piece. Point out something specific in the piece that stands out to them. Most importantly, do not repeat something that has already been written, and do not leave a comment like “this is really good.” Depending on where your students are with this kind of commenting work, you may want to develop a few examples of strong comments with them and put them up on the board for reference.

Then, let them go to town! Walk around with them. Get involved in real work conversations. Enjoy reliving all of the great work that happened throughout the year. Oh, and by all means invite others! Invite last year’s teachers, next year’s teacher, administrators, parents, friends. The more the merrier! The added benefit of the gallery is welcoming others into the fantastic work that you are doing with your students.

The hope is that you have time after the gallery walk to be able to get back together as a group and debrief a bit. Ideally, you would get into a circle with your students and seed the conversation with a few questions: What does this gallery/work make you think about? What stuck out to you? What do you want to make sure I, as the teacher, don’t leave out next year? If you were to give some advice to my students next year, what would you say? You get the idea.

Take pictures of this event. It will be worth it. And send a few to me if you get the chance. I would love to see them.

How To Put The Learning To Work Part 3: Writing An End Of Year Letter

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letters2

In the first end of year post, I wrote about having students remix their work in order to resee it and remember it. In the second post, I explored the idea of designing an end of year reflection that plunges students back into their work from the year and encourages them to critically think about it with an eye towards what happens next. In this post, we’ll play around with the idea of letter writing as a way to culminate the year.

Idea #3: Writing An End of Year Letter

There are a few different kinds of letters that I suggest would be useful in bringing the year to a meaningful close: teacher to student, student to self, and student to next year’s teacher.

Letters are great because they are personal. They are different from emails. They stretch time. They open spaces to be honest. The physicality of them makes the receiver want to keep them. Letters are like gifts. You look forward to opening them. Often we’ll read them, or part of them, more than once. Letters also push the writer to think carefully before writing because the audience is immediate. For all of these reasons, letter writing is a great way to end the year.

Write a letter to your students

The kind of end of year letter that probably comes first to mind is the letter from the teacher to the student. This may seem daunting at first, particularly if you have 150 students! Let’s look first at the kind of letter you can write if your student load is more manageable. If you have a class of 26, you can write individual letters to the students. They don’t have to be long, but make sure that you are specific to each student. Highlight a specific aspect of their work that you think was particularly strong. Reveal a way that they were in the class that contributed to the success of the whole. These letters are a time for celebrating great work and for pushing students to keep going in that direction. I would end the letter with exactly that kind of push. Help each of your students see what could possibly happen next for them. Finally, it would be nice to leave them with a quote that you think is particularly relevant. Maybe the whole class gets the quote in their letters. Maybe it is a quote that has become part of the ritual of the class over the course of the year so that when the students read the quote in their letters, it reminds them of the class.

If you have 150 students or more, I would still write a letter, but it would be one letter to the class as a whole. I would still make it personal by pointing about specific things that the students did that made the class meaningful, interesting, and fun. I would include a quote, and I would address the letter individually to each student, placing it in an envelop for each student. Envelops are key. The students have to be able to open the letters up. That is part of the specialness of it.

Have your students write letters to their future selves

This is a great idea. Has a bit of the time capsule element to it. In this case, have your students write letters to their future selves. Let them know that you will hold on to these letters until they graduate from high school. Make sure they include their address on the envelop that you provide for them just in case they leave the school. I know that this does not guarantee that the letter will make it to them, but it is a step in the right direction.

In terms of the letter, coach them on what they could write by asking a few questions:

  • What would you want to say to your future self?
  • What about this year would you want to remember?
  • What are things that are important to you now?
  • What are you proud of?
  • What do you wish could change?

The foil of the future self really helps free the writer to say things they normally wouldn’t say. Once they have written the letters, have them seal them in an envelope, addressed to themselves, and hold on to them. Hand them back the day of graduation or shortly before or after and see what happens.

Have your students write a letter to next year’s teacher

What a wonderful opportunity – the chance to share a bit of oneself with next year’s teacher. For this form of letter, I would introduce it to the students by asking the question, “If you had a chance to write a letter to your teacher next year, what would you want to say?” This question would hopefully open up a pretty interesting conversation that would then prime the pump for the letters themselves. Tell the students that this is a chance to share a bit about yourself, about the work that you have done, and about what you would love to be able to do next year. Questions that they might want to address in the letter:

  • What work have you done that you are particularly proud of? Why?
  • What are some questions you have about next year?
  • What do you really hope you get to do next year in class?
  • What is something that you would like to get better at?

For younger students, this kind of letter is a great way to work on learning the form of a proper letter. For all students, this kind of letter provides an unusual opportunity to make initial contact with next year’s teacher in a meaningful way. All letters should be placed in envelopes and addressed to the teacher(s). Who knows, maybe the teacher(s) that receive(s) it will either respond back over the summer and/or in the way they design the following year.

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.

 

 

 

Key Teaching Moves to Make in Differentiating an English Classroom

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Johanna class

Firstly, all classes need to be differentiated. To think that 25 to 30 students in a room are all going to learn the same way, or be in the same place in terms of understanding, doing your bidding, feels kind of Russia 1919 or Germany 1939. Think of differentiation as tapping into the skills and conceptual knowledge that students do have and building from there, not in an effort to get everyone to the same place, but to challenge students to evolve as readers, writers, and thinkers. And remember, we get better at what we do through consistent, mindful practice.

It all starts with relationships

  • Get to know your students – find them interesting and compelling people

  • Let them get to know you as the interesting and compelling person that you are

  • Design ways for the students to get to know each other as people, NOT just as students

  • Have them get together in groups just to get to know each other, not to do school work

  • Idea: Start the year with a questionnaire that gives you a glimpse into their lives. Ask questions that can be ways into interesting work that you can do together. Share back with the students what you learned from the questionnaire. Ask them questions to get to know them even better. Design work around what you learn about them.

  • Great book to read on this: The Social Animal: Hidden Sources Of Love, Character, and Achievement by David Brooks

What about reading with students with various levels of skill?

  • Give students choice! – Not all students need to read the same book

  • Idea: Scale the reading so that you can get to where you want to go

    • Start with students bringing in their own books to read – have them connect the books to a big idea you are exploring in a unit

    • Move to small (self-selected?) reading groups around a selection of books

    • Move to one book read by the whole class

  • The “level” of book does not necessarily determine how sophisticated you can get with it

  • Great book to read on this: Readicide: How Schools Are Killing Reading And What You Can Do About It by Kelly Gallagher.

How can I write with students with various levels of skill?

  • Choose models that are accessible on multiple levels

  • Idea: Start the year with flash fiction or poetry

  • Establish authentic writing opportunities

  • Design project-based work where the outcome can be achieved in multiple ways

  • Idea: Write with your students

  • Let the writing tell you what skills need to be developed – find the pattern and push students back into the writing to work on it

  • The more we write, the better we get at it

  • Have students write reflectively, creatively, and analytically

  • Coach practice

  • Great books to read on this: Inside Out: Strategies For Teaching Reading by Dan Kirby, Writing Without Teachers by Peter Elbow

 How do we think in a differentiated classroom?

  • Create scaffolds to support students figuring out how to take on a challenge

  • Idea: Develop strategies for approaching the work – have them prominently displayed in the classroom

  • Let the answers to these questions guide the work:

    • When do we know that we have done something well?

    • What is the first step in taking on a challenge?

    • Who can you go to to get feedback/help?

    • What will make this project interesting for you?

    • How do you know when you are learning?

    • How do you know when you are working hard?

    • Why would we want to work hard?

  • Let students flounder….for a bit

  • Look for patterns that guide you in terms of when to step in

  • See if they are able to work their way out of it

  • If not, establish scaffolds through talking with them. Push them to figure out for themselves what they need to do to be successful

  • Idea: Build in a reflective writing component to each project where the students articulate what the strengths are in the project and where the areas for growth exist. Have them discuss how they are going to get stronger in the areas for growth

  • Idea: The Reading Specialists and Special Education Teachers are your friends, your allies, your partners – work with them. Tap their knowledge. Have them come into your class. Plan with them.

  • Great books to read on this: Mindset by Carol Dweck, Brain Rules by John Medina, The Talent Code by Daniel Coyne, Understanding by Design by Grant Wiggins

 What about grading/evaluation?

  • Have high expectations and make sure to coach practice

  • Have an evaluation system that enables you to see growth over time

  • Grading of products should be based on quality of the work, not on tasks accomplished

  • Grading of process should be on how well students took advantage of the project

  • Not everyone needs to earn an A to be validated. Be honest in terms of where they are and where they need to go

  • Allow them to make mistakes

  • Evaluate process and product

  • Great book to read on this: Authentic Assessments for the English Classroom by Joann Dolgin

 Overall, what does work look like?

  • Create authentic challenges that enable students to enter where they are – authenticity enables students to use the real-world skill and intelligence that they have and bring it to bear in the classroom to build the academic skills you want

  • Determine the edge of competency for your students and hold them there

  • Model work and learning yourself

  • Diversify groups – homogeneity kills idea generation and doesn’t encourage people to work at the top of their intelligences

  • Make sure that there is a metacognitive approach to the work

  • Design conversations and reflective work around the how and why of what you are doing

  • Idea: incorporate some form of an audit into the learning. See here for an example. 

  • Great books to read on this: I won’t Learn From You: And Other thoughts On Maladjustment by Herbert Kohl, Improv Wisdom by Patricia Madson, Impro by Keith Johnstone, Teaching to Transgress by bell hooks

We take small steps in developing skill and conceptual knowledge. It happens over time.

Hack the Olympic Creed with your Students: The Art of the Cut-Up

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ski jump

If you are like me, you’re always looking for a way to bring the here and now into your class in as creative and interesting a way as possible. So what to do with the Olympics? Here’s a great writing (and reading) experiment that will have your students looking at the Olympics and the meaning behind the Olympics in a whole new way.

Take the Olympic Creed:

The most important thing in the Olympic Games is not to win but to take part, just as the most important thing in life is not the triumph, but the struggle. The essential thing is not to have conquered, but to have fought well.

Paste it into a document and blow the creed up to 24 or so point so that you can really see it. Something like this:

The most important thing in the Olympic Games is not to win but to take part, just as the most important thing in life is not the triumph, but the struggle. The essential thing is not to have conquered, but to have fought well.

Make enough copies of the creed so that a group of four or so in your class can use it: e.g. 24 in a class, make six copies. Cut out each word so that it is independent. Put the individually cut up words for one creed into each envelop.

The next day, get your students into the requisite number of groups, and hand out the envelope to each group. Tell them that the challenge is to use these words, and only these words, to create a poem. The only other constraint is that they must use all of the words. The way that they construct the poem is completely up to them. They may add punctuation.

IMPORTANT: when describing the challenge, do not show them the original Olympic Creed! If you do that, it will suck all of the creativity out of this experiment. Another important point: the goal is not for the groups to try to recreate the creed in the exact original wording. Instead, the students are using the words like material, like paint, to create a whole new work of art, a la Gertrude Stein.Gertrude Stein-996e11046cc60620a5e89c3a4491d5222249be35-s6-c30

Depending on the age of your students, give them 15, maybe twenty minutes, to mess around with the words and to create the poem. When I tried this, I took a good half an hour, so this could be a good use of an entire period. The amount of time that you dedicate to it will determine the kinds of poems that are produced. Less time: probably more abstract. More time: probably more narrative in form. Any time spent is well worth it. This experiment encourages your students to think and act strategically, carefully reading the words and critically thinking about the meaning that they want to create by connecting the words to each other. They will also come to appreciate how many different ways they can use the same word, particularly prepositions, articles, and conjunctions. Not only that, they are also honing their skills of interpretation and persuasiveness by working as a group to make their poem happen. While your students are creating their poems out of the found material, sit back and enjoy listening to and watching the divergent and convergent thinking that goes on.

Once the students feel that they have their poems constructed, have them write them down on pieces of paper, exactly the way that they look on the tables. While they are doing that, you might want to go around and take pictures of each poem in its cut-up form. There is something aesthetically interesting in the way in which the cut out words look pieced together on the table. Give them a chance to read it one more time out loud to their group so that they have it in their head.

Then, reveal the original creed on your smart board or written on the blackboard or handed out on a different sheet of paper to each group. Tell them that this is the original Olympic Creed. You can even use the moment to share the story with them about how the Olympic Creed came to be:

coubertinPierre de Coubertin got the idea for the phrase adopted as the Olympic Creed from a speech given by Bishop Ethelbert Talbot at a service for Olympic champions during the 1908 Olympic Games.

Not much of a story, but it is always good to know where something comes from.

The comparing of the original Olympic Creed and the cut-up versions that the students do should create a very interesting conversation. What is the difference between the original and the new versions? What do we notice about the way the original creed is written? What new meanings are created in the new versions? What do we see differently in the original creed because of our cut-ups? Which do we like better? You get the idea.

For the coup de grace, Have the students type up their cut-up versions with a title and the names of all who contributed to it, and then create a gallery in your room or in the hallway outside of your room where you display the original Olympic Creed and then all of your students’ versions to invite folks to see the Olympics in a new and refreshing way.

This writing and reading experiment is beautifully simple and wonderfully deep in terms of the literacy skill development and learning that happens. As noted above, through this writing game, similar to Burrough’s cut-ups or Tristan Tzara’s Tzara’s Hat, your students will scrutinize individual words, interpret word pairings for below surface meanings, read what they put together many many times, work to convince others that their construction is the best, surprise themselves with what happens when seemingly disparate words are connected, and be ruthless in their editing. When they see the original creed, they will then be encouraged to do some pretty sophisticated comparing and contrasting. They will revisit their own piece and evaluate it for its effectiveness, its uniqueness. They will also come to appreciate how words and phrases can have multiple meanings, depending on how you use them.burroughs&Typewriter(1)

If you give this a shot with your students, please leave a comment and let me know how it goes. Better yet, leave me a comment and share one of the poems created. I’d love to see it. Here is a version I came up with:

But well-conquered Olympic struggle?

Not important

But is the most essential triumph fought to win?

Not important

Take the life games

as not just to have

the most in the thing

But have

the thing in part is

the is

Writing Fairy Tales with Third Graders

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Rapunzel

Fairy Tales. What a cool form to explore with third graders. Magic. Good vs. Evil. A terrible problem that works out in the end. Right up the alley of 8 and 9 year olds who are more than willing to live in secondary worlds. I recently had the chance to open up the idea of writing fairy tales with a third grade class. The class was in the midst of writing various forms of short stories involving a classroom character that they had developed by the name of Kaitlyn Rose Anderson. The teacher wanted to challenge the students to write their own fairy tales involving Kaitlyn Rose, thus transferring what they know about the character into a completely new context – lots of potential for convergent and divergent thinking and writing to happen.

We started our exploration by doing a quick writing warm up: Make a list of names you’d like to be called. Here’s mine:

Frankenleif

The Stitler

Goose

Das Leifster

Foam

Nutty Nut

Longenfreugen

Nipsy

Stinky the Nudge

Partical Man

Pentagon

Limpy

Salty

Nimble Thimble

Of course, some students made a list of a names they don’t want to be called. Always good to break the rules in meaningful ways! Here are a few that made me pause:

Stupid

Unpopular

If that isn’t a window into where the third graders are right now, I don’t know what is!

After we wiggled our elbows for a good three or so minutes, I asked the students to pick their top three names off the list and to share those names with the person next to them. Laughter ensued along with many students saying how much they liked a name that was offered. We were definitely headed in the right direction. Our minds and hands were warmed up, and we had a good laugh. Once students shared their top three names, I mentioned how writers will often make lists of potential names for characters in their stories. I hinted that they may want to use some of these names in the story that we were going to write.

From there, we moved into exploring fairy tales specifically. I asked them what a fairy tale was, and with very little hesitation, hands raised. Through this conversation, we came up with a pretty sophisticated list of fairy tale characteristics.Characteristics of a Fairy Tale

I then asked them to come on over to the rug so that I could read them a fairy tale. They all scrambled over and we strategized together how to sit so that everyone could see – a classic challenge for young kids. Once folks were settled, I asked them to listen closely to the story to see if our list of characteristics stood up and to see if we needed to add anything to the list. I picked up Rumpelstiltskin by Paul O. Zelinsky, showed the front cover, read the acknowledgement, and began the story. The students loved it. I got the sense that several of them had never heard Rumpelstiltskin before. They pleaded with their classmates to not give up what happened next. They identified the king as a bad man but then wondered if the beautiful daughter would be able to change him over time. The room was mixed in terms of whether the daughter should marry the king. The students thought Rumpelstiltskin was pretty scary.

RumpelstiltskinWith a turn of the final page and a show of the back of the book, I then asked them if there was anything that we wanted to add to our list of fairy tale characteristics. The students identified two: The challenge or problem grows, and there is repetition. One student pointed out, “And the repetition can be things that characters say or do.” Good point. I added those two important qualities to the list.

I could tell that the students were itching to get started. Before we could jump to writing our own fairy tales, though, we needed to spend just a few minutes talking about this great classroom character that they had created. I wanted to make sure that she was in the front of their minds as they took on the challenge of writing their own fairy tale. We put the classroom character up on the smartboard, and I asked them to tell me a bit about Kaitlyn Rose Anderson. The students shared particular character traits that stuck out. They talked a bit about the stories that they had already written. I asked them to tell me the names of some of the other characters in those stories. The students mentioned Kaitlyn’s sister. I suggested that they may want to include these characters in the fairy tale. I also suggested that they may want to take a fairy tale that they know and write Kaitlyn into it. I posed the question: What would happen if Kaitlyn was in Rumpelstiltskin? There was a buzz. One student asked, “Can I write the next chapter of Rumpelstiltskin?” I nodded. Another student clapped her hands together, “Can I mash a bunch of fairy tales together and see what happens?” The class loved that idea. And with that, I sent them back to their writing tables.Kaitlyn Rose Anderson

Just before we got started, the teacher piped up, “What other fairy tales do we know?” The group came up with a long list. Fairy tales were definitely in their minds. They were ready to write.

I posed the challenge to them: write a fairy tale that involves Kaitlyn Rose Anderson as a main character in the story. Before I sent them off to their writing spaces, I mentioned that one of the great things about fairy tales is that they kind of supply the opening line for us, so we don’t need to spend a lot of time trying to figure out how to start. I encouraged them to literally take the first line out of Rumpelstiltskin, Cinderella, or Kate and the Beanstalk, and see where the writing takes them.

Once there was a poor X who had a beautiful X.

Long ago, a girl named X lived with her mother in a X.

In a time not too long ago and in a land much like our own, there lived a X and a X.

Students were already scribbling away, so I stepped aside, got out my own pad of paper, and let them write.

At first there was a bit of chatter. Students were looking at each other’s writing, pointing out how to spell a word, asking a question, flipping through the pages of Rumpelstiltskin for inspiration or just to figure out how to spell the name. After a bit, I coached, “Let’s put all of that talking energy down on the paper. Work to answer your questions through the writing. See if you can fill a page.” The room quieted down, and you could practically feel the focus in the room.

About ten minutes in, I broke the silence, and suggested some ways to keep going: “If you are finding yourself thinking a lot instead of writing, take a look over here at our list of fairy tale characteristics.” I pointed to the list.  “They might give you some ideas on where to go next. For example, is your problem growing? Where is the repetition? Do you have a bad character? Another thing to do is to read what you have written. Just by doing that, you will probably find what needs to be written next.” I looked out over the group, “I also like how some of you are going back to your first story and reminding yourself of what you wrote. I can see how that might trigger an idea or two as well.” I clapped my hands, “Alright, back to it. Let’s see if we can write for another five minutes or so.” The students put their heads back down and went back to writing.

Writing Fairy TalesBefore we knew it, the time was up. I needed to leave, and the kids needed to go to lunch. On the way out, I touched base with the teacher, and the plan is to give them a chance to read what they had written so that they can immediately hear the possibility in the writing. Looking beyond that, the students will get a chance to choose one of three drafts of different stories involving Kaitlyn Rose Anderson that they will get the chance to revise, edit, and publish. Not a bad use of an hour of class time if you ask me!