Mini-lesson idea: use this compelling lead sentence example as a mentor text

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A lead shouldn’t ask a question, but raise one instead

I discovered this awesome lead sentence in the July 8-21 issue of New York magazine. The article, “The Battle of Grace Church,” is written by Jessica Pressler, who opens her story with this doozy of a lead sentence.

This sentence shows precisely how engaging a lead can be when it begs a question from the reader.

Here’s the sentence: “When you buy a home in Brooklyn Heights, you aren’t just purchasing real estate.” This sentence begs the reader to ask…

If I’m not purchasing real estate, then exactly what am I buying?

Notice the writer did not ask a question; rather, she raised one… within the mind of the reader, that is. That’s an important distinction.

The “Ask a question” lead is a tired trope. After all, people are reading to get answers, not questions.

However, a lead that raises a question is a different matter entirely. And Pressler’s writing reveals this technique.

But how exactly does one raise a question?

First, I would suggest having students emulate the structure of Pressler’s sentence. Have students write a complex sentence that starts with  When you…. Of course, you may need to show them how to finish that dependent clause, and then follow it with a comma and an independent clause.

Showing this sentence to my students, discussing what we notice about it, and then imitating it will make for a quick and effective mini-lesson prior to writer’s studio time in my high school English classes.

The key take-away for my students:

Don’t ask a question in your lead… raise one instead.


Helping students find the best way to open an essay–whether it’s an argument, an informative, or even a narrative–is hard.  When I see something in print out there in the real world that may help provide you a mentor text for a mini-lesson, I’ll be posting it.

 

 

Headline poetry for high school students

Abi B., junior

Watch older students create stunning expressions from everyday language

This year, for the first three days of school, I again indulged in headline poetry with my students. It was a new activity for my new high school students and I was glad for that. (I’ve introduced headline poetry to middle schoolers in the past. Click here and here for two posts on that.)

To start the activity,  I simply held up and read aloud a few laminated poems created by former students. After reading, I asked, “What did you notice?” Students tended to mention the unusual word choices, strange phrasing, unexpected metaphors, and other observations. They also mentioned the poems’ originality and freshness.

I also read this excerpt of a poem written by award-winning poet Naomi Shihab Nye. The poem is called “A Valentine for Ernest Mann.” Here’s the excerpt:

So I’ll tell a secret instead:
poems hide. In the bottoms of our shoes,
they are sleeping. They are the shadows
drifting across our ceilings the moment 
before we wake up. What we have to do
is live in a way that lets us find them.

-excerpt from “Valentine for Ernest Mann” by Naomi Shihab Nye (1952)

Seth C., junior

I read this poem excerpt to illustrate how headline poetry (and found poetry in general) is built on the notion that poetry is hiding all around us in the language we find in our everyday lives. Signs, posters, bumper stickers, magazines, mail… these provide the words that can create powerful poems.

Headline poetry means kids are moving around, cutting, gluing, talking, and sometimes pausing to read an article or two here and there.
Ella  D., junior

Many students visited while they cut out words, and that was fine with me. On the other hand, many other students worked quietly… especially as they entered the arranging phase where they sorted words, and then positioned twenty to thirty of them into intriguing lines and phrases to create stunning experiments in language.

Since I asked students to make sure their poem was “about” something (it’s not just random words), many students spent a lot of time thinking about the words they had selected. I asked them to take it slow, and allow a theme to surface as they arranged and rearranged their cut-outs into a poem of at least ten lines.

Angelina C., junior

And then some students were impatient or just didn’t seem to think anything meaningful could come from this form of writing. However, as they continued to work, they usually discovered a theme emerging.

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Here are some signs I post around the room when we work on headline poetry.

Overall, it was again the perfect activity for reluctant writers and enthusiastic ones alike to kick off the year.

Here are the steps we took to create our back-to-school headline poems:

  1. Get an envelope and put your name on it. Keep your cuttings in it.
  2. Select some newspapers and magazines, leaf through them, and cut out interesting words and phrases from headlines. It is best to collect somewhere between 75 and 100 words and phrases from different sections of newspapers and magazines to gather a range of vocabulary, as well as selections of nouns, verbs, adjectives, and adverbs.
  3. Scatter the words and phrases on a table and look for themes, synonyms, rhyming words, etc.
  4. Arrange and rearrange the words and phrases on a page and read them aloud to check for fluency and impression. Because there is a visual quality to headline poetry, the placement of text can contribute to the presentation of ideas and meaning.
  5. Create a poem that consists of at least ten lines.
  6. Yes, you may create one word with individual letters, but remember: this is a form of found poetry.
  7. When the desired order and placement of text is achieved, glue the words onto a blank sheet of construction paper.
  8. Reflect. When you are totally finished with your poem, write a paragraph to explain the impetus for your poem. What ideas did you decide you were trying to convey with it? How did you choose this theme/subject matter/topic? Did you change your mind as you worked? What words or phrases especially helped you shape the meaning of your poem?
I asked students to choose their favorite poem in each class by putting  a check mark on a sticky note attached to the poems. The three poems with the most votes were posted in the hallway.

Try these bonus tips to get even more out of this activity:

  • Use as many different types of magazines as possible. Collect a wide selection that might include Vogue, Motor Trend, Better Homes and Gardens, Wired, Forbes, People, Elle, Architectural Digest, and Gourmet. A variety of subject matter will yield a better mix of words.
  • Provide 11- x 17-inch paper. Bigger paper allows more freedom with layout.
  • You will likely have a student ask if a line can be made with one word. Take the opportunity to talk with your student about why he thinks the word will be more powerful on its own. If allowing that word to stand on its own adds to the meaning of the poem, fine. If he’s just trying to race through the project, then nope.
Sam F., junior

Two more tips:

  • Encourage students to play with the layout. The examples here show poems that occupied the entire sheet of paper. I did have one student who arrange dtheir poem in one corner of the page. I found that one particularly striking. You can see it on the far right in the picture below.
  • Invariably, a student will ask if they can create a word out of individual letters. I allow kids to do that once; however, it does defeat the spontaneous nature of headline poetry, which is a form of found poetry. It’s not really found poetry if you can make any word you want, right?!

If you haven’t tried headline poetry yet, make a note on your calendar to try it soon. It’s a non-intimidating way to jump into writing, and for many students, that’s a definite necessity. Use this handout from NCTE for more guidance and resources.


Thanks for reading again this week! I meant to post this sooner (as in right after we created these poems), but the year took off and I’m only getting to it now. Leave a note or comment about your experiences with headline poetry. What could I be doing differently or better? Got any other ideas? Click like if you enjoyed this post and follow my blog to stay in touch. 

The stories the artifacts tell: my new 9/11 lesson plan

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Artifacts connect the 9/11 attacks to the loss of innocent human life

I believe in teaching students about the September 11th terrorist attacks. It seems that up until a few years ago, students had an intrinsic desire to understand it better. Still, it seems that their desire to learn about 9/11 is waning, especially among high school students.

My current juniors and seniors were born in 2001 and 2002, and they tell me they have “been taught” about Sept. 11 every year for as long as they can remember. As a result, they feel they know all they need to know about this world-changing event.

But they don’t.

Yes, they’ve watched movies and documentaries galore that show (yet again) the airplanes crashing into the towers. They’ve seen photographs of Ground Zero. They know about Afghanistan.

But they may not know about…

  • a pair of shoes found in the rubble
  • a charred jewelry box found buildings away in a bank vault
  • a crumpled wallet

Simply put, students haven’t heard the stories the artifacts tell.

In 2018, I discovered a few sources for photographs of artifacts from Ground Zero. One of these websites was the 9/11 Memorial & Museum. Click here to go to the museum’s Memo Blog where you can search for artifacts.

By the way, here’s an idea that sparked as I searched online to write this post. Another effective way to connect the tragedy to the loss of life might be to focus on the missing persons signs that family members and friends posted around the city in the days immediately following the attack. Here’s a source for missing persons posters from New York magazine.

Other sources included commemorative articles about the attacks in New York magazine and The New York Times. Last year, when I discovered these artifacts, I planned on using them in a new activity; however, that never transpired. I kept the artifacts photos, however, since I knew I could use them in the future whenever I figured out what I wanted to do with them in a learning unit. Besides that, color printing is so costly that I didn’t want to waste them.

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My first-hour juniors work in the lab on their poems and one-word summaries.

This year, I finally was able to incorporate the photos into a four-day unit on 9/11 that I hoped would teach students about the tragedy beyond dates, place names, and facts. I hoped to show students a more personal side of the tragedy. That is, after all, what makes the attacks so devastating. Beyond the ferocity and horror of the crashing towers —and the Pentagon and Flight 93— was the shocking comprehension of the violent loss of nearly 3,000 innocent lives.

I feel that young people fail to grasp the human factor in the attacks… through no fault of their own.

So with that in mind, I created this lesson plan and activity that’s intended to help students see 9/11 in a new light.

Here’s a rundown of my new 9/11 Artifact Project.

First, before I ever even said the word “artifact,”  I assigned a 9/11-themed Article of the Week assignment. AOWs are weekly assignments that my students receive every Tuesday; they’re due the following Tuesday. These assignments are considered homework and are fashioned after AOW assignments created by Kelly Gallagher.

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This 9/11 AOW featured a 2016 USA Today article entitled “Fifteen Years Later: The Questions that Remain in Our Minds…15 Years After 9/11.” Even though this article is three years old, it’s the best one I’ve found for containing a wealth of information in a concise length. In the assignment, students read the article and then annotate it with their own  thoughts and observations. Students then respond to the writing prompt that asks them to reflect on and explain what they learned from reading the article.

Based on our discussions after reading aloud the article, it seemed that most, if not all,  students learned from this AOW. Most students had no previous knowledge about the 1993 truck bombing attempt. Some were unaware of Flight 93, which was eventually crashed by the passengers into a field in Shanksville, Pa. None had heard of the bombings and attacks that preceded the World Trade Center attacks, such as the USS Cole attack in 2000, and the 1998 attacks on the U.S. Embassies in Kenya and Tanzania.

This AOW assignment was turned in the day we started the 9/11 Artifact Project, so students would have the article’s information in the back of their minds as they began to delve deeper into the project.

After turning in their AOW assignment, I asked students to pick up a photo of an artifact from a table where I had scattered 25 photos. The artifacts included keys, shoes, firefighter helmets, jewelry, mangled pieces of metal from one of the airplanes, and other objects. I didn’t tell students where the images were from, but they quickly deduced that since it was September 10, that the images must have something to do with the terror attacks that would be commemorated the next day.

After picking up their image, I asked students to simply write a paragraph to describe the object. They could describe the artifact, discuss who might have owned it, and what it might have symbolized to its owner. Here’s one of those paragraphs:

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A student’s paragraph describing the artifact, work gloves, they had chosen from the table.

After we wrote these low-stakes paragraphs, I passed out some reading material. I read aloud the Author’s Note to the incredible book 102 Minutes by Kevin Flynn and Mark Dwyer.

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This book contains the stories of 367 people who survived the destruction of the towers. It contains eye-witness accounts of exactly what unfolded during the 102 minutes that transpired between the strike and the collapse of the north tower.

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My own photo from a trip to NYC in 1997.

After reading the Author’s Note, I asked students to get into groups of four. In their groups, they read either the first half or the second half of the Prologue. They could read their pages however they wished: one student could read the entire excerpt, students could take turns… it was their choice how they could complete it. They each had their own copy of the text so they could annotate it as they read. I also passed out sticky notes and asked them to write down three to four new words from the reading (students are now using one of the words in a literary analysis assignment that began the next week).

What came next? A one-word summary of the excerpt. I asked students to choose one word to summarize their excerpt and then write a paragraph  defending their choice of that word.  The only requirement was that the summary include evidence from the text followed by a sentence or two of interpretation. Students wrote these summaries by hand on notebook paper in the classroom; they typed them on computers later in the week in the computer lab.

After students had finished their one-word summaries, we took a break from reading and writing and instead did a quick speaking and listening activity. I passed out to students slips of paper that contained descriptions of their respective artifacts. Some of the descriptions were lengthy; some were just a sentence or so.

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One by one, we went around the room and each student walked to the document camera, projected their artifact onto the screen, and then read their description to the class. Everything from office keys, to crumpled police car hoods, to shoes were shown.

Here are some of those artifacts along with descriptions:

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With this project, I thought it would be interesting to experiment with linking different genres, so I asked students to bear with me and try something new. Here’s what I asked them to do: take the word that they chose to summarize the 102 Minutes Prologue and use that word to create an acrostic poem about their 9/11 artifact. The poem would also include the quote or a phrase from the quote they used as evidence in their summary.

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Using a word from the text to dictate the direction of the poem would, I hoped, provide a clear link between the disaster and a specific person involved in the attacks in some way, whether they were a World Trade Center worker or an emergency responder.

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Since my goal was to link the atrocity to a single human life, I thought connecting the 102 Minutes text to a personal artifact would be a valuable task. 

It seemed somewhat strange to students at first to make their word from the text be the centerpiece of their poem, but once they had the idea firmly in their minds, they seemed to see the connection to being made.

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I also provided them my own example of a poem and a summary for them to reference, which I showed via the document camera. Here’s the instruction sheet I made and then my example poem and summary on the back side:

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In reflection, I think my first “go” at this activity was successful. When we finished, I assembled all the materials and put them into a three-ring binder for safe-keeping for next year. I placed each artifact photo and its description into its own plastic page protector so they wouldn’t get lost in the shuffle, as well as samples from students to use as mentor texts for next year.

Here are a few samples from students:

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As for receiving feedback from students regarding this project… I did give each student a three question half-sheet for them to fill out at the conclusion of the project.  I gained a few ideas for how to improve the project for next time, such as…

  • Allow more time for the project.
  • Do either the poem only or the one-word summary only. It became confusing for some.
  • Slow the speed of the lesson down. (And I’ll admit, on new activities, it seems I never allot enough time.)
  • Possibly add a video to the project. In my previous position, my eighth-graders watched the New York: The Documentary at the conclusion of a unit on the attacks. Because my students at my new school had told me they were studying 9/11 in their history and/or government classes, I opted not to watch one this year. Perhaps next.

In addition, most students responded that they now know more about 9/11 than they did previously. And sure, a few don’t think that they gained any new knowledge about the attacks.  Here are a few responses I received back from my half-sheet lesson evaluation.

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By the way, my students really put a lot of thought into these little evaluation half-sheets. I was so surprised that they didn’t just rush through them or put “idk”  in the blanks. They really took their time and I’m thankful for that.

To sum it up, I will definitely do this project again with my students next year. I think my first attempt at it was successful based on the connections my students made between the text, which resulted in a product that combined non-fiction summary writing with poetry.

Sure, there are some modifications to be made, but that’s a given with any lesson plan… new or tried-and-true.

Perhaps most importantly, I believe putting the human element into the story of 9/11 captures students’ attention. Viewing a crumpled and nearly destroyed employee i.d. card adds a visceral element to the sterile facts, dates, and statistics that can all too often dominate a textbook study of a historical event.

If, in the end, that’s all this lesson plan accomplished, I’m fine with that.

Standards Alignment
This four-day unit instructed in the following Missouri Learning Standards:
Reading Informational Text 1D: Explain two or more central/main ideas in a text, analyze their development throughout the text, and relate the central ideas to human nature and the world; provide an objective and concise summary of the text; 
Reading Informational Text 3D: Synthesize information from two or more texts about similar ideas/topics to articulate the complexity of the issue.
Writing 2A: Follow a writing process to produce clear and coherent writing in which the development, organization, style, and voice are appropriate to the task, purpose, and audience; self-select and blend (when appropriate) previously learned narrative, expository, and argumentative writing techniques. 
Writing 3A: c. Conventions of standard English and usage: Demonstrate a command of the conventions of standard English grammar and usage, including spelling and punctuation; d. Use a variety of appropriate transitions to clarify relationships, connect ideas and claims, and signal time shifts; e. Use technology, including the Internet, to produce, publish, and update individual or shared writing products in response to ongoing feedback, including new arguments or information.
Speaking and Listening 2A: Speak audibly and to the point, using conventions of language as appropriate to task, purpose, and audience when presenting including
fluent and clear articulation, strategically varying volume, pitch, and pace to consistently engage listeners.

Thanks for reading again this week! Since this is the first time I’ve done this activity with students, I know there are so many ways to improve on this lesson plan for next year. Between my notes in this post, my three-ring binder full of materials, and your feedback and ideas, I can no doubt improve upon it for next time. Feel free to leave and comment, and then follow my blog to keep in touch.

How to cure the “I don’t have anything to write about” blues

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Students having trouble choosing a memory for a memoir? Have them make a map.

A few weeks ago, my junior and senior students wrote memoirs… creative personal narratives about an important memory that taught them an important truth about life, growing up, or the world in general.

In the past I’ve always passed out an idea sheet to help students gather ideas for their memoirs. It contains about thirty questions that are intended to spur memories or at least interesting stories. That sheet is beneficial, but this year I wanted to try something new: map-making.

I read about map-making in Writing Life Stories, a book by author and writing coach Bill Roorbach. In his book, he recounts how he has his own students draw maps of special places in their childhoods: their house, a neighborhood, a farm, a grandparents’ house.

Roorbach suggested to his students to draw as detailed as a map as they could. He asked them to include the hiding places, the forbidden zones, and the favorite spots of their location. The point: to jog their memory about a forgotten incident… a long ago discarded recollection of a particularly scary game of tag, for example. Or maybe a memory with a grandparent they had nearly let go of.

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Drawing a location will naturally help one remember, says Roorbach. He suggests putting as much detail as possible into their maps. For example,

  • Don’t forget the propane tank behind the oak tree.
  • The dog bowl under the porch.
  • The soybean field.
  • The clothesline.
  • The garden gnome at the end of the iris patch that you tripped over one time.

My students took about one or two 56-minute class periods to draw their maps. Some finished much more quickly than others and once they landed on a memory, they could start writing. Here are some of the maps (or some detail shots) that my juniors and seniors drew:

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Here’s my own example map that I showed students before they started their own. This is my maternal grandparents’ farm in rural southwest Missouri.

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This is my maternal grandparents’ farm near Hume, Mo. I drew in as much as I could… even where I watched a possum play possum one afternoon from the “davenport” near the front of the kitchen. My map shows the grape arbors, a cherry tree, a peach tree, a fuel tank for the tractors, a propane tank. I put a question mark where I couldn’t quite remember the exact positioning of things.

 

My classes wrote first and second drafts of their memoirs. I gave each student full participation points if they reached the word-count minimum, which was 750 words for their second draft. (First drafts could be turned in with only 450 words, but their first drafts did need to be complete with a beginning, middle, and end, including the reflective “lesson learned” part of their memoir.

I still have the second drafts of everyone’s memoirs. In about a month, I’ll pass these back out for further revision. I hope we are able to look at them with “fresh eyes.” We may get into Protocol Peer Review Groups to collaborate on revision and editing.

It’s my hope that there will be a handful of memoirs that can be entered into the Scholastic Art and Writing Awards in December.

After students had turned in their second drafts, I asked them their thoughts on the map-making portion of the project. Was it beneficial? Did drawing a map help them recall memories they had forgotten?

I didn’t do a Google Form to survey them, but just asked for a show of hands at the end of class. Some acknowledged that yes, the maps were helpful. Most students, however, seemed indifferent (a common response to just about anything it seems!).  But then again, a few were emphatic that the map exercise brought forth the memory that they ended up writing about.

One student in particular agreed that the map helped him.  Drawing his farm allowed  him to recall a tree that he climbed when he was about twelve. That tree caught on fire when he was still in it due to some burning paper airplanes that a cousin, I believe, flew into the tree. Reading about his fiery hot, melting rubber shoe soles and his ensuing panic made for a stirring and shocking story. Fortunately, he wasn’t hurt and the main outcome of the fire was that a cousin had to pick up rocks on the farm for a good while afterward.

This story, “The Burning Tree,” has so much potential for the Scholastic Art and Writing contest. It’s my hope that further revisions and editing will allow us to enter it into the student’s contest account soon.

And to think it all started with making a map.


Thanks for reading again this week! Are you planning to enter some student work into the Scholastic Art and Writing Awards this year? Students could begin opening accounts on September 12. None of my students has opened their accounts yet. Those who submit work will likely upload their work in November or December. Leave a comment or question about the contest and I’ll see if I can help.

Follow my blog for more middle school and high school teaching stories

Use this movie clip to teach high school writers how to “explode a moment”

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Plus, here’s a free slow-motion video site to give students more practice

For some reason, young writers seem to want to write as little as possible when describing a scene. I read descriptions as sparse as this example: I shot the ball and it went in and everybody freaked out. However, when kids see the effectiveness of exploding a moment, they’ll surprise themselves with how much description they can generate.

About a year ago, I wrote this post about a mini-lesson where my students watched a slow-motion video clip from writer and author Barry Lane’s YouTube channel. We watched the clip in five- to ten-second second segments. Following each segment, I would pause the video and the kids would write down what they saw. In effect, they were exploding a moment. The video was of a boy who looks about ten years old hitting a baseball. The idea is that the boy hits a home run, which causes the crowd to go wild.

If you’re unfamiliar with “exploding a moment”…

Exploding a moment is one of Lane’s signature revision strategies. When writers explode moments, they do what movie directors do to indicate a film’s pivotal moment: they show the moment in slow motion to indicate its importance. When a moment in a narrative holds the same importance, exploding that moment  across a page or two can do the same thing. If students take an important moment from their narratives and envision it happening in slow motion, and then write what they see, they’ll inevitably “paint” a much more detailed rendering of the moment than they would otherwise. 

This year, I wanted to try this same Barry Lane idea with high school students.

This year, I wanted to try this same Barry Lane idea with my students at the high school where I now teach; however, I thought the ten-year-old’s baseball video might seem too much like middle school material.

So, I tried to remember movies that I’ve seen that include slow-motion moments. One of those I remembered also just happened to be baseball-themed: The Natural.

If you watch this YouTube video clip and watch it from :40 to 1:20 in eight- to ten-second chunks, you’ll provide your students a similar moment to explode that is a little more “grown up.”

Here’s that clip from The Natural, which only a couple of my students (out of about 90) had seen.

Before playing The Natural clip, I asked students to imagine that they were Roy Hobbs, the player at bat (played by Robert Redford), and I also suggested that they write their explosion in first-person point-of-view. I thought this would make their writing more immediate. Also, when it came time to share, it might be helpful if we all focused on the same character’s perspective in the video.

Playing the movie clip, pausing, asking students to write what they saw, and then also having a few of them share their “explosions” took about thirty minutes or so. (With some classes it took less time because —at least at my school— many of these older students are reluctant to share their writing. Right now, many of my high school students don’t care to share their writing, which is a real change from middle school where kids can’t share enough!)

Here’s one student’s exploded moment:

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Here’s another example from one of my high school students:

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Finally, here’s a copy of my handwritten explosion that I shared here and there during my classes to either encourage sharing or just to help students see what exploding a moment might look like.

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Here’s that free slow-mo video site…

I’ve also thought about finding more short video or movie clips to play during the year so kids can continue to practice this technique more. Videvo.net has a huge supply of short, slow-motion video clips of everything from runners in a marathon to a candle flame.

Many are free to view and some are only available for purchase with an account. Here’s a link to a free clip of that candle flame.

https://www.videvo.net/video/candle-flame-in-slow-motion/2683/

I haven’t used any of these yet, but I think an occasional one might make a good bell-ringer activity while also keeping the explode a moment technique fresh in students’ minds.

And no, it might not seem that a candle flame would be a pivotal moment in a narrative… but it could be.

Imagine if you had a character making an important life decision while watching a candle flicker. For example, I can picture the character watching the flame, pondering her choice of whether to marry her boyfriend. As she examines the flame, she might see connections to their relationship. For instance, she might see that the flame bends and sways in the breeze, much like their relationship has had to bend and sway to accommodate their individual needs and goals. Anyway, you get the idea.


Thanks for reading again this week! Feel free to click “like” if you found this post helpful, and leave a comment as well. Also, follow my blog to stay in touch.

Slice-of-life writing: the anti-Instagram narrative

These short narratives celebrate the ordinary and challenge high schoolers to write creatively

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One result of a three-month summer break? Students out of practice with writing, especially creative writing.

To remedy that last week, I decided to introduce my high school students to slice-of-life writing, a fairly new genre within the world of narrative non-fiction. In my former middle school ELA teaching position, slice-of-life writing was a staple with my students. They enjoyed writing slices more and more as they became familiar with the form.

By the way, I learned about slice-of-life writing from this inspirational group of writer-teachers. Teachers write and post their own slices on Tuesdays at this site. For information about this group’s Slice-of-Life Writing Challenge for classrooms, visit here.

One way to think of slice-of-life writing is to consider it an acknowledgement of the moments we wouldn’t post in an Instagram feed. Usually, we put the major moments of our lives in our feeds… memorable vacations, weddings, graduations, fun outings. With slice-of-life writing, however, we write about the more ordinary moments of our lives. These have merit, too, and perhaps as much merit as the milestones in our lives simply because the small moments are more numerous.

After a brief introduction of the genre to my high schoolers, I went over the points on the PowerPoint slide (shown below).

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After talking through the above Powerpoint slide, I passed out copies of a sheet with mentor slice-of-life essays. I read aloud these three from the sheet: Drip Drop by Annison E., Feeding the Dogs by Isaiah F., and Cutting the Grass by yours truly.

The first two were written by former students, and were published by Creative Communications of Logan, Utah in one of the publisher’s essay anthologies. (While the company continues to publish poetry anthologies for middle schoolers, they no longer publish the essay anthologies. Darn!)  Here’s that mentor text handout:

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After reading and discussing the mentor texts, I asked students to spend thirty minutes working on a first draft, after which we would do some revision. As for length, I asked students to fill the front side of a sheet of notebook paper plus a few lines on the back.

In some of my classes, it was evident that some additional guidance was needed. Some students seemed to be confused by what exactly constituted a “slice.” During my first hour class, I wrote alongside them, scribbling out a first draft about cleaning the windshield of my car, which I had done the night before. I read it aloud, stumbling through my quickly written cursive. I told students I was not totally satisfied with it (especially the  powdered sugar reference), but it was a start. Here’s my quick “demo” first draft of my own slice:

“Shhhhhhhhh.” The foamy spray fizzes onto my car’s windshield like a thin layer of powdered sugar. A sweet chemical odor lifts from the foam.

The foam sludges down the glass like a glacier, shifting and sliding slowly down toward the wiper blade, a guardrail of sorts.

The stains of unlucky insects that fluttered their wing one final time against the glass melt into the white of the foam cleaner. Moths, wasps, and horseflies decompose and disintegrate into the liquid… a tiny life lost and wiped away.

I rip off a handful of paper towels  and wipe the glass. Clean straight swaths absorb and remove the foam, the bugs, the film of road grease and oil.

The window is wide and requires that I stretch to reach the entire glass. So I walk around to the other side to clean the remaining half.  I trip on a cord from the leaf blower left on the floor. I untangle my ankle from the cord and finish cleaning the windshield.

The glass is clear. One crusty patch remains and I spray it one more time. The crust dissolves and I smudge out the remaining residue.

The paper towels, damp and dripping, feel cold in my hand. The job is done.

Following my read aloud of my demo slice, they started or continued on their own. After about thirty minutes, I asked students still working to finish the sentence they were writing, so we could add to our first drafts.

Adding to our writing is one way we revise, I said.

“Let’s add to our first drafts with sensory language,” I said. “Skim through your draft and look for  a place to add a sound,” I suggested. Students worked for about five minutes to add a sound.

Of course, without fail, in each class, one student would ask, “What if you already have a sound?”

“See if you can add another,” I prompted.

Following sounds, we then added fragrances/odors (smell), textures (touch), and if appropriate, a flavor (taste) to our drafts. Obviously, if students were “showing and not telling,” their writing should have already have contained an image.

After our revision, I asked for volunteers to share their slices. A few students agreed to do just that. My first impression from their writing: I hadn’t sufficiently stressed the importance of focusing on a single moment in their slices. When a few students shared their entire morning routine (First, I get up and then I take a shower, and then I grab some breakfast, feed the dog, brush my teeth, wait for the bus, and then it comes and I go to school.), or evening football practice, I knew I needed to emphasize that slice-of-life writing is all about focusing on a single small moment in life, an ordinary moment that one would never think to include in their Instagram feed, for example.

I had conveyed this idea earlier in the lesson by recalling last week’s reading of excerpts from Bill Roorbach’s Writing Life Stories, where Roorbach discusses memory. He mentions “informational memory,” which he calls the “stuff of lost days.”

Slice-of-life writing  builds on  and celebrates the “stuff of lost days” people are engaged in on a daily basis.

Yes, our lives are punctuated with big life events, but our lives are also lived in the not-so-big events, the events that are easily forgotten or downplayed, but actually form the bulk of our existence.  Slice-of-life writing capitalizes on these easily dismissed activities.

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Because a handful of students (in one particular class, curiously) wrote what I call “And then I did this, and then I did this” essays, I tweaked my Powerpoint slide to place more emphasis on focusing on a single moment or task. The final version of that slide is the one I’ve included in this post above.

However, I still need to add these points, which should help them write “in the moment” better next time:

  • Write in the first-person point-of-view to put the reader right there with you.
  • Write in the present tense to add immediacy to your slice.

The next day in class, students typed up their slices in the computer lab. I told them that if their slice was a series of events or moments, that they could go ahead and use it for this first slice, since I felt my instructions hadn’t been clear enough at first. Next month, however, when we try another one, they will need to get choosy with their writing and focus on a single moment.

Right before they began typing, I asked students to create a Google Doc and name it Slice- of-Life Essays so we could add a slice monthly for the next few months. We’ll plan to publish a small collection of slices at the end of the semester or at the end of the year. Having a collection of essays about their everyday and ordinary teenage life should be a treasure as they continue through high school and beyond.

After typing, I asked students to print two copies and read their copy aloud to a partner who would follow along on their own copy so they could  offer feedback for more revision. I specifically asked students to look for:

  1. First: unclear and/or confusing areas
  2. Second: editing, such as punctuation, grammar, and spelling

I added, “When you turn in your final draft, also hand me your first draft copies so I can see the feedback your partner gave you.”

Unfortunately, most kids brought me their final drafts with a first draft that contained minimal feedback provided by their partner. Many simply had misspelled words circled or commas added in here and there. “That’s not revision. That’s editing,” I thought, making a mental note that my new students would need extra encouragement to revise.

And that’s where we are in my new high school classes. I am figuring out that they need to learn some revision strategies. This week, I plan to cover “exploding a moment” and “writing small,” two similar yet separate strategies that should help students flesh out their writing into fuller, more meaningful compositions. Stay tuned.


Thanks for reading again this week. It’s interesting to make the transition from middle school to high school. Older students definitely have different motivations and goals. Learning ways to make writing (and revising) more relevant is definitely my charge.

 

 

 

 

The rubric rub

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Photo by Andrey Zvyagintsev on Unsplash

 

Do what the rubric says. And only what the rubric says. And by all means, don’t think too hard.

 

Last week in my high school Language Arts classes, students spent time planning memoirs that they will begin drafting this week. On Friday, a few girls who had already decided on a memory to recount were starting to write their opening paragraphs.

As one student was scribbling out her first lines, she asked, “Do you have the assignment sheet for the memoir?”

“No, I’ll have it ready for you next week. For now, just go ahead and start writing,” I told her.

“How long does it have to be?” another student at the same table asked.

“I’m not sure. I haven’t decided yet. It’s too early to think about that anyway,” I told her. Actually, I had already considered an approximate length, but hadn’t decided for sure.

“But what are we supposed to put in it?” the first student pressed.

I was surprised. We had been learning about the genre of memoir all week.

“Well, what we’ve talked about the past few days,” I told her, alluding to the mentor texts we had read during our class periods earlier in the week, including a narrative by Annie Dillard, an essay written by a young woman, which appeared in Teen Ink, plus a short memoir I wrote a few years back. “You’ll write about a memory or moment that impacted your life in some way and then you’ll reflect on it… tell why the memory has stayed with you… what you gained from the experience… how it affected your life or your understanding of life.”

“Well, I’m not gonna start writing then if I don’t know what you’re looking for,” she said. “I’ll just jot down some notes for now.” In no way was this student rude or disrespectful; in fact, her candor with expressing how she wished to approach the task at hand impressed me.

“That’s fine,” I replied, surprised at her hesitation to get started. Five minutes earlier, she was ready to begin, ready to start recounting her experiences. Without the assignment sheet, however, she seemed unwilling to experiment.

I thought, Yes, make sure you don’t write anything that might not be ultimately used in your final draft. Of course, I was being sarcastic, so I kept that thought to myself; however, it did lead me to wonder that perhaps these students merely possess a “one and done” approach to writing not only in my class, but possibly other classes across the curriculum.

The whole situation gave me pause. I was taken aback that this student and her friend refused to write simply because they didn’t have “directions.”

So I rationalized. These girls are conscientious students, after all. Maybe they just aren’t used to creative writing, I thought. Or maybe they’re unaccustomed to revising their work beyond mere proofreading. That could be it.

But could it be more than that? Picturing my own detailed assignment sheets (some of which contain rubrics), I know these sheets may appear to students to spell things out a little too clearly, as in “Here’s the rubric. Do what it says. Don’t do anything it doesn’t say. Turn it in. Get the A.”

Of course, part of my reasoning for providing such detailed rubrics takes absent students into account. If a student is absent when an assignment is explained, everything they need to know about it is found on the sheet.

But in the case of these girls, could their hesitancy to start writing their memoirs be the unintended result of well-meaning teachers like me who provide students with specific checklists, detailed rubrics, and formulaic instructions for getting the job done right the first time?

By providing rubrics consistently, have I unintentionally signaled to students that the rigid adherence to a rubric is what’s most important?

Have I signaled to students that there is only one way to complete a task?

Have I inadvertently prioritized specific steps or criteria in the rubric at the expense of experimentation? In other words, can I use a rubric that encourages flexibility in a process and creativity of thought?

Does the rubric with its points awarded for a correctly cited quotation, for example, receive more consideration than it should from a busy student who just wants to finish the assignment as quickly as possible?

After all, if a student focuses on satisfying the rubric, then it won’t be necessary to rethink an idea or backtrack on a thought… essential, organic, and mysterious parts of the writing and thinking process.

Of course, rubrics serve a valid purpose. Rubrics clearly convey to students how to succeed on a task. And for teachers, rubrics allow quick, fair, and objective grading.

However, as my students’ hesitancy indicated, perhaps I should use rubrics and checklists more sparingly. Perhaps I should allow for variation from the expected way to complete a task. Perhaps I should allow—encourage even—students to find their own way through an assignment. To get lost in it. To muddle through it. To get unorthodox with it. To think it through on their own.

After all, their future boss won’t provide a rubric for landing an account or creating a marketing campaign. Instead, she’ll expect the former student to know how to figure things out for themselves.


Thanks for reading! School has started and we’ve already got a few assignments under our belts. Rubrics be warned. Stay tuned for more posts about the transition from middle school to high school ELA.