Graphic essays for high school students: A creative way to teach theme

Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash

Here’s how I’ve used graphic essays and what I’ll tweak for next time.

My junior English classes recently read the short story, “In Another Country” by Ernest Hemingway as a follow-up to reading “The Old Man and the Sea.” Because they had just completed a traditional written thematic analysis of the novel, I opted to have them produce a graphic essay instead focused again on a theme revealed in the text.

It's worth knowing -- as a side note -- that I decided to do back-to-back thematic analysis projects during third quarter for a specific reason. Last fall, after reading Shirley Jackson's "The Lottery," I could quickly tell that students were struggling with identifying and commenting on story themes in their essays. At the time, I had intended to have students generate third drafts of those essays, but after the second, I quickly drew the assignment to a close. Too many students just weren't ready to write extensively on a theme in Jackson's story. It seemed they were struggling to even identify a theme. Maybe it was the text, maybe it was me, maybe... who knows, but it just wasn't working. I quickly had students turn in their second drafts and we moved on to a month-long writer's workshop project, which allowed them to get more comfortable with writing in general, and more creative pieces in particular. And honestly, that was a nice change, especially since I was a new teacher at the school and was still getting to know the students.

I’ve assigned graphic essays before at my last school where I asked my eighth-graders to create these at the conclusion of a study of Frederick Douglass’ narrative. Click here for a post about that graphic essay assignment. It was a successful project; however, since it was the first time I had tackled the graphic essay, it left room for improvement. And by the way, that need for improvement always happens, and it doesn’t matter if it’s a new assignment or a tried-and-true one, I always discover things I want to “fix” for next time.

And, of course, our “In Another Country” graphic essays followed that trusty pattern.

Regardless, I’ve decided to write this post about this project based on a short story I wasn’t even sure I wanted to approach with students. In my view, there are other more interesting pieces by Hemingway (think “The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber,” but now in retrospect, I am SO GLAD I plowed ahead and experienced “In Another Country” with my students because this story is rich with themes and historical context and it paves the way for good discussions about World War I (and by extension World War II), the Lost Generation, the birth of modernism, and even more specifically the influence of avant garde art on writers.

This is my highest quality graphic essay turned in for “In Another Country.” In addition to using three carefully selected and relevant quotes from the text, it shows a thorough thought process, creativity, and neatness. Maybe requiring three quotes from the story would have worked after all.

To culminate our reading of “In Another Country,” the graphic essay project was intended to:

  1. offer my students a break from traditional essay writing;
  2. help them discuss theme with evidence and their own commentary;
  3. allow students to discuss symbolism; and
  4. allow students to get creative and apply their artistic skills.

I found the graphic essay idea a little over a year ago in a post by teacher and author Buffy Hamilton at her blog, Living in the Layers. Hamilton’s post references projects created by students at North Atlanta High School, including the graphic essay project created by teacher Casey Christenson. Her students created graphic essays based around Henry David Thoreau’s Walden Pond.

Last year, I modified my Frederick Douglass graphic essay project to conform itself to a shorter work. Douglass’ narrative runs 175 pages or so depending on the edition you read, and can support a more extensive graphic essay. “In Another Country” is quite short. It covered four pages in our Glencoe Literature textbook.

The only change I did make, however, was to have students use one piece of textual evidence to support their chosen theme instead of three. I like this modification; it compels students to find the absolute best passage from the story instead.

Next time, I’ll ask students to be neater with their work. Haphazardly placed elements don’t present well. Still, this isn’t an art project, and I get that. Clear commentary and interpretation take precedence.

I also allowed students to look outside the story for their symbols, which were to symbolize in some way their chosen theme. This is one detail of the project I may modify next time, but the jury is still out on that one. In short, due to the brevity of the story, there really aren’t that many possibilities for symbols used within the text; however, maybe I need to read the story more closely with that precise need in mind for the next time I plan for this project.

Even so, for this graphic essay, I did scaffold the theme identification process and provided five specific themes from the story that students could explore.

Here are the five specific themes:

  • loss
  • isolation
  • dislocation/being a foreigner
  • self-doubt
  • the technology dilemma (For example, technological progress can both help and harm mankind; the machines of war can be destructive (as in weapons and artillery) but they can also heal (as in the physical therapy “machines” in the story).

Maybe I made this project too easy by providing students with predetermined themes. After all, in our recent essays written for “The Old Man and the Sea,” we read articles that addressed specific themes in that novel. Those articles (here’s my post about those five articles) assisted students in identifying themes within the book to write about. It will be interesting to see how well students are able to notice and discuss themes next year when I have them as seniors. Perhaps at that time I’ll have them recall these two thematic essay projects to jog their memories.

Anyway, I provided them with these five choices for themes and then let them run with it, following the guidelines provided on a printed handout. Here’s a screenshot of the assignment sheet. Here’s a link to the Google doc of this handout.

This project took my students two to three work sessions of thirty to forty minutes each.

I assigned this project on a Friday with about twenty minutes of work time available and scheduled it to be due at the end of class the following Tuesday. After vocabulary bell work and a mini-lesson, students had about thirty to forty minutes on Monday and Tuesday. Looking back on it, two and half class periods were just about right. Most students were able to finish without needing time outside of class; some were finished by the beginning of class Tuesday, which fortunately just happened to be our last day of school before closing for COVID-19.

Overall, I’m satisfied with this project.

Am I happy with the final products? Mostly.

Many of my students are more concerned with getting the project finished quickly, and so could have spent more time on their graphic essays.

Here’s what I would change for next time:

  • Have students spend more time developing thesis statements. I provided an example on the sheet as a guide, but many students basically copied it, swapping out the theme provided for theirs, if needed.
  • Stipulate that symbols need to be objects and not illustrations. For example, a stick figure drawing is an illustration, not a symbol. I might need to explain the difference: a symbol represents something; an illustration shows something.
  • Call for students to add a sentence or two near their symbols that explains the symbol and how it represents the theme discussed.
  • Require color and lots of it. While this isn’t an art project, I would still like them to create an interesting, eye-catching layout.
  • I should have required that some students, if not all, type their commentary, since a good portion of students have poor handwriting.
  • Require that handwriting be done in pen, i.e. no pencil.

Without further ado, here are the rest of the graphic essays I’ve chosen to include in this post. I’ve included two photos for each of the five themes discussed. These graphic essays below tended to be a representative sample of the quality of work my juniors turned in. See the captions for more thoughts.

Note to self for the future: remind students that symbols are objects or concepts. A thought bubble with words isn’t a symbol and should be improved upon. For example, a family photo the soldier carries with him be a symbol of his desire to please his family and his lack of confidence to do so.
I’m not sure that I like how this student has labelled each part of her project. But then again, if that helps her organize it, I guess that’s okay.
I’m not a fan of pencil for this type of project. Next time, I’ll ask students to use pen if they handwrite.
Italy was the symbol for this one. An explanation of Italy at the time the story was written would have been helpful near the country cutout, but I’m glad this student included the islands of Sicily and Sardinia.
I thought this student did an exceptional job with interpreting the theme of isolation as found in the quote used. Noting that being “guinea pigs” with a medical procedure is isolating in itself demonstrates deeper thinking.
This graphic essay needs much more interpretation of the evidence. This student also needs to explain the dilemma she is addressing. She discusses the doubt in the technology, but not the dilemma that modern technology brought during World War I.
This essay has a thesis question, but not a thesis statement. Some students really struggle with writing thesis statements, although generally, if they can write a question, with a little work they can turn it into a statement. Also, this graphic essay would have been more effective with more color.

Thanks for reading! I haven’t seen students since the day these projects were turned in and, as of the latest, we will be out of school until Tuesday, April 28. This project will seem so far in the past at that time that I doubt if many constructive comments will arise. But that’s one of the downsides of distance learning and the passage of time.

Regardless, have you tried graphic essays with your students? Let me know of your experience. And follow my blog for a future post about my lack of success — so far, anyway — with the popular One-Pager.

Slice of life writing: here’s a mentor text for high school students

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Slice of life essays written by elementary students are everywhere; high school slices are harder to find. Here’s one.

Last fall, near the beginning of the school year, I introduced my high school juniors and seniors to slice of life writing. Slices are short narratives that celebrate the ordinary moments in our lives that we may often overlook as worthy of documenting.

To read my post from September about how my students approached Slice of Life writing, click here.

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.

Slice of life writing has few guidelines. Writing a slice is largely a way for students to merge narrative writing with autobiography. Writing slices helps students, especially those who don’t enjoy writing, experience some success within the confines of an essay that runs around 250 words.

Here are the main guidelines that I use when introducing high school students to slice of life writing:

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If your students need a word count,

ask them to shoot for 250-300 words.

I also provide mentor texts so students can read examples of the moments that slice of life writing is intended to document. Because this is my first year teaching at the high school level, I didn’t have any examples written by secondary students; all my examples were written by students at my previous middle school position.

And let’s face it, middle school is middle school.

High school students definitely have more mature concerns, goals, and preoccupations. After all, college and career is on the horizon, social relationships deepen, and many students have jobs.

As a result, I decided to share with you a slice written by Kenna, one of my high school juniors. Feel free to use this as an example when you introduce your own older students to slicing. I especially like this slice because it’s very visual and takes its own sweet time to record an activity that many, if not most, girls can identify with. Curling one’s hair is an oft-repeated task that, while mundane, can come alive when approached creatively.

By the way, this was a third draft that she completed during our Writer’s Workshop weeks last fall. It was nice to see her slice improve gradually over three drafts.

Golden Perfection by Kenna D.

“My hair is long, golden and shiny. It flows through my fingers like the flow of a summer breeze. My hair is flat, and fairly straight. It almost looks like it would be stiff…until you run your fingers through it, and until I decide to style it. When you see it, you can already imagine without touching it, that it is soft and silky like a fleece blanket. 

As the curling iron heats up on the bathroom counter, I look in the mirror to see how all of the lights are aiming down on my hair. They are making it shine like a star in the night sky.

I begin to curl my hair. The beautiful, golden caramel colors, heating up and twisting around and around the hot iron. As the iron gets close to my head, I can feel the heat, beaming off of the iron. It reminds me of the warmth of a fireplace on a cold, snowy winter morning. 

 Ten seconds, twenty seconds, I hold the golden swirl of hair around the iron, and wait for it to give the golden swirl that perfect spiral shape. Thirty seconds pass by and it’s time to release  the hair. I gently let it unravel itself from the iron. Almost as if it’s in slow motion, my hair falls. For a moment I wonder: Is it really going to curl? Will I have to redo this piece of hair?

Fortunately, the golden spiral coils. I stare back at myself in the mirror to see this beautiful, golden swirl of perfection.

I repeat this over and over again. Little pieces of hair at a time. Until every single piece of my hair is curled into a perfect, bouncy coil.

But wait, here’s the plot twist, I’m not a very “girly” girl. After all that work, I end up putting it up into a ponytail of golden, caramel swirls.”

Wasn’t that an awesome slice of life? For a link to a Google Doc file of this slice, click here: Golden Perfection Slice of Life.

I sat up in my chair as I read it, mesmerized by how Kenna zoomed in on a seemingly boring activity and made it come alive with sensory imagery. I loved seeing the “mind movie” as I read.

In addition, Kenna gave us a glimpse into her personality.

Who of us hasn’t put on our best clothes, or spent a lot of time on our hair, only to abandon it all to throw on a pair of jeans or opt for a ponytail instead?


Thanks for reading again this week! I’ll be adding more high school slice of life essays to my blog over the next few weeks. Follow my blog to catch those mentor texts!

Treasured Object Poems: A favorite poetry activity for all grades

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Photo by Marcos Paulo Prado on Unsplash

In this post: Treasured Object Poems mentor texts and lesson tips

Need a fun poetry activity to use with your students? One that will also hone their sensory language and revision skills?

Show them how to write a short free-verse poem about an object they value. Paying tribute to a precious personal item encourages them to think positively about their lives and builds their creative writing skills.

After you first explain the poem, if your students are like mine, one of the very first responses you’ll hear is, “But I don’t have anything that I treasure.”

When that happens, I elaborate. I ask them,

“Okay, if the fire alarm in your house went off, and you had to get out NOW, what two or three things would you grab?”

One of these things might be the perfect thing for a Treasured Object Poem.

To get started, hold a conversation to get students talking about their favorite things. Students of mine have written about a necklace from Grandma, their turquoise Converse, a pocket watch, a fishing rod, a book, a special hoodie, and more.

To help them get ideas, I also provide mentor texts former students have written.

 

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This is the handout for the Treasured Object Poem project. This handout is kept in a manila folder in the rack of writing projects that students complete during our Writer’s Workshop.

 

This year, I wrote my own Treasured Object poem and shared it with my classes. I donned my awesome ’90s vintage bomber jacket, and read the following example: 

My ’90s Bomber Jacket

Thick and heavy, warm and supple

Chocolate brown leather, a world map lining

Four pockets to hold:

Gloves, change, Kleenexes, icy fingers.

Oversized,

It clothes me in comfort

Distressed,

It encloses me in memories from

Years of travel from

Minnesota to Maine,

Vermont to Florida.

Oregon to Kansas.

My trendy friend found years ago

In a Phoenix boutique

Is now classic outerwear and

Perfect for…

Ever.

 

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I couldn’t resist showing you my jacket. It’s exactly thirty years old this year!

 

Here’s a student-written example of a Treasured Object Poem:

My Old Turquoise Converse by Hailey B.

My old turquoise Converse,

tarnished with dust and dirt.

My old turquoise Converse,

laced with well-worn shoestrings.

Oh, how my old turquoise Converse

are embedded with memories.

The memories they hold include

meeting a special friend and

having rotten days.

My old turquoise Converse,

walked in only by me.

*****

Here’s another:

The Piano by Elijah D.

The piano’s mahogany stained legs stand

Arching over the flat worn pew.

Graceful as the tree it was separated from.

The shimmering finish of the basswood keys glistens.

A mild hiatus, waiting to be played by skilled hands

Keys sheltered until then.

Though, piano is my forte.

Hammers drawn crisply.

Strings unfrayed for their age.

The contrivance gives a beautiful melody, however untuned.

Dust mustn’t settle on the antiqued surface.

The high, console style backing draped in cloth.

Complemented by family photos in elegant frames.

Thoughts of my grandmother come to mind,

As it was her’s at one time.

But now, it is mine to own.

*****

And even though I encourage students to write a free verse poem, occasionally, a student will use rhyme. And that’s fine with me as long as it’s not forced. Here’s one of those:

The Rocking Horse by Devyn R.

Rocking horse, rocking horse, take me away

To faraway places and spaces to play

Farther and farther I knew we went

Across the kitchen and through the vent

Over the hills, galloping we go

When we’ll stop, I’ll never know

Back and back, my head’s in a spin

Nobody else knows the spin that I am in

Taking me places I’ve never been

As high as a bird, as fast as a fish

In the clouds, through the ocean, anywhere I wish

*****

Three ways to beef up this activity

1. Try this revision strategy:

Adding more sensory language will help these poems come to life. After first drafts have been written, have students take their poems and add:

  • one fragrance or smell
  • one sound
  • one texture
  • one taste or flavor

2. Guide your students away from these treasured object ideas:

  • Game systems, phones, and other screens… Honestly, students give enough attention to their screens. I tell students that they’ll have more success with an object that’s tangible. In other words, it’s important to be able to touch or physically experience their object. However, sometimes I give in and let them attempt a poem about their PS4, for example, so they can learn on their own that video games and virtual realities are difficult to describe with physical terms. When they invariably struggle to add sensory language to their poem, they usually change their mind on their own to something that invariably has more poetry potential.
  • Food…There’s always one student who will want to write about a food, as in “But I treasure pizza, Mrs. Yung!”  But unfortunately, such a temporal item will make their Treasured Object Poem feel insignificant. Encourage them to focus on something permanent and precious. Food disappears too quickly to deserve a poem.

3. Enter these poems in a contest.

In fact, on the handout in the photo above (it was used with my middle school students in my previous teaching position), you can see that my students limited their poems to twenty lines. This limit was placed so the students could enter their poems in Creative Communication’s Poetry Contests.  Read my blog post about this publisher here.

I hope you enjoy sharing this poetry idea with your kids. It’s always been a favorite with my own students. In addition, it’s a poem they can return to again and again as they think of other objects they treasure. Most of my students, even my high school students, surprise themselves with how much they like their final product.


Thanks for reading again this week! If you try this in your classes, feel free to let me know in the comments how it goes or drop me an email in the “Contact” menu.

 

 

 

 

 

Teaching transitions in writing, part 2

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Photo by Sam Carter on Unsplash

This student-written essay illustrates transition ideas

A few weeks ago, I wrote a post about how the nonfiction author James Swanson’ transitions from paragraph and from chapter to chapter in his nonfiction narrative Chasing Lincoln’s Killer. The post discussed transitions words (such as therefore, however, in contrast, nonetheless, and others) that we all know and love and teach. However, the post also discussed a more subtle form of transition… transition ideas. Read that post here. 

Below, I’ve shown a student-written example of  the same primary technique, repetition, that Swanson used to carry the reader from one paragraph of her text to the next.

This student’s term that she chose to guide the reader through her essay was “moving on.” In the photo below, I’ve underlined the five times that the writer repeated the words “moving on” or “move on.”

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In the photo above, I’ve underlined in red the repetition of key words a student used in her personal essay about how she learned resilience and perseverance amid negative circumstances. 

The student told me that she didn’t realize she was using repetition to create her transition ideas. Once I called her attention to it, however, she could see how using those words could help a reader navigate her argument’s reasoning and follow her ideas from one paragraph to the next.

We also discussed how repetition can backfire because it’s possible to overuse words and phrases in a piece of writing.

How to tell the difference?

It’s often a judgment call… a judgment call that requires lots of reading and re-reading (especially aloud!) to determine whether the repetition connects ideas and builds the argument, forming a continuous thread through the piece or merely distracts the reader, pulling them away from the argument.

It’s fun to see students making effective moves in their writing, especially when it comes to writing transitions and working hard to make their ideas carry through a piece smoothly, seamlessly, and unobtrusively.

I’ll have a few more examples to show you in a future post or two. Become a follower to catch that post!


Thanks for reading! How do you teach transitions? It’s one of the more challenging aspects of the craft. Feel free to leave a comment with your experiences and thoughts on the subject.

 

Teaching transitions in writing

Don’t teach just transition words… teach transition ideas as well.

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I taught this book for eight years in my middle school ELA classes. It’s such a ride! Plus, when you read it as a writer, you notice key skills the author James Swanson utilized heavily when he wrote this little gem.

For me, teaching transitions is one of the most difficult concepts to teach in writing and one of the most needed. When you teach transitions, you are helping students learn how to write smoothly, to make their ideas flow from one paragraph to the next, even from one sentence to the next.

In short, we’re talking about the concept of cohesion in writing. As you know, cohesion happens when an idea is carried through from the introductory paragraph(s) to the supporting sections of the text and finally, to the summary or conclusion. There are two ways to accomplish cohesion: transition words and ideas as transitions.

Transition words

I’ve done what many other teachers have done. We post anchor charts around our classrooms that divide transition words into groups based on their intended jobs within a piece of writing. It’s a fairly cut-and-dry skill to teach. Here are three examples of many:

  • Transitions that show sequence: first, second, third, etc.
  • Transitions that show cause and effect: as a result, consequently, etc.
  • Transitions that compare and contrast: on the other hand, in contrast, etc.

Yes, anchor charts do an adequate job of supplying these phrases for students as they write. In addition, I’ve also distributed handouts that list these same groups of words. And that’s all fine and good. Most students understand how transition words can help their writing flow smoothly so the reader can easily follow their ideas.

Transition ideas

But there’s another kind of transition—transition ideas—that are just as important, if not more important, than all those transition words. It’s also more difficult to teach because you can’t point to a list of words and phrases for students to use. That’s why I was excited when I found several examples of transition ideas in a text that I routinely taught, Chasing Lincoln’s Killer by James Swanson.

Transition ideas rely on words used in the text by the author to connect the scenes in a story, the claim in an argument from one paragraph to the next, or important big ideas in an informative article.

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Chasing Lincoln’s Killer contains several examples of transition ideas. And since it’s often easier for me to show this than it is to explain it, take a look at the photos below.

The first photo below is from Chapter IV in the book. I’ve underlined in red the transition ideas… places where the writer wanted to move the story from one scene to another on the night of April 14, 1865 when President Lincoln was assassinated. To continue his story from one location to another Swanson utilized key words to carry the reader from the home of Secretary of State William Seward to the scene of the Lincoln shooting, Ford’s Theater.

As you can see, Swanson intentionally repeated key words and phrases–“drenched in blood”– to help his reader make the leap in the story with him.

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Here’s another example. Swanson’s narrative needed to transfer from the farm and home of Dr. Mudd back to Ford’s Theater. Swanson showed the Mudds sleeping and transitioned that idea to President Lincoln, who was also “sleeping” after being shot by the assassin John Wilkes Booth.

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Below is yet another example where Swanson carries the reader, at the conclusion of Chapter VII, into the action of Chapter VIII. He uses transition ideas to switch the reader from the lowland river areas where Booth and conspirator David Herold prepared for camping to Washington, D.C., where Mary Surratt, another conspirator, also was wrapping up the busy day.

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And below you can see how Swanson began Chapter VIII in a way that echoed the action at the end of Chapter VII.

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If you’d like even more explanation of transition ideas, show your middle school and high school students this video by Shmoop. It’s quirky and a little weird, but that’s Shmoop.  It gets the point across well, I think.

Transition words and transition ideas are super important. They help students write smoothly and cohesively. Both are the key to writing pieces that absorb the reader, causing them to focus intently on the message of the writing. Use these passages from Chasing Lincoln’s Killer and this Shmoop video the next time you prepare a mini-lesson on transitions.


Thanks for reading again this week! How do you teach transitions? Leave a comment to share your ideas and follow my blog for weekly posts about teaching ELA.

NaNoWriMo Nostalgia: NaNoWriMo, my students, and my historical nonfiction project thingy

You gotta start somewhere.

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My students work on their individual writing projects after school during our version of NaNoWriMo.

Note: I published this post about a year ago when I first attempted an after-school NaNoWriMo program. This year, I have recently moved and am now teaching high school. I hope to eventually host a similar after-school NaNoWriMo program in my new district, but for now, I’ll just look back fondly on last year’s endeavor.


 

I’m finally doing NaNoWriMo with my students. Well, sort of.

All during November, about fifteen students ranging from fifth- through eighth-grade arrive in my room after school and write for forty-five minutes. I only know a little about what they’re writing. That’s because I’m busy working, too, on my own project… what I call my “historical memoir project thing.” Yes, you heard right. I’m doing NaNoWriMo and I’m not even writing a novel. Oh, well. You gotta start somewhere.

No, the NaNoWriMo in my classroom is not a full-blown NaNoWriMo experience. I don’t have the official posters, or the workbooks, or the full curriculum. But we’re still having a good time getting together after school and just writing.

From some conversations I’ve overheard around my classroom, I know some kids are writing fantasy stories. Some are writing sci-fi. One kid is writing about a worm. Regardless, each student is writing for themselves and that’s the key.

In case you’re unfamiliar with NaNoWriMo, it stands for National Novel Writing Month, when writers around the country write a first draft of a 50,000-word novel. There’s a youth version of this challenge, where students set personal goals to accomplish the first drafts of their own novels, and that’s what we are attempting in my classroom every day after school all November long.

I’ve thought about doing NaNoWriMo for a few years, and finally, last summer, I decided I would stop waiting to do it “right” and, in a nod to Nike, “just do it.” So, in June, I tested the idea with my students with a teaser post on my private class Instagram. Several were interested, including some recently graduated students who were disappointed that I hadn’t tried it when they were in middle school.

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Jump forward to last Monday, Nov. 5, the first day on my calendar that we could meet. At the end of the day, when I was tired and definitely ready to lay out my plans for Tuesday and head for home, I asked myself Why did I ever decide to do this?!

However, now with that first week behind me, I’m so glad I “just did it” because my lame version of NaNoWriMo is already illuminating two truths that are easy to forget:

  1. It’s amazing how dedicated kids can be when they’re personally motivated. The mood in my classroom during NaNoWriMo is quite different from my regular classroom, which always contains a few students with little desire to pursue writing. They distract others. They sharpen their pencils four times an hour. They need drinks and bathroom breaks. But after school during NaNoWriMo, it’s a different world. These kids are choosing to write, imagine, create, produce, and they go at it earnestly and with enthusiasm.
  2. Some kids have writing lives outside of school. It’s gratifying to know that there are several students who are writing on their own, at home in notebooks, and online. They “own” these works… no teacher has asked them to outline their ideas, no teacher has asked them to turn in a synopsis or a summary.

Plus, these kids are excited to get to work. I’m amazed that—after eight hours of classes, mind you— my NaNoWriMo kids willingly (with smiles on their faces!) walk into my room with their coats and binders, drop them into a chair, get a laptop from the computer cart, sit down, and write. And think. And quietly chat with others at their table.

It’s a social get-together, after all. I bring snacks of some kind on Mondays, but for the rest of the week, the kids bring their own if they need to. Some bring an orange, some a small bag of chips or crackers, but most don’t bring food.

What they do bring is their imaginations, their productivity, and their determination to get something down on paper. I’ve made sure to tell them that NANOWRIMO is the time to shut off their “inner editor” and just get words on the page. Revision can happen later.

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At the end of the hour, we fill out our word-count goal chart.  On this chart, we’ve each listed our names with our word-count goal for the month at the far right. If a student reaches their word-count goal for the day (the monthly goal divided by the number of days in the month), they put an X on the chart in that day’s column.

We’ve kept our goals reasonable. Next year, we may be more ambitious. This is not a real NaNoWriMo after all. However, it’s a start. We each have a word-count goal. We each have a project to work on and the dedicated time to work on it.

Who would have thought that I would have accomplished real progress on my “historical memoir project thing” in just forty-five minutes a day… at the end of a busy school day… with twelve to fifteen middle schoolers in the same room?


Thanks for reading! Have you ever tried NaNoWriMo? How was your experience? Did you participate with your students or was it just a personal challenge? 

I would love to try NaNoWriMo with my new high school students eventually, but first things first. This year definitely presents a learning curve for me with adjusting to older, more reserved older students.

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.

IMG_1707
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.