New Teacher Series/ Question 10: What are the best strategies for teaching writing?

 

Last year, I had a conversation with one of my classes on why writing was so hard.  Here are a few of their reasons:

  • I don’t know where to start.
  • I don’t know where to end.
  • I don’t write in chronological order or in any order that makes logical sense. It’s all over the place.
  • I don’t always write in complete sentences, but sometimes I do.
  • I’m afraid I’ll write the wrong thing and have to do the whole thing over.
  • The choices are overwhelming.
  • Every time I write something crappy, my teacher always likes it. Every time I write something I think is brilliant, my teacher thinks its crap.
  • Because it just is.
  • I have a hard time getting what’s in my head out on paper.
  • I’ve discovered that I really don’t know how to tell a story.

In an interview with the New York Times on the occasion of his retirement from fiction writing, novelist Philip Roth said, “I no longer have the stamina to endure the frustration.  Writing is frustration— it’s daily frustration, not to mention humiliation. It’s just like baseball: you fail two-thirds of the time.” And yet failure is the process by which all writers – novelists, essayists, social critics, screenwriters, journalists, technical writers—meander their grief-stricken way to the finished product. How do we support kids in failure?

Next to teaching (and all things for which there are no clear paths—loving someone, raising kids, grieving, etc), writing is the hardest thing I do and it may be the hardest thing we ask kids to do.  We’re asking students to engage in an activity which requires memory, logic, visualization, vocabulary, plus kinesthetic and cognitive awareness.  Plus failure.

Research on the neuroscience of writing shows just how enormous an undertaking writing is.  Neurologically, writing is a skill on par with someone playing a musical instrument or participating in a sporting event. It’s complex, unique, and only develops through practice.

So while I admit that writing is so incredibly, mind-bogglingly hard, I would argue, the teaching of writing is even harder.  A good high school English teacher attempts to create an environment wherein 150 students (with 150 sets of information and misinformation, memory, value, prejudice, vocabulary, and logic) grapple with the enormously complex task of 1) attaching mental images to 2) the concrete, appropriate words in 3) the best order to 4) move an audience for 5) a specific purpose in 6) a specific, cohesive form using 7) appropriate-to-the-product usage and grammar.

Gasp.

So how are we to manage this Herculean task?

You must be a writer yourself.  I feel everything that needs to be said about the importance of English teachers to be active readers and writers has already been said by great teachers, like Nanci Atwell  (In The Middle) and Penny Kittle (Write Beside Them). Writing with your students makes you humble in the face of the staggering, monumental task you are asking them to accomplish. Writing is dynamic, not a set of static concepts students learn once and master.  To understand the struggles of writing, you don’t have to be a published author, you just have to write on a regular basis. You can’t teach writing from a position of theory.  You must have a process and projects of your own.  If not, you are in an untenable position to support students with the overwhelming number of decisions with which they will be faced.

Move beyond the free write, graphic organizers, and constructed response. If students are to become better writers, they must move beyond teacher-created forms, like the 3.5 paragraph essay and the 6 point essay.  Freewriting and graphic organizers have given struggling writers a great tool by which to get the ideas in their head down onto a piece of paper in the form of words and sentences. But those tools are still training wheels, and writers need to learn how to ride, wide open into the dark unknown. Struggling, then failing, then learning how to struggle and fail smarter is part of the process of becoming a better thinker and writer. If we provide students with the pre-fab forms by which to fashion their thought, they will never have the opportunity to learn from the process of navigating that road alone.   Students must learn to manage the project of their own writing from start to finish to become better writers.

Allow students to choose their own writing projects.  Teacher-created writing assignments come from the brain of the teacher, not the student writer. Writing prompts have a long and gloried history in the English classroom. From “What did you do over your summer vacation?” to the perennial “What would you do if you won a million dollars?” writing prompts have provided reluctant writers a spring board from which to jump onto the often-intimidating blank page.  Being able to respond in writing to an on-demand prompt is also one of the skills we use to measures how students demonstrate their own learning of a concept.  However, real world writing asks students to discover their own reasons to communicate, their own exigence.  We need to teach students to recognize this need and to write toward a finished product. Students must learn how to select their own topics, manage the time to research, draft, and edit a long project, and ultimately, deal with the inherent failure, even while becoming a better and braver writer in the end.

 

New Teacher Series/ Question 9: What are the best strategies for novels?

In the landscape of English-Language Arts, there are different camps for how to best teach the novel, so as with anything, you should read widely about strategies and find the ones that work for you and your students. While I’m a great believer in the power and beauty of classic literature, I believe reading should be a joy and a pleasure, and for some students, particularly what teachers call “reluctant” readers, the classics can be torture.  They become just one more irrelevant thing foisted on them by teachers.

Kids who don’t read well may not like to read because they haven’t mastered the skills to tap into the wonderment and magic of a novel. Maybe they didn’t have positive early literacy experiences; maybe they can decode the words but can’t comprehend the meaning; maybe they were forced to read boring texts and associate reading with suffering and agony. The list goes on and on.  But I firmly agree with J. K. Rowling, who said, “If you don’t like to read, you haven’t met the right book yet.”

Outside of an AP curriculum, where choices tend toward classic lit, I am a proponent of both the canon and the contemporary – whatever gets a kid to become a crazy-mad reader – comic books, graphic novels, genre fiction, poetry, whatever.  Reading is a skill, like writing, that improves with practice. The more a student reads, the better she becomes at reading.  The better she becomes at reading, the more she will enjoy the experience and become more proficient.  But the first step is hooking the kid, and that hook should be baited with a juicy bite. As he grows as a reader, his tastes and abilities may change.  There’s room for all levels and likes at the table of literacy.  But how do you get kids to willingly join you?

Here are a few tips to get started.

  • Read whole novels, not just excerpts. Teaching students how to analyze and read closely through the use of excised novel passages of no more than 750 words, about the length of a reading passage on the ACT, has become a trend. This practice is not teaching reading; it’s teaching the skim/scan/chunk method of test prep, and it should only be used in addition to reading whole novels.  This practice is like asking kids to appreciate a seven-course dining experience, but only giving them the soup.
  • Teach reading and analytical skills explicitly.   Using To Kill a Mockingbird to study social justice or civil rights is a defensible lesson, but developing reading and critical thinking skills is the primary objective.  Any novel can be used as the text by which students learn to analyze theme, characters, diction, syntax, and structure. Teaching a novel isn’t teaching content alone, but as a corrolary enticement to reading skill and practice.  Questioning, reacting, inferring, predicting, and analyzing are reading skills students will need whether they’re reading Jude the Obscure or  Unwind. 
  • Create a culture of reading in your classroom. Be excited about reading yourself. Constantly share with your students what you’re currently reading.  Share articles, blog posts, videos about popular writers and popular books with your students.  Talk about characters as if they were real people. Model what literacy looks like.  Have a classroom library, and create many opportunities for them to visit your school’s library.  Start an after-school book club. Demonstrate for them that proficiency in reading is powerful personally and politically.
  • Become proficient at Lit Circles and Socratic Seminar. The heart of both of these approaches is discussion.  When you, as a practiced reader, read something that sits your head on fire, you naturally want to share, talk about it with someone else, analyze the whys and hows.  Using Lit Circles and Socratic Seminars in your classroom gives students an outlet and a forming ground for discussing the themes, motivations, and conflicts in the text. The dialogue and debates that both of these practices generate mimic the conversations of practiced and sophisticated thinkers and readers.  I’ve used these two practices to great effect in my regular English classes with texts, both classic and contemporary.
  • Be a literary matchmaker. Know where your students’ interests lie, and then make recommendations to kids of books you think they will like. If students gravitate naturally toward Young Adult lit, use those texts to teach the skills they will need to develop and strength in order to read more complex texts in the future. I loved teaching the classics, but the language can be arcane, the syntax cumbersome, and the subject matter foreign to a reluctant reader.  Bait the hook with their choice of novels, then reel them in with deeper, denser, more challenging reading as they develop their abilities.  Help them create the text-to-self connections that make reading relevant and real to them.

 

 

Personal Universe Deck: An Oldie, but a Goodie

Personal Universe Deck is a great way to tap into kids’ linguistic whimsy and their sense of playfulness with words. Plus kids get a personal deck of 100 word cards they can keep all year long or for the rest of their lives. The Personal Universe Deck as a writing exercise has been attributed to American poet and playwright Michael McClure .  This archived one-hour 1976 lecture where McClure takes poetry students through the process is a must-listen before you lead your students through the process.

This activity has been tweaked and adapted many times to teach a host of writing and language skills.    Sometimes when we have an afternoon where a fire drill, a pep rally, or some school wide test has jangled our nerves and squandered our sacred time, I ask kids to pull out their universe decks and write a poem using four of their cards. Sometimes I ask each student to throw three cards into a basket, then I pull out ten cards, write the words on the board, and we each write a short story or scene based on the words.  The key to doing this well is allowing each student to build her own universe in words. Their universe; their words. I usually take about five days to allow kids to develop their deck.  Each day, as a bell ringer, I take kids through one stage of creation.

 Day One: I ask kids to write 100 concrete, specific words in ten minutes (or longer, depending on the class) that represent their individual, personal, beautiful universe.  All words need to be words each kid loves, words she thinks are beautiful, words she thinks exemplifies who she is, and words that are in some way associated with the five senses.  The words should also represent their good side and their bad side, as well as their past, present, and future.

I model this on the board:  “Okay, start with free association on clean sheet of paper.  Start with the first word that occurs to you.  Lilac. I don’t know why I just thought of that, but my grandmother had lilac bushes in her yard, and I’m trying to keep in mind my past, present, future. Each word needs to have some significance to you, so lilac. That’s a smell word, right?  And now I’m standing in my grandmother’s yard by the lilac bush, and what do I hear? How about thunder? Yep, I visited her in the summers, and storms popped up a lot.  That would be a sound for me. Now, just start writing concrete words and follow the associations.  I remember touching the cool, rough concrete of my grandfather’s dairy barn.  Barn is one of my words.  That might be a touch word for me.  Don’t just write down anything to finish the assignment – find words that are beautiful to you, that represent your universe, that are concrete.”

Day Two: Same thing on Day Two as Day One:  we create another 100 words.  This second day of free assocation will be important when we start the selection process on Day Three.  My philosophy is that each kid needs 200 words to find the best 100 words that represent his life.

Day Three:  I ask students to start weeding and whittling down their words to the essential 100 beautiful, signficant, personal words.  I remind them  the words should not be descriptive of senses, like “salty” or “sweet,” but concrete words like “hot dog” or “custard.” Cut out the vague words and replace them with specific. Avoid “bird;” intead say “wren” or “raven” or “blue jay.” Also, cut out words with suffixes, like – ing, -ly, -ed, -s.

Day Four: Students begin selecting words for categories. Eighty of the words need to be related to the five senses:  16 words for sight, 16 words for sound, 16 words for smell, 16 words for touch, 16 words for taste.   Add ten words for movement. Add three words for abstraction.  Then the last seven words are anything else they want.  Kids can make the below chart in their writing notebook for classification or just number their words.

Sight  (16) Smell (16) Sound (16) Taste (16) Touch (16) Movement (10) Abstraction (3) Anything (7)
             

Day Five: I give each kid 50 index cards, and they fold them in half and divide them into 100 small cards that create their “deck.”  On the back of the card, write your initials or some tag that indicates the card is yours.  On the front of the card, write one glorious word.  Repeat 99 times.  Presto, your Personal Universe Deck! (You can even get fancy and laminate these if you bring your media technician a nice pie and promise to clean her house.)

Teachers, how would you use this in your classroom?! Please share and add your ideas in the comments.

 

 

The Body Project

In 1855, American poet Walt Whitman self-published his poetry collection, Leaves of Grass, celebrating the human spirit, the body, nature, the shape of democracy, friendship, and love.  Among the twelve poems in the first edition, Whitman included “I Sing the Body Electric,” a multi-part poem of lists that revels in the body as a sacred vessel of the soul.  The snippets of narratives and images in his poem exist almost as organs and systems within the human body.

For this activity, I asked students to brainstorm some language related to their bodies.  They came up with the typical list:  heart, liver, lungs, spleen, blood, bones, bowels, nodes, cells, matter, muscle, tendon, nails, hair, eyes, nose, skin.

Then we brainstormed about language related to their souls. They came up with:  morality, personality, imagination, maturity, emotions, divine/eternal, vision, curiosity, beliefs, values, ego/id/superego, intelligence, reason, memories, language.

My purpose for the brainstorm was to identify how the duality of our bodies mimics the duality of poetry.  A poem about mackerel is not about mackerel. We are not the total of our glands; we are divine.  A poem is not just a collection of artfully arranged words; it’s a prayer, a lesson, a song about being human.

Secondly, I asked students to pair up and help each other draw the frames of their bodies on a large piece of newsprint.

Once secured on the page, the frame served as a vessel within which students transcribed their own celebration of body and soul, the linkage of the flesh and the spirit, the earthly and the divine.

Written without any drafting or pre-writing, analysis or weighing of poetic or rhetorical postures, these poems emerged over the course of three days of spontaneous writing.  The pieces synthesize song lyrics, spiritual texts, political manifestos, bumper sticker slogans, lines of poetry, battle cries, and original poetic texts.

My goals were: 1) I wanted to introduce them to Walt Whitman’s poem; 2) I wanted them to write spontaneously without regard to analysis, prewriting, drafting, etc. and 3) I wanted them to celebrate their body/soul connection with writing. Here are a few of them:

 

The pieces were a success, so we stuck them on the wall in the center hallway at our school, and I used them for a gallery walk for other classes.

 

Lesson Plan: Using transference in fiction

Manuel Gonzalez, author of The Miniature Wife and Other Stories and The Regional Office Is Under Attack! recently visited my classroom to talk about craft and lead us in a few writing exercises. During the craft talk, he had good advice like “Get your butt in a chair and write 500-1000 words every day,” but the writing exercises were especially good, so I thought I would pass them along to you.

According to Psychology Today, a classic example of transference occurs when someone unconsciously redirects or transfers feelings from one person to another or from one experience to another.  In the world at large, transference might occur when you develop an unwarranted attachment to a coworker who reminds you of an old flame.  But in the writing world, transference can be used to migrate authentic feelings from an author’s real life experience into the world of fiction to bring specificity and humanity to a character.  Gonzalez, quoting fiction writer Tayri Jones, said, “If you’ve been stuck in an elevator for more than five minutes, you know what it’s like to be stuck in a space station.” In other words, you take what you know and transfer it onto fictional characters and fictional places to make them seem real.

At the outset of the exercise, Gonzalez told a story about an Orthodox Jewish Broadway actor who was playing a character contemplating suicide. The last scene required him, without any dialogue, to have the gun in his hand, but then convince the audience he had decided not to kill himself. The reviews for his performance were wild with praise for his showcase of pain and struggle with the decision.  But as an Orthodox Jew, he wouldn’t have ever even considered suicide. At a press junket, a journalist asked him:   How did you inhabit your character?  He said that he lived in a four-story walkup flat with an old water heater in the basement. When he took a shower, it took forever to get the hot water going, so many mornings he had to take a cold shower if he wanted to take a shower at all. “I would stand there and look at that cold water, but some days I just couldn’t bring myself to get into the bathtub. I took that feeling and transferred it to a character who was contemplating suicide, but ultimately can’t do it,” said the actor.  Gonzalez then led us in three transference exercises to bring specificity and humanity to a small scene by channeling personal experience into scene.

  • Think of an ordinary or typical moment in your life. Write that moment, but choose to do something you would never do in real life, adding complications and tension.
  • Write a short scene about something that really happened to you, but change the one thing that pivots the story, so the outcome is radically different from what really happened.
  • Take yourself as a character and drop yourself into a wildly unfamiliar environment. React as you would normally react in an environment like this.  Write that scene.

 

The kids loved these activities, and many of the scenes we wrote during this visit ended up in polished pieces at the end of the unit. Boom! Lesson plan.

World’s Most Invasive Character Speed Dating

Students get ready for a round of speed dating to discover their characters and possibly love?

Today my peer tutor, Serena, a Senior in SCAPA’s Literary Arts program, lead my class in a character development activity so fabulous, I wish I could claim I developed it myself.

Some Background:  We’ve been unpacking the power of point of view in short fiction, specifically looking at where the language comes from in models like Daniel Orozco’s “Orientation,” Gish Jen’s “Who’s Irish?” and John Cheever’s “The Swimmer.” This week, we are looking at characterization as the point from which every element naturally stems – detail selection when describing setting, the word choice in dialogue, and the action/reaction in scenes with other characters.  The objective of this lesson is to allow students to explore their character in a safe environment in order to understand the motivations and back story of the point of view character.

The Setup: When Serena was a sophomore, my students participated in a character development activity where students had to walk across the room or tie their shoes or order coffee or drive a car in the skin of their character. It’s method acting meets creative writing class. As Serena and I talked about her lesson plan, she recalled that the activity wasn’t very successful for her because she didn’t really know her character yet, and she wasn’t quite sure how they would walk or talk or drive a car.  She recalled that the class was hesitant to stand up and walk around in front of other students in their character’s skin, because as Freshman they were barely comfortable in their own skin. So she came up with this idea she called “World’s Most Invasive Character Speed Dating”  The purpose of speed dating is, of course, to find a compatible match, but the purpose of our activity was to provide students with ready-made questions and a limited time rotation process to interact with another person as their character

The Activity: We set up the desks in the room in pairs and numbered each pair with a set of odd/even numbers (Ex. 1/2, 3/4, 5/6, etc.) Students were directed to sit down anywhere. On each desk, Serena had placed two questions.  She had 20 different questions total. Some of them were innocuous (What is your eye color? Hair color? Is it natural or dyed? Do you have a birthmark? Tattoos? Where is it? What about scars? How did you get them?) but some of them went deeper into the psychology and back story of the characters, (Have you ever been in love?  What is in your refrigerator right now? On your bedroom floor? On your nightstand? In your garbage can?) and others delved even deeper ( Do you have any powers? If not, if you could pick any power, what would it be? Would you use it for good or evil? If you had to commit a murder, how would you execute it? Where would you hide the body? What weapon would you use? ).  Some of the questions she cabbaged off character development websites, others from speeding dating websites, and others she made up.  Students spent about 4 minutes at each table.  The even number characters stayed seated, and the odd numbers rotated to other desks when time was called.  Since I was not running the show, I participated as a character: a nine-year-old Christian fundamentalist named Charlotte Bromagen who fancies herself as a neo-Joan of Arc with a loose sense of mission.

How Did It Go:   This was one of the most successful activities we’ve done all year.  Several students completely forgot who they were, and actually became their character, adopting tics, mannerisms, dialects, facial expressions.  As they moved through the speed dating, they invented complete back stories, motivations, secrets, dreams, and fears for their characters.  After the activity, Serena asked them to reflect in their notebook.  Students commented that they were surprised when they started to answer as their character.  “As the activity went on, I built up my character and got more and more into it,” commented one student. Some of them were so method, they had trouble coming out of character.  As they made the rounds in the speed dating cycle, they reported, they were forced to react, not as themselves, but how they imagine their character would react.  Hmmmm… that’s exactly what good writers do. ♥

 

 

 

 

 

My Opening Day Lecture

Good morning. Welcome to SCAPA Literary Arts at Lafayette.

Get out your notebooks.   We are going to do some writing.  Put today’s date on the upper right hand margin.  Get in the habit of doing that when you write.  It grounds your thought in time. It answers that eternal question: when did I write this?

Before we do some writing, I want to say a few things. First, I want to welcome you to my class. I want you to know that I’m glad you are here.  My sole responsibility in this classroom is to help you become the writer you want to be.

In that vein, I expect you to write and read every day.  I expect you to struggle with ideas, words, and images.  I expect you to rejoice when you have a break through, and I expect you to persevere when you’re stuck.  I expect you to write before you think. I expect you to revise before you submit.

I encourage risk and failure. I disdain complacency and sloth. Through constant self-reflection, I want you to discover the lies you tell yourself, lies that most likely affect every part of your life.  Then being honest and devoted to love, find a way to squander that negativity.

I expect you to be respectful of others. And that means don’t touch or take anything that does not belong to you.   That also means that what is read and written in this class, stays in this class until the author sees fit to publish it to the world. That story is not yours to tell, to profit from socially, to use to hurt or exploit the owner of that story.

Even though becoming better writers is our only goal, you will achieve others along the way—you will be a better communicator and collaborator for having been a member of a community of writers. You will become a better reader of others’ writing, and because of that, you will become a better reader of your own writing.  You will discover new stories, authors, poems and poets, new writing forms.  And you will form a lasting trust and relationship with your growing self through reflection.

You will never master writing.  There will always be more to learn.  In this room, you are a part of something that is greater than yourself – a grand enterprise, the life-long pursuit of being a writer and a human.  You will learn how to do both better through constant effort.

Room 303 is a special place with a power that is built from within by you.  The degree to which you take this journey of a being a writer seriously will be the degree to which this room becomes a spark plug, a launching pad, and also a cloister, a refuge, a warm home.  I expect you to clean up every day, to put away your laptop, to rinse and put up your coffee mug if you drink coffee, and to look around your desk to make sure you haven’t left anything on your desk or on the floor around your desk at the end of class.

You are going to write more than you have ever written before, but you will be a better thinker, a better reader, and a better writer when you walk out of here next May. Writing well—both logically and beautifully— is our only goal.

Are you ready?

Okay.

What was your first memory?