Saturday, September 17, 2011

Altering one's aspect towards the sun

The transition to an NWP-inspired writer's workshop classroom has continued to move smoothly now that we are through our third calendar week of school.

Some concerns voiced early by colleagues from around the region during the NWP Summer Institute had to do with being in "literature-based" classrooms.  How do we use the writing-based methods in a literature-based classroom?

I'm learning it isn't a square peg - round hole scenario.

Writing and reading are so co-dependent that it seems silly to me now to even type that statement.  A piece of the fear I suppose is more clearly stated, how can we devote so much time for students to write what they want when I have content and literature to teach?

Again, I'm learning it isn't a square peg - round hole scenario.  To borrow from the spirit of what Virginia Woolf meant when she wrote, "I don't believe in aging, I believe in forever altering one's aspect towards the sun."  We don't have to view ourselves as teachers as on a set of rails.  The methods we use are one of many possibilities.  I learned this summer after 17 years of teaching that I need to be willing to believe that there is another way.

My example over the last week brings Stephen Crane to the table, front and center.  Our students had to read The Red Badge of Courage as one of their summer reading selections.  And they struggled with it.  Some offer their soured opinions of it openly.  I and my colleagues in my building have also heard the opinions of some adults that the book is too hard for these kids and that their kids hated it.

Well, time to roll up our sleeves then and get to work.

Learning is allowed to be uncomfortable at times.  With a published RL of 7.43 (appropriate for grades 7-8, or ages 12-14) that hardly seems to be the issue.  The kids I teach are generally good readers--I often find that they have a current YA title in their hand when moving class to class.  I even had a boy recommend a book to me (Way of the Peaceful Warrior, by Dan Millman) last week.  Several students have already borrowed novels from my classroom library on their own.  The issue, in this case, I believe rests in the fact that TRBC is not necessarily a novel which hurtles along a rollicking plot line.  Plot isn't at the forefront.  It is built upon the psychology of one soldier and develops with thickly ladled imagery.  It isn't anything like what most of the kids I teach read.

At NWP we're taught to ask our kids, "what have you read which is like what you are trying to write?"

I took that lesson from this summer, altered the way I looked at the sun, and placed a small passage by Crane under my classroom ELMO document camera and projected it on the wall.  I circled nouns, highlighted adjectives, underlined verbs, noted articles and pronouns and phrases and clauses.  And then together as a class we would write like Crane...we would imitate this passage.  Where Crane placed an article, we would place an article.  Where Crane crafted a prepositional phrase, we would craft a prepositional phrase, etc.

What have you read which is like what you are trying to write?

I told them we must change the subject of what we are imitating.  That took knowledge of the passage.  We read it aloud, discussed it, and decided that Crane took the time, showed the patience, to describe a "horde" of soldiers moving forward.  However, a student noted that it was more than that.  It was how two different sets of eyes might describe the "horde" of soldiers--some might say they were grizzled and angry and ready to tear a house apart piece of wood by piece of wood, others might suggest they were sad, hungry, and weak.

We decided to write our passage about a "swarm" of butterflies from the perception of someone who loves nature, and then from the perception of a child.

As we plugged in words shouted out at each step, a student offered that this was like Mad Libs. And it seemed like they were having fun as we wrote in the style of Crane, as we imitated the syntax of a author they were grumbling about just a few weeks ago.

Our "original" Crane the way "blithe" is one of our vocabulary words so we were excited to include it:

Some whispered of golden, freckled swarms that were drifting with blithe dips and twisting ascents with awe-inspiring beauty; fragile wings of gentle creatures who flutter like autumn in the wind.  Others cheered floating and eternally playful crayons that played tag in the sky.

I loved their piecing together the perception of children....butterflies are crayons playing tag.

After modeling this, I distributed a variety of brief passages by Crane and asked them to do the same thing individually.

The lesson allowed me to circulate around the room and assist kids with identifying parts of speech, and it also allowed me to dust off the classroom set of the most foreign of books to my kids--the thesaurus.  I gave each kid one to use to grow their writing as we also discussed imagery and motif in small, individual conferences.  The lesson also offered opportunities for me to talk about Crane in small chunks, one on one with kids, as they worked on deciphering what we meant and how his craft influenced his story.

The kids wrote about things they wanted to but in the patterns and style of Crane.  I heard Cranesque passages about everything from football and lacrosse to pumpkin picking and dance lessons.  When the students read them aloud to the class we noted the similar cadence and rhythm in what we wrote, but the vastly different stories.  We noted that this imitative lesson made us be patient as writers and it taught us to be open-minded toward an author and a book some despised only days ago.

We have repeated the lesson twice so far--I'm hopeful at least a few will choose to continue to work on their Crane piece and submit it as one of their upcoming essays and/or submit it to a teen magazine such as Teen Ink (which is an online magazine).  Some of what they shared was just so beautiful that it would be a shame to keep it cooped up in their writer's notebooks for eternity.

Writing is thinking, and I do believe that even in our traditional content-based literature classrooms, we can alter what we've always done and use writing more as a vehicle for taking the kids, and ourselves, beyond anyplace we've ever visited before in our classrooms.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Stopped in our Tracks--bridging the Writer's Notebook to literature

Now that all students had a writer's notebook we set out to write in it--their first entry was to be written at home: write about three things which stopped you in your tracks.  We wrote to this prompt during one of our classes at our NWP SI and I really liked the results then, so wanted to try it with my students.

When the students arrived with their three thoughtful entries I asked them to read over them and choose one.  Choose the one which matters to you most, for whatever reason.  Start a new entry where you explain why this one is most important to you.  (By the way, I do the assignments as well, and write alongside of the students as they write.  I try to change my seat in the room daily, as I change their seats daily as well).

After ten minutes we paused and I asked them to skip a space and to think (through writing) what the core issue is in what they have been currently writing about.  What is it that matters to them beyond this one incident.  What is truly at the heart of why this one incident matters to them?

As an example I shared this fictional progression which I created:

An event which stopped me in my tracks was my sister borrowed my favorite hooded sweatshirt without asking.  She ruined it--stains were all over it.  And then she tried to fold it and slip it back into my closet without my knowing she ever had it in the first place.

I chose this event as the most important because I had always had a great relationship with my sister.  We were great friends.  But this event altered our friendship--for the first time ever I felt trust issues with my sister.  I began to question and wonder had she done anything similar with me in the past.

At the heart of this incident is the fact that trust is extremely important to me.  It is something I rarely talk about or plan for, but it just is.  And you can't say it, you can't just say you trust have to show it, do it. Trust is an action way more than it is a spoken word.

So then my students went forward and wrote about what was at the heart of their writing, what truly mattered to them.  After we finished writing, we did a large group share--some shared, not many.  We are still building community.  I didn't press it which worked out fine because I had a concluding mini-lesson to get to with the remaining ten minutes of class:

I just asked all of you to write for a few days about things which matter to you.  At the heart of many pieces of writing is something which mattered to an author.  Whether it is an article in magazine or a YA novel, authors write about things which are important to them.

You all read The Red Badge of Courage for summer reading--take a moment and put aside your struggles or personal opinions about the book.  Take a moment and think with your pen, what do you think was important to Stephen Crane?  Based on the book, what do you think was at the heart of what mattered to him--go deeper than plot.  Go to that place that you just visited yourself...and think about what Crane must have felt or believed deep inside of himself.  Write that.  There is no right or wrong.  I do not know myself...and I will write my own thoughts myself along with you.

With the final five minutes we shared what we thought and called it a day.

Golden Lines: the second day of class and more NWP influence

The idea for the second class came from something I read in Kelly Gallagher's Teaching Adolescent Writers.  In it he shares an idea of how he sometimes handles giving feedback to student writers-- highlighting strong lines in yellow and referring to them as "golden lines."

In the hopes of building both community and confidence in a classroom of fresh-faced writers, I planned on this day being a golden line day.  Everyone would write, share, and have celebrated a golden line.

After the students found their name card and new seat I asked them to look at the neighborhood map they created yesterday.  Look at everything with a new eye.  Which one place, thing, event, moment would you consider as one of the most important to you?  Explain that in writing on the back of your name card (I gave the students two classes to have their writers notebooks in class).  I also liked the idea of developing a piece of a writing around and on this name card...we started with their name and now we are writing about things which are important to us.

After roughly ten minutes of writing I asked the students to pause and read back to themselves what they wrote.  I asked them to think about what was really the important issue they were driving at...what idea, concept, big picture, were they really writing about.  Skip a space and process what they believe is really the important idea in what they wrote.

After another five minutes, we then did a large group share.  After the first student read, I asked him to place a little tick mark next to one particularly strong sentence.  Then, I had another student read and asked her to mark a strong sentence of hers.  After modeling this, I had all of the students share their writing in their small groups--and asked the group members to decide for each student which one line should be marked as a strong line.

After everyone read and had a line selected, each student rewrote his/her line on a yellow strip of construction paper.  We then hung all of these up on a classroom bulletin board labeled "Golden Lines."

My closing message was that they all were writers, but like all writers they would have to work at it this year, and part of that work would include supporting each other.

How the NWP altered my teaching--Day 1

Using methods learned at my National Writing Project summer institute, the first week of school in my creative writing classes surpassed my expectations.  I want to share how I developed the class over the course of this first week, but it can summed up in one word--mentoring.  I am becoming more of a mentor writing alongside of them as well as conferring constantly with many of them throughout the class.

In a series of blog posts, I want to share how each day progressed during this first week:

Day 1--Names
Students wrote their names in crayon on a name card (construction paper of various colors) which, when folded, stands up on their desk like a nameplate.  I cut a full sheet in half and then folder that to create a blank nameplate.  I should add that my students sit in groups every day in my classroom.  I asked the students to doodle something important to them in the upper right hand corner--we then went around the room and gave a brief summary of what we doodled and why it was important to us.  I created my own nameplate and also doodled a picture.

These name plates served as our template to write on (as many students did not have a notebook/journal yet for class).  I also use these every day by placing their nameplate on a different desk each day.  Students sit with different groups of kids every day--when kids in my homeroom (who do not have me for class) heard about it after the first few days many piped up, "Ooh I'd like that!"  Many in my classes have also enjoyed the variety and daily hunt for their card.

The first writing assignment we did on the nameplate was actually a drawing.  We opened the card to draw on the "inside" of it.  I asked the students to draw a "neighborhood" that they could literally be the neighborhood they live in now, one they used to live it, a combination of all of the neighborhoods they've ever lived in, or even a neighborhood of their life (a series of images of all of the fascinating, important, memorable moments, places, people, encounters they have experienced).

We then did a small group share (5 or so in a group), where each student explained their neighborhood to their group.  I had sketched a sample neighborhood of mine on the board as a model--but I also drew my own neighborhood inside of my own card alongside of them.  I did this with each class.  Rather than create five separate cards for each of my five classes, I just kept adding to my neighborhood map.  By the end of the day I had a highly detailed map for students to use as a model.

This ended Day 1--we would use the neighborhood map during Day 2.