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.

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