Thursday, February 28, 2013

Focus on Writer's Backgrounds

from our textbook
We have been imitating the "Writer's Background" found before each story, essay, or poem in our textbook.

The idea arose when we started our unit on historical fiction. Investigating the backgrounds of the writer provided a focus for our reading.

A focus for our reading. Focus? Focus is one of the grand dames of the Pennsylvania Writing Rubric. It shows up on the PSSA tests. And it shows up in the CCSS.

I found that asking students to compose a "Writer's Background" that connects to their current draft also asks them to consider their focus as a writer...without actually thinking of it as focus.

Focus tends to be one of those words we see defined in rubrics but only loosely grasp. Usually, as long as a student stays on-topic, one considers them focused. Overused, focus often suffers the same fate as any word--it loses its meaning with overuse.
My mentor text

"Writer's Backgrounds" guided students to focus as a writer without my losing them by drumming the word focus into their head over and over. It also provided a fresh angle for me to encourage them to "dig deeper" or write "what matters" or tell me "why that is important to you." Yes, I explain that a "writer's background" provides a focus for us as a reader, but now  it will be interesting to see it in use as a writer.

Student writing on Asian stereotypes
Incidentally, the student writing does not have to be autobiographical narrative or memoir as some asked (or feared). Even if students are writing a persuasive essay about a topic in social studies or an informative essay about which guitar one should purchase, trying to connect an element of one's developing idea to something about us (our mind, our experience, our knowledge) funnels our thoughts into one idea. The "Writer's Background"  has kept my students on task...or focused.

I am going to continue to ask students to compose a "Writer's Background" as we continue move forward with our writing. In addition to forcing students to learn to whittle away their words to the core of what matters to them (narrow an idea), it also provides valuable insight for me as a reader--or any reader.

Student writing on family & travel
When we provided feedback in our peer revision groups, I found students offering thoughts about the "Writer's Background" and better, more insightful, comments about the essay because of having the "Writer's Background" read to them before the essay.

At some point during the lesson, I admitted to students that I often find myself skipping the writer's background when I read...and that maybe that isn't such an admirable habit. Maybe I need to change that about myself.

A few days after I said this, during a book talk of the YA novel Crank by Ellen Hopkins , a student noted that he also skips any of the prologues, afterwords, or anything included about or by the author.

But...this time he peeked at what Hopkins wrote in the Author's Note:
While this work is fiction, it is loosely based on a very true story--my daughter's. The monster did touch her life, and the lives of my family. My family. It is hard to watch someone you love so deeply under the spell of a substace that turns him or her into a stranger. Someone you don't even want to know.
Nothing in this story is impossible. Much of it happened to us, or to families like ours. Many of the characters are composites of real people. If they ring true, they should. The "baby" at the end of the book is now seven years old, and my husband and I have adopted him. He is thriving now, but it took a lot of extra love.
If this story speaks to you, I have accomplished what I set out to do. Crank is, indeed, a monster--one that is tough to leave behind once you invite it into your life. Think twice. Then think again.
Care to guess which book I reading now as my own independent, self-selected reading?  I love that one simple adjustment has contributed to our class in so many ways in just a few weeks.

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