Saturday, September 21, 2013

Real World Writing: The use of expression and reflection

Subscribing to the notion that teacher modeling along with professional samples is the most effective way to teach thirteen year-olds how to write, we took a look this week at an opinion posted on CNN: Thank You, Miss America by Roxanne Jones.

Since the skills expression and reflection are up first this year, the Miss America piece provided a timely sample that not only demonstrated the main tool of reflection (looking back so one can move forward) but also opened the door for students to actively reflect and express on the topic of diversity during the activity.

While reading the article aloud together, students used post-its to mark lines or ideas that confused them, made them think, or inspired them to debate, cheer, or wonder. As we finished, I asked them to write a note on the post-it that highlighted their thoughts--one post-it would be placed on a classroom poster framing a copy of the article, and the rest would be placed in their writer's notebook (for possible future reflection). Of course, I wrote and shared my own post-its.

Expression and reflection are the two places I began with this year because, after rereading my notes from Kelly Gallagher's Write Like This, these specific components of writing exist within most types of writing students will do: informative, narrative, evaluation, argument, judgment, and persuasion.

As my 8th grade students read about some recent American failures of diversity, they also saw Jones use both expression and reflection to lead the reader forward into a proposed better future--a future that they have the power to affect and change right here in their own classrooms and homes.

From her personal experiences, Jones shared:
The beauty pageant circuit is a tough act, as I learned early from my fleeting experiences as a teen who participated in several pageants. Don't laugh, that college scholarship money is no joke. Back then, there were no other brown girls on the stage. No matter. My family and friends cheered me on and told me how beautiful I was -- and I had the audacity to believe them.

Looking forward, she opened the eyes of my young readers with information few realized:
Miss America, I hope you use your crown and platform well and that you have the courage to amplify the voices of those women and girls back in your ancestral home, India, who are valiantly fighting for full equality and the right to live without fear of the brutal sexual violence that plagues that nation.

Truly looking back so that we may look forward, Jones' essay prodded more questions from my kids:
Reject the critics -- men and women -- who bash women like television personality Julie Chen for getting plastic surgery after being told by her bosses nearly 20 years ago that her Asian eyes would hurt her career. Chen made her choice back then, and brava for her for starting a public debate now about Asian beauty standards.

Digging deeper, and sharing why these points matter not only to us but also to the writer, she writes:
Was it an awful message to give women in the workplace? Yes. But it's no different from the countless occasions throughout my career that I've witnessed women being told that they are too fat, too black or too Latina to succeed. In my first television job, the news director told me that I should study Diane Sawyer's look and voice in order to be better at my job -- like I was ever going to look like Diane. Thank goodness Oprah came along.

Finally, the conclusion offers a point of view that inspired my classroom of readers to reflect upon themselves--and their own possibilities:
But to succeed, we must deal with it; work to improve the environment for the women behind us, and move on with our lives. There's room on the stage for all types of beauty.

The post-its generated by my students are possible topics for an upcoming draft focused on expression and reflection. Ten student comments and questions from the post-its:

  • It is amazing how many people feel that they have make insults about people of another race to feel good about themselves.
  • It is difficult to put yourself out in a place of such vulnerability and share your talents just to be judged by so many people.
  • I adore this line where she said "There's room on the stage for all types of beauty." This really made me think about how many people get turned down from being on stage just because of how they look, not for their pure talent.
  • I like how the author said "beauty was Nina Davuluri." The wording was so powerful and made a strong point.
  • Why should a woman have to change her look to be on T.V.?
  • Why are some people so mean about other people's looks?
  • Since when does beauty depend on skin color. Beauty comes from within. Nina has put up with a lot of hate, just because she won a Miss America pageant, why? She is still American.
  • I enjoy that more children are able to relate to her, and that she, above all, still thinks of herself as American.
  • I like "There's room on the stage for all types of beauty" because it meant to me that you don't have to be the prettiest person and that not only one person should be thought of as beautiful.
  • There will always be haters, don't keep your head down, and stand up, and rage on.

And then some used our classroom blog as a forum to continue their expression and reflection. In this piece, my student, Suchi, reflects that she used to wonder what it would be like if she weren't Indian, but never uttered those words because of the disrespect it would bring to her culture.

At the end, she expresses pride...and gives a nod to the celebration of diversity and strength brought into the light by the crowning of Nina Davuluri.

All of this discussion, reflection, and expression was generated from one shared lesson. The day's work will be an option for a more formally developed and polished essay at the end of the month, but even if some students never revisit this specific celebration and challenge to American diversity, this modeled and practiced skill will serve them all well as they move forward to our next article, their next class, and the rest of their academic careers.

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