Saturday, February 28, 2015

Family History & Culture

My great-grandparents & family
I write about my family history and culture. It has grown into a passion of mine.

Several essays of mine have been published in a local writing journal. For example, if you go to the Pennsylvania Writing and Literature Project's (PAWLP) ejournal 210 East Rosedale and flip to page 17, you will see my essay about an aunt: Cent'anni to a Family Gypsy.

Recently, I started a family blog, Homemade Ravioli, as a way to keep our family stories alive. I gave access to any family members who wish to share stories and photographs--hopefully more will join in as the months pass.

For the past two years, I have been producing a podcast, I Remember, where I interview people about their family history and heritage. Finding people to interview has been a challenge, but I prefer this brand and format to how I started--by sharing my stories. I hated my voice! I figured I would save my stories for writing and would use the podcast to sharpen my interview skills and to gain some experience with podcasting--since I want to be able to teach it to students.

For the past five years I have been writing and revising a YA novel honoring my family's Italian, turn-of-the-century roots. It isn't "about" my family in any way, but it gave me an opportunity to dig into lots of research about the region of southern Italy where we come from.

By asking my students to create a one to three-minute video podcast about their family history or culture, I got to teach several things: informational writing, context, interviewing, primary sources, digital composition, sound devices in writing...and passion.

For two weeks my kids see me passionate about something. As always, I write as they write. And I am genuinely interested in what they discover about their culture and heritage and history as much as I am excited about my own.

The Projects
I keep a YouTube playlist of the projects which you should be able to access right from this page. If you click on the "PLAYLIST" tab on the top left of the video screen, you will be able to scroll down to any of the videos published.

The Family History and Culture "video podcasts" gave the 8th grade Creative Writing students an opportunity to write informational texts with a sense of context. We tend to think of informational texts as traditional "how-to" essays or encyclopedia texts. But we took information about our families or cultures and wrote, revised, and dug deeper. In the end, I am most proud of several components: how specific the writing became, the fact that students self-selected their topics, and how engaged they were with their families while doing the work.

I can't tell you how many of our kids stopped me after classes to share little snippets of their time with mom, dad, grandmom, and grandpop--which never made it into these videos. The process of seeing these videos develop was truly special for me.

Finally, students learned that narrative, as Thomas Newkirk writes, "is the deep structure of all good sustained writing." When we struggle with textbooks it is typically because writers dispose of the narrative form. Yet, through this practical experience, we learned how narrative and anecdote can serve as "a frame for comprehension" for informative texts.

From Writing to Video/Podcast

Before offering options, I tested several apps and programs for making videos and podcasts. By tested, I mean I made short sample projects--thirty seconds long--so I could better understand a few things:
  1. ease of use (recording voice, uploading photos and video)
  2. how to share my work with others
  3. is it available in the cloud
  4. does it only function on one fixed device
It is critical that you create a digital project yourself anytime you ask students to do it. So many variables come into play that we can better understand--and avoid--by trying it first. Between workshops, conferences, and my peers, I have seen far too many examples of teachers feeling stuck--or untrained--and helpless when students cannot share their project with them. 

Try it first! And then figure out how it is going to get to you!

In my class, I presented the following four suggestions to my students:
  • iMovie
    • Apple users
    • you have to do all of the work from the same one device or computer
    • 2/3 of my students chose the iMovie app
      • most of them did everything from a personal device
      • they could access all of their pictures, emails from family, Google Docs, music, audio recordings / they saw their device as a studio
      • our students had to sign-up for WiFi in or building; a basic document which also included a parent permission component
  • WeVideo
    • for those who want the cloud & the ability to work from any device, home or school
    • does not have all of the bells and whistles of iMovie / a stripped-down version
    • a little more than 10% of my students chose this option
    • they worked from various devices (you can't do everything from the app that you can from the online/web version)
    • the videos look and sound just as good as anything made on iMovie
  • Garageband
    • for those who just want to create an audio podcast
    • our students have experience with the program through music class
    • if they chose this option I stipulated that they needed to employ other voices as well
      • interviews, conversations, snippets of their parent/grandparent sharing an anecdote
    • about 10% of my students chose this option
      • it was good for students who had trouble accessing family photographs
      • also, it was good for students who wanted to focus their energy editing/including other people's voices within the podcast
  • VoiceThread
    • another cloud-based option
    • allows for images, video, and multiple voices/recordings
    • plays more like a tricked-out slideshow
    • initially some students thought they would choose this, but after seeing me demonstrate iMovie and WeVideo they went for those other options.
    • none of my students opted for VT
After finishing the projects, students uploaded their videos/podcasts to YouTube--which I need to take a moment to explain and clarify.

We are a Google-oriented school. All of our students are given a school Google email address. Many services come with that--use of Docs, Drive, Calendar, etc.

And YouTube. As I am typing this, I clicked the little checkerboard box up in the top, right-hand corner of the page. All of those apps/features are a part of the Google in Education partnership. If you simply click on the YouTube icon you are taken a personal YouTube channel connected with the school account. 

The YouTube security is set differently for each school and age group. Your IT administrators would have more information about your individual buildings. 

When students uploads a project they should select "Unlisted" and not "Private" or "Public"..."Private" means only they can see it even if they share it with you. "Public" means anyone can see it and search for it. This setting can always be changed.

When they upload it to their own channel, they can then share it with you. There is a share feature under the YouTube video screen where they would type in your school email address.

Once they do this, I receive an email with the video in it and can select to "add to" my YouTube playlist.

When you make a YouTube playlist, all of the videos you put in it can be watched by anyone you give access to--again you can set and change the privacy settings at will.

Final Thoughts
No matter how much preparation you put into a digital project, you will face problems that you need to troubleshoot.

I am still dealing with a handful of students who cannot upload their projects to me. They created them on a computer at home and--according to them--nothing is working. Several things could be at play here; the student may never have done the project; the video really is there but a setting in their home-computer or WiFi is creating problems; they created and saved it as something too large to upload---the possibilities go on. 

Some of the problems are more transparent--kids will need a lot of repetition and support in how to best show a picture in their video or why they need to speak slowly and clearly or why silence and pauses matter.

Sometimes, programs and apps will be quirky. They just will. I can't explain it. That said, for as rewarding as the final products can be--and for as much writing and planning that you and your students will do--creating digital texts requires time and patience and flexibility. From you, yes. But we will have to remember that all of the roadblocks, quirks, and unexpected problems with technology (or in the gaps in our collective knowledge) is an opportunity for us to make the time to model patience and flexibility and problem-solving with our students.

Saturday, February 21, 2015

Between the Bright Horizons

Once asked to take a picture of my writing desk I pointed the camera outside to the sunrise. In my yard, the sun leaks through the tall hemlock. It floods through the gaps where the soft wood snapped beneath the weight of ice. Limbs crash down every winter. And they are replaced by sunrise in the mornings.

The morning is my writing desk while the afternoon and evening are my reading lamps. I can write immediately upon waking, but I don't. The dogs preclude me from hopping right to it. They need to be fed, let out, fussed over. All is quiet outside save for the huff and grunt of labrador. They scuff across the hard, week-old, snow and chase the scent of rabbit and deer. Tiny prints pressed in slender trails that end at fences. 

On workdays, I steal the time between tending the dogs and a shower and start a blog post or revise a manuscript. During the drive to work and until the moment the workday begins, I write. Even though I am not in front of a computer or clean sheet of paper, I am still writing. More often than not I am driving and prewriting or revising through my eyes and imagination. If it is in the morning, then I am writing. The radio is down or off. And I look and think and imagine. Occasionally I stop and take a picture.

The backroads can be terribly empty during the morning. But it leaves time and space to pull over. And look.

And then I spend my day working with everyone else's writing.

Weekends allow for longer stretches of writing in the morning. The season does not matter. I begin while it is dark. Write through sunrise. And stay with it until the day is stretched out in full brightness like Andrew Wyeth landscape, where the day has chased away most of the evening's shadows and much of what remains are the textures, shadows, and marks of the people we encounter between the bright horizons.
Andrew Wyeth, The Carry, 2003, tempera on panel.

Friday, February 20, 2015

When Students Can't Find Pictures

Photographs are a component of our video/podcast...or video podcast. In an upcoming blog entry I will deal with what apps or tools students use to create their projects, but for now I want to deal with the imagery question.

How I Handle Images:
Some students will want to Google images and be done with it. I want to dissuade them from this approach.

  • Who: Anyone and everyone and anything. I try to get students to gather as much as they can even if it appears off topic. Gather first, sort later. You will find that as the due date draws nearer more students will discover that they do not have enough photos, or enough of the right photos, etc. Gathering as many as we can early will help us all later.
  • Why: Images help us tell a story. They help inform. They help provide context.
  • What: Start with family images. Write, call, ask family for pictures of family. You would be surprised by what already exists...and new pictures of family or family locations can inspire new depths of writing. Pictures of cultural or family objects and places work just as well as people. 
  • How: 
    • Some pictures will be emailed to the students. 
    • If students have a personal device with a camera, they can take pictures of pictures.
    • If students know family members are on social media like Facebook, students can take screen shots of any relevant family photos.

How I Handle Literal-Minded Students:
This will happen. A student is writing about the impact that her grandfather's woodworking had on her as a little girl. But then she realizes that no photos exists of her grandfather's woodshop let alone pictures of her in her grandfather's woodshop.

  • Any photos of you and your grandfather together will work...
  • Any photos of your grandfather will work...
  • Any photos of you will work...
  • Any photos of something your grandfather made will work...
  • Any photos of your grandfather's tools...or a tool that reminds you of him will work
Sometimes students will hyper-focus on finding the exact photo of the exact moment in time noted in their writing. We need to help them learn the skills of applying a photo or image in context.

How I Handle Students at the End of their Rope
No photos exist. They really did look. They asked. They emailed. They scoured social networks. But the great-great-grandfather who felled a forest all by himself in Bavaria left no images behind. Now what? Google?


I try to keep a cache of links to sites providing royalty-free images. However, I always point students towards art first. The Metropolitan Museum of Art offers tons images online. All searchable by geographical regions.

If art fails, then yes, by all means, use any of the links on this wiki: 

Also, I pulled these sites by reading Troy Hicks and following him on social media.

India, 1735, A Lady Playing the Tampura
How I Handle "I Still Can't Find Any Images!"
Find one image. One. And let's consider this more of an audio podcast.

That said, I let it be known that I expect more than one voice to be on the podcast. (What?) Since we are bailing on using images to help us share our story and information, pull in the voice of your parents, your siblings, your aunts and uncles and grandparents. Interview them.  Use snippets of what they share and remember.

Some students will actually thrive under these conditions. Relieved of the photo hunt, students can use voice recorder/memo apps to interview family members. Also, it takes some of the pressure off of them to have things to say.

Students can craft questions around the topics that interest them most--the topics in which they are beginning to connect with in their families.

When Students Say, "I Have No Culture."

1930-41 Mexican Poncho
Sometimes students do not believe they have history or culture to write about--even after going through prewriting, looking at pictures at home, and asking questions at home. Sometimes they come from families where the past just isn't well-known or talked about.

Actually, my family knows very little about my paternal grandfather's side of the family. They have disappeared from our lives. Some of our kids will run into walls like this.

I have students who sometimes find it difficult to get answers--and not for a lack of trying. Sometimes circumstances outside of the classroom is beyond a student's control. This is where we need to work to help students see connections.

  • Perhaps music is valued in their family?
  • Do you notice people working with their hands? 
  • Does your family eat dinner together? cook together? garden?
  • Is there a history of the military? science? athletics? religion and faith? in your family?
  • What do you notice in the artwork around your house?
  • Does your family keep clothing? plates? foods? representative of a specific culture?
  • What do you see when your extended family visits or when you go there?

I try to ask questions to plant seeds in the struggling writer's mind--so they can see and value and connect with aspects about their family today. Nothing is too small. Nothing is insignificant. Everything matters and has value.

Thomas Newkirk writes in Minds Made for Stories: How We Really Read and Write Informational and Persuasive Texts that significant research exists supporting students writing about their family history and culture. Writing about who we are and where we come from provides a sense of connection and belonging. Writing is thinking. And by asking young people to think about the customs, foods, art, history, habits, et al. that they are exposed to, we ask them to see their place in the world and what it can still become. On page 30 of Minds Made for Stories, Newkirk writes:
"There is now research to suggest that telling family stories and knowing family histories can also create a collective sense of resilience and stability...It turned out that those children who knew their family history had a stronger sense of control if their own lives, higher self-esteem, and a belief that their families functioned effectively (Feiler 2013)."
One student wrote that she cringes when she witnesses her friends talk disrespectfully to adults. It just wasn't permitted in her culture.

Another student shared how her father lamented at a lost cultural expectation in their family. He used to bow with respect to adults. He realized his children (my student) no longer does this. The wry smiles and nods among those who also come from this culture--the whispers of connection--are signs that some of my students are making progress.

Any anecdotes that you can share, or any that you can get your students to share aloud, will help the rest of the class. When they hear the variety of connections made--and they hear the teacher VALUE all of those connections--more students begin to find more to say.

Students do not have to dig back five-hundred years to find something worth sharing. The process of modeling--conferring--writing asks students to knead what they have gathered, what they have experienced, in order to create with it.

Processing the Family Culture & Heritage Blogs

16th century, Islamic Calligraphy
Projecting the classroom blog on a wall, I started today by asking students, "Point out context among yesterday's writing." However, most are content to follow along with me until they grasp what I am asking them to look for.

Even though they used context yesterday, it doesn't mean they can see context today. Everything is time and practice for them, and modeling and patience for us.

For students struggling with the word "context" I'll ask, "Which lines or phrases [in this blog] define the setting or background so that we can understand the people and the circumstance better?"

Phrased another way, "Which details make you feel closer, more connected to the writing, and not left at an arm's length in understanding?"

Phrased again, "Are there places in the writing that you 'get' better than others?"

After assessing that they have a better grasp of context, I ask the following questions:

  • "Does context apply just to narrative? "
  • "Could you envision context in an informational piece?"
  • "What are some differences between narrative and informational writing?"
  • "Can narrative and informational writing blend effectively?"

I then show students a draft with only two of the three sections filled out: Three Ways My History & Culture Shapes Me.

We discuss the two I have in place, and then I type out in front of them, the third paragraph. By third period I know it so well it just flows out of me, but I still make sure to stop and explain my thinking and ask them to determine where the context exists. I ask how is this piece different than our earlier narratives? 

Leaving a block of fifteen to twenty minutes to start writing, I ask students to follow my format and to write their own three-segment piece with context. Some can do this rather quickly since they already have a lot of information to pull from. The reality is that students are using the same family history, the same stories, the cultural references over and over but they are simply thinking about them in different ways. Yet, I do have students who struggle with this stage as well...

Thursday, February 19, 2015

What Do I Write About?

Blogging a narrative was just the start of asking my students to do something with the "Family History and Culture" information collected by talking with their families. 

In order to understand how information can blend and work with narrative, I asked students to highlight one piece of explicit information in their notes. Something that their eyes are drawn to in their notes. For instance, one of the things I have come to understand through my prewriting is that, as an adolescent, I did not appreciate the closeness of my family.
When I was a child, I never appreciated that closeness, but after hearing the way my mother put it, I crave that closeness too.
I took that message and tried to explain it with more information and an anecdote. Yes, informational writing and anecdote (or story) can blend.

Then, we all wrote to try to frame a piece of information with narrative.

Story can frame information so that, as a reader, we can absorb it freely. Some informative writing disregards the narrative form--and we tend to think of that writing as dense--our students tend to think of it as boring.

Information being people, places, things, facts, procedures, data, quotes, etc. Anecdote being a bit of narrative--just enought to help the information stick.

Typically, anecdotes may not seem academic enough for some, but I disagree. Anecdotes help writers and readers forge powerful connections:
As a child, my mom was able to see most family members on a daily basis. Four Italian families of uncles, aunts, and cousins all lived together on the same street. My mom thought this was the way everyone lived, and that is where and how she raised me--in my grandparent’s house, so close to all of our family members. Now, we all live so far apart and the physical distance doesn’t feel natural to either of us. My mom reminded me, “Being surrounded by family, growing up with cousins in the same house or across the street, I never felt alone.”
As writers, we dig deeper and come to understand why things matter to us when we can bring it to life for the reader.

As readers, we learn the value of informational writing because we become engaged in the fragments of story. We make associations and connections that will remain with us for a long time.

Students in each of my five classes continues to reference something by one classmate. The young writer explained China's law regarding parents giving birth to a second daughter. The mother loses her job and the family is fined $50,000. The procedures that happened next is what her parents did. They birthed her in the US, flew her back to China and left her with other family...for three years. The parents went to America to start a new life--one in which they could raise a second daughter. 

That is all information but some might argue it is story too.

What none will argue--and the detail that my students keep coming back to--the detail that makes the information stick.

The student writes, "In talking with my father alone, he told me my mother wept the entire plane ride from China to America."

Still procedure? Maybe.

But it is framed by narrative.

Wednesday, February 4, 2015

Practicing Writing Context with Students

Since my 8th grade students and I wrote narrative drafts of a short scene yesterday, we started class today by breaking down my finished draft, Right Out of the Pot. I projected my draft on the wall and pointed out five things the students need to consider as they revise today:

  1. Evidence of my protagonist's core human value is present in the scene. While I did not write the word generosity, readers can glean generosity through my grandfather's actions and dialogue. Students should write their scene so that reader can see the core value at play. In the case of my grandfather's scene, generosity can be inferred through his dialogue: 
  2. A cultural and historical context is present. Students should consider opportunities to note clothing styles, language, music, food, furniture, et al. In my piece, I put saddle shoes on the Joanie because they among fashion trends for girls in the 1950s. The table was chrome. My grandfather used "doll" when referring to my grandmother. According to Google's Ngram Viewer the usage of "doll" peaked in the 1947 and 1948 and remained highly used in the 1950s. Perhaps my grandfather would have used that term of affection for his wife.
  3. Setting helps tell the story. Our stories should not have the feel of taking place nowhere at any time. We should, as readers, be able to look around and see the infrastructure of the place. Readers trust that if a story takes place in 1850's Ireland that some differences would exist from the story taking place in 1980's India.
  4. Revise for strong verbs. Make this a habit.
  5. Revise for sensory details and figurative language. Make this a habit too

The list is a rough rubric. This is not graded. This is a formative assessment for me to understand if they grasp context and if can they write with context. Can they make creative choices with words, sentence, and ideas to bring a snippet of a family member to life?

I pointed out that, as a writer, I had to blend information and facts with imagination and memory. Using my grandfather as an example, he passed away before I was born. I couldn't have heard how he spoke to my grandmom. I never actually saw him move. Some of these things I am going to have to imagine and invent.

 A student notebook at the start of class.
Students need to practice this concept. And they need to practice it without fear of a grade. Blending imagination with facts will be a very new concept for many even though they read examples of it all the time in their novels and textbooks! We are using writing to think, analyze, and reflect. We are using writing to create and recreate. And we are using writing to set ourselves up for an informative video next week that will need to have a script written and a  solid plan through storyboards.

Students will need to blend writing information and writing narrative next week. In either case, students will need to be able to blend their facts and memories with cultural and historical context. This is not an either/or proposition. It is an and/with skill. 

To see how some of my students managed today. Some use context better than others. I have a whole slew who need to rethink and revise for context, but that is ok. We need to practice writing and reading, and the best attitude I can take is an everyone improves philosophy. And they will.

Feel free to glance at the excerpts beneath each link, or click on some links to see the full blog posts: 

KitKat Scandal
My mother was telling me about the time when she wanted candy as a little girl. This wasn't any ordinary candy, it was a Kit Kat bar. At the time, Korea did not have any American candy. The only way to get any American candy was through the black market. The black market was always overpriced and was the illegal way to get things.

A Gold Necklace
Meher twisted around in her seat to look at all the people. They had finally made enough money to watch a new movie instead of those a week or two old. Living in Pakistan, they were not a rich family, but they were not as poor as the people who her mother gave a coin to on the street.

Stolen Dolls
"Speak of the devil," Lorraine muttered to her little brother, William. She quickly put her arms behind her back, trying to disguise what was in her hands.

Gjyshja I Madh ( Great Grand-Mother) and Lakror
The dough slaps against the counter. I ripped off a piece of dough and began to rolling it out in to thin sheets like paper. My vajzë (daughter) stood mesmerized by the quick and fluent smacking of the dough and the rolling pin. I ripped off another piece of dough and sat it on the old counter in the back of the restaurant.

She remembers her mother, pushing an object into her hand, telling her to run to the treeline before the soldiers came. As she ran, she could hear the threatening shouts of the soldiers. Whenever she looked back, she half expected to see all she had ever known to erupt in flames.

Ruined His Life
Everything hurt, my head swirled, my eyes burned. A white cloth was wrapped around me. I think I was in a hospital, maybe not. I couldn't tell. It happened today, I just hit me. I couldn't feel my legs, or my arms.

The Gurdwara
"Divyan, you have to, it's a show of respect to the Gurus and our religion," my mom would reply, trying not to sound exasperated. Eventually I'd take off my shoes, and we'd step inside. The temples in India are sometimes made of gold, but the ones here in the United States are just made to look that way.

Melanie's Childhood
Eleven-year-old Melanie jumped on her bike. She was about to start on her paper route for the day. Her mother was sleeping and probably wouldn't be up for hours. It wasn't even dawn yet but she could still see. She slung her the bag with the papers over her shoulder and glanced back at her house- if you could call it that. It was a shack. Run down and cheap. She hated it.

The Old Dairy Farm
If I could walk through the farm, 45 years ago, I would see cats milling around everywhere. In the hay loft, in the stalls, under the trucks purrs and meows coming from every direction. People would come by late at night and drop off kittens or cats would just wander onto the farm and stay. The barns would be alive with cats running around chasing rodents and walking around the cattle and horses. But, less than five minutes later, everything would be silent, except for the cows in the dairy barn.

The cold winter wind blew strong, carrying flurries of snow with it. I pulled my leather coat tighter around me and rubbed my arms, trying to warm up. Dark sea water splashed up against the dock, spraying salt into the air. The dreary port was crowded with people like me and my mom, refugees from the war. Sea birds cawed loudly overhead, blending with the high pitched sounds of bells ringing out.

The Artwork that Fed a Family
Most of the people wouldn't, or couldn't, pay my great-grandfather in money or yen and would instead give him food for his family, most commonly rice or okome. His paintings of birds and people and nature fed them.

My Grandfather's Love for his Family:

The man is intimidating. His cheekbones chiseled, his hair buzzed off, and his face so smooth every imperfection could be seen.

Right Out of the Pot

The following narrative is my mentor text for my students. Explaining my thinking and process, I wrote this piece in front of my class. Our goal is to write a short narratives built on pieces of our family history.
Recent class conversation has centered on both the basic human values we see in our ancestors as well as the cultural context of the stories and factual information gathered about our ancestors. Yes, they are working on their family history too…as I work on it with all of you.
My narrative is combination of facts, family stories, and details that I imagined. More specifically, I grew up always hearing that my grandfather was a good man, a generous man…who also happened to eat from the pot one night while walking down the street. Based in 1950s Philadelphia, this is my interpretation of my gathered pieces that I wrote for my students to learn from:

"Jennie, doll, I gotta go give Carmen a hand--"
"Sit down and eat first," Jennie said.
She set three bowls on the kitchen table. It was white linoleum and chrome. An empty pack of matches wedged under a leg kept it from wobbling.
"Jennie, doll, I gotta catch Carmen before he leaves for work."
Their young daughter, Joanie, sat at the head of the table. No one else was allowed to sit in her chair. She kicked at the chrome legs with the heels of her saddle shoes. Weeks of scuff marks exasperated her mother.
"Joanie, you're going to polish that chair if you keep that up." 
"Sorry, mommy." 
Jennie ladled two bowls of a creamy pasta fagioli. Joanie's was ladled first, as always. She immediately started blowing on the steam to make it swirl like saints and angels.

Just as Jennie pulled back to ladle a bowl for John, he swiped the pot from her hand and planted a big kiss on her cheek--all in one quick motion. Jennie stepped back, startled and smiling.

John said, "Sit and eat with Joanie, I gotta catch Carmen. He asked for my help."

He grabbed a spoon and hustled through the dining room, living room, and out the screen door.
"Johnny, don't lose my pot!"
The screen door clicked shut. John, hurrying down the sidewalk, ate right from the pot.

Joanie watched the screen door and chewed a big spoonful of dinner. Jennie knew something was up. She knew that look. Jennie stirred the beans and pasta with her spoon. She frowned at her daughter's legs which had starting kicking at the chrome legs of the chair again.


Before Jennie finished her thought, Joanie pushed her chair back, gathered up her bowl, spoon, and napkin and left the kitchen. Carrying her bowl so that it didn't spill, she took careful, deliberate steps through the dining room.

Smirking, Jennie called to her daughter, "Where do you think you're off to?"

"I gotta go see Carmen too."

The screen door closed with a soft click.

Offering Cultural & Historical Context to Young Writers

Building on yesterday's momentum of identifying intriguing aspects of our family history and culture, we started today by analyzing at an excerpt from James Baldwin's Sonny's Blues.
Houses exactly like the houses of our past yet dominated the landscape, boys exactly like the boys we once had been found themselves smothering in these houses, came down into the streets for light and air and found themselves encircled by disaster. Some escaped the trap, most didn’t. Those who got out always left something of themselves behind, as some animals amputate a leg and leave it in the trap. It might be said, perhaps, that I had escaped, after all, I was a schoolteacher; or that Sonny had, he hadn’t lived in Harlem for years. Yet, as the cab moved uptown through the streets which seemed, with a rush, to darken with people, and as I covertly studied Sonny’s face, it came to me that what we both were seeking through our separate cab windows was that part of ourselves which had been left behind.
Using the cultural and historical context noted in our textbooks, I asked two questions:
  • where do we see explicit evidence of Baldwin's feelings about his neighborhood?
  • what basic human values must be a part of these characters' existence?
Continuing our exploration of the intriguing pieces of our family history, we will work towards writing a short narrative. Break off a piece of our family history and tell that story in that moment and in its proper context.

Today is about helping the students understand context through a three-step exercise:
  1. Identify Protagonists & Values
  2. Knowledge Dump
  3. Five Minute Scene
Narrative will give us a slightly different experience from the direct questioning and interviewing of the past few days. Narrative will provide another challenge. It will ask students to consider components of their family history and culture beyond the names and dates.

1. Identify Protagonists & Values
Ask the students to write and follow along as you create a short list of family members who would make for good protagonists for a narrative from their family history. In addition to names, identify core human values connected to each person.

After writing and modeling you own list, ask students to share out their protagonist lists.

Point out that aligning a human value with a specific protagonist in their family history helps us remember relevant anecdotes and information gathered over the last few days.

2. Knowledge Dump
Choose one protagonist and start listing all of our facts, quotes, memories, and stories about him/her.

While we have been talking with family and asking questions for over a week, giving our young writers a narrative to share with family is a good way to encourage deeper conversation about culture and history. Our narratives can stir up context our basic questioning may not have accessed. People identify with story. Stories fire our memories and make old details glow.

Observing is one essential tool of the researcher. Another is questioning and interviewing. Learning how to ask questions that prompt others to share their stories and  their take on things is a skill that can be difficult for even more experienced writers (90).

3. Five-Minute Story
Write alongside of your students for five minutes. 

Take a protagonist from the family and write a short narrative. Some young writers may struggle--stuck not knowing what to write--but this is where guiding them back to their memories triggered by basic human values comes in. Advise them to write an anecdote they have been told or know firsthand but do so with a specific basic human value in mind.

After five minutes, ask students to note what gaps exist in their first few lines. Help them understand that they now have more questions to bring home, more details to discover.

Today isn't about the perfect paper or a final draft. It is about walking students through another process of thinking and writing. Using narrative as a part of the process will take them deeper into their family history and culture because it asks them to understand their history in the context of a specific era, country, and social system.

Remember, our endgame is giving our students enough writing experiences to build a one-minute video about their family history and culture next week--a video that will be built on the overarching question: How does culture shape us? 

My students don't know the overarching question yet. That will be revealed in three classes and will provide a new lens for the students to analyze their family history and culture. More on that later.

Tomorrow, we will compose a digital draft of our short narratives and post it to our classroom blogs. 

Monday, February 2, 2015

Writing is Thinking: Moving Student Writing from Who & What to Why & How

After a few classes of prewriting and encouraging students to talk to their families (their best resource for family history and culture), we used yesterday's class to explore online resources. I shared a document, Family Tree Resources, with several already pre-selected for students, but I was sure to model how to use the following from that list:

However, most students will experience struggle when digging for family this way. And that is ok. This kind of research challenges anyone of any age and helps develop problem solving skills. In the end, students will find that they want to, and need to, ask for help. And I love that many realize on their own that family is the best place for them to find this help.

I see today day as a transitional day because we should be writing for the next several classes. All of us. While you can go in any number of directions with guiding student freewriting or drafts, I offer the following prompt as a starting point:
Inform an audience with up to three things which intrigue you about your family history and/or culture.
As students began to open their notebooks, I composed my own list of things which intrigued me about my family on the white board and then wrote a sample of the kind of thinking I hoped they would move to:

The more I dig the more I learn about the (severe) hardships all immigrants experience. My ancestors relied on one another to make it. Often they lived in another person's home for years before finding steady work, money, and confidence to rent their own home. For instance, one of my cousins left Italy for the United States after World War I. Married, she and her new husband experienced the joy of the birth of a son and the heavy sorrow of losing twin girls at birth--all in less than 18 months. I can't imagine the drastic swings of emotion during their first year in a new country where neither could speak nor write the language. This teaches me why I remember my family as always being so close and tender with one another. My mom and older cousins were raised where people took care of one another when family truly needed each other.
After writing and reading my response, I leave the class with about twenty minutes to list and write.

Teaching Points:
  • Inherent in the prompt is the question of audience. As you make time to confer with students as they write, a great question to put to them is who is your intended audience? who would you like to know this information? are you writing to family? to your classmates? others?
  • This work sets the stage for next week's video (or podcast) because it asks students to dig deeper into the aspects of family and culture that interest them most. Bear in mind that writing is thinking and students need the time and encouragement to write and work through several "thinking drafts" in order to get to the good stuff.
  • A student might continue to draft and revise the "three things" prompt during upcoming classes, or they might branch off to one of those "things" if they have gathered information, details, and know the topic.
While we all teach in different communities and different students, I want to offer a few takeaways from the lessons at this stage of the process in my classroom:
  • Students are talking at home. They report calling grandparents and other extended family members. They are bringing in pictures of family artifacts and in some cases extensive histories already gathered by family members. They are engaging their parents in conversation.
  • Students can remained locked and focused on the who and the what. It is up to me to model how to take the who and the what and reflect on it. Show readers why the information matters. Show the readers how and why it impacts you, your family, and your culture. Through my writing and the sharing of my writing I need to show students how to take the names, dates, and places and craft it into something with fluency, readability, and novelty. 
  • Students show so much support for one another. Lots of peer conferring is occurring spontaneously and respectfully.
Saving time during the last ten minutes or so to allow students to share aloud has been an important element of each day. While the first few classes allowed us to share our frustrations and successes, today allowed us to speak passionately about the elements of our family and culture that have us hooked.

As I explained to my students, finding the ability to write from the heart is a key component of good writing. When we write from the heart, we write about why things matter, how and why we connect to our topics, and why you as a reader might take something from our words.