Teens Can Change the World

I have to admit. I have been increasingly obsessed with watching the stats for my blog, mostly because they keep growing. If I look at a bar graph of my number of views each week since I started publishing again, the towers of blue are steadily increasing. And the more the little blue bars grow, the more motivated I feel to write. It’s weird, especially considering that sharing my writing with others used to be something that sent me into fits of anxiety.

And what’s even cooler is that people are talking with me about my blog and starting to share it with others. Bloggers that I don’t even know are liking my posts. And just yesterday, a principal tweeted that she was going to share my most recent post with her staff. And here I am sitting on my couch with a laptop (usually with a glass of wine) writing whatever comes to mind. It is one of the most empowering feelings I’ve ever had, and I also feel like I’m becoming part of this incredible community of readers, writers, and educators, especially since there are so many bloggers out there that I completely admire.

In thinking about my own excitement and empowerment, I began to reflect again about this idea of citizen journalism–something that my husband inspired me to write about because of the way he is harnessing its power to create his own charcuterie business. It’s this idea that anyone can be a published author–from YouTube creators to Yelp reviewers. Of course, because this blog is all about how we can start to inspire our high school students to be members of literacy communities by engaging them in authentic reading and writing work–the reading and writing work that is similar to what adults do in school, work, and life–an exploration of citizen journalism, and by extension, blogging, seems to be a natural fit here.

Then I started thinking about something. Blogging isn’t just something that teenagers could do. It’s something that they are already doing. In fact, there are some teen bloggers that are so successful that they are literally impacting popular culture. Take Tavi Gevinson, for example. This Style Rookie blogger started out blogging about fashion when she was 11. Eleven! Now she’s 16, and she’s appeared on shows like The Colbert Report and Jimmy Fallon and has even been profiled in The New York Times. Recently, she started her own magazine with Jane Pratt, the original founder of 90s-mag phenomenon, Sassy. Did I mention she’s 16?

I mean, this well-adjusted, wise-beyond-her-years adolescent even has her own TED talk. And it’s good. See?

Gevinson isn’t the only teen blogger out there. There’s also Spencer Tweedy. Yes, he’s the son of the front man for Wilco, but he’s still only a high school student. His blog, The Weblog of Spencer Tweedy, showcases everything from pictures of his pasta-making parties to videos he’s made for his biology class.

There’s also The First Lime, a blog by 14-year-old Monica, who writes about music, photography, and her own DIY projects. It’s actually pretty adorable.

But not quite as adorable as Know and Tell Crafts, a crafty blog written by a 13-year-old boy (yes, boy) who crochets. You go, kiddo.

These kids are writers. They are creating their own niches in literacy communities.

I wonder how they do in English.

Now imagine if we showed our high school students these blogs. Imagine that we used these as mentor texts and talked about the ways in which these teens thought about their task, purpose, and audience. If you look at the literacy skills of these young bloggers, they’re actually pretty impressive. They need to understand their audience (and how their language and topics can best engage their audience), they need to understand how to create visual images that echo the tone created by their verbal messages, and they need, in some cases, be willing to experiment with a variety of genres in their writing (all based on their task’s unique purpose) Take Ty’s most recent post that combines images of his latest project (a mock headboard created with electrical tape) with a list of tips to consider when using electrical tape. It goes beyond the simple and predictable “how to.”

In thinking about the Common Core, I turn to the expectations to grow digitally literate citizens. Look, for example, at Writing Standard 6 for grades 9-10: “Use technology, including the Internet, to produce, publish, and update individual or shared writing products, taking advantage of technology’s capacity to link to other information and to display information flexibly and dynamically.” If that doesn’t describe blogging, then I don’t know what does.

And in eleventh grade, that expectation ramps up: “Use technology, including the Internet, to produce, publish, and update individual or shared writing products in response to ongoing feedback, including new arguments or information.”

Think about these teen bloggers. Not only have they learned how to harness the power of digital media to project their voices, but they are also always making new decisions about content–based on what their audience wants and needs. These kids are the poster children for digital literacy.

How can we, too, use these writers as models to inspire all of our students to see writing as a way to speak up, to teach, to contribute?

Postscript

Possible Units

  • Social Media/Blogging
  • Argument Writing
  • Informational/Explanatory Writing
  • Narrative Writing
  • Research Skills

Possible Essential Questions

  • Why write?
  • What does it mean to teach and learn?
  • Where is my voice? How can I make it heard? What happens when I do?
  • What is the role of media in my life? What is the role of media in our lives?

Possible Common Core State Standards

  • Writing 1: Write arguments
  • Writing 2: Write informational/explanatory pieces
  • Writing 3: Write narratives
  • Writing 4: Produce writing taking into consideration task, purpose, and audience
  • Writing 6: Use technology to publish writing
  • Writing 7: Conduct short or sustained research projects, using an independently designed question
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The Genre That Isn’t

I spent the better part of last week in high school English Language Arts classrooms, working and learning with teachers who want to refine their craft. It was really interesting for so many reasons, but mostly because in all of the classrooms, students were working on either writing a “literary response” essay or, in many cases, listening to the teacher’s interpretation about the literature students were reading (Lord of the Flies, Of Mice and Men, the Odyssey…you know, the usual) in preparation to write a literary response essay.

These well-meaning and well-intentioned teachers who truly care about their kidsLit were primarily concerned that students would do this work so that they would be “ready for English [insert next grade level here].” I get that. I mean, as teachers, we always want to make sure that our students can be successful once they move into the next grade. We never want our students to be barely treading water when they go to Mr./Mrs. X’s class.

But is that all? If we follow that logic, then does that mean the only teacher preparing students for whatever lies beyond high school is the senior year English teacher? Uh oh.

I’m sure we can all agree that one year of college (or life) preparation doesn’t even seem to scratch the surface.

So anyway, all of that got me thinking. What is the purpose of this “literary response essay”? In the writing project community, there’s even some debate as to whether or not it’s a real genre (I’m starting to doubt its legitimacy as a stand-alone genre, to be honest). Certainly, the purpose is for the student to share his or her learning about a text. But is that all? Are we really asking students to write this type of essay, which seems to show up only in school for an audience of exactly one, simply so they can show how much they know about a book we’ve told them to read? I can’t imagine that any of us would be satisfied with that as an end goal. In the grand scheme of things, it seems a little pointless even.

Of course, as I think about Common Core, I think that we all need to start thinking about the idea of authentic tasks, purposes, and audiences. If we are truly going to prepare students for college, career, and citizenship, our students need to know how to enter into a larger writing community and to write real pieces that people want to read, real pieces that they want people to read. The literary response essay, while it can serve an important purpose for the assessment of a student’s reading skills, isn’t the only way students can (or probably should) write about literature.

As I was thinking about this “school-only” genre, I wanted to discover how this type of writing (about things we read) shows up in authentic writing communities. Apparently, there are all these critics running around, writing for publications like The New York Times, The New Yorker, Atlantic Monthly, and a few other intelligent magazines. In fact, there are even awards for these people. And kind of a cult following too. Weird, right?

Anyway, knowing that my vision for this blog is to share my thoughts about genres and mentor texts that could be embedded into high school classrooms, while I was searching for the “real” version of literary response essays, I was also reminded about some beautiful words in Appendix A of the Common Core. Yes, I did just say the words beautiful and Common Core in the same sentence. That actually happens a lot with me. I know. Weird. Again.

But I want to share a bit of this beauty with you. Just humor me.

“Skilled writers many times use a blend of these three text types to accomplish their purposes. For example, The Longitude Prize…in Appendix B, embeds narrative elements within a largely expository structure. Effective student writing can also cross the boundaries of type, as does the grade 12 student sample “Fact vs. Fiction” and All the Grey Space In Between” found in Appendix C (Appendix A, p. 24).

Look at that what this says. Skilled writers actually blend the text types (narrative, informational/explanatory, and argument) to accomplish a purpose. Holy cow. Now that’s sophisticated. But isn’t it true? When I read that line, I think about a piece like George Orwell’s “Shooting an Elephant,” a piece which is clearly narrative but makes a very profound argument and social commentary. More about that genre in a future post.

Back to literary analysis.

So like I said, I was really curious about where I could find examples of ways that actual writers create this type of writing in an effort to understand why else our students might want to write in this way (and to maybe see how some of these text types blend together in order to make a literary power smoothie of sorts).

Enter “Page-Turner” in The New Yorker. The tagline on this regular blog reads, “Criticism, contention, and conversation about books that matter.”

When I read that tagline, it hit me. That’s exactly why we should teach students to write about text–so that they can enter into the conversation, so that they can be legitimate members of the literacy community. There are so many particularly rich examples of text in this segment of The New Yorker (even ones teachers could use as mentor texts in high school classrooms).

Take for example one piece called “Sylvia Plath’s Joy.” In this article, the author, Dan Chiasson, writes about Plath’s well-known collection of poems, Ariel.

He begins the article by briefly sharing the story of Plath’s suicide (a strange beginning to an article that seems to be about her joy–and, of course, one that comes together at the end) and then draws a dark connection between her attention to detail in preparing her own death and preparing her final manuscript. We also learn from an embedded exclamation by Robert Lowell that this poetry was some good shit.

Chiasson continues to discuss this final manuscript–Ariel–as a revelation and provides his initial take on the work, that “it is the great book of earliest morning.” He then includes the text of its title poem and discusses how Plath revamped a popular take on dawn. In three short paragraphs (of the eight total paragraphs–not 5–in the piece), Chiasson relates a third-person narrative, presents an argument about her poetry, and explains some historical information about the circumstances surrounding the publication of Plath’s final volume. Later in the post, Chiasson even tells a brief personal anecdote that connects to another one of Plath’s poems.

All three text types. In one piece. Not to mention, it is a beautifully crafted piece of writing in its own right and could provide a powerful instructional tool for reading or writing (or both) in a high school classroom. As Chiasson continues, he does end the piece with his own original conclusion about Plath and her poetry. Now that’s literary analysis.

Of course, that’s not the only example of this type of writing. Other interesting pieces in this blog include “Call of the Wild: The Connection between Shakespeare and Sendak” and “John Donne’s Erotica” (ok, this last one probably isn’t the best for a high school class, but it’s an interesting read and will give you even more sense of this particular genre). At any rate, you can browse the “Page Turner” section of the New Yorker website and find a treasure trove of examples.

I feel like this post might pinch a little. As an English major myself (and former high school ELA teacher), I really did have minor heart palpitations when writing these words. But if we’re really going to teach our students how to be members of a larger writing community (which is, consequently, much bigger than preparing them for college and career), and if we are going to give them the tools to be part of this conversation, then we need to look beyond the five paragraphs of the literary analysis essay. I’m not saying don’t ever ask kids to write one. I’m just saying that our world is much bigger than that.

Postscript

Genre: Literary Criticism (based in an author study)

Possible Essential Questions:

How does our work reflect our identity? How does our work create our identity?

Who is [name of person], and how do we know?

What’s [author’s] part in the conversation about literature? What’s my part?

Possible Units: These texts could be part of an author study unit or a unit on literary criticism

Ways You Might Use These Texts:

Mentor texts for this type of writing

Texts to provide alternate viewpoints about popular authors/texts

Other Instructional Materials That Might Support Students’ Writing in This Genre

Background information about the author (both primary and secondary sources)

An opportunity to read multiple examples of an author’s works

Opportunities to read other works that might connect to this author

The Power of Freedom

I knew from the moment I applied for summer school that my primary focus in class would be on writing. As a Writing Project teacher, I believe in the power of writing to open new doors for kids and to give them a voice. I wanted them to be able to think creatively and independently and to actually see themselves as writers. As I think kids’ writing identities all emerge at different times and in different ways, I didn’t exactly know what this would look like, but I felt like I might know it when I saw it.

With the ideas of independence, voice, and identity in mind, I was so looking forward to beginning our mini unit on argument with my kids last week. I thought for sure this would get them going. I mean, it’s teenagers’ job to argue, isn’t it?

I thought we might be onto something when my kids began spouting all the topics they could argue about–everything from social networking sites to sports teams to social issues. I told them that the topic from their argument paper was completely their choice, and they flourished.

Of course, generating ideas is only one small part of the writing process, and as I reflected on the expectations of the Common Core State Standards, I realized that students really needed to know how to build a coherent and cohesive argument, as they learned how to develop reasons, include valid evidence, and acknowledge and address counterarguments. Honestly, though, those particular expectations aren’t too different from the standards that we currently have in California. What makes the Common Core different, though, is that students are expected to be able to independently make strategic decisions about how they use the writing process, conduct research, and display the information they have gathered. And with limited resources in summer school, I wasn’t sure how this would go.

But what I love about teenagers is that they’re always wondering what’s possible.

My first reminder of this was when a student, Jack, who has been building a definitive argument to settle, once and for all, the debate of the best player in the NBA, asked if he could use a chart in his paper. When he showed it to me later, I saw a data-nerd’s dream come true: three columns comparing the stats of Kobe Bryant, Kevin Durant, and LeBron James (Jack’s pick for best in the NBA). He had organized information regarding average points, free throw percentage, three point percentage, rebounds, blocks, and other relevant bits of information. He was determined to prove that James was superior to both Bryant and Durant, especially given the fact that Bryant has four more championship rings than James and is widely recognized by basketball fans as the best player in the NBA.

On his chart he had determined that James had outperformed both Bryant and Durant in all categories but two, and in those two categories, James had lost by tiny margins. The paragraph surrounding the data he had gathered outlined his analysis of these players’ successes.

While he was sharing this research with me, another student was working the room, interviewing all of the students about which shoe brand–Converse or Vans–was superior. He was tallying his results and determining the categories for his comparison–styling, cost, and durability. Of course, he had already looked up the price ranges for both brands and found that, by far, Converse were much more expensive than Vans. When I talked to him about his survey later, he talked about his frustration that, while Converse was the preferred brand by his peers, it was definitely the pricier option. He was trying to determine how to handle that pressing issue in his paper.

When I was talking to these boys and witnessing their enthusiasm as they were working through what evidence was truly going to convince their audience that their opinion was the one and only correct one, I realized that these boys had found their voice. I never told them to integrate charts or to do surveys. They discovered these ideas all on their own as we discussed all the different types of evidence writers can use. These boys had a purpose, and they were on a mission. All of a sudden they realized that their purpose was not to force their points into a predetermined structure; it was to determine how best to communicate their information in order to persuade their audience that their opinion was the correct one. And they did this because they owned their argument. They did this because they found their voice.

So even though I never predicted this level of engagement with these particular students, I realized that, plain and simple, these kids had become writers.