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

Social Media: Not Just for Sharing Pictures of Grumpy Cat

This week, my husband started his own Yelp page for his budding smoked and cured meats endeavor, Smoke & Salt. He pushed it out to some of his loyal customers, a couple of whom have already written reviews for his products. He also has a blog and a Facebook page that are both helping him build a following.

Through social media and blogging, he has networked with seasoned chefs, seduced new customers, and shared his charcuterie story. He is continually becoming a part of the bacon community (yes, I said bacon community), and he is accomplishing this through literacy.

My husband’s experience has really been making me think recently about this idea of citizen journalism. This phenomenon of reporting has its roots in the infancy of our country when regular people created and distributed political pamphlets to spread their beliefs. With the spread of the Internet and all of the tools that come with it, however, literally anyone can be a citizen journalist. Take Yelp, for example. Anyone can write a review of a business, and people really do read them. Speaking from personal experience, my husband and I recently chose our current pest control company based on Yelp reviews. And, of course, Jeff is also using the power of Yelp to grow his business.

Think also about the power of social media. Almost all of our teenage (or pre-teen) students are on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, or something else. They are using these tools to socialize with their friends and, in some cases, comment on life.

And then there’s Arab Spring.

The world held its breath when, in January 2011, Egypt erupted into revolution and forced its leader out of power. This revolution, which was sparked on Facebook by a 29-year-old Google exec in Dubai, and which continued on Twitter and in other social media outlets, made it plain to everyone in the world that social networks could be used for more than sharing pictures of vacations, children, and restaurant meals. Much more.

To read or hear an account of how Wael Ghonim helped to begin a revolution is to understand the true impact literacy–and citizen journalism–can have on the world. Take this segment from a New York Times review of Ghonim’s memoir, Revolution 2.0:

Ghonim drew on his considerable skill and knowledge as an online marketer while running the “We Are All Khaled Said” Facebook page. Early on, he decided that creating the page, as opposed to a Facebook group, would be a better way to spread information. More important, he knew that maintaining an informal, authentic tone was crucial to amassing allies. People had to see themselves in the page. “Using the pronoun I was critical to establishing the fact that the page was not managed by an organization, political party or movement of any kind,” he writes. “On the contrary, the writer was an ordinary Egyptian devastated by the brutality inflicted on Khaled Said and motivated to seek justice.”

He polled the page’s users and sought ideas from others, like how best to publicize a rally — through printed fliers and mass text messaging, it turned out. (“Reaching working-class Egyptians was not going to happen through the Internet and Facebook,” he notes.) He tried to be as inclusive as possible, as when he changed the name of the page’s biggest scheduled rally from “Celebrating Egyptian Police Day — January 25” to “January 25: Revolution Against Torture, Poverty, Corruption and Unemployment.” “We needed to have everyone join forces: workers, human rights activists, government employees and others who had grown tired of the regime’s policies,” he writes. “If the invitation to take to the streets had been based solely on human rights, then only a certain segment of Egyptian society would have participated.”

This Times article attributes these skills to Ghonim’s prowess as an Internet marketer, and I’m sure that helped, but if you think about it, the skills demonstrated in his decision-making are also the skills of a highly-literate person. Take, for example, his decision to use a Facebook page, as opposed to a Facebook group. In the introduction of the Common Core State Standards, the writers call for students who can “use technology and digital media strategically and capably” and then go on to explain that students should be “familiar with the strengths and limitations of various technological tools and mediums and can select and use those best suited to their communication goals” (p. 7). This is exactly what Ghonim did when he chose the tool with which he’d communicate both ideas and events with the page’s followers.

In addition, his choice to use the pronoun I in his posts (instead of we) was also an intentional decision based on his purpose and audience. When we connect this to an image of literacy as described in the Common Core, there are natural connections: “Students appreciate nuances, such as how the composition of an audience should affect tone when speaking and how the connotations of words affect meaning” (p. 7).

Finally, when he chose to change the name of his Facebook event, this decision was also driven by what he knew about his audience and the unique demands of his task and purpose.

Is this a somewhat extreme and extenuating example? You could say that. But why couldn’t any one of our students be like Ghonim, using the power of technology and social media to create lasting change?

In order to accomplish this, it is important to think about how the power of technology can be harnessed to initiate students into communities of literacy. Because that’s the power of digital tools–not simply to create cool stuff, but also to share these creations and interact with the world outside the walls of our schools.

There are already avenues for citizen journalists to be heard. Certainly, there are tools such as blogging sites and tools to design webpages. However, there are also citizen media outlets: places like Allvoices, Demotix, CNN iReport, NowPublic, and others to help people dip their toes in the citizen journalism pool. There are also places for teens to publish for an all-teen audience–places like TeenInk.

We need to show our students that literacy matters, that our voices matter. We need to show them how to navigate and use digital tools not just to create new material to share with their classmates and teacher, but to share with the world. By doing this, we may discover other revolutions waiting to happen.

Postscript

Possible Unit Ideas:

  • Social media awareness and use
  • Digital literacy
  • Argument/persuasion
  • Revolution

Possible Essential Questions:

  • What is our individual responsibility? What is our collective responsibility?
  • How does one voice become many?
  • Why write?
  • Whose voice is being heard, and whose is being left out?

Possible Connecting Common Core State Standards:

  • Writing 1: Write arguments
  • Writing 2: Write informative/explanatory texts
  • Writing 3: Write narratives
  • Writing 4: Ensure that writing is appropriate for task, purpose, and audience
  • Writing 6: Use technology to produce and publish individual or shared writing products
  • Writing 8: Gather quality information; present the information thoughtfully and effectively

Other ideas? Share in the comments.

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Visual Literacy and Disney Magic

Last week, I had the absolute pleasure of spending time in Disneyland with my family, and before I left, one of my friends and colleagues, a high school English teacher that I have known for years, jibed me a little on Facebook and encouraged me to look for plenty of “real texts” to write about while I was there.

Challenge accepted.

You might wonder how anyone could find any substantive texts in The Happiest Place on Earth, but because of the genius of the Imagineers, they’re everywhere you look. Still don’t believe me?

You only have to go as far as Peter Pan’s Flight, Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride, The Pirates of the Caribbean, or any other similar Disney adventure to see what I’m talking about. These rides are texts. Sure, they may not have many (or any) words, but they certainly tell stories, and as riders (or readers), we have to make meaning from the visual images. Of course, I really can’t go anywhere without making some connection to my work, so this idea of visual literacy was continually percolating in my mind all week, and it got me thinking about one of my favorite genres: Infographics.

Infographics have been around since prehistoric times. I mean, hey, what do you think cave drawings were? But now, with the use of these images in popular online news sources and with the easy sharing features of social media sites, modern infographics are everywhere.

I have a few good sources for Infographics, but my absolute favorite is Good Magazine. It was in this magazine that I first noticed these visuals, and I’ve been fascinated by them ever since.

Check out this one about reading:

Reading for the Future, Good Magazine

At first glance, it’s definitely appealing to look at, but it becomes even more sophisticated when you notice what this infographic includes. In it are compelling statistics, researched facts, possible solutions, powerful graphics, and complementary verbal and visual elements. The design takes the reader from one segment to the next: from the importance of looking at third grade reading levels, to the link to high school graduation, to the effect of poverty, and finally to some potential solutions. This logical organization is accomplished through visual elements, rather than paragraph structure. But it’s still an organizational scheme–and quite a powerful and sophisticated one at that.

If you want to look at sophisticated organization in these visual elements, take a look at this infographic about world hunger:

Can We Feed 7 Billion People? Good Magazine

Look at how it begins. Underneath the title, the infographic is set up in a very clear two-column compare/contrast organizational scheme with the U.S. on one side and developing countries on the other. Within the individual columns, the information is parallel for added impact: “the U.S. wastes 40% of their food” vs. “developing countries lose 40% of their food.” The organizational scheme continues, as information about waste in the United State is on the left, and information about loss in developing countries is on the right. Like the reading infographic, this one also includes powerful statistics and researched facts. Additionally, the graphic ends with some ideas about what people can do in order to remedy this concerning problem.

These examples make me think about writing standard 6 in the Common Core State Standards for ninth and tenth grade ELA: “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.” The infographic is certainly a shared writing product, and technological tools could definitely make it feasible to create these types of visuals in which information is presented “flexibly and dynamically.”

Think also about writing standard 9 for grades nine and ten: “Conduct short as well as more sustained research projects to answer a question (including a self-generated question) or solve a problem; narrow or broaden the inquiry when appropriate; synthesize multiple sources on the subject, demonstrating understanding of the subject under investigation.” Then imagine the skills that it would take to create infographics like the ones above. The amount of research and synthesis to make such complex topics so deceptively simple and easy to swallow is mind-blowing. Why couldn’t high school students demonstrate their understanding of researched topics through an infographic either in addition to–or instead of–a research paper (I’m not suggesting at all, however, that students shouldn’t write about their research. They should. There just might be other ways to demonstrate these skills as well).

If we want students to research questions that are self-generated (and we know that providing choice is a powerful motivator for people), consider this infographic:

Star Wars vs. Star Trek, Daily Infographic

Is this an Earth-shattering (no pun intended) topic? Probably not. But is it interesting and well-researched? Yes. Think about the level of thought and research the author of this image had to consider. I mean, to take into consideration the amount of Facebook likes and Twitter followers in determining a franchise’s success is kind of genius. Could a kid do this if provided examples like these? Of course.

If we’re going to think about a) growing writers and b) providing relevant examples of “real-world” texts, using these types of tools (and asking students to produce this type of work) could be one way to get us there. Our kids are Twenty-first Century citizens, and when they are bombarded by an absolute firestorm of data (much of it in visual form) on an almost daily basis, we are doing them a disservice if we don’t teach them to critically read and produce these kinds of texts. If this element is absent from our curriculum, they are missing out on one avenue for their voices to be heard.

I know these infographics are a far cry from the Haunted Mansion, but they do remind us that not all information comes to us in neatly typed black and white packages of text. Sometimes, the way that our minds fill in the blanks is the most powerful part of the story.

Postscript

Possible Units: Infographics could be worked into units on research, or they could be woven into thematic units, based on the topic. Want to teach a unit using the definition of education as a driving force? Maybe use some infographics about that topic to supplement other readings.

Ways to Use Infographics: They could be used for close reading, as sources for research projects, or even as mentor texts to do some infographic-composing.

What ideas do you have? Share in the comments.

 

Rules Are Made to Be Broken

The other day, a few of my friends/people I stalk on Facebook and Twitter posted this article from College Humor about the “8 New Punctuation Marks We Desperately Need”. It included such suggestions as the Sarcastises (“use when you want to be sarcastic but in a way that’s totally different and better than what you’re using now”) and the Morgan Freemark (when you want someone to read something you wrote using Morgan Freeman’s voice in their head). I mean, these are useful, right? So useful, in fact, that I might have downloaded the font. I might have. Maybe.

Other than finding my 8 new favorite punctuation marks (move over, em dash), this article planted a seed for my next blog post. Because here’s the deal. Joking aside, these punctuation marks are about creating meaning, which is really what all punctuation marks are about. Sometimes, though, I think we get so caught up in THE RULES that we might forget that rules are made to be broken.

This brings me to the teaching of punctuation (and grammar) in high school. It’s confession time. Early in my career, I busted out my grammar handbooks and grainy worksheets (duplicates of purple dittos–told you this would be a confession) and made my students do endless drills of correcting sentences and filling in blanks. Then I realized something. The kids could get all the answers right on these worksheets, but I kept seeing the same errors come up over and over and over again in their writing. To top it off, we all wanted to gouge our eyes out with spoons because we were so effing bored.

There had to be a different way. A way to actually teach students about punctuation and grammar AND get them to actually use what they were learning. There was. I started pulling examples of grammar and punctuation use from my kids’ writing and using that to have them find patterns of usage AND errors. Immediately afterward, I would ask my students to turn to their drafts and edit based on what they had learned.

Suddenly, they were transferring their new grammatical understanding to their writing.

A turning point for me was one day a couple of years ago when I was discussing with my freshmen what made the difference between a “proficient” use of grammar and punctuation and an “advanced” use of grammar and punctuation. To answer that question, we thought about what writers do. Through looking at examples of well-crafted writing, my students came to this conclusion: the most effective writing manipulated grammar and punctuation for effect and meaning, even if that meant breaking the rules.

To see what I’m talking about, consider this piece from truth-out: “Tip Your Server and Save the World.” The first paragraph, which is 10 lines, has one period in it. One. But if you read the article, you’ll see that this absolutely adds to the frenzied feeling of the piece, which echoes the frenzied and chaotic pace of a server’s work. I once met a teacher who would deduct a point for every grammatical error in a student’s paper. If this New York Times bestselling author were in her class, he’d probably get like a -47. But what he does in this article is smart. And effective. More effective than if he’d followed all the rules.

Of course, we know it’s important to know the rules of punctuation and grammar. If students don’t know them, then their “mistakes” are purely accidental, and we’re really striving to get kids to see themselves as authors who make intentional choices. Still, though, we can teach students the rules by asking them to look at real models of writing. This shows them that, again, punctuation helps create meaning and clarity in writing because they can see how comma rules work in the context of real-world examples.

With the Internet, we are so lucky to have access to so many quality sources of professional writing on websites like The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Atlantic, The Utne Reader, The Week, and Longform. Articles from any of these sites could be pulled into the classroom for students to study how writers use a variety of techniques in grammar and punctuation.

Thinking about helping our students develop independence as writers also makes me think about the Common Core. If you look at the Language standards, a couple of the high school ones really stand out.

For example, take Language Standard 2 for grades 9-10: “Use various types of phrases (noun, verb, adjectival, adverbial, participial, prepositional, absolute) and clauses (independent, dependent; noun, relative, adverbial) to convey specific meanings and add variety and interest to writing or presentations.” If students are going to master the second part of that standard–the part about conveying meanings and adding variety and interest to compositions–they HAVE to study how writers do this work. They aren’t going to learn how to make choices if they are completing out-of-context problems from our dusty class sets of Warriner’s (Not that any of you do this–I’m merely speaking from personal experience).

And to raise the bar even higher, look at Language Standard 1 for grades 11-12: “Apply the understanding that usage is a matter of convention, can change over time, and is sometimes contested.” This standard screams usage rebel. I mean, it directly calls out the fact that we need to teach students that the rules of grammar and punctuation are fluid. Exciting stuff.

If we are going to initiate our students into communities of literacy and teach them to see themselves as writers, then they need to know how (and why) to use and manipulate grammatical rules to their advantage.

Now if only WordPress could add the Morgan Freemark to my font choices.

Postscript

Stage of Writing Process: Editing and perhaps Revision, based on the type of work you want students to do. If you want them to try on some different grammatical elements, such as varying clauses and phrases to add interest to their writing, that might be more appropriate for revision. If you want to have them focus on refining their use of punctuation, that might be more appropriate during editing.

Teaching Ideas:

1. Choose a concept students need to learn or work on (semicolon usage, for example), and choose texts that use semicolons effectively. Have students read the texts and pay attention to what they notice about how writers use semicolons. Students can then create rules for semicolons. Ask students to try this on in their own writing.

2. Choose some texts that break rules of punctuation (for example, using intentional fragments). Ask students read the texts and talk about how and why those authors are breaking the rules. Then have them try it on in their own writing and reflect on the effect it creates.

3. Show students how you use conventions in your writing. Think aloud for them about how you made punctuation choices in your writing. You could do this in conjunction with #1 or #2 above.

Have more ideas? Share in the comments section!

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

I Thought You Said We Were Reading!

Even though I am teaching a full semester of English 1 (ninth grade) in summer school, I knew going in, with all of the intricacies of this abbreviated course, that I would never even come close to teaching even a large portion of the standards to mastery. Because of this, I made a very strategic decision to look forward instead of behind.

Especially since the ninth grade ELA standards (both current and CCSS) loop into tenth grade, I asked myself, What skills will most help students next year? From there, I divided those standards into two large groups: reading and writing. This is because those two “R”s are the primary reason many of my students are sitting in front of me. My goal was to prepare them for the inevitability that someone will, at some point in the future (and probably some time next year), hand them a piece of hard text and simply say, “Read this.”

Because of that goal, I also organized my day into two segments: the times we think like readers and the times we think like writers.

However, something peculiar has been gnawing at my soul over the past several days. During our “Reading Block” of time, when kids are working with text, I have turned to a tool I know helps people both explore and express the larger meaning of the words on the page: Writing. We write about text all the time. We write to explore the meaning of the words. We write to tell each other what the text has taught us.

And each time we do, I hear a similar challenge from at least one (but usually more) of my students: “But this is READING time!”

It disturbs me–not because the kids are complaining; that’s what teenagers DO by nature at times. But because, as educators, I don’t think we’ve done the best job of making sure that our kids understand that the two–reading and writing–are inextricably linked.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not pointing fingers. I think part of our current reality is a byproduct of how our standards are written (at least in California). There really is no expectation, save the literary response essay (which is a make-believe genre anyway), that students are writing about text. And the STAR test doesn’t improve the situation either when all of the questions about text are multiple choice. It sends a very clear message to everyone: writing is something that we do when we don’t read.

Somehow, the kids have gotten that message too. They don’t see reading and writing as activities that go together–they see them as very separate entities whose paths shall never cross. At least, my summer school students see it that way, and my guess is that at least some of their friends do too.

With Common Core on the horizon, this has to change. These new standards purposefully link reading and writing, and moreover–not that I want to get all test-obsessed or anything–the Smarter Balanced Assessment will require students to write about text too.

I’m not saying that our kids need to write a full analysis of every text they read. There are lots of ways kids can write about text to share their ideas–including many technological tools that can help (digital literacy, anyone?).

I’m just saying that maybe we need to make sure that, as teachers, we show our students the beautiful and necessary synergy that exists between the two–and teach our students how they can become even more insightful thinkers if they can simply harness that power.

Small Victories

Before I started teaching summer school this year, I had a vision of my class coming together as this perfect community of writers sent by angels. We would be sharing and celebrating our writing, tears streaming down our faces as we connected at the deepest of spiritual levels. Okay…maybe my fantasies didn’t go quite so far, but I really had imagined a nearly-spiritual experience.

Unfortunately, my reality hasn’t yet shaped up to be quite what I imagined.

Today, my students finished writing their narratives, so I reserved the last 50 minutes of class for us to have a writing celebration. When I told the students at the beginning of this process that they would need to share some of their writing with the class (because we are a community of writers, I explained), you’d thought I’d asked them to drown kittens in the American River. They were aghast. Share their writing??? “Mrs. Kukral,” they said, “you’re crazy.”

I have to admit…I was a little deflated at their less-than-enthusiastic response, but it certainly wasn’t altogether unexpected. After all, sharing our writing with anyone but the teacher simply hasn’t been a norm in our schools, especially our high schools (though that is thankfully changing).

I continued to promise that it would be okay, but I also assured them that it was an expectation. One student said to me, “What if I refuse?” I explained that I wouldn’t cut his arm off or anything, but I did expect for him to choose something from his narrative to share. Refusing just wasn’t an option. I didn’t threaten to take away points. I didn’t threaten to fail him. I didn’t threaten to send him to the office. I just said, “I hope and expect that you will do it. That’s all.” He scowled at me in the endearing way that teenage boys do (I’m actually serious here), we moved on, and didn’t say another word about it.

Of course, this interaction made me think about the Common Core (these days, even a gusty wind will have that effect on me). One feature that I so appreciate about the writing standards is that there is an expectation that students publish their work. Granted, the specific standard (6) says that this should be done via technology in grades 9-10, but we need to start somewhere.

My students’ reactions made me realize just how uncomfortable it is for them to share their writing with anyone, much less the whole world through the Internet. It brought back my memories of last summer when, as a fellow in the Area 3 Writing Project Invitational Summer Institute, I had to share my writing with my colleagues. I’m relatively certain I had a couple of anxiety attacks over that too.

And if students are terrified and uncomfortable with sharing even a small segment of their writing with a small group of classmates, then how will they adjust to sharing their writing with everyone who has Internet access? Perhaps it will be easier. Maybe there’s something to be said for not being able to actually see your audience while you’re sharing your work. However, I can imagine that, for some students, this type of publicity will send them over the edge.

This makes me realize that, as with anything, we must create communities where it is safe to be in such a vulnerable position and scaffold this experience for our students. Our students shouldn’t be appalled–or really even surprised–when we expect them to share their writing with others. That’s what writing is about.

The good news, though, is that, today, each one of my students shared at least a small part of their narrative. One of my students shared his entire story, and when he was done, his friend spontaneously shared his own version of the same tale.

And the kid who asked me what I would do if he refused to share?

He was the first one to volunteer.