I could have written a better paper

2015-12-02 15.15.29I’m in the middle of grading 152 literary analysis papers. As I’m reading these papers, I’m proud. Not because they are perfect—they aren’t. This isn’t even the best set of literary analysis papers I’ve received from 10th graders during my teaching career.

No, the best literary analysis papers I’ve ever received may have been from those students years ago who I heavily guided (probably somewhat mercilessly) with preselected text, a thesis developed by the class and then tweaked by me, and a plan I had constructed for them to flesh out the predetermined structure. But why shouldn’t they have been the best? I was the best writer in the room, and I did most of the thinking work in writing the paper.

There are numerous problems with this teaching practice, which I have worked relentlessly to change over the years.

Chris Lehmann, the founding principal of the Science Leadership Academy, says, “If you assign a project and get back 30 of the exact same thing, that’s not a project, it’s a recipe.” I think the same is true for student writing. We can’t keep giving our students all the ingredients and the recipe for their work. They don’t have to think, or at least not a lot, 51yvxpuquxl-_sx258_bo1204203200_when we do this.

Right now our ELA department is doing a book study on Reading and Writing Project Staff Developer Christopher Lehman’s Energize Research Reading and Writing. He talks about research being “messy and exciting” (9) and says that

“handing students topics and preselected sources removes a natural and important step of learning to do anything: making errors. If we are developing students to be creative, flexible, independent learners, then we cannot scrub away opportunities for mistakes to be made and corrections to be learned” (10, emphasis added).

While literary analysis may not be considered traditional research, Lehman’s challenge here was at the heart of designing this unit. (For more on this unit, see literary analysis post and writing boot camp post.)

Students had almost complete control over their choice of short story to analyze. While during the reading part of the unit I gave students many lenses on how to analyze a text, they decided which ones they wanted to 2015-11-16 09.52.08use in their writing. We looked at tons of mentor theme statements and practiced finding themes, but they developed their own theme statements for their papers. They were never locked in—several students completely changed their story and many changed their lenses as they began to work out their thinking in their writing. One student remarked, “I have to go back to my text because now that I’m writing I realize none of evidence I collected really works.”

This type of learning takes courage—for me and for my students.

I’m not a parent, but I imagine the feeling of not wanting to see your own child fail is similar to the feeling I have about my students. It was hard not to jump in and tell them that I thought they were going to have a hard time with a particular story, or lens, or the evidence gathered. It was a bit scary having students write in such a formal manner about stories that I had not read.

It took courage for the students to work as hard as they did on 2015-11-18 13.40.32independent reading and writing. They were brave in the way they rehearsed their thinking and changed their ideas about the literature and their writing as they went through the process. There were no right or wrong answers to make them feel safe.

So as I sit here grading the 152 literary analysis papers that I could have done a better job writing, I am beaming with pride. I have that “mama pride.” I see their authentic work, their own thinking and voice coming alive on the paper, their depth of understanding that went so much further than when asked to simply plug and play. Not to mention, I was not bored by reading the exact same thing over and over in slightly different words.

Most 2015-12-01 16.20.30importantly, though, my students are proud. Many have said they are turning in their best paper they’ve ever written. Some commented on how they finally figured out how to write about literature. One student, who I’m often lucky if I ever get his work by the due date, turned in his paper on time proudly, saying he even skipped playing basketball to work on his writing.

There is power in giving students choice and ownership. There is power in allowing students the freedom to make mistakes. There is power in students finding their voice through independent writing.

Bonus Read: If you are like me and could not attend NCTE this year (or even if you did and you want to relive it), there are lots of blogs worth checking out. Sarah Zerwin’s daily NCTE blog with an additional top takeaway post is a great place to start. Thank you, Elizabeth, for introducing me to this blog on your Links I Loved Last Week.  Also, check out her Top Ten List about NCTE15. To Make a Prairie gives thanks to NCTE with a beautiful post of inspiration and challenges.

I survived writing boot camp!

2015-11-16 09.48.58This week all my students are participating in writing boot camp during class. What makes writing boot camp different than just a week of writing instruction? It’s very focused. It’s intense. It’s about the mindset.

Doing a little internet research, I found several keys to running a successful fitness boot camp. I think these apply to an academic writing boot camp as well.

  1. Research: Spend time finding out what skills students need additional focus and which ones they already know how to do.
  2. Start with good management: Figure out how to divide the skills across the week, how much time to spend on the skills, and what resources are needed.
  3. Craft the boot camp so it offers something new or different: This week 2015-11-16 10.47.31has to feel different from the other weeks in class; it has to be special. It may be that students are allowed to bring in snacks/drinks or spread out on the floor. It may be that all instruction is focused on this type of writing. It may be that music will be playing while they write.
  4. Focus on quality class structure: Students have to buy in to the boot camp. The first day is the most important. They have to feel like they really accomplish something and are encouraged to do the hard work in the days to come.
  5. Invest in marketing: Build it up in the weeks prior to the boot camp. They should know a challenge is coming but feel excited to meet the challenge.
  6. Invest in resources: Make sure there are mentor texts, access to writing materials, and other handouts for quick teaching of a skill.
  7. Start small: Students have to feel that they have accomplished something (as do you!), so start with something small on the first day that they can use to build on the rest of the week.
  8. Time class properly: Boot camp has to be structured. Time every part of it so that the pace is consistent. Use phrases like, “You have 10 minutes! Ready! Set! Go!” It should feel like a mental workout!
  9. Create a feeling of camaraderie: This is a group experience. The teacher should be walking around reading, encouraging, guiding, gently correctly. The class should celebrate each others work and 2015-11-16 10.02.12improvements.
  10. Structure class like group personal training: Make class adjustments for each class period: change length of times, resources, or focus skills as necessary. Give as much personal and small group attention as possible. Reflect not only on each day but each period.
  11. Reward: Make a big deal about completing boot camp and the accomplishments/growth made during the week.

This is a general overview of our writing boot camp.

We have 50-minute class periods (except Wednesday which is 45 minutes).

Previous to Boot Camp (see more about this in last week’s post):

  • Read three short stories (of your choice, must be approved) and write journal entries on each.
  • Choose one short story and complete close reading lens analysis with six lenses.
  • Establish a theme statement for the short story.
  • Write a 100-words on author bio, context, and summary of short story.
*The minutes indicate quiet student work time and do not include the instruction time in between.

2015-11-18 13.00.27Monday
1. Collect and review all previous work, data, evidence. (2 minutes)
2. Write a flash draft (or quick write) about theme in the short story. (5 minutes)
3. Revise or reword theme statements, as needed. (5 minutes)
4. Deciding on best lenses to prove development of theme (all analysis is a form of argument). Choose three out of the 6. (5 minutes)
5. Write a thesis statement; focus on active verb. (7 minutes)
6. Gather information for context in the introduction. (5 minutes)
7. Write a working introduction (subject to change). (10 minutes)

Tuesday
1. Finish introduction– make it tight. (3 minutes)
2. Focus on one lens and gather appropriate evidence. (10 minutes)
3. To use a quote or not to quote? Summary, paraphrase, and quotations (mid-workshop teaching point)
4. Flash draft for first lens. (5 minutes, 1 minute break, 6 minutes, 1 minute break)
5. Writing partner review. (10 minutes)
6. Brag about something your partner did.

Wednesday
1. Look at mentor text for writer’s craft moves for literary analysis. Chart.2015-11-18 13.02.24
2. Discuss possible structure of body paragraphs (write about each lens separately or blending lenses).
3. Work on body paragraphs (7 minutes, 1 minute break, 10 minutes, 1 minute break, 12 minutes)
4. Share out best sentence.

Thursday
1. Discuss strategies for conclusions.
2. Continue writing paper—work on whatever is needed. (10 minutes, 1 minute break)
3. Work with a writing partner to discuss writing and trouble shoot problem areas. (10 minutes)
4. Continue writing. (15 minutes)
5. Make a goal list for final boot camp day.

2015-11-18 13.40.32Friday
1. Discuss revision and proofreading strategies.
2. Write independently. (10 minutes)
3. Work with peers and conference on final touches. (30 minutes)
4. Reflect on boot camp and name the one thing you are most proud of from this week.

 

What my students said:

Overall, students appreciated the experience, even if they didn’t all love it. Some really struggled with the timed parts. Next time, I will be clearer of how they can use their time and that they can finish later what they don’t finish in that timed session. However, I will not change using timed writing sessions. Our students have to practice timed writing and many of students will take AP the following year. It’s good practice for them, and I believe it kept my students more focused and productive.

Another concern several students raised was that they felt unsure about what they were supposed to be writing. I think this came from not being given a formula to follow. I will not give a formula, but I may do more small group sessions during some of the time writing stages or offer small groups before or after school for more direction, in the future.

As for the positives, I’ll let you hear their voices:

  • I loved that it pushed me to do more in my writing than I ever thought I could.
  • I liked the examples and text given to us in order to aid in our writing.
  • I liked how it pushed me to think faster and write more thoroughly.
  • I’m learning to fix mistakes that I habitually make in my writing.2015-11-16 10.48.04
  • I liked having the option of asking any question right when I had the problem in my writing.
  • I am most proud that I have been about to identify errors in my own paper and identify good things in my own paper.
  • I liked that we had the opportunity to revise our papers as we were writing them.
  • I have learned to weave lenses into my writing the correct and efficient way.
  • The fact that I was able to write for a long time made me happy.
  • I liked the freedom of choice.
  • Writing boot camp has helped me know how to analyze a piece of text.
  • Writing boot camp helped me realize that I could do a lot better.
  • Writing boot camp has helped me understand my strengths and weaknesses in writing. It has also helped me learn to pull information from text.
  • I think writing boot camp was great! At first, I thought it would be just terrible, but it turned out to be really fun and challenging in a good way. I love that we had a chance to really analyze a story.

I think this idea is a keeper. Now just to get some “I survived writing boot camp” t-shirts…

Bonus Read: I really liked Katy’s post (Not) Going Fishing on the Turn and Talk Blog.  One, I am just a Katy fan, and I really liked her voice in this blog.  But most importantly, this post challenged me to think about how and when and why I question in the class.  One thing I learned through this writing boot camp process was how much time I actually do have in the classroom.  Now that we are finished with boot camp, I want to make sure I keep maximizing my time.  Becoming effective with questioning is a way to do that.  Effective questioning is purposeful.  Thanks Katy for the fun metaphorical reminder!

I have nothing to wear (aka Why anchor charts matter)

2015-11-03 15.20.36It was Sunday night. I was getting everything ready to start a new week at school—packing lunch, gathering papers, and finding an outfit. Laundry was done, and all my clothes were hanging in my closet. There were a lot of clothes, but I still stared at my closet thinking I need to go shopping because I have nothing to wear.

I finally decided to take out each pair of pants and each skirt, one at a time, and match it with a top. Turns out, I had plenty to wear. I just needed a system, a way to look at what I had, to find what I needed.

It made me think of my students. They learn a lot of skills and have lots of tools to access those skills. Sometimes this comes in a piece here and a piece there; sometimes we give several tools for the same skill. And then we, as teachers, ask them to use these tools and skills throughout the year again and again—using the tools or developing the skills with different text or different writing assignments (building different outfits each time).

I think students can often feel like I did standing in front of my closet. Overwhelmed. Having no clue where to look or what to look for. It’s not that they 2015-11-03 15.20.31don’t have lots of tools or lots of practice with the skills. It wasn’t that I didn’t have lots of clothes. They just need a system, a way to see what they have and access the tools when needed.

For me, this is the purpose of the anchor chart. It helps my students access the tools they need to do what they need to do.

I didn’t always use anchor charts. It wasn’t that I didn’t like the idea of anchor charts. I just thought they took too much time (It was easier to use PowerPoint); I thought they were too difficult to display (that chart paper never sticks to my painted brick wall); I thought I didn’t have room (I have to display all my pretty, colorful posters and sayings); I thought it was a little too elementary (I teach those very grown up 10th graders).

This year I’ve used them, but most importantly my students have used them. I see students pointing to the anchor chart that helps them when they are working in groups, or I hear students referring to it during discussion. I can direct them to anchor cha2015-11-04 15.42.20rts, and then they can do it themselves. It builds agency in the students.

All the reason I didn’t use them seem silly. Why wouldn’t I give my students a way to access the tools to use the skills I spend so much time helping them learn? Why wouldn’t I help them figure out that they have outfits they can wear, instead of leaving them overwhelmed thinking they have nothing to wear?

Someone once told me that my walls should be useful for my students or its wasted space. I think my walls are finally starting to talk the right talk.

I challenge you to try it, if you don’t already. Just do one or two and see how it works out. Maybe your students will be like mine and realize just how many tools they have at their disposal.

PS– These pictures of anchor charts are from my current literary analysis unit.  My next post will be on this unit, but the lens idea and structure is from Christopher Lehman and Kate RobertsFalling in Love with Close Reading.  A must have in your professional library!

Bonus Read:  Two Writing Teachers are doing this amazing blog series on Diving into Informational Writing.  Each post is incredibly helpful, and they provide lots of information, helps, and resources.  Two of my favorite from the series are Using Qualities of Informational Writing to Guide Students to Set Goals and Allowing Student Choice Within Informational Writing.