Saturday, October 5, 2013

American Literature Units Chosen by Students

This year I decided to ask my students to vote on the units they would study in American Literature.  A big thank you to all those who helped refine my list of topics and corresponding texts.

For those who are interested, here is the final list I gave my students to choose from.  Here's the raw data from voting results.

And here are the units I'm teaching this year:

  • Classroom and School Community (my unit to start off the year)
  • Witch Hunts (The Crucible as an anchor text with literature circles on books about Salem witch trials, modern adaptations, and 1950s McCarthyism)
  • Horror Stories (Edgar Allen Poe, I Am Legend, and possibly In Cold Blood)
  • Terrorism (Not sure yet; maybe literature circles with some YA texts like Ghosts of War, Sunrise Over Fallujah1, but also some non-YA texts like Manhunt)
  • Dark Times in America (Snow Falling on Cedars?  All the President's Men?  Other texts about times America was on the wrong side of history)
  • In my district, in 11th grade they write a pretty extensive research paper.  I may do this with the horror stories unit because I have a number of students who are really interested in serial killers2, or I may do this as a separate unit.
I'm still finishing up the school community unit, but from what I saw the first days, the unit selection earned me some street cred3, and in some ways it made my job easier - I wouldn't be able to cover all of American Literature in a year.  One of my colleagues says he rarely gets past transcendentalism.  This way I cover a wider breadth historically and have greater engagement from my students.

Next time, I think I may just give students a list of units.  I gravitated towards those results since I already had an idea of what I could do with them, and I think they are more engaging to the students as well rather than a list of historical eras.

1. Those these are more related to the War in Iraq than terrorism directly . . . Go back.
2. Yeah, it's a little creepy.  Go back.
3. Not street cred.  Some other type of cred.  But more than just regular ol' credibility.  Cred.  Go back.

Friday, October 4, 2013

Narrative Essay - Step Two: Rewrites

Last week Last month Eight months ago, I wrote a post about my new approach to narrative writing.  This is the follow-up.

After students have written writer's notebook entries for about a month, I ask them to go back, reread their entries, and choose around five they like or would want to revise.  Then I hand them a glue stick and a copy of the rewrite square to the right (here's the file if you want a copy).

This gives students a place to start and helps them identify what's good, rather than misspellings, grammar issues, or poor organization.  None of these things matter when creating the bedrock for mining.  Identifying what works is the vein of gold we're looking for.

When they've finished marking up this first one, I introduce Graves and Kittle's (2005) concept of the heartbeat (p. 10-1).  The heartbeat is the writer's wish for the piece or what they want the reader to take from it.  Often there's a line that embodies this.  I may ask students to look for the heartbeat in that first piece, or to go on and re-read their second selected entry, using the second rewrite square in the file above.

Here's an example straight from my writer's notebook:
[I met Noel at summer camp.]  She was the manager at the ranch office across the highway and pretty forward about where she saw our relationship going.  "I want you to play your guitar for me," where the first words she ever said to me.  Never having a girlfriend before, at 18 years old, I was more than happy to oblige, and follow it up with a 30-minute make-out session afterwards.

Weeks later, I left notes in the various pockets of her duffel bag, "I love you" written on each one.
The heartbeat is underlined.  What the piece is mostly about is in brackets.  The bolded words are words that I liked.  As we'll see in the next post, my heartbeat changed, as they sometimes do as one writes more.

Once students have done this with the five pieces, they choose one to rewrite.  They keep what they like, move the heartbeat around, and try to bring in more of what they liked in the original entry.  All this is still done in the writer's notebook.

In the next post, I'll showcase the narrative essay outline I used with students this past year.  There's nothing five-paragraphy about it.

Works Cited

Graves, D. H., & Kittle, P.  (2005).  Inside writing: How to teach the details of craft.  Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

Saturday, June 15, 2013

American Literature Units

Next year I'm teaching American Literature to juniors.  The last time I taught the course was my first year teaching, so there are quite a few things I'd like to do differently.

This will also be the first summer I've had a solid job set up for next year.  I won't be spending my time completing applications for dozens of districts or signing up for licensure tests to add endorsements that are contingent for my employment.

So, because I'm a little sick1, I already started putting together a basic year-long plan aligned with standards.

I was feeling good and wanted to nail down some overarching questions for the full year, because that would be cool.  Overarching questions are like essential questions that cover the whole year - the "so what?"  I had one, but I wanted some other ideas and decided to consult some literature from my undergrad to make sure I remembered how to select overarching questions.

So I pulled out Teaching English Through Principled Practice by Peter Smagorinsky and found the section on overarching questions, which gave me some ideas, and looked through the chapter on year long units2.

Smagorinsky (2002) states there are three ways to set up a years worth of units.  There are all out teacher selected or where students craft all the units.  Then, there is the middle ground:
In this approach to choosing a curriculum, the teacher sets up a menu of possible topics, allowing the students to select eight or so for their year's study . . . This approach has the advantage of giving the students choices in their learning while operating in a framework of topics that the teacher considers culturally and educationally important (p. 36).
I had considered doing this my first year teaching, but Smagorinsky (2002) warns against it:
It is often a good idea to wait a few years before taking this approach so that you will have several units prepared, rather than having to write many new units from scratch in your first or second year on the job (p. 36).
After teaching for five years in three different districts, I'm ready to skin this chicken.  Peel this potato.  Gut this fish.  I am all over this like ham on cheese.  And apparently in need of a snack.

Here's where you, my dear readers, come in.  Having taught American Literature only once, and for just a semester, as a first year teacher, I need a list of American Literature units.  I've got 26 ideas right now on this Google doc.  Some are bad, some are better.  I also need texts I could teach with them.  No idea is too questionable.  From this I can put together a final list and say to my students in September4, "Choose your top ten."

Works Cited

Smagorinsky, P. (2002). Teaching English through principled practice. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Merrill Prentice Hall.

1. You can use the common interpretation or the student vernacular. Go back.
2. My current favorite quote from this book: "You'll probably end up teaching the selections in an order quite different from their order in the anthology.  Such is the life of the maverick" (p. 87).3 Go back.
3. I teach mostly with mavericks . . . wait, doesn't that go against the definition?
4. Yeah, that's right, suckas!  I don't start school until after Labor Day!5 Go back.
5. Makes working until mid-June worth it.

Thursday, May 16, 2013

Plot Line Video

I recently made a video that show examples of different points in the plot line for my class.  Hopefully you can use it too.  Here's the link.

Friday, February 1, 2013

Narrative Essay - Step One: The Writer's Notebook

Photo by Grassroots Group on Flickr, some rights reserved.
Writer's notebooks are the first step I took towards changing the way I teach all writing, including moving away from five-paragraph essays.

Over the last year, I've been thinking a lot about writing instruction that is authentic and closer to the process "real" writers go through1; the non-prescriptive2 pre-writing that creates a solid bedrock of thoughts ready to be mined for high quality topics to be refined into short stories or cut and polished into poems.

The mold for where this bedrock can be formed, I'd argue, is the writer's notebook (WNB) as opposed to what some classes call the journal or diary.  It's different in the type of writing that goes in.

What I refer to as a journal contains writing on prompts selected by the teacher, or, when it's an option, whatever the student wants to write about: their weekend, or the basketball game the night before.  This is good - getting students to write daily or multiple times per week is research-driven good practice and will make students better writers.  But there are some disadvantages to this model3.

Journals don't contain what students value.  They get the student to write, or they act as a primer connecting yesterday's lesson to today's.  But at the end of the year (or a month in), the student asks themselves, "so why am I doing this?"  Beyond the grade they get and the lessons we teach4, the journal isn't valued by our students.  It isn't something most of them will want to save.

Journals aren't connected to a long-term process.  The work that goes into a journal rarely extends beyond that day's warm-up.  Warm-ups are good.  But maybe student-writing time should be at a different time5.

Journals don't assess students' writing ability.  Journals judge a student's ability to write about something they don't value (see above) because we tell them to.

Journals aren't authentic.  Journals aren't where published writing takes place.  Students don't take their responses to these prompts and revise them into polished pieces.

So here's how I set up a WNB this year.  All those journal prompts?  You still need them, because students coming into class at the end of the summer aren't going to churn out a lot of writing.  They need to work up to it.  So the first day I give them some of those journal prompts to choose from, and I ask for just four lines (from my 10th graders).  The next day, I ask for 5 or 6.  We continue this until we're at half a page.  I may take a breather here, ask for half a page for a week.  Then start to ratchet it up to a full page.

This is what Aimee Buckner calls the Daily Page - students writing a full page each day.  In her book Notebook Know-How: Strategies for the Writer's Notebook (2005), Buckner offers a couple strategies for students to use to come up with their own topics.  Some of my favorites:

Writing from a List  I use this one in my class frequently.  Students make a list of the top ten best things that have happened in their life and the top seven worst.  Then star the ones they could write about.  Then choose one to write about that day.

Observations  What do you notice using your five senses?  The sweaty smell of the kid who had gym class last period.  The grinding pencil sharpener next door.  Write about it.

Conversation  Write a conversation between you and someone or something else.  Here's part of my conversation with a pen:
Me: Hello, pen.
Pen: I don't talk.
Me: Um . . . you just did.
Pen: No, I didn't.
Me: Yes, you did. You just talked again.
Pen: No, that's just a figment of your imagination.
Me: But if I look back, I have what you said. See?
Pen: . . .
Me: See? . . . See?
Pen: Okay, okay. So I talk. So what?
Me: I just wanted to see how you were doing.
Pen: Fine.
Me: Oh. That's good.
Pen: Is that all?
Me: And I wanted to tell you how much I appreciate your continuous ink flow.
So those are great, because students can choose the topic, but it's not something like "This weekend, I . . ."  A conversation with a pen might not produce something that goes to the next step.  But a conversation with your father who left you when your were 10?  That could go somewhere.  That's something I'd want to read.  These prompts create bedrock for mining - not everything will be good.  But some of it will be.

In addition to those options, I give students a list of prompts from Inside Writing (2005) by Donald Graves and Penny Kittle.  One of my favorites: Think about a photograph you feel a strong emotional connection to, one of: a family gathering, you and your grandfather, your first communion, a day at the beach.  Tell who is in the photo and why you treasure it.

These prompts are different from the typical ones we write on the board at the beginning of class.  This prompt got me to write a coming-of-age story about a friend and mentor I worked with at summer camp and who greatly influenced the person I became.  It's something people want to read about.

That's the point of the writer's notebook.  Push back in the comments.  Next week I'll write about how I got students to choose a topic and rewrite it - but it's straight out of Inside Writing, if you'd rather get it from the source.

1. Everyone's a real writer, but I'm talking about professional writers, in this case.  I guess. Go back.
2.  So here's my prescription of how to do it.  Geez. Go back.
3. I am looking for a fight on this, because I'm moving away from journals myself and I others to force me to think about this deeply.  So bring it on in the comments, please. Go back.
4. Which, in many cases, are more dear to us than to our students - at least for me. Go back.
5. Full disclosure: this is an idea that just came to me.  I'll try it out and let you know how it goes. Go back.

Friday, January 25, 2013

When We Lost the Love

The way I teach writing now is so different from the way I taught writing when I started this gig1.

When I started, I taught writing as I was taught.  I did pull in some stuff from college, like awesome 5-3-1 rubrics with points and weights and six-trait writing.  Heck yeah.  But accordion style paragraphs?  Yep.  Fact/Quote/Shocking statement hooks?  Uh-huh.  Five paragraph formulaic writing?  Oh yes.  Oh yes, oh yes, oh yes.

I mean, I made this whole detailed outline students would fill out with complete sentences, and then all they'd have to do is string it together.  I was convinced this outline could slay poor organization and vanquish it forever.  But we just broke up.  It's okay.  I was the breaker-upper, not the breakee.

Because when we first got together, I had this image of a graph in my mind.  It came from a teaching writing class in college, so I don't feel too bad about this.  But the idea was that students had to start writing with a formula and then through experimentation could move away from the formula into more independent and innovative styles.

And maybe formula to a certain extent is good.  If students are writing a literary analysis essay where they're quoting a text, they should know that quoting evidence as the first or last sentence isn't typically done.  Maybe even give them a formula for the body paragraphs: transition, main idea, set-up the quote, quote, explain the quote, restate main idea/transition.  Sure.

But a formula for a full narrative essay?  Or placing restrictions on the number of paragraphs a student can have?  Oh no you didn't2!

We all3 wrote five paragraphs essays in elementary school.  And middle school.  And probably, for many of us, in high school.  But that doesn't fly in college, does it?  Nor, I would assume, in business reports, or a firefighter's emergency response logs, or any number of other real world writing situations.  Instead, the length is dependent on the information to be presented.  So let's teach students how to do that.

I was headed in that direction after taking the writing workshop class at PSU last spring, but two professionals finally convinced me that Essay Outline and I had lost the love.  Kimberly Campbell and Kristi Latimer presented at the Oregon Council of Teachers of English (OCTE) Fall Conference, and at this year's NCTE Conference.

Here's an excerpt from their conference handout4, if my brief tirade wasn't enough to convince you5:

The Myths of the Five Paragraph Formula  
Myth: The five-paragraph formula is an actual form. 
The five‐paragraph essay, “speaks a logic that is important to challenge precisely because this logic perpetuates the commonsense myth that the five‐paragraph theme is an actual “form” and that “forming” in writing is simply slotting information into prefabricated formulas rather than a complex process of meaning‐making and negotiation between a writer’s purposes and audiences’ needs” (Brannon et. al, 2008,16) 
Myth: The formula is just a starting point; it’s a necessary first step that supports students in moving to more sophisticated writing. 
Studies indicate that for most students, they never move beyond this formula. “The FPT (five‐paragraph theme) formula may assist students with proper formatting of papers, but it appears to fall short of helping  them offer a cogent discussion of their thoughts. Worse, strict adherence to the FPT may actually limit students’ development of complex thinking” (Argys, 2008, 99). 
Myth: It is a helpful tool for students who struggle with writing. 
Struggling writers need support in developing their ideas and finding structures that allow their ideas to be understood by a reader. “[B]ut repetitively following the same direction for writing every essay will not help these writers advance beyond a kind of ‘successful’ codependence on teachers who have agreed in advance that this sort of formulaic essay will be what they reward” (Wiley, 2000, 65). 
Myth: It prepares students for standardized tests. 
Although the prevalence of the five‐paragraph formula can be linked to the increase of standardized writing assessments, studies indicate that the formula does not lead to high test scores. For example, a study of the Delaware student testing program found that essays with no organization earned low scores; essays that followed the five‐paragraphformula (FPT) earned middle range scores (score of 6 on a 2‐10 scale), but every essay that earned a high score (8 or better) “used other than the FPT organizational scheme” (Albertson, 2007). 
Myth: It prepares students for college writing. 
College professor, Elizabeth Rorschach notes that when she reads the five‐paragraph formula her students rely on, “I find myself terribly disappointed by how shallow and unthought‐out most of the five‐paragraph essays are (2004, 17). 
Myth: Teaching the five-paragraph formula is teaching writing. 
Donald Murray drew on his own years of experience as a writer in asserting that the fiveparagraph formula “had little to do with the exciting, mucking‐about process of real writers (Romano, 2000, 74). 
A study of high school students and academic writing confirms Murray’s assertion in finding that the “fill in the blank” structure of the five‐paragraph essay “did not allow students to do what real writers do, develop compositional goals, make plans to reach those goals, and address rhetorical and pragmatic concerns that develop during composing, or to practice making strategic decisions as writers must do” (Kane, 2005, 194‐95 in Argys 2008).

So who's my new girlfriend, and how do I teach an essay now?  That is a post for next week.

1. Teaching in general, not teaching at a specific school.  Go back.
2. But yes, yes I did.  My first year.  And my second.  And my third.  Go back.
3. Assumption! Go back.
4. You should read the whole thing.  Really.  Go back.
5. And it shouldn't have been.  Go back.

Monday, January 21, 2013


Hey baby!  Do you have a minute?  Let me buy you a coffee.  You want your usual carmel latte?  Alright, I'll be right back.

So.  Baby.  I've been wanting to talk to you about something.  I mean . . . you know I love you, right?  I love all your curves and indentations in exactly the right places.  I love how you listen and let me write the story I want to tell all over you, how you give my thoughts organization and my writing purpose.  You know I love that about you1.

But sometimes I feel like I want something more, that I'm holding myself back.  I feel like there's more out there than formulaic, five paragraph essay structures.  More than the same transition at the end of every paragraph.  More than a simple restatement of the thesis.  It's not you baby; it's me.

Oh, come on baby, don't cry.  You're great, the way you gave students clear-cut organization.  We had some great times together.  Like when we made Josh realize he actually could write - remember?  He wasn't even going to write an essay.  It's those memories I'll hold onto, baby.

But seriously, any teacher would be lucky to have you when they're up against five paragraph essays.  Just because it didn't work out between us doesn't mean you won't find another teacher out there.  There are plenty of fish in the sea, right?  You could even say there are schools of them!  Get it?  Schools?

What's that?  Oh, you're going to go?  Oh, okay.  Well, good luck.  Maybe I'll see you sometime.  No?  Oh.  Okay.  Bye.

1. This makes no sense unless you look at this. Go back.