Thursday, April 16, 2015

Hearing Voices

bringing voice into the classroom - image by dailywritingtips.com
We've just stared our last quarter of the school year, and throughout the first two weeks of our Creative Writing class, we have been exploring elements of our writing voices. We’ve read and discussed the rhetorical choices a writer makes, drafted pieces on what makes our voice unique, and crafted metaphors for who we are as writers. This week we are listening to the voices of others, letting them act as mentors for our own creations.  I thought that I would share some of the writing exercises and resources that we use to explore elements of writing style and voice.

And as our study of voice comes to a close, I'm trying something new. We have been listening to interviews archived by the National Public Radio program StoryCorps.org, a program whose founder, Dave Isay, recently won the the prestigious TEDTalks Prize for his work capturing the extraordinary stories of ordinary people. Now it is our turn!

Working with partners, students in our Creative Writing class are interviewing one another, reflecting and writing about our shared stories. In the coming days, we will be using the new StoryCorps.me app to record and share our interviews with others around the country.  In sharing their interviews, not only will students make their work available for others to see, but the interview will also be archived in the nation’s Library of Congress.

It was easy to see excitement build around this culminating project. Students were listening and sharing their finds as they explored the featured essays on the StoryCorps site today. One student, as he was packing up after the bell, said in passing as he was walking out the door, "Well, I know I'm not getting thing done tonight. I can already tell I'm going to be listening to all these interviews." He wasn't dismissive or disappointed. Instead, he sounded excited to binge listen to interviews for an assignment. Wait, I need to repeat that. I have students more interested in binge listening to interviews than binge watching Netflix...okay, that might be going a bit too far.  But it does seem to hint at how important it is to bring voices into the classroom, and to open up space for students to share their stories, share their voices...literally.

And hear/here's how we got to where we are in class today (sorry, couldn't resist the word play):
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Notebook Prompt: This Is My Voice
Writer Donald Murray said, “We must teach ourselves to recognize our own voice. We want to write in a way that is natural for us, that grows out of the way we think, the way we see, the way we care.”

Use Mr. Koyczan's first line as inspiration. Begin with "This is my voice..."



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Notebook Prompt: What Is Good Writing?
Open up your Writer's Notebook and spend a few minutes thinking and writing about the following: What is good writing? Think about your favorite books, magazine writers, poems, or song lyrics. Reflect on what makes this a piece of good writing.


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Reading and Reflection: What is Voice
The class breaks into two teams. Each team has a different article about voice, which they access as a shared Google document (article 1 and article 2). Together the teams read and annotate their article, using the comment function to add reactions, questions, and interpretations to their reading. Their purpose is to more clearly define what a writer's voice includes. After discussing in teams, each group takes turn presenting a summary of their article, a definition for voice, and a list of elements connected to a writer's voice. Then as a class, we try to come to consensus on a definition for voice.

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Notebook : Hearing Voices
One of my favorite writing books is by Georgia Heard. Her book Writing Toward Home: Tales and Lessons to Find Your Way is full of ideas for how to find and refine your voice as a writer. Let's read a few passages from her work together and complete some of her prompts in our Writing Notebook.
  • "Listening to the Corn" on pages 88-89 encourages us to slow down and listen to the world around us. 
    • After reading "Listening to the Corn," let's go for a walk. Find a quite spot and open up your Notebook. Record what you see, what you hear, what you feel, what you smell. Pay attention to the specific details. 
    • Try to focus on one object - a nearby tree, a lone dandelion in the middle of the baseball diamond, the empty bleachers. Spend some time describing that object in as much detail as you can. 
    • Now give voice to that object. Use your earlier description to write in the voice of your chosen object. What would that object care about? What would it see, smell, hear? 
    • Try turning this brainstorm into a more polished piece. Will it become part of a story, a poem, a song lyric? 
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Reading and Reflection: Writer's Gather
Writers collect ideas, gather them up in notebooks, on scrap pieces of paper, on napkins.  So as we explore where writing ideas come from, we too must be gatherers. We must gather ideas, gather inspiration, and gather words.

Susan Goldsmith Wooldridge has a great idea for finding inspiration in her book Poemcrazy. She suggests that writers collect words and create what she calls "wordpools".  So let's give it a try!  Here's her explanation for what a "wordpool" is:
"I borrow words from poems, books and conversations. Politely. Take polite. If I’m in a classroom, I just start chalking them onto the board. I don’t worry about spelling or meaning. Curdle. Cantankerous. Linoleum. Limousine. Listen. Malevolent. Sukulilli, the Maidu Indian word for silly. Magnet cat oven taste tilt titter
I call gathering words this way creating a wordpool. This process helps free us to follow the words and write poems." (10)
Let's take some time to read her chapter on wordpools.  After you finish reading, we'll be using the magazines, newspapers, and books on our desks to create our own wordpools.  Then we'll use our gathered words to play around with creating a piece for tomorrow.
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Notebook Prompt: Finding Your Voice
We are made up of many layers - layers of memories, events, beliefs, hopes, dreams, and goals. These layers should come through not only in what we choose to write about but also in how we write. What does your writing say about you? What do you say through your writing?

Let's take some time today to explore our unique writing voices. We'll begin by reading a short selection from Georgia Heard. Her chapter title "Layers" asks writers to consider themes that continue to come up in our lives and in our writing.
  • What does your chosen object say about you. Open your Notebook and take some time to write about the object you have brought to class today. Why did you chose this object? What does this object say about you? 
  • Similarly, think about what you have chosen to write about in the past. Do you notice any patterns? Are there words, images, or themes that continue to come up? Why? 
  • Now, take some time to think about those images, objects, themes, and memories that are most important to you. Select one. Use that image, object, theme, or memory as an inspiration for a more polished piece. Write a short story, a poem, song lyrics, or an essay about your selected topic.
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Notebook Prompt: Blackout Poetry
Writers find inspiration from other writers, sometimes even using the words of others to create their own works.  Check out just how Austin Kleon is taking this idea to a new level. Now let's create our own. And, as you create your own blackout poem, reflect on the choices and decisions you make in your creation process. We'll spend time talking about how your voice comes through when you use someone else's words.

Wednesday, April 8, 2015

Accessing Poetry

Ogden Nash is echoing in my living room. Just before him, Billy Collins. Rita Dove kicked off our poetic performance this afternoon. While at the library the other day, my little man gravitated toward poetry display, pulling down the book Poetry Speaks to Children from the National Poetry Month display at our local library. Instantly, I was transported back to my time student teaching.

While other twenty-somethings may have asked for money or a car, for Christmas I asked for the box set of In Their Own Voices: A Century of Recorded Poetry. Four CDs filled with poems read by the original poets - a scratchy recording of Walt Whitman reciting "America," Sylvia Plath's plaintive cry for "Daddy," Robert Frost contemplating "Birches." I would sit in the middle of the living room/bedroom/study of my studio apartment and let their voices pour over me, mesmerizing and transporting me. As a student teacher, I wanted to share this love with my students. I would bring the CDs into class every chance I could.

This afternoon, watching my little guys nestle into the couch, listening to the poetry of Maxine Kumin, Gwendolyn Brooks, and James Berry, I am reminded of the magic that poetry evokes. It's not just because they have a mom that loves poetry (okay, maybe it is a little bit of my influence), my boys are transfixed by the words of poets. They listen for the rhythm, for the rhyme. They get excited at particular images and turns of phrase. My kindergartener grabs the book. He points out words on the page, notices how some line up, others stop short. He wonders why some poems look different from others in the collection. He is noticing the choices that the poets make visually as well as rhetorically. This is what makes poetry so powerful as a teaching tool.

Poetry is accessible for readers of all ages, all levels, all content areas. We might look at Robert Hayden's "Those Winter Sundays" (one of my favorites) in English class, using it as a mentor text for our own adventures writing poetry. We'd notice the alliteration, the creative use of adjectives. We'd steal his rhetorical style for our own creations.  But we could also look at the poem from a different lens in history class. What might this poem tell us about family dynamics during the early twentieth century? Bring this piece into an art class, and how might we create different visual interpretations of the piece. What do we chose to focus on visually within the poem? How might that focus help a reader reinterpret the text? Bring poetry into science class. Bring math and poetry together for an interesting collaboration. Poetry has the power to connect us, inspire us, transport us.

Last year for National Poetry Month, I put together a collection of some of the resources I use bring poetry into my high school classes. And as you might imagine, I've added quite a few new resources over the course of this year. I've done more with visualizing poetry this year, playing with Austin Kleon's blackout poetry as inspiration and sharing the New York Times' Magazine series "Picture and a Poem" with students before asking them to pair a creative piece of their creation with a favorite poem.

There are so many ways to bring poetry into the classroom. To help get you started, here's a great place to start. These are poems that I use in with my high school classes to inspire our own writing. It is a growing playlist, and I'm always adding new favorites. Have a suggestion of a video I should add, please let me know!

Sunday, April 5, 2015

Not Another Boring Book Report

My tenth grade English students just finished up their independent reading projects, but I didn't have them create just another boring book report. Instead, students used ThingLinks to curate research on their selected novels. Their task was to find a variety of visual, audio, and written pieces to act as mentor texts for the writing of their own literary reviews. I then collected the links to all of their ThingLinks and connected them to our class picture, a ThingLink of ThingLinks!

By focusing on curating research, we were able to spend time talking about responsible research and what makes a scholarly source. Students were tasked with compiling a works cited for all their links, which we used the Easy Bib Add-on in Google Docs to create. As a class, we discussed the distinction between a book summary and a literary review before students set about finding well-written reviews to act as mentor texts for their own writing. Finally, students used the literary reviews they found as models to help them craft their own reviews. Instead of giving students a set outline to follow, a set number of sentences and paragraphs to follow, students crafted their reviews to read like those published pieces they found in The New York Times' Review of Books, on the American Library Association's site, the Library Journal online, and shared on National Public Radio's Book Reviews.  And that was our goal. When students return from Spring Break next week, we'll be revising their reviews in order to submit them to online spaces like Teen Ink, GoodReads, and Amazon.

Giving students the choice to select their own novels, as well as the choice of how and where to share their literary research and reviews makes for a powerful learning experience for all involved. And it certainly means that I'm not assessing another boring book report.

Check out their work below. You'll also see my lesson materials below. Feel free to adapt them for your classroom!


ASSIGNMENT DIRECTIONS:
You’ve spent the first quarter reading and reflecting on your choice SSR project. Now, let’s do something with your reading! We will be using your SSR book in two ways. You will be using your SSR text to complete your midterm benchmark essay. You will also be completing an interactive, research-based presentation on your SSR novel using ThingLink.

Login to your ThingLink account by first checking your district email for your login and password information. Then, you will use ThingLink to create an interactive presentation on your book, sharing reviews, research, and connections to your reading. Here’s how:

  • Step 1: Take or find a high-quality image of your book’s cover. This will be the base image you use for your ThingLink creation. If you use someone else’s image, make sure that you keep track of where you found it as you will need to give credit to the original source in a works cited document. 
  • Step 2: Create a Works Cited in your Google Doc account. Use the Easy Bib Add-on to help you easily create a Works Cited for all the research, images, and content that you are adding to your ThingLink. Under “File,” be sure to select the “Publish to Web” option. 
  • Step 3: Get researching! Here is what you will need to link to your ThingLink (though you can always connect more than this): 
    • three well-written literary reviews of your selected book. These are not Amazon reviews. Find three scholarly reviews that incorporate more than mere opinion of the book and instead analyze the literary elements and merits of your SSR text. Here’s an example
    • a well-researched source that connects to the setting/context of your book. Did you read a book about Civil War in Sierra Leone? Find a reputable source that explains the historical context of the war to link to your creation. Did you read The Great Gatsby? Find a scholarly source about the nouveau riche during America’s depression era. 
    • a well-crafted introduction to the author. If the author of your SSR text has his or her own website, this would be perfect to link to your creation. If not, find a well-written introduction to the author and his/her background. 
    • three well-produced audio/visuals to enhance our understanding of your SSR book. Consider looking for a high-quality image of a scene from the book which you can link and briefly explain in your creation. Find a podcast interview with the author to link. Locate a video of the author speaking about his/her book. Make sure you have a mix of media. All three should not be the same type of media. 
  • Step 4: Use your research to create your own review. Your book review should be written like those that you researched. Use your researched reviews as mentor texts. What do you notice about the style and voice in which they are written? Your review will need to incorporate specific details about the author’s writing style in addition to reviewing the plot and characters found in the story. You are not simply looking at why the story works but how it works. 
  • Step 5: Link it up! You will need to have your works cited, your review, and all eight of your researched links added to your ThingLink creation.


Cooking by Hand

Ingredients:
Pull open the curtains and let the sun slip in slowly, casting warm blankets across the living room floor as you snuggle deep into the couch, little bodies crowding next to you to watch Saturday morning cartoons. When tummies start to grumble, after you've scanned the New York Times while sipping coffee black, pull the stool to the kitchen counter.  Let little hands reach up to measure and mix.

  • 1 1/4 cup almond flour more or less, measured by dumping at least 1/3 of a cup onto the counter when chubby fingers are not big enough to hold tight to the canister. Just brush the excess into your mixing bowl. It will be the perfect amount.   
  • 1/3 cup coconut flour, which smells too good not to play with. Let those little hands sift the almond and coconut flour together. 
  • 1/2 teaspoon baking soda, measured by slipping the spoon into the orange box and pulling it tight against the lid to get the precise measure. Why is it called soda, mommy? It doesn't fizz. 
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt poured into the cupped creases of his hand. But how do you know this is the right amount? You just know. Like my mom would say.
  • 1 cup full fat coconut milk, but don't panic when you forgot to purchase it the day before.  Pull the 2% milk out of the fridge. Improvise.  
  • 2 ripe bananas, mashed vigorously with a fork. This is the best part. Those little hands and arms will smash and swirl to pull the fork through the banana mush, and you'll end up with chunks of banana on the counter and maybe in your hair. He'll look up at your with those big blue eyes and not even have to speak the words. Just one finger full? 
  • 3 large eggs but you might need 4 and a spoon as well.  That first egg will end up split entirely in two, egg shell raining down into the pancake batter and the yoke sliding across the kitchen counter. He's excited to crack the eggs. A little too excited. The spoon will help him fish out the shells and the extra egg will give him an opportunity to try again.
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract will remind him of making cookies. It's what you smell like, mommy.
  • coconut oil to grease the griddle, making it easier to slip the spatula underneath and flip the pancake. This takes practice. His first few attempts will end up crumpled and lumpy, but he will keep trying. And with your hand on the spatula to help guide, he will flip the perfect pancake. And soon, he will not need your hand as support. You will step back and watch as he becomes the master of the flap jack.
This is cooking by hand.

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Throwing out the Rules

Illustration by Austin Kleon
Elizabeth just came up to my desk to ask if she is allowed to use contractions in her personal essay.

Allowed.

Our student writers are taught a set of rules. Don't use contractions. Double space your essays. Spell out numbers under ten. Write everything in complete sentences. Make sure that your subject and your verbs agree in number. These are easy to teach, easy to learn. But clearly the writing that we remember, that packs an emotional punch, is more than a well-employed set of grammatical rules.

As an English teacher, I admit to focusing a bit too much of my energy on marking misplaced commas and dangling modifiers in the past, but this is not where the heart of writing lies.  In spending our energies on correcting grammar, we teach our students that grammar is important. Exclusively. When we focus on writing as teaching students to write a certain number of paragraphs, to a particular set of rules, we limit student possibilities for expression.

I understand the need to begin somewhere.  However, a set of rules, a list of dos and don'ts, decapitates student writing. (I asked my creative writing students for help with this sentence. Jordan came up with the verb decapitates.) Instead, taking a lead from Kylene Beers, Lynne Dorfman, and Kelly Gallagher, I ask my students to find mentor texts for each piece of writing they craft. What is the writing doing? What do you notice? What moves is the writer making? Beginning in this manner, students come up with their own rules. They notice that personal essays published in the New York Times Magazine use contractions. The college application essays that earned the highest marks are those that use slang, that contain intentional fragments, that break the rules of what is "allowed."

I am asking my students to think about writing for publication. They are trained to write in five paragraphs, but pick up any magazine, a newspaper, read a blog. How many of them are written in formulaic five-paragraphs? Yes, we must begin somewhere when it comes to teaching writing. However, I firmly believe teaching students to write to a set of rules, rules that so many of us break, is not the place to begin. Rather than close off possibilities, we must find ways to open them up.

So it's not that I'm throwing the "rules" out the window. I'm just setting them aside for awhile and letting our community of writers figure out the rules for ourselves.

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Cry Baby

Flickr Creative Commons image by LMAP
I am a cry baby. Always have been. My younger sister would sneak in to steal a toy, and I would cry. Didn’t get my way or change our plans, and unstoppable tears would rush over my fat cheeks. I remember making a decision, perhaps at eight or nine, to stop crying. I didn’t want to hear another exasperated sigh escape from my dad’s moustached mouth, wishing under his breath that I would just stop.

So I did.

But somewhere between nine and thirty-nine, I realized how devastating that decision was. It wasn’t that I stopped the hurt or emotion behind the tears; instead, I stopped sharing. I stopped revealing. But on becoming a teacher, working with emerging writers, I have came to understand how dangerous that pressure to conceal can be for writers in particular.

A writer’s power comes in connecting truth, in revealing in ordinary moments the larger themes of our connected lives. To do this well, the writer, whether nine or thirty-nine, must reveal themselves. I am the odd one in my solidly Midwestern family. I cry at diaper commercials and fundraising campaigns for the ASPCA. In class, when my students share their personal This I Believe essays, I cry. Students write about their experiences with loss: losing a mother to cancer, a grandmother to Alzheimer’s, a father to drug addiction. Students share their fears, their loneliness as much as their pride and joy, often sitting side-by-side in one essay. And I cry.

The courage that it takes to reveal oneself, whether that be to a teacher, to peers, or to an unseen audience via the web, is awe-inspiring. I have grown more not only as a teacher but as an individual by opening up opportunities for students to revel and reveal in their writing. Sometimes that brings me to tears of joy, other times to tears of commiseration. But now I share them freely. Unashamed.

Monday, March 16, 2015

Taking the Stage

I'm nervous.

I've spent the day making sure that everything is in order for our visit from the One Book, One Philadelphia author Christina Baker Kline, author of the fantastic historical fiction novel Orphan Train. Emailing maintenance to make sure we have a registration table and microphones, asking students to come up with questions they want to ask of the author, and running around the building snapping pictures of teachers and students reading Orphan Train. I had quite a bit of fun with that last task. As teachers, students, and community members file into our auditorium tomorrow, I have a slideshow prepared of our community members reading Orphan Train, and snapping pictures throughout the day has also meant that I have had the opportunity to talk with so many different people about this story. There has been one common thread - we love this book!

A guidance counselor shared with me the story of discussing this book with her 90 year old mother, connecting over the history behind Vivian's tale. A tenth grader shared how she loved the parallel between Molly's story and Vivian's. A gym teacher nearly cried as she shared how this story helped her connect with an important young person in her life who shared a similar journey to that of Molly. Young and old, men and women, students and teachers from all walks of life connect to this story. There is something so moving about Vivian's journey, her struggles and decisions, her heart break and connections and the way in which young Molly is able to reach out and connect with her experiences across generations that touches all sorts of readers.

But, I am nervous.

I have the job of being moderator for tomorrow's program with Christine Baker Kline. It's not that this is my first time moderating an author presentation, but that doesn't seem to quell my nerves.  I have had the pleasure of moderating presentations authors Edwidge Danticat and Julie Otsuka made when they visited our campus in the past, but there is something about being so near the writers whose work I've admired, while also standing on stage in front of hundreds of people under a spot light. I mentioned this nervousness to a non-teacher not all that long ago who gave me a quizzical look. "Aren't you 'on stage' in front of people every day? Isn't teaching the same thing?"

My classroom is not a stage, and I don't put on a performance each day. Although I work with about 75 - 85 young people each day, it's not quite the same experience. As years pass, I find that I spend less and less of my time in front of the class. My nervousness about tomorrow alludes to my position in the classroom. I am not confident speaking in public. It is not something that comes naturally to me. I much prefer to be in the classroom working with people. So to prepare for tomorrow, I had my students help me brainstorm questions to ask of the author. And, not surprisingly, they came up with great questions about Ms. Baker Kline's writing inspiration and her process.

So I'm starting to feel a bit more prepared for tomorrow because when I go up on that stage, I'll take with me the stories shared with me by our community of readers about their connections to Orphan Train as well as the questions that my students generated. We've prepared for this together.

Okay, I'm more prepare but still nervous.

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