5 WRITING STRATEGIES AND TOOLS TO REACH EVERY LEARNER: Podcast with Vicki Davis

Earlier this month I had the opportunity to talk with Cool Cat Teacher, Vicki Davis for her 10-Minute Teacher Show.

Vicki Davis is a classroom teacher with 15 years of experience teaching high school and 20 years of experience teaching teachers how to use technology in the classroom. She started her blog in 2005 to learn how to blog and then teach my students how to blog too. Davis has been podcasting since 2013. She is also the author of two technology guidebooks for teachers: Reinventing Writing and Flattening Classrooms Engaging Minds.

michele-haiken-full-size-1-1-1024x576Listen to Vicki and I talk about engaging students in writing:

 

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25 Titles for English Language Arts Teachers

One of my graduate students recently asked me what are the most influential books I have read that shaped my teaching philosophies. This student is in the process of studying for her New York State Teaching Certification Exam and English Language Arts CST and is looking for additional material to help her prepare for this test.

I had to think about all the books that I have read, which are the ones that have left a lasting impression that I still refer to today when planning and preparing my lessons. Below is a list of twenty five books that have shaped my teaching and practice over the past twenty years. Additionally, these are the books that I refer to often and use as teaching tools in my graduate courses. The books below are in no particular order.

In the Middle by Nancie Atwell – This is the first book I read in my English Methods class and has left a lasting impact on reading and writing workshop in my own middle school classroom. As Atwell states, “this edition represents my current best set of blueprints for how I build and maintain a writing-reading workshop-the expectations, demonstrations, models, choices, resources, rules and rituals, pieces of advice, words of caution, and ways of thinking, planning, looking, and talking that make it possible for every student to read with understanding and pleasure and aspire to and produce effective writing.”

Other People’s Children: Cultural Conflict in the Classroom by Lisa Delpit – An analysis of contemporary classrooms, Lisa Delpit develops ideas about ways teachers can be better “cultural transmitters” in the classroom, where prejudice, stereotypes, and cultural assumptions breed ineffective education. Delpit suggests that many academic problems attributed to children of color are actually the result of miscommunication, as primarily white teachers and “other people’s children” struggle with the imbalance of power and the dynamics plaguing our system.

Teaching to Transgress by bell hooks – “To educate is the practice of freedom,” writes bell hooks, “is a way of teaching anyone can learn.”  Another book I read as part of my educational classes working towards my certification, this book shaped my pedagogy.

The Freedom Writers Diary by The Freedom Writers and Erin Grunwell – Don’t see the movie! Read the book and see how one young teacher was able to teach empathy and global awareness among her students through literature and writing.

The Book Whisperer by Donalyn Miller – If you don’t know Donalyn Miller and you are an English teacher or aspiring ELA teacher you must read this book. Miller helps students navigate the world of literature and gives them time to read books they pick out themselves. Her love of books and teaching is both infectious and inspiring.

Notice and Note: Strategies for Close Reading by Kyleen Beers and Bob Probst – In Notice and Note Kylene Beers and Bob Probst introduce 6 “signposts” that alert readers to significant moments in a work of literature and encourage students to read closely. Learning first to spot these signposts and then to question them, enables readers to explore the text, any text, finding evidence to support their interpretations.

Teach Like A Pirate by Dave Burgess – This is a mandatory reading requirement in my Literacy in the Content Areas class I teach each semester. Dave reminds all teachers to plan and teach with passion, engagement, and a love of teaching. Never have your students sit through a boring lesson when you can use one of the many hooks described in the book.

Literacy Essentials by Regie Routman – If you are looking for practical, easy-to-implement tools to help students develop as self-determining readers, writers, and learners, Routman focuses on excellence, equity, encouragement, and engagement throughout her book.

Readicide by Kelly Gallagher – Read-i-cide n: The systematic killing of the love of reading, often exacerbated by the inane, mind-numbing practices found in schools. This is a book for all educators no matter the subject area you teach to understand the depth of struggling readers and reluctant readers today.

Book Love by Penny Kittle – Following Gallagher’s Readicide, Penny Kittle sheds light on her classroom practices showing teachers ways to promote reading in the classroom as a positive and engaging activity. Students need to be able to read for pleasure and enjoy words, not just reading for textual analysis.

Shades of Meaning: Comprehension and Interpretation in Middle School by Donna Santman – This book shows you how to teach readers the skills and strategies of comprehension and interpretation within the framework of a reading workshop. Shades of Meaning takes you through Santman’s own rigorous workshop, describing the teaching that allows students to stretch and empower their imaginations.

From Texting to Teaching by Jeremy Hyler and Troy Hicks – Grammar is a part of teaching English but the traditional ways of teaching grammar have left a negative impact on people and teachers alike. Hyler and Hicks offer technology tools and teaching strategies that will help students and teachers understand the depths of grammar and become better writers.

Good Thinking: Teaching Argument, Persuasion, and Reasoning by Erik Palmer – The Common Core Learning Standards are big on claim evidence reasoning and Good Thinking provides effective exercises and templates to lead students into improvements in articulating their thinking and backing up their claims.

Teaching Interpretation: Using Text Based Evidence to Construct Meaning by Sonja Cherry Paul and Dana Johansen – Sonja and Dana also provide specific ways for teachers to introduce or review the various concepts that are essential in teaching interpretation to help our students become better critical thinkers. The design of the book allows for teachers to easily incorporate any of the ideas, lessons, assessments, graphic organizers, and list of text resources into an already existing curriculum.

Teaching with the Brain in Mind by Eric Jensen – The basic message of Jensen’s book is that we have a much greater ability to affect the learning of students than we realize. Some of the many topics covered in his book include how to prepare children for school, how to motivate students to participate, how to influence emotional states, how to design smarter schools, and how to enhance memory and critical thinking skills.

The Journey is Everything by Katherine Bomer – Katherine Bomer reclaims the essay as a tool for writing and communicating our ideas. Throughout her book she offers countless mentor texts and ways to teach writing that gets away from the bossy thesis statement and closer to poetic writing.

A Novel Approach by Kate Roberts – Kate Roberts uses the reading workshop approach to teach choice novels, book groups, and whole class novels. She gives permission to teachers to utilize whole class novels to teach key elements of literature without spending too much time teaching books, rather teaching readers.

Text-Dependent Questions, Grades 6-12: Pathways to Close and Critical Reading by Douglas B. Fisher , Nancy Frey, et al. – What does the text say? How does the text work? What does the text mean? What does the text inspire you to do? Fisher and Frey break down close reading into four cognitive pathways to help students peel back the layers of text for deeper meaning.

Teaching English by Design by Peter Smagorinsky – Teaching English by Design is practical, providing examples of units and support for how to create them.

Never Work Harder Than Your Students by Robyn Jackson – This is my philosophy: If you are doing all the hard work and the heavy lifting then you are doing all the learning. Jackson’s seven principles will help your students be the lead learners in your classroom an effective facilitator for learning and understanding.  

Using Informational Text to Teach To Kill a Mockingbird by Audrey Fisch & Susan Chenelle – The new Common Core State Standards mean major changes for language arts teachers, particularly the emphasis on “informational text.” How do we shift attention toward informational texts without taking away from the teaching of literature? Fisch and Chenelle have written four books all focusing on different core texts still taught in high schools today.

Sparks in the Dark:Lessons, Ideas and Strategies to Illuminate the Reading and Writing Lives in All of Us by Travis Crowder and Todd Nesloney – In Sparks in the Dark, Travis Crowder and Todd Nesloney share their experiences as educators who purposefully seek to spark a love for reading and writing in the learners they serve. The reason is simple: Writing and reading have the power to change the trajectory of a life.

Deeper Reading: Comprehending Challenging Texts, 4-12 by Kelly Gallagher – I will read anything by Kelly Gallagher and this is another must have book for teaching English. The book is filled with many ideas to teach literature and respond to texts. Kelly also provides guidance on effective lesson planning that incorporates strategies for deeper reading.

Do I Really Have to Teach Reading? Content Comprehension Grades 6-12 by Chris Tovani – Building on the experiences gained in her own language arts classroom, Cris shows how teachers can expand on their content expertise to provide instruction students need to understand specific technical and narrative texts. The book includes: examples of how teachers can model their reading process for students.

 

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Peeling Back the Layers: Frida Kahlo Exhibit “Looks Can Be Deceiving”

This weekend I attend Frida Kahlo: Looks Can Be Deceiving at the Brooklyn Museum.  The exhibit is packed with rooms of clothing, artifacts, and of course art, based upon both last year’s Frida Kahlo: Making Herself Up at the Victoria and Albert Museum and the original exhibit curated by Circe Henestrosa at the Frida Kahlo Museum in 2012.

Even though attendees are not able to take pictures throughout the exhibit (and my daughter requested that I not nerd out with my writer’s notebook) the clothing, art, photographs, and personal items are ingrained in my mind. There were two rooms that were the most powerful.

The first featured a series of Kahlo’s changing medical orthopedic corsets and casts. Kahlo contracted polio at age six, which left her right leg thinner than the left and left her with a limp, which she disguised by wearing long skirts. When Frida was 18 she was in a horrific bus accident returning home from school. “An iron handrail had impaled her through her pelvis, as, she would later say, piercing “the way a sword pierces a bull.” Kahlo’s pelvic bone had been fractured and the rail had punctured her abdomen and uterus. Her spine had been broken in three places, her right leg in 11 places, her shoulder was dislocated and her collarbone was broken. These experiences and events contributed to Frida Kahlo’s long term health struggles and her art.

Kahlo wore supportive corsets and casts throughout the remainder of her adult life — and she painted almost all of these while they supported her body. The room also showcases medical devices, shoes with different heights to adjust for her limp, a prosthetic leg, glass prescription bottles, and a note outlining her conditions in a plea for a doctor to understand and treat her ongoing physical pain.  

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Plaster corset, painted and decorated by Frida Kahlo, Museo Frida Kahlo. © Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo Archives, Banco de México, Fiduciary of the Trust of the Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo Museums.

Walking through the room room you wonder at both Kahlo’s endurance and ability to continue producing art in spite of and perhaps even because of the physical pain. In one of Kahlo’s many well-known quotes from a 1953 ink on paper, she asks, “Feet, what do I need them for if I have wings to fly?” Even here, just a year prior to her death, Kahlo’s resiliency is palpable and inspiring.

Whereas many would see this as a disability, her voice and social ideas about disability are shown through her writing, painting and dress. She, in fact, dressed in traditional dress from Tehuantepec in Oaxaca, not only for the socio-political symbolism and alliances she wished to forge; no, in fact she also opted for unrestrictive clothing that would conceal her limp, leg, and corsets.

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As curatorial advisor Gannit Ankori notes in her 2013 book Frida Kahlo, “any attempt simply to (re)construct a linear biography of this fascinating and innovative artist inevitably encounters a complex maze of conflicting information, documents, and memories — a weave of overlapping objective and subjective facts and fabrications.”

The last room of the exhibit showcases many of Frida Kahlo’s clothing that allow us to view of Kahlo and her many lives, incarnations, and selves. In the “From Fashioning Gender” section, the wall text addresses Kahlo’s bisexuality and famed works like Self Portrait with Cropped Hair or her family photographic portrait featuring Kahlo in a men’s suit: “In today’s terminology, we would say Kahlo rejected binary categories and embraced gender fluidity. But the language and the choices of identity available to her regarding gender and sexuality during her lifetime were vastly different from today’s.” 

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Self Portrait with Cropped Hair (1940)

As The New York Times reports, Frida Kahlo used her body as a canvas for both art and political statement. The fabrics that she chose for her dress were vibrant and gorgeous. It is evident that Frida Kahlo took great care and pleasure in her dress. Frilled shirts, heavy necklaces of jade and coral, and pinned flowers all directed attention where she wished it to fall: “The adornment is concentrated from the torso up,” Ms. Henestrosa, curator of the exhibition at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London said. “The beautiful headdresses and jewelry distracted you from her legs and her body.”

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There are many connections that teachers can help students make throughout the exhibit beyond a biography about the artist’s life. Aspects of creativity, disability and ability, fashion as political statement, and the role of culture shaping our identity are all ideas that can be addresses while experiencing this exhibit and learning more about the life and art of Frida Kahlo.

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April is National Poetry Month

I was recently going through all my teaching notebooks and I came across the poetry unit I taught my first year of teaching in New York City. On the first page of the unit was ee cummings’ A Poet’s Advice to Students. His sage advice can be applied to any genre of writing.

A Poet’s Advice To Students

e. e. cummings

A poet is somebody who feels, and who expresses his feeling through words.

This may sound easy. It isn’t.

A lot of people think or believe or know they feel-but that’s thinking or believing or knowing; not feeling. And poetry is feeling-not knowing or believing or thinking.

Almost anybody can learn to think or believe or know, but not a single human being can be taught to feel. Why? Because whenever you think or you believe or you know, you’re a lot of other people: but the moment you feel, you’re nobody-but-yourself.

To be nobody-but-yourself-in a world which is doing its best, night and day, to make you everybody else-means to fight the hardest battle which any human being can fight; and never stop fighting.

As for expressing nobody-but-yourself in words, that means working just a little harder than anybody who isn’t a poet can possibly imagine. Why? Because nothing is quite as easy as using words like somebody else. We all of us do exactly this nearly all of the time-and whenever we do it, we’re not poets.

If, at the end of your first ten or fifteen years of fighting and working and feeling, you find you’ve written one line of one poem, you’ll be very lucky indeed.

And so my advice to all young people who wish to become poets is: do something easy, like learning how to blow up the world-unless you’re not only willing, but glad, to feel and work and fight till you die.

Does this sound dismal? It isn’t.

It’s the most wonderful life on earth.

Or so I feel.

Looking through my notes and lesson I also came across the poem collection I wrote along with my students. It was called “Poem Advertisement” because that is how I started to write my poems, I searched through the magazines I had in my apartment and ripped out the funky advertisement logos I found a liking to. Yet, when I looked through and read all the poems, there is a distinct theme about escaping and not holding on to what people tell you. I wrote in the introduction that I “wrote these poems behind your back, I sat up one night and just wrote and wrote and continues to play with words trying to create poems. You keep pushing me and asking me to write and so I did, and this is what was born. It is difficult for me to pick a favorite poem because it is hard to play favorites with your feelings.”

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I.

Fire is the passion

of anger I feel for

my friends

II.

Tomorrow I will swim in

tears I cry over

many beautiful memories

III.

Doors open towards the

light gleaming off

the snow

IV.

Green grass stands

together unlike

my own solitude

which hammers

at my lonely self

 

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Trying

to capture

a poem

full of vivid color

and vivaciousness

I am not

going

to let it get away today

I stand

still

silently

absorbed

in this search

for

a time thought

be quiet

so it will

come to me

your noise

only scares it away

 

 

 

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Murder Mystery Short Story Editing Task Cards

For the past few weeks my students have been immersed in a reading and creative writing unit centering around murder mysteries. As my students are busy writing their creative fiction pieces, I have designed the following task cards to help them add creative elements to their stories to enhance suspense and the elements of mystery.

Murder Mystery Short Story Editing Task Cards

The four tasks or stations include:

Word Wizard – Read through your murder mystery creative fiction specifically for vocabulary. Pay attention to your word choice. If you find that your vocabulary needs a boost or you are using the same words to describe the events, setting, and characters, let’s give it a boost. Open up thesaurus.com and look to replace the overused words with stronger and more vibrant vocabulary.

IllustratorCreative writing requires vivid imagery that creates a picture or movie the reader’s mind. Read through your story looking for the strong imagery presented throughout the piece. Select one scene and draw a detailed picture that conveys the events described. This colorful picture will be included with your short story as the title page to draw readers to your story.

Red Herrings – Red herrings play two important roles in a mystery novel. They heighten suspense and add greater challenge to a mystery puzzle by misleading the reader and/or the sleuth. A red herring is a false clue that a mystery writer uses to send readers and sleuths off in the wrong direction. Try one of these ideas:

Put an innocent character at the scene of the crime. Maybe he had come to drop something off for a friend who lives across the street from the victim’s house and had parked for a moment in the victim’s driveway. A suspicious neighbor saw him pull out of the driveway. She wrote down his car license number. Bang! He is a suspect.

Or

Have the sleuth discover some items (red herrings) at the crime scene that can be interpreted in more than one way or that implicate an innocent person or are completely unrelated to the crime. The sleuth and the reader have to sort them all out.

Literary LuminaryRead through your murder mystery creative fiction. Highlight in pink the places in the story where you are using figurative language (metaphors, similes, personification, hyperbole) and literary devices (flashback, zoom in, zoom out, flashforward).  Think about what these devices add to your story for the reader. If you don’t use any of these craft moves, where are places that you can add a few of these devices to give your readers a more vivid picture of the setting, characters, and events in your short story.

Adding figurative language and literary devices into creative writing is challenging for some students so I created how-to directions to provide students with direct instruction regarding targeted skill development. Students follow the directions at their own pace, re-read as necessary, and refer to examples that have been included. Using this how-to direction sheet requires students to be active participants and help students become proficient at learning a skill (Innovative Designs for Education, 2019).

Check out this How to be more Literary Luminary designed with my students in mind:

How to be More . .  . Literary Luminary

Descriptive Writing: Building a Setting for Fiction Writing

My students have embarked on a creative writing unit, specifically murder mystery creative fiction. Last week’s blog post I wrote about the quest and the three laps students partake in to flex their creative writing muscles. This blog post dives deep in the first lap, descriptive writing and narrative of a place.

The setting is extremely important to a story. It can have immense effects on the plot and the characters. It can also establish the atmosphere, or mood, of a story or a specific scene. The setting establishing this mood allows the reader to relate to the characters within a story.

Let’s look at an example in literature. 

Hale knew, before he had been in Brighton three hours, that they meant to murder him. With his inky fingers and his bitten nails, his manner cynical and nervous, anybody could tell he didn’t belong – belong to the early summer sun, the cool Whitsun wind off the sea, the holiday crowd. They came in by train from Victoria every five minutes, rocked down Queen’s Road standing on the tops of the little local trams, stepped off in bewildered multitudes into fresh and glittering air: the new silver paint sparkled on the piers, the cream houses ran away into the west like a pale Victorian water-colour; a race in miniature motors, a band playing, flower gardens in bloom below the front, an aeroplane advertising something for the health in pale vanishing clouds across the sky.

Brighton Rock (Graham Greene)

Note the vivid imagery used to describe the setting. How does the author encompass all of our senses to bring us into the place this novel is set? 

In my classroom I would give my students this excerpt and ask them to mark up the text noticing how place, time, landscape, weather, and atmosphere are described to establish the setting. Then, students would sketch out a visual of the setting described in the passage.

We look at examples for models in descriptive writing about setting for our own writing to stretch our writing, take risks, and try something new. In mystery writing setting helps to propel the mystery and can be the best place to leave clues for readers.

Setting is important in any fictional story. Setting doesn’t just concern nice descriptive passages about houses, woodlands, mountains, roads and so on. Setting doesn’t mean merely ‘scenery’. Careful choice of setting:

  • Directs the reader’s attention to significant details of character or action. Setting can be used almost symbolically. It can stand for a mood, a state of mind, an emotion.
  • Plays off character against the environments in which they live and act. Characters (and their motivations, desires, hopes) may be juxtaposed against the settings in which they appear. They may occupy the setting comfortably, or be uncomfortable in the settings in which they’re placed.
  • Enhances the suspense and mystery (establishing mood and tone) in a piece of writing.

To help students build the setting in their own murder mystery, we looked at examples in film. Think about the opening scenes of your favorite movies and the opening shots that establish the setting. On one creative writing website, it states “Careful control of setting can be somewhat equivalent to directing a film camera. Many films begin with a long shot (distance), then a middle shot, then a close up. This threefold use of the camera is called the ‘establishing shot’ and is a commonplace of screenwriting. Beginning with a distance/wide angle ‘shot’ and then moving in to ever-closer details is also widely used as an orientation technique in fiction writing.”

To help my students write with depth and lots of description about their setting, they storyboarded the setting. This involved drawing out the setting and writing additional details to help stretch the setting details and give readers a clear sense of place.  

Setting Storyboard

 

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Murder Mystery Quest

This month I have dusted off classroom copies of Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None and added Maureen Johnson’s Truly Devious to this reading and creative writing unit sending my students into this dark and chilly subsection where everyone is a suspect, red herrings are all around us, and reading is a game of “who done it.”

The Murder Mystery

I thought why not bring some creative fiction writing into the mix in lieu of an essay based on our reading. Hence, students are writing their own murder mystery short stories. I set up three “laps” around this genre to support my student learners.

#1 – Description of a Place

Show the setting of your creative murder mystery fiction through the effective use of sensory details (see, taste, smell, hear, feel) to help readers imagine and live inside this setting.

Write a minimum ONE page (double spaced, 12 point Alegreya Font) description of the place and setting of your murder mystery. Use word choice to create a believable, consistent narrator’s voice. Choose a tone for your story that matches your intent; use literary devices such as metaphor and simile to expertly craft words and sentences. Emphasize words or phrases that are most important; how do you want us to feel about this place?

Check out this example from one of my students:

Ronnie had heard stories about the mansion before, not good ones, but it was honestly much more chilling in person. The gate at the entrance was made of black matte barbed wire, shaped and crafted with jagged swirls and it went up about 12 feet. The mansion itself was something out of a horror story. The window were cracked, the bricks a faded mauve, and the front entrance had two large knockers, gargoyles, with huge black empty eyes.

#2 – Story Map

Utilizing a graphic organizer created by the teacher or designing your own story map, plot out the key elements of your murder mystery short story. Be sure to include: detective, the crime, the victim(s), the suspects, rising action, clues, climax, capture, solution, and resolution.

#3 – Murder Mystery Short Story

Create your own short story based around a crime or a mystery. Your story must be AT LEAST one page, but NO MORE THAN four pages. You MUST be sure to include all the parts of the story we have discussed (characters, setting, clues, red herrings, clues).
Possible Story Starters
1. It was a strange night, there seemed to be a chill in the air…
2. As soon as I arrived, I could sense that something was out of place…
3. One night, as I looked out the window, I saw the neighbor…
4. I was watching TV when I looked up. There in the window I saw…
5. I decided to go for an evening stroll.  I walked about three blocks when I felt it…
6. They would have been fine if they hadn’t stopped for the stranger…
7. Everyone avoided the big old mansion. It was believed to have…
8. They said she was able to utter a few words before she died…
9. Something is drastically wrong! Every time I pick up the telephone…
10. Sometimes I think my friend has strange powers. Every time he’s around…
11. All of a sudden I was trapped!
12. “DID YOU HEAR THAT?” I screamed…
13. As I walked through the door, all I could focus on was the blood that covered the floor…
Since we have started the unit students are immersed in murder mystery and crime fiction. I introduced my students to some addition books and podcasts to help them learn as much as they can about this genre as models, mentors, and writing seed ideas. Here are a few of my favorites:
A six-part scripted podcast series. Teen detective Tig Torres investigates the twisted mystery of the infamous Lit Killer murders. But as she gets closer to the truth, the killings, each based on murder scenes from classic literature, begin all over again…with her as the final target.
It’s Baltimore, 1999. Hae Min Lee, a popular high-school senior, disappears after school one day. Six weeks later detectives arrest her classmate and ex-boyfriend, Adnan Syed, for her murder.

The Cuckoo’s Calling by Robert Galbraith

Yes, this is the Cormoran Strike series that J.K. Rowling writes under a pen name.

One of Us is LyingOne of Us Is Lying by Karen M. McManus by Karen M. McManus

This book is basically The Breakfast Club meets Gossip Girl. Five students walk into detention, but only four walk out alive. The murder victim is Simon, the creator of Bayview High’s very own gossip app, and all four suspects have a motive.
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20 Revision Strategies: Make Writing Better

“For me, writing is never linear, though I do believe quite ardently in revision. I think of revision as a kind of archeology, a deep exploration of the text to discover what’s still hidden and bring it to the surface.”

~Kim Edwards

Revision is about going back to your writing to make it better. I was recently going through some old papers from my graduate school days and came across my notes from The Teachers College Reading and Writing Project specifically on revision. Below is a bulleted list of revision strategies compiled to help students dress up their writing to make it stronger and more clear.

  • Add more – look at your writing piece and name two things you can do to make it better.
  • Reread to see if it makes sense – is it clear? How can you make it sound better?
  • What’s the most important thing you want to tell your read about your topic?
  • Write the external and internal story (what you think, wonder, and feel).
  • Observe and reflect.
  • Use your senses.
  • Talk to a friend or writing partner about your piece and then write. Think aloud.
  • Storytell it and then write.
  • Focus in on something small connected to your topic.
  • Zoom in on a moment.
  • Underline an important line and say more about it.
  • Sketch then write.
  • Try starting your piece by writing the lead differently.
  • Play with the form or genre – turn into a letter, a poem, a song.
  • Find a book you really like and see if you can write like that. Model an author you admire.
  • Ask, “What have I left out?”
  • Take a sentence and turn it into a page (lift a line or word).
  • Try starting the piece in a different place, chronologically.
  • Write endings several different ways. Ask, “What do I want my ending to do?”
  • Reread asking, “Is this really what I have to say? What’s the most important thing I want my readers to know?”

 

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Literature Circles for Today

Harvey Daniels’ book titled Literature Circles (2002) describes a procedure to organize student book clubs in the classroom. A stimulating and productive discussion on a text requires participants to focus on many different things: overall content and form/style, particularly important passages, vocabulary, imagery, and the connections between the material and personal experience. The more we put into our discussions on all these specific fronts, the greater our comprehensive understanding and appreciation of the text as a whole.

The idea behind literature circles is that students take on different roles and responsibilities as they are reading a text. Students are assigned different roles on different days (at random) and that no student will play the same role twice in a row.

Each student is assigned one of the following seven roles:

DISCUSSION DIRECTOR (a.k.a Curious George) – As the Discussion Director, your job is to develop a list of questions that your group might want to discuss about this reading. Additionally, it is your responsibility to make sure that all the other group members share their materials.

LITERARY LUMINARY (the Buddha of the book) – To be LUMINOUS means to shed light. When you are acting in the role of Literary Luminary, it is your job to “shed light” on the significant and/or difficult, possibly confusing sections of the reading by bringing them to the attention of the group and reading them aloud. The idea is to help people remember some interesting, powerful, funny, puzzling, or important sections of the text.

ILLUSTRATOR (our very own Bob Ross!) – As the Illustrator, your job is to draw some kind of picture related to the reading. It can be a sketch, cartoon, diagram, or flow chart.Any picture that conveys an idea or feeling you got from the reading.

SUMMARIZER (You make it short, you make it sweet) – It is your job as a Summarizer to put it all together. You should prepare a brief WRITTEN summary of the reading, noting all the main events, interaction between characters and more. The other members of your group will be counting on you to give a quick (1-2 minute) statement that conveys the essence of that day’s reading assignment.

VOCABULARY ENRICHER (like an apple picker) – It is your job as the Vocabulary Enricher to be on the lookout for a few especially important words in today’s reading. If you find words that are puzzling or unfamiliar, mark them while you are reading, and then later jot down their dictionary definitions). Not all words that you select need to be unfamiliar. Also seek out words that are repeated a lot, used in an unusual way, or key to the meaning of the text.

CONNECTOR (You help connect the dots) – You are the Connector. Your job is to find connections between the reading and the world outside. This means connecting the reading to: your own life; happenings at school or in the neighborhood or news; similar events at other times and places; other people or problems; other books or stories; other writings with he same topic/theme; other writings by the same author.

OBSERVER (you are the “eyes and ears” of the group, an informant) – You have no particular written assignment overnight other than to read through the assigned section of text. But you will be busy tomorrow! You are the secretary, informant, and synthesizer all rolled into one. You must record the participation and information covered and contributed by all the other group members. To synthesize means to bring together. You should try to gather together everyone’s contributions and ideas into a single understandable summary during and after the group discussion.

These are the traditional roles and many have been updated to include Character Commandant, Mood Maven, Insightful Identifier, Symbol Sleuth, Mind Muser, and Reactionary Revealer. 

When I first started teaching my students would receive a color paper detailing the responsibilities of his or her role. Then, I threw out the reading and literature circle role log/worksheets.

Technology has enhanced the literature circles strategy to another level with Google Docs and platforms like Padlet, Seesaw, and Flipgrid. Students can use these digital tools to share their reflections, connections, understandings, and discussions. Assigning each book group a classroom in Google Classroom, students can submit digital evidence in the form of Google Docs, BookSnaps and/or any other application chosen.

Here are the benefits of Literature Circles: Student Choice

  1. Book selection – Students choose the books they will read.
  2. Job assignments – Students decide which roles they will assume
  3. Chapters read – Students decide how much they will read for the next session.
  4. Digital platform used – Students decide which digital platform the group will utilize.

 

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Teaching Writerly Craft Moves with Movies

Great writing is artistry. Helping students to read like writers and notice the nuances that writers do is a close reading skill. This layer of reading for craft and structure includes word choice, sentence structure, literary devices and figurative language, point of view and author’s purpose. Craft is the deliberate writing technique and skills to communicate a message in few words and subtleties.

It is one thing to say that while students are reading text, they can record evidence of word choice (including unknown words, determining technical, connotative, and figurative meanings — to analyze how specific word choices shape meaning or tone); text features (and the impact it makes on the text); author’s purpose or point of view. But for many students, these writing moves are subtle and a difficult concept for students to recognize.

Movies and movie clips are one way that I help my students notice craft in writing.  If students can observe the symbolism, point of views, and tone in a movie, I can help them to see these deliberate moves in writing as well. Visual storytelling has a language all its own. Filmmakers create meaning and emotion all through images, by choosing and composing them with care.

We start by viewing a video clip like Alfred Hitchcock’s Stairs to Suspense Montage

Hitchcock uses stairs in his movies to set the mood, build suspense, and for symbolic purposes. After viewing this clip students respond to the question: How does Alfred Hitchcock use stairs to draw suspense for his viewers?

We look at other trademarks of movie directors like M. Night Shyalaman. He is known for directing and writing The Sixth Sense and Unbreakable. His newest film is Glass. Shyalaman’s unique visual style threaded through his disparate supernatural, thriller, and genre films that goes much deeper than his surprise endings.

 

Here’s a third example of a director’s craft. James Cameron’s films examine Person versus Nature/Humanity conflict in his films. In Titanic, Cameron explores the confidence in which mankind has regarding their technology. The ship was billed as “Unsinkable,” yet nature proved its power over mankind’s technology.  Avatar is Cameron’s most obvious effort to explore the conflict that can arise between technology and nature, taking an environmentalist tone. In this film, mankind is using their technology to mine a precious mineral on Pandora. While this activity is of benefit to humanity, it threatens the existence of the Na’vi and causes harm to the Pandora’s plants and animals. This conflict ultimately leads to a deadly conflict between the two species.

Directors, like writers are deliberate in the choices they make to convey the story. If students can see and recognize these trademarks in movies, they might be able to see these same trademarks in writing.

JT Bushnell writes in the essay, “Realism in Action: The Art of Invisibility in Amy Tan’s Rules of the Game, “…the writer’s job is, first, to write about questions complex enough that they avoid simplistic answers or easy moralizing and, second, to demonstrate such questions with precision and accuracy.

Let’s help our students find these complex questions embedded within the text with precision and accuracy before we ask them to answer them for themselves.

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