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Monday, May 7, 2018

How To Increase Students' Analytic Writing Skills? Via Narrative Writing, Of course!

In the beginning....        

As a person who always has enjoyed the creative outlet of writing fiction and poetry, I initially chose to become an educator because I wanted to instill a passion for reading and creative writing in my students.  In my early years of teaching, I employed a derivative of Nancy Atwell's and Tom Romano's reading and writing workshop in my eighth grade Language Arts classroom and watched as the magic ensued.  My classroom consisted of mini-lessons using current engaging texts, individual and small group reading and writing conferences, and writing and reading time.  Students mimicked the process of real writers:  they brainstormed ideas, crafted a plan, wrote rough drafts of comics, novels, poetry, and news articles,  and they shared their work with critical friends before revising.  Written language of mentor texts and classmates was celebrated.  They shared books and recommended them to their friends.  One of my students wrote a thousand page sequel to Stephen King's novel The Green Mile.  Others collaborated on novels that were written in the letter format that was popular in the early 2000's.  Some created graphic novels.  Many read more books in a school year than they'd ever read before.  While Tim Shanahan, one of the pioneers of the Common Core might scoff at my anecdotal data, students were engaged daily in authentic reading and writing tasks.  Life was good.
        Enter the Common Core State Standards that placed a much heavier emphasis on informational text reading, deep analysis and critical thinking skills, and argument writing.  Narrative writing and appreciation for fiction for its aesthetic beauty no longer held as much weight as it once did.  The creators of the Common Core argued vehemently that we must prepare students to be College and Career Ready and the standards all reflected these changes.  After all, how many students will grow up to become the next Margaret Atwood or Don DeLillo?  We, as educators, were in the business of preparing students for the 21st Century workforce.  It made sense that less time would be spent on writing fiction.
         So across the country, narrative lessons on crafting quality characters were squelched and replaced with tasks asking students to analyze how a character change reflected the theme of a text, lessons on adding figurative language and sensory details to a short story were replaced with lessons analyzing the mood and tone of an author's descriptive paragraph, and readers' theater activities that asked students to craft their own additional scene from a play or short story were now replaced with lessons asking students to compare and contrast an old "classic" play with a new modern interpretation.  These new lessons, after all, would be more closely aligned to the skills students needed in high school, college and beyond.  They were no longer "fluff" activities designed by nerdy English teachers like me who were hoping everyone would leave their classrooms wanting to pen the next great American novel or,  at the very least, read it.  Maybe you are already noticing the problem of this either/or thinking with the deliberate pairing of my examples.  The two really go hand in hand.
In fact, I would argue that major problems has occurred as a result of this new paradigm shift:
We have been asking students to analyze deeply the choices that authors deliberately make and the affect these have on the overall written piece,  and students' responses often only skim the surface because students' own experience with writing creatively is now limited due to the new emphases already discussed.  In other words, by reducing the amount of time spent with narrative writing, we are ensuring that students' analytic writing skills will not be as strong as they could be.

 Allow me to illustrate my point.  Let's say, for example, you are a hoping to teach Common Core Lit Standards 4 &  5: Determine the meaning of words and phrases as they are used in a text, including figurative and connotative meanings; analyze the impact of a specific word choice on meaning and tone and Analyze how a particular sentence, chapter, scene, or stanza fits into the overall structure of a text and contributes to the development of the theme, setting, or plot.

The Current Status of Instruction....

If you follow a backwards design model, you craft your assessment question first and know that you will ultimately want students to be successful with the following task:

Directions: Read “Drawing Goodbye” (Passage 1)
and then answer the following question:

Analyze how the author uses the extended metaphor
in paragraph 7
to help reveal the overall theme of the story.

Discuss specific words and phrases
the author uses to support your analysis.

So you perform a task analysis of the end assessment to ensure that you understand all the subskills students will need to master this rigorous task.  You begin teaching by helping students identify figurative language inside texts and what it means. You closely read texts and teach students to annotate for the key moves the author makes connected to figurative language.  You make the connect between figurative language examples and the development of the theme.  You provide students with opportunities to discuss the text and their ideas about it.  You use think-alouds and modeling to teach the analytic writing using similar tasks.  You give students sentence starters to help guided their analyses and help them to develop skills to move beyond summary and into the art of inference making.

And students learn and grow.

They understand the story and the extended metaphor but still struggle a bit with explaining, on a deep level, why the author chose to include this specific metaphor at this specific part in the story. 

I would argue that the missing link is narrative writing.  Don't buy it?  For those of you who appreciate a good analogy, consider this scenario.  You are an aspiring chef and are attending a famous culinary arts school over seas.  Your first class and lesson is on the making of crepes.  You watch your instructor demo a lesson.  He explains his technique to you as he cooks:  He shows you how to gradually add milk and water to the dry mixture.  He describes how much oil you should use and how hot you should make the pan.  You taste the finished product and are eager to try it on your own.  But you never get the opportunity.  The next day, you are given a written quiz that asks you a series of questions analyzing the techniques of video clips of other chefs making crepes.  Why did the chef move his wrist as he did?  Why was this chef's batter too watery?  How can this recipe be salvaged after he's stirred too vigorously?  Perhaps you will be able to provide a surface level explanation of the reason behind the techniques, but how much better prepared would you be to analyze the techniques of others if you had actually been given an opportunity to practice making crepes on your own first?  What if your instructor had given you an opportunity to try a variety of techniques and reflect on the experience before you were presented with this quiz?  Would you be more confident and have more to say?

Similarly, students need ample time to practice writing creatively if they are going to be asked to make inferences about the reasons behind the choices authors make. The answer to deeper analysis cannot be completely found in watching others create a crepe or write a short story nor can it be fully found  in the enjoyment of the finished meal or the dissecting of finalized mentor texts.  While there is no doubt in my mind that these activities help, in order to truly understand the creative processes, one must immerse themselves in the work.  Students are no different than published authors in this regard.

What Type of Narrative Experience Might Help?

To return to the above example of extended metaphor, let's say that all students have written a rough draft of a short story with a developed theme. Our goal now might be to use a narrative writing lesson and help them to include an extended metaphor in their own story that also develops the theme.  Students are great at adding figurative language inside a text, but are they ever thoughtful about which extended metaphor to use and when to use it?   Do they consider the words they use inside the metaphor to develop a specific mood?  Do they develop this specific mood with character motivation in mind?  Real writers consider all these things and more, and if we are asking students to reflect on the decisions made by real writers without giving them the opportunity to practice these skills themselves, we are not preparing our students.

For the sake of simplicity, let's say that the we have developed this theme in our story:  life's challenges often end up being our best learning experiences.  We might then model a free-write about any connections that we can make to this theme and the real world.  Maybe it is when we've experienced a death of a loved one and realized that we are more independent than we once thought or when little kids struggle on their first day of kindergarten but realize that school could actually be enjoyable, or maybe  even when we decide not to follow a friend's poor advice and lose a friend but find ourselves.  We could then use a bridge map or another type of organizer to craft analogies to this theme from the character's perspective.  Once we've modeled this, we can ask students to try the process with a partner and with our guidance before eventually trying it on their own.

When we have all come up with a metaphor that not only connects to our story character but also the theme, we can decide where the best place to insert this metaphor would be in the story line.  All along the experience, we should make sure students have an opportunity to reflect on why they did what they did.  Why does the metaphor fit best after the rising action?  What would have been different if we placed it earlier?  How will this metaphor change how we see the character?  What kind of mood do we want to create with our choice of words here?

Metacognition during narrative experiences is key to improving writing and transferring these skills over to analytic writing of another author's work.

To reiterate, it is my suggestion that by including more narrative writing experiences and not less into the weekly Language Arts curriculum, we should see better results in our students' analytical writing skills.  Of course, as the above example indicates, we have to be strategic about the types of tasks and narratives we assign our students if we want to foster deeper analytic skills.  By eliminating narrative writing from the bulk of our lessons, we are guaranteeing that the things we have decided to spend more time on will not be mastered by students.  Balance is key.

Now, if you'll excuse me, I have to get back to The Writing Excuses Podcast, a podcast for writers that not only analyzes the craft of writing but then gives suggested narrative exercises so that writers can fully understand these analyses for themselves.  Maybe they are onto something...

Monday, February 12, 2018

Diversity, Politics, and Education in 2018

As an educator, I cannot fathom how many times recently I've heard somebody on television,  on social media, and in my professional discussions utter the sentiment that politics do not belong in schools.  People who hold firm to this belief often fall into one of the following two camps:

1)  Some believe complex social issues should be completely avoided in school and replaced with less controversial topics like "should we serve ice cream in the cafeteria?" or "should we allow kids to listen to music" or the ever-popular-beaten-to-death topic that has been used so frequently, its essays can blanket the world:  "should we have uniforms in school?"

Unfortunately, focusing on superfluous topics like these have some major flaws:

  • Students don't really care about the trivial; they are smarter than we know.  They can spot a  teacher-crafted essay in their sleep.  They will never spend passion-filled hours searching schools that serve ice cream, completely outraged that some schools offer soft serve on alternating Fridays, when their school only offers Dilly bars.
  • Students can smell inauthenticity a mile away.  Let's say I attend a school where uniforms do not exist.  I am able to wear my torn jeans, Stranger Things hoodie, and Doc Martens every single day.  What are the odds, even if I were to craft a perfectly worded, logical response to the school uniform essay, that my school's policy would change?  Zilch.  Zero.  Zip.  Students will never be invested in a topic that they know is only for test prep, nor should they be.  Authentic writing tasks leads to engaged writers which leads to increased learning.  Just ask leading literacy experts Kelly Gallagher, Nancy Atwell, or Tom Romano and they'll gladly share the research with you if you don't believe me.
Let's remove these meaningless writing tasks from the table for a moment and consider the other argument that individuals often make when arguing that politics and schools should not mix.

2) Some believe teachers do not have the right to voice their political viewpoints in front of their students.  Thankfully, unlike the first scenario, students have the opportunity to discuss currently worldly issues that they care about with an adult steering the conversation.  Advocates of this camp believe teachers should impartially show both sides of an issue.  Additionally they believe we should provide instruction on critical reading skills and thinking skills, allowing to form their own opinion about what side of the issue they fall.  Up until a few years ago,  I probably would've agreed with these people vehemently that teachers personal opinions must never exist inside the four walls of a classroom.  In fact, even today, I would argue that it is not my role as an educator to create a roomful of like-minded individuals who see things the way I do.  I would also argue that this is not the job of the parents either.  However I now recognize that times exist where teachers must step in when these difficult conversations are had and if this behavior is perceived as being political, so be it.

Imagine, for example, that the teacher is leading a discussion on immigration policies.  The teacher's main objective, before all others, should be to provide a classroom environment where all students feel safe and welcome.  If students begin making comments when discussing immigration that can be perceived as derogatory or interfere with the sense well being of other students in the room, it is the teacher's duty to step in and remind students when comments do not align with the school's vision that all students are respected.  Is this a political decision?  Yes, and I would argue a necessary one.  Furthermore, when the actions, words, or decisions of people in the news infringe upon the inclusive belief systems of our public schools , educators must join the conversations and make it clear that these actions do not align with the core beliefs we have established as a school system.  We cannot allow marginalized voices to continue to be squelched.

One way to lend voice to those who have not had one in the past is by rethinking what we consider to be a "classic" piece of literature.  If I were to ask you to list a few literary "classics," which titles would you give to me?  Perhaps you would list off some works that you read years ago in school?  Works by artists like Shakespeare, Dickens, Hemingway, or Whitman?  How many titles would you give me before a person of color or female made a list?  In a recent interview on "The View," thirteen-year-old Marley Emerson Dias discussed her experience with the classics in school, explaining how not being able to see oneself in the texts that were read can affect the self worth and identity of students everywhere.  

Although we are still worlds away from ensuring that all perspectives are equally represented and dignified in schools today, we are making progress.  Campaigns like We Need Diverse Books and Own Voices are aiding in the publishing world's quest to turn out literature that is reflective of the diverse population of readers across America.  Recently, Nic Stone, author of young adult title Dear Martin celebrated her success after visiting a school and serving as a role model to girls everywhere. The more we expose students to a myriad of voices and perspectives in the classroom, the better off we all will be.

In a recent article titled "No Longer Invisible:  How Diverse Literature Helps Children Find Themselves in Books, and Why It Matters" by the National Council of Teacher of English, we are reminded including diverse literature in schools is rewarding for all students because it enables students to learn about the backgrounds of those who are unlike them and develop empathy for their peers and for the world (p. 14).  Diversity is not just about skin color but also about "racial, ethnic, and cultural differences...disabilities, sexual orientation, and religious belief" (14). By providing a safe space where all cultures are explored and honored, teachers foster an environment of critical thinkers who are also empathetic about the experiences of others and the world improves as a result.

Ultimately, we cannot avoid political discussions in schools, nor should we.  In fact, I would argue that politics are just as involved in decisions to exclude content as it is to include it.  If we opt to discuss whether or not ice cream should be served in the school cafeteria in lieu of timely discussions regarding immigration policies, for example, we are making a political statement.  Do we really want to send the message to students that their views or worldly issues are unimportant or not worthy of time to explore them?  Do we want to avoid teaching kids how to analyze tough topics in our own nation with a critical eye? Do we want to raise a next generation of adults who are ignorant about the daily ongoings of society? Isn't that how we ended up here in the first place?

I leave you with a quote from Disruptive Thinking by Kyleen Beers and Robert Probst who remind us that reading helps build informed citizens: "We want to ask kids to be open to the possibility that a text might be disruptive, and it is that disruption that gives them the opportunity to learn and grow.  Reading should be disruptive"  (61).  

So skip the school uniform lesson and tackle the topics that kids are talking about anyway. Who knows?   You just might learn something along with them.

Monday, October 30, 2017

Help! My Kids Can't Find The Theme: One Way to Merge the Ideas of Beers, Probst, Kittle & Lehman

        As a literacy coach in a middle school, I read a lot of professional books and have found that most books I read have changed my thinking or practices in at least some way. However, few books have transformed the way I instruct as much as Notice and Note Strategies for Close Reading by Kyleen Beers & Robert Probst.  This book describes a systematic and scaffolded process to help students independently uncover the important pieces of the text and how they lead to character development, conflict, and theme.  Teachers in my district now use these Literary Signposts, as Beers & Probst have dubbed them, daily as a strategy to help students be able to master the Common Core standards.  We've been teaching them for a few years now and have even had the lucky experience of spending the day  with Beers & Probst to increase our capacity to use the strategies described in their books.

       Teachers follow the process with fidelity.  They teach each signpost within the context of a rigorous text, using the Fisher & Frey I-do, we-do, you-do with a partner, you-do independently approach.  They model how to locate the signpost, how to answer the anchor question, and how to annotate the text using the anchor question. They ask kids to review and discuss their annotations with the goal of determining the theme of the text.  For example, if the students are reading the short story "The Lottery" by Shirley Jackson (a story where a citizen is stoned to death each June after an elaborate Lottery ritual is performed) the teacher would help the students how to use the again and again signpost on a second read, and  locate and analyze the places in the text where old ritualistic behaviors without purpose begin surfacing. Each time something with this idea would emerge, students would then be expected to answer the anchor question designed by Beers & Probst:  Why do I think this idea keeps popping up again and again?  Additionally, the Words to the Wiser Signpost also exists in "The Lottery" when Old Man Warner, the town's eldest citizen, speaks the infamous line: "Lottery in June, Corn Be Heavy Soon." Students are then instructed to analyze this piece of the text utilizing Beers & Probst's anchor question:  What is the life lesson and how might it affect the characters?  While students are often able to recognize the signpost and annotated with appropriate and insightful inferences, when it comes time to connect their thinking together and determine an overall theme of the text, many still falter.
           The issue of students struggling to determine a theme is not unique to the story "The Lottery."  I receive this same feedback from many English teachers in the district.  Students were having rich discussions but often falling short when it came time to determine a theme independently in the text.  At the same time that I was observing this data with students in classrooms and receiving similar feedback from teachers, I had just finished leading a book study on Penny Kittle's Book Love:  Developing Depth, Stamina, and Passion in Adolescent Readers. 
The purpose of this book is probably the most important one any educator can attempt to explore:  how do you develop a passion for reading in your students?  Inside this discussion, Kittle describes an activity she did with students to get them started thinking about theme.  In her book, Kittle takes us through a modeling process of helping students ask questions that the authors are trying to get readers to think about as they read.  She tells students that "most books have questions at the center, and when we stop to think about them, we often understand more"  (99).  She then allows students to see her own thinking process as she writes with her students about the questions that the author expects readers to explore in the book Making Toast by Roger Rosenblatt.
             After reflecting on this idea, a light bulb went off in my head. I started thinking about another book I had read, Falling In Love With Close Reading, by Christopher Lehman where he suggests asking students to examine patterns in text
evidence to determine a theme and central idea as opposed to having kids determine a theme first and then search blindly for evidence supporting their idea. These two books quickly merged together in my mind to provide the missing link between the signpost anchor question and developing the theme.  I  pulled a teacher into the conversation and shared my idea.  From there we created a flow map of steps for students to follow, and have been pleased with the results.

From SignPosts To Theme

Step One:  Teach The Signposts & Have Students Search For Patterns In Their Annotations
             The next time I taught a theme lesson with teachers, after having kids find the signposts and discuss the anchor questions, we asked kids to find patterns inside their annotations for a given signpost, Christopher Lehman style.  So, in "The Lottery" that I referenced earlier, students might recognize that their annotations about the lottery events all involve rituals or practices, that people don't know why they are doing the things they are doing, and that these practices were all determined years ago by earlier generations. 

Step Two:  Turn These Patterns Into Questions The Author Is Hoping Readers Will Consider

Now, using these patterns, they are then asked to use Penny Kittle's idea and come up with questions that the author might be asking them to consider about life.  I tell them that they should use some of the key words from the patterns they found in step one inside their questions. In the case of the lottery, these patterns lead to these questions:
  • Why do people follow practices from the past that they don't understand?
  • What are the problems that occur with an entire society following practices that are old and useless?
Step Three:  Answer These Questions Using Story Events
        Next, we ask students to answer these questions based on story events.  So, in "The Lottery,"  we revisit Ole Man Warner's Words of the Wiser and think about how a citizen, Tessie Hutchinson is stoned to death at the story's end.  These two events together help us to realize that following a ritual may have a bad outcome.  And because Old Man Warner talks about how there used to be a saying about having a plentiful crop if the lottery was performed, we can only guess that the town used to feel that human sacrifice once led to a good harvest.  But since nobody remembers this phrase or even why they are participating in the events of the lottery, an answer to the question might be something like this:

Step Four:  Turn Your Answer Into A Theme Statement

  • Following outdated traditions for the sake of traditions may lead to negative results.   

         And here lies the theme statement. 

     Admittedly , students will still need time and practice and scaffolding to be able to follow this process independently, but we have noticed that even our students who typically struggle with theme were immediately coming up with great questions as part of the process.
          So I would like to end by thanking Beers, Probst, Kittle, and Lehman for sharing their learning with the rest of us.  Together, we can get every kid there.