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...

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