A huge shout-out of gratitude to Angela Stockman: read this first:
Ah, the synergy and serendipity of collaboration and conversation.
I’m sitting in my writing shed, something I wanted forever, am very grateful to have, and am still paying off. And the barn-style door does not stay propped open on its own (does anything?). Returning from a walk, I go back to the shed to see what kinds of inspiration can be gleaned from a sunny, anxious depressing, cortisol-filled day. Now, mind you, the garden statuary of the squirrel has a long story, and not sure I’m going to write it right this minute. But I use this statue to prop open the door, and it came to me that this statue is symbolic of a guardian, a talisman, of mine. Quick snapshot, and onto my IG post of the day. Today is the 218/366 (it’s a Leap Year).
And then I thought–whew– wouldn’t this be a good writing prompt idea for my students? I know we all live in different spaces, sometimes sharing an apartment with extended family. But if they could imagine and fantasize about legendary guardians and protectors, what fantasy objects could their “loose parts” help them create?
I’ve often said being an art major informed my teaching. I use writing territories and many low-risk writing strategies. The trick is I’m not going to be ‘there,’ but merely a hologram. Stockman’s Loose Parts reminds me of writing territories but more refined and functional. When I’ve used writing territories in the recent past, some students are confused and don’t grab onto their own stories. The three timeline writing works, but even that can be traumatic. Allow writers to choose from their own writing territories, or collection of loose parts.
It may be wrong or naive of me to hope that the state standardized testing is gone, at least in its current form. The writing has morphed into solely writing to respond. It’s an autopsy of reading, too, and makes little or no connection to the symbiotic act of reading and writing.
Every time I feel I have my Professor McGonagall-mojo in place, inevitably realize I am only a Trelawney. I want to be firm, peering over the edge of my spectacles, jumping in and of animal bodies with ease and precision (aka going from my awkward projector on the cart to the tiny weird screen, to the tiny space for the doc camera, etc.: the tech in my room is…uncomfortable). If I could shout out with my confident Scottish brogue, “TWENTY POINTS FOR FIRST PERIOD!” with a flick of my wand, oh what wouldn’t I give?
But alas, every day my practice leans toward the Professor Trelawney style, and unfortunately, for the Dolores Umbridge’s of the world (of education) this is –not good. For me. But like Trelawney, I have a few tricks in my sturdy tapestry bag:
I know my content area (even if tea leaves and tarot cards are to ELA like potions are to Science: ELA content is confusing for more linear-minded folks)
I love my students. And I know it takes time and the small moments that can’t be documented to build relationships and trust. Expecting it to happen overnight doesn’t honor the humanity in teaching.
I love my colleagues: and a huge thank you to a mentor in the building who jumped in and helped me with one particular lesson.
One of the cumulating assignments (not a project, mind you, an assignment) is a traditional essay. Here is the prompt:
Consider the meaning of the novel’s title, Inside Out and Back Again. How does this title relate to the universal experience of fleeing and finding home, and in what ways is Ha’s experience a specific example of this universal experience?
Essayius Patronus, yo! This is a high cognitive, rigorous and steep prompt. Deconstruct how much it’s asking for the second month of school from 8th-grade students (who are still essentially 7th-grade students): it’s…a lot.
But that’s my job, and what I love doing: how to build a scaffold so that no one falls off, or at least can get back on to meet the requirements.
Remember: this doesn’t happen overnight
Throughout the course of the novel and other readings, we curated quotes and moments
Spend a fair amount of time having them just connect concepts to themselves.
We wrote a hook to ease them into the larger prompt about a time they moved or transitioned. This is a human experience. Some have personal stories that are similar to Ha’s: they are indeed, refugees, immigrants, and moving closer to home, many students have encountered big transitions of emotional lives.
And this is where my occasional Professor Trelawney got something right: one of our building mentors who frequents our afternoon classes helped me model the writing: I interviewed him as I tell all students –that’s what writers do–they ask questions for themselves and put the answers–and more questions–on the page.
Mr. Sudon helped me with this:
We wrote the hook first, then spent a class on the introductory/thesis paragraph (we had talked about thesis prior), and then each day as a class decided what parts to focus on next. Here’s where we landed:
Body Paragraph: Focus on Ha leaving/fleeing Saigon
Every day I provided sentence starters for the paragraphs (practice and identifying what they are doing as writers helped). Students wrote a little every day, by hand, then typed up what they could in a Google Doc, and submitted what they have done so far.
I know a few fell off the scaffold.
And to get them back on, I’ll put together a paragraph-by-paragraph resource document for them, and they can finish on their own. I’m thinking of doing stations next week
If you still need to type your draft
If you still need to write your draft
If you are nearly completed with the essay, need to make a few changes, and refer to the rubric
Ready to move on: provide enrichment ideas (use my Reading Road Trip blog for this purpose)
Creative constraints provide necessary restrictions for all of us who wish to create productively. It may seem counter-intuitive, but creative constraints produce better focus and creativity, not less.
We broke rain records this year, no small feat considering the Seattle area maintains a well-deserved reputation of one of the soggiest places around. Drizzles, downpours, drenching or dollops–no matter the size of the drop, it’s wet. Personally, my older son and I share the love of the gray, goopy clouds. Whenever I think of our rain, inevitably Tom Robbins’ thoughts on rain come to mind. (Some works of fiction stain a lifetime.)
“And then the rains came. They came down from the hills and up from the sound. And it rained a sickness. And it rained a fear. And it rained an odor. And it rained a murder. And it rained dangers and pale eggs of the beast. Rain poured for days, unceasing. Flooding occurred. The wells filled with reptiles. The basements filled with fossils. Mossy-haired lunatics roamed the dripping peninsulas. Moisture gleamed on the beak of the raven. Ancient Shaman’s rained from their homes in dead tree trunks, clacked their clamshell teeth in the drowned doorways of forests. Rain hissed on the freeway. It hissed at the prows of fishing boats. It ate the old warpaths, spilled the huckleberries, ran into the ditches. Soaking. Spreading. Penetrating. And it rained an omen. And it rained a poison. And it rained a pigment. And it rained a seizure.”
― Tom Robbins, Another Roadside Attraction
Imagine the first clear, bright May day. A day after two days’ of testing. More days of testing to come. A moment in time–brief and elusive, but there. When we went outside for zombie tag, students felt so free they asked me to go outside again. Knowing I had hit on a currency I could use to all of our advantages, sure. In years past, we’ve gone outside for a Writing ‘rally,’ or as dubbed this year, a Walk’N’Write.
Here’s how it is supposed to work:
Students grab their composition notebooks, something to write with, a writing prompt slip (printed out and cut into strips). The ground rules are laid out clearly on the board, and repeated:
Do not in any way cause any disruption. I don’t want to see my name in an email, hear from other staff members, see a passive-aggressive post on Facebook, be mentioned in ANY WAY, SHAPE OR FORM. Some student asked in disbelief if other teachers put other teachers “on blast” — yes, sadly. They do.
Stay within earshot: I must be able to see you in the courtyard or the small field at all times.
Try the prompts. Move after around ten minutes.
They were allowed to take their cell phones if they wanted to take photo notes.
Be prepared for an exit ticket (writing a reflection or expanding on an idea).
And, by golly, the majority of students did exactly all of these. They knew that the reason they were going outside was because they were so awesome during the zombie unit, and they earned trust to go outside again.
During the first class, one student found some chalk, and one drew a penis on the ground. I don’t know who it was, and I didn’t have anything to clean it up or didn’t think quick enough to grab a cup of water and wash it away. I saw it at the end of the time outside. Middle school students draw graffiti, and genitalia is one of their common art forms. Like cave paintings of beasts and hunts, their choice of symbolism and pictographs trend toward the representation of middle school angst and Maslow’s lowest levels of the hierarchy. Watch ‘Superbad’ if you don’t believe me.
The second misstep was in not confiscating the chalk. From what I saw, there was a small piece of it, I didn’t know where it came from, and moved on. I wish I had thrown it away because other students found it and drew more…things. Pentagrams. Hearts. Butterflies. Initials. And yes, from what admin told me, more genitals. I received an email rightly advising me to make sure students did not do this in the future. But I am still not clear whose students drew all of the drawings.
So now I’m left with the unenviable task of telling my students what happened and consequences. That they have to keep themselves in check, or we can’t go outside again. Some of my fourth-period students waved in other teachers’ classrooms, and when I reminded them that that was a disruption, one argumentative young man justified it by saying the other student waved first.
However, there was far more positive than not. Students wrote. The noticed details, the trash, the good, ugly, and emotions tied with their surroundings. They struggled and grappled with worldly metaphors. Many saw the courtyard with new eyes. They looked up from their phones or used them to take pictures for later writing. They enjoyed the sun on their faces and breathed fresh air. It gave them one of the most important strategies for creativity: look up.
PS If you look closely at the picture, there is a big white square of chalk. Someone drew over the drawing. They had better things to draw.
This will be a long post: I am retracing my steps on the creation of a unit. TL:DR: Zombies and survival themes are great for 8th-grade students. E-mail me if you want resources or have questions.
One of my teammates Nate had a fantastic idea for argumentative work:
With the help of my teammates Nate, Sabrina, and the Notice & Note social media site, especially Beth Crawford, we unleashed zombies. Trying to put together a unit without common planning or time to meet (each of us is in different phases in life: I could work on units all weekend, and I did over mid-winter break, but it’s better to collaborate with trustworthy, competent folks). We did the best we could, and it needs tweaking and refinement, but out of the box—not too shabby!
I put the call out to Notice and Note and received many great ideas. Beth Crawford followed up with Google docs resources, etc. Some things had to be left behind, and some were added without assessment concepts nailed down. But then again, when you’re dealing with flesh-melting concepts, it’s hard to nail anything down.
Rationale: students would discover their own personality traits, both figurative and literal, that add positive benefits for working with other partners. The goal was to have them create a personality inventory and share their strengths and advantages with others.
What worked: students like knowing where they fell on a quasi- Meyers-Briggs scale and gamer’s quiz.
What needs to be better: more time, and more explanation on how their inventory works with other personalities, or what pitfalls they might encounter. Critically thinking about attributes is one of the most difficult things to do.
Rationale: having students curate their resources for research using an annotated bibliography would help them understand the importance of discerning and critiquing articles closely and carefully.
What worked: It served the purpose of getting kids to read, and by golly, they did really try: not sure how many I have turned in, but I know many of them were engaged in this. As soon as I re-introduced it as a “playlist” of a topic, the lightbulbs went off!
What could be better: more time to read articles together, and more focus on truth, opinion and fact lessons.
This is a poster my friend Sharon Clarke and I put together on our collective wisdom:
ELA: Argumentative Unit/Critical Thinking
PE/Health: How does disease spread? How much would your backpack weigh? Could you run with that weight?
Social Studies: how are civilizations created, and how do they fall? (Article about CDC funding being cut helped with this discussion.)
What worked about integration: we barely scratched the surface. Maybe next year we can get the whole school involved.
Writing: the partner teams had to write a collaborative ‘end of world’ scenario. This writing will appear on their shared PowerPoint.
What worked: they got this, mostly.
What could be better: More time. (Seeing a trend here?) Students didn’t have time to fully craft their POV points in the story: the plan was to have them create a story together, and then write a first-person narrative on what they were doing when everything fell apart, and how they eventually met up and survived. Students who love role-play and writing jumped right on this: students who are not quite patched-in with their own creativity didn’t. But as all good growth mindset conversations end: YET.
8. Zombie Partner Shared PowerPoint: The partner created a shared PowerPoint with many of these pieces. One aspect was the “film” slide: add any multimedia possible that goes along with survival or zombies, or film themselves. Some kids used their webcams and shot pics/videos, others found videos on YouTube, etc.
9. Article Links samples:
Here are some articles, etc. I gathered so students could choose for their annotated bibliography:
Writing serves my creative mania. In my classroom, historically, we write more than we read. Do I love books? Of course! Am I passionate and excited about passages, excerpts, themes, patterns, characters, and juicy plots? Naturally! But in my experience, if you truly want to a student, a person– to engage, spill their guts, bare their soul and express themselves, writing is it.
Write-It-Right Wednesdays are mini-lesson moments and writing workshop days. Mini lessons are those quick, here is a “thing you need to know” thing. Writing Workshop is a very different animal, and all I’ve learned is from my mentors Holly Stein and Kim Norton through the PSWP (part of the National Writing Project). The Puget Sound Writing Project is no longer, unfortunately, but Holly and Kim began a new venture, PSW Consortium.
This is the near-final version of the Prezi: but I’m at the point where I can’t edit any further. Its intended audience is the staff right before school starts, to help all staff members to feel supported with writing across the curriculum.
If you see something wonky, needs fixing, big ‘ol “huh?” please let me know. Thank you!