Narrative Journalism and the Tricky Power of Voice

A while back, I wrote about the Narrative Journalism unit we teach in my PLC, and about how much I enjoy exposing kids to this lovely blended genre.  Well, as the snow crunched beneath my feet Sunday evening and I stared out across the frozen wasteland of my backyard, wondering how the time of year for that unit had arrived again already, it occurred to me that something had changed a bit since last year.  Something big, and culture-encompassing, and frightening.

And important for students to be prepared for.

So when I got to school the next day, in addition to pulling out the old familiar mentor texts, I dug into my iPad for some notes I’d taken at the NCTE conference back in November and found what I was looking for:  A guide to recognizing fake news.  

Recognizing is a first step–I also hope my modified unit will help my students refute and reject it.

Fake News, False Narratives

There are lots of excellent sources out there for combatting outright fake news–Politifact, Snopes, various charts, and sites like Allsides.com are excellent starting points–but my hope for this unit is to help students unearth the more subtle ways that journalism can mislead them.  

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Image via Google Reuse Images

For every conspiracy theory promoted on an extreme website, there is a mainstream news article that conveniently omits an important detail, or misrepresents objective reality in the name of “balance.”

For every full-on fiction like the Rolling Stone article about a rape that never happened, there is a well-meaning but overzealous young internet blogger who misrepresents a public figure just a bit in order to titillate readers.  

Voice matters in Narrative (and Traditional) Journalism as much as it does anywhere else.  Helping students to see the way voice–all by itself–can change public perception suddenly feels as important as helping them to find their voice as writers.

We started with a look at one of the early scenes from Ben Mezrich’s Bringing Down the House about a group of students from MIT who beat Vegas through card counting.  Where I’d normally have them highlighting the text for things like levity and anecdotes, I instead posed a question to them:  When a writer like Mezrich develops “characters” who are actually real people, how do you think he goes about doing that in a fair, objective way?

Lots of silence after that one.

The answer provided in the excerpt we look at is that he tries to set up the main figure in the story as something of a dichotomy, juxtaposing his “nerdy” stereotypical life on campus with a Playboy-esque wild nightlife when he’s in Las Vegas.  It is equal parts shocking and enticing…and when you slow down and digest it, problematic.  It oversimplifies the character into a Hollywood cliche–we’re quickly reminded of Indiana Jones or Superman and Clark Kent.

Mezrich is an excellent writer, so he quickly complicates the picture and fleshes out Kevin’s persona.  The point, though, was enough to open an exploration with my class about how other writers characterize figures in their writing.  Consider all of the profiles of Trump voters a year into his presidency–how are they construed for readers who might feel animosity towards them?  For that matter, how does the same publication describe other “characters” in society, from Women’s March protesters to Black Lives Matter movement leaders?  Are there patterns?

Exploring such questions could become its own unit.  For us, though, it’s only a part of the work.  Being conscientious readers is certainly an admirable goal, but if they are going to think of themselves as writers, they must recognize their own responsibility to people they write about.  With the tools we examine in the unit–anecdotes perhaps the most powerful among them–my students will learn to characterize real people and then consider the implications of a particular word or phrase…or story.  

Every year I have at least one student introduce their fathers to their story using some anecdote or another that ultimate creates the same effect:  Characterizing dear old dad as the buffoonish dunderhead from an internet video the world laughs at and retweets into oblivion.   They’re doing what I ask them to do–I have a colorful sense of dad after chuckling at whatever mishap they’ve recollected in introducing him–but this year we’re going to go one step further and ask an important question.  What are you going to do to balance that perception of your dad?  What else do readers deserve to know about him?  What does he deserve?  

Characterization is one of many moving parts in a news story–I’m hoping to dig into everything from choice of evidence and data, to strategic omissions, to all sorts of other misleading stuff.  The important thing, though, is that the kids get a chance to wrestle with the sorts of choices other writers have made and then wrestle as writers themselves.

Beyond Mischaracterizations

The broader advantage to having students become narrative journalists is that they get to see how many choices go into producing a single story.  In an era where even a casual newsreader might encounter four or five bombshell stories in a single week, understanding the nuance involved in each is paramount.  

I won’t throw us into a political wildfire for the sake of a literacy blog, but if you’re looking for a current event where the sharing and withholding and construing of the same few details is making all the difference, look no further than The Memo that the whole country has been talking about for the past week.  Is it a  “Nothingburger” or a condemnation of an enormous investigation?  The laws of physics (or the laws of SOMETHING anyway–objective reality still exists out there!) tell us that it can’t possibly be both.  

I’d like to believe that when my students finish exploring excellent narrative journalism and then composing a journalistic experience of their own, they’d be more than ready–and happy–to guide you through the details towards the objective light of day.

–Mike

How do you help students wrestle with misleading or fake news?  Share your ideas with me on Twitter (@ZigThinks) or at Facebook.com/movingwriters.

With Apologies to Matt Lauer, Harvey Weinstein, and Charlie Rose: Strategies for Compare/Contrast Writing

Today’s post is from frequent guest-poster Kelly Pace. Kelly teaches 9th, 11th, and 12th grade English and Theory of Knowledge to students at my former school home in Hanover County, Virginia. You can read some of her other Moving Writers pieces here and here. You can connect with her on Twitter @kellyapace.

“Mrs. Pace, did you hear about Matt Lauer?” one of my students accosted me as I entered the Raider Writing Center, a student-led center for writing help that I manage and teach.

“What are you talking about?” I asked. I often feel like I live in a bubble while at school, not knowing what is going on in the world outside of Room 211.

“Check on Twitter. It’s all over that. He’s gone from the TODAY Show because of sexual misconduct charges,” she said. I glanced at my Twitter feed and sure enough, I saw the news: 

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I stepped back, jaw open, stunned like I was reading about my own personal friend. Yet I was. I watched Matt Lauer on the TODAY Show every day as I took care of my first child while on maternity leave. He was my Olympics news source. I lived 9-11, Columbine, several presidential elections, and the War on Iraq through Lauer’s eyes. He looked at me through the television, and I thought I saw honesty and integrity. I marveled that day: If Matt Lauer can’t be trusted, I’m not sure who in our popular culture can.

Later that week, I sat down to figure out how I would introduce the idea of compare and contrast for an essay my IB juniors were writing. I knew my students had done this skill before; I knew they had made plenty of Venn diagrams in their time, so I needed something to really grab their attention. I wanted to teach about how to write a thesis statement for a compare/contrast paper and how to structure the paper so that it doesn’t seem as if they are isolating two subjects. I wanted a more organic and authentic compare/contrast structure for their writing.

Hoping for inspiration, I flipped through a file of mentor texts I recently put aside. Nothing. I trolled the internet. Nothing. And then I got back on Twitter. Matt Lauer was still clogging my feed, and I stumbled upon an article about the similarities among the apologies of sexual harassment cases: “Regret,’ ‘Pain,’ ‘Predator’: Analyzing the Apologies of Matt Lauer, Harvey Weinstein, and Others Accused of Sexual Misconduct” Discussing the overlapping ideas between those accused of sexual misconduct, the article was intriguing, as was the cloud of overlapping words in their apologies that the article included:

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I suddenly had an idea. I used the public apologies of Charlie Rose, Harvey Weinstein and Matt Lauer as mentor texts and asked my students to color mark similarities and differences for homework. Students came to my class the next block eager to discuss these apologies. They had no idea they were learning skills of compare/contrast for their upcoming papers, and they couldn’t stop them from discussing (and arguing) all of the ideas they did. We color marked their ideas together, grouping the similarities and differences to the side:

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Most agreed that Harvey Weinstein’s apology was the most sincere while Lauer’s was more emotional. Rose’s showed no growth at all. We also discussed the similarities like how much of the apology followed the same format: make an excuse–say I’m sorry–discuss how I will work on my flaw.

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I then asked students to write a thesis statement that presented an argument comparing and contrasting the three apologies. Here are two from my class that day:

Although Harvey Weinstein, Charlie Rose, and Matt Lauer recognize that they caused pain and apologize and justify what they did, Harvey Weinstein is more sincere in his apology because he shows commitment to fixing what he did.

 

Although the apologies of Charlie Rose, Harvey Weinstein, and Matt Lauer present a similar pattern, admit learning occurred, and clearly say they are sorry, Harvey Weinstein and Matt Lauer are more sincere in their apologies.

We discussed the idea that their thesis should be an argument. Such arguments were easy to form because they were interested in the subject of these public apologies and clearly had strong feelings on who was more sincere.

In the end, I used this lesson to teach my students how to write a thesis statement and how to structure their papers for the literary analysis paper they were writing. The results were stunning pieces of writing that were far more organic than if I had them complete a Venn diagram of the similarities and differences. Later that week, I received an email from a parent:

“I just wanted to reach out and tell you how thrilled I am with your lesson on apologies by our public figures…In a day and age where lies are told so frequently, this lesson is so timely and just what all kids need.  We are in the ages of “lie, deflect, lie deflect.”  Thank you for this lesson of sincerity and accountability.  I’ve told my children over and over, sorry needs to be genuine or just don’t say it.  Don’t be “sorry you got caught”; be sorry for your actions.  Thank you for explaining this from someone other than their mother, in a way that is less lecture and more deep thought.”

When planning this lesson, this was not my intention, but I realize now that it added a bonus of teaching students character in writing instruction. Perhaps they would not only learn the structure of a compare/contrast piece of writing, but they also would learn the value of genuine words.
As a final note to Matt Lauer, Charlie Rose, Harvey Weinstein: My apologies for using your public words as more than just uttered phrases. Yet, they have provided my students with mentor texts on the art of comparing and contrasting, enabling them to make connections and write more authentically in Room 211. For that, I am grateful.

What Time is It? Notebook Time!

We are singing Hamilton as we read today’s fantastic, deep-dive guest post from Scott Bayer, an English Language Arts (ELA) Instructional Specialist for grades 6-12 in Montgomery County, Maryland. He has taught high school English for 16 years and is passionate about creating meaningful learning experiences for students, teaching a more inclusive reading list, and developing student agency, voice, passion, and curiosity. You can find him on Twitter: @Lyricalswordz

Even though students have always written in my class, I’ve always known that they’ve needed to write more and in different ways. When I first started teaching, I was stuck in traditional modes—ones that I learned from my own experiences as a student in school: students wrote what I told them to write, and then I graded their work.

As my craft evolved, so did my classroom. I began to have kids write in various ways during class and for various purposes, but my methods were always somewhat wayward and unevenly implemented. My classes would go through periods of writing and writing instruction.

More recently, I passed out marble composition notebooks, and although I gained a lot of muscle transporting stacks of those things home and back every weekend, their use always faded, being replaced by something else deemed more worthy of instructional time. My desire for kids to write more was the correct impulse, I just had never quite figured out how to sew it into the fabric of our classroom.

But the following remained true: If I want my students to be thinkers, I must provide them opportunities to think. If I want them to be writers, I must provide them opportunities to write.

What Changed

Screen Shot 2018-01-10 at 9.10.59 PMI was so inspired last summer by reading Writing with Mentors, by Allison Marchetti and Rebekah O’Dell. Their ideas about mentor texts are so clear and relevant and utilitarian and are not so much a strategy as a way of life.

So. Inspired, yes, but also overwhelmed.

I decided I needed to start small and adapt an idea that would work for me and my students. I wanted a strategy that would encourage risk-taking. I wanted a tool that would provide low-stakes writing opportunities. I wanted something that would let students develop their own voices. I found Notebook Time made these possibilities a reality, and in a way that could be implemented in my classroom right away.

Since I would have a 1:1 Chromebook classroom for the first time, I also considered how I would adapt this to the newly available technology. The Notebook Time experience detailed here is almost entirely digital, which has been a big risk for me, but the rewards have been immense. If you don’t have access to technology in your classroom, this experience can be replicated in your classroom—there’s just more printing involved!

How Notebook Time Works in My Class

This year I teach on-level English 12 and Notebook Time functions like this in our classroom: the first three days of the week, my students have the first 10 minutes of class to complete a Notebook Time entry. On Thursday, we spend the 10 minutes learning about the art of writing or the craft of revising, focusing on a specific skill or idea or strategy. On Friday, students choose one of their three entries from the week, revise it, and submit it for a grade.

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Each week I try to provide various types of texts. Because I limit Notebook Time to 10 minutes, I elected to avoid lengthy passages that students would need to read and interpret. I will use a few lines of prose, a stanza of poetry, or a verse from a song, but rarely more than that.

I also select from various images (photographs, paintings, drawings, cartoons), as well as charts, graphs, and statistics. I pull from a resource library of collected readings in my curriculum in which the texts are thematically linked to our units of study, but I also search the internet for anything relevant to students’ own lives. So three times each week, students are seeing a wide variety of cold texts, and then they can respond in writing however they want. In a broad sense, they may perform analytical, argumentative, or narrative writing.

We started Notebook Time in mid-september, with a presentation and a student handout adapted from Writing with Mentors.

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All of this was to explain what we were doing and why we were doing it. It is really important for students to know not only what they are doing, but why they are doing it. Additionally, although a bit paradoxical, this type of freedom can be paralyzing for some students. I had to convince them that as the author of their work, they are in full control. For the remainder of that first week, we did some practice, and I wrote along with them to model some different types of responses.

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Learning Writing and Revision Strategies

There are an endless number of things to talk about with regard to writing, so I try to have kids try a strategy for a few minutes and then talk about it for a few minutes. For instance, one day, I gave them a quote from Brent Staples about rewriting, and I merely had them discuss why rewriting is so important. Another day, we looked at Kelly Gallagher’s STAR Method and considered ways we could use it to revise our work.

Although we occasionally look at something as an entire class, I want them to maintain the same sense of choice, and I want what we learn to be germane to their own writing. So I have never, for example, taught a mini-lesson on run-on sentences. That might be new learning for some kids, but not all kids. But I did, one day, give them the option, based on feedback I’d given them, to choose whether they needed to learn more about run-ons, fragments, or “other” (which explored how to create more complex sentence structures) .

Another day we tried something a bit different: In our Google Classroom, I shared an exemplar I wrote on Winslow Homer’s “The Gulf Stream”, and then gave them “can comment” access to the document, with the following directions:

  1. Read the sample Notebook Time entry below from start to finish.
  2. Consider the work as a whole in relation to the text.
  3. Highlight part of the writing that engaged or interested you.
  4. Write a comment about why it is a strength of the writing OR
  5. Write a comment about how and why you will try something like it in your writing.

Students developed insightful comments about the writing itself, but also talked about how they wanted to try specific moves in their own writing, which was so inspiring. Here’s an example of Derrick’s comments, in which he noted the intentional fragments (even if he didn’t know to call them that) in one comment and rhetorical questions in another, as well as his later work on an M.C. Escher drawing where he tried using both writing moves he commented on.

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Closing the Notebook Time Cycle

Students choose one of their responses to revise, copying and pasting it in the table provided at the top of that week’s document. Then they begin their revision process in the adjacent box. Seeing their original and their revision side-by-side has been powerfulScreen Shot 2018-01-10 at 9.25.03 PM for students. In our classroom we have talked a lot about the importance of revising, but as teachers know, revision talk can be cheap to burgeoning writers. My students wanted something more concrete, so I shared with them an adaptation of the STAR Method from the inestimable Kelly Gallagher, and this really cool Upgrade Your Sentence document I found on Twitter from @heymrshallahan. I gave them an exemplar with a single sentence so they could see how one sentence could be upgraded in many different ways, and then I gave them a more functional document where they can actually plug their sentences in and work on their writing at the sentence level.

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Why It Works:

  • Routine: Students come into class, get a Chromebook, and know exactly what to do for the first 10 minutes. Some students even begin before the bell rings to get a few extra minutes—which of course is great! We stop after 10 minutes every time. Things like this can take over a lesson if you let them (and that wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world), but students know exactly how long they have and I know precisely the remaining number of minutes to plan for.
  • Low-stakes: The environment allows kids to take risks without worry of being penalized by something as silly as a grade. I encourage them to reach, because there is no fear of falling.
  • Text Variety: In addition to what’s normally going on in our classroom, students are exposed to texts in real-world situations. They bring only the knowledge they have to a cold text, and must reason inductively. They cannot wait for someone else to tell them “the answer;” they must forge ahead alone, which fosters their self-reliance and independence.
  • Revision: I no longer have to hope students are making revision a regular practice. I see it every week. By juxtaposing the original and the revision on the documents, kids see it too.
  • Practice: My students wrote for 190 minutes during Notebook Time during quarter 1; they will write for more than 350 minutes during quarter 2.
  • Grading: I don’t get buried under a stack of papers. No teacher has time to provide feedback on four Notebook Time entries each week, so I give them feedback on the one they want.
  • Timed Writing: Because they are the most tested generation in the history of education, it’s not a bad thing that students get regular practice of on-demand writing in a timed situation. Just a bonus!

Impact & Implications So Far

For years, I was unsure of how to embed regular writing opportunities that challenged and inspired kids, giving them the freedom to write in ways that are important to them. I tried different strategies and routines, but none had the staying power for me or my students. That has all changed with Notebook Time. The routine—using the first 10 minutes of class every day, writing to three prompts the first three days of the week, talking about writing on Thursday, revising on Friday—has been great for me and for my students.

The overall benefits of Notebook Time have been almost too numerous to list, but a few that I’ve found incredibly important: an increase in the volume of writing—some students have claimed they’ve written more this semester than they ever have before; writing as a way to explore one’s own thinking, rather than just being a way to demonstrate final thought; and the development of student voice, and this one is the most meaningful of all. Students who were resistant to writing—there was almost a mutiny in the first week when I asked them to write 100 words—and now are not only writing a lot more than they ever have before, but they are writing about things that are important to them in ways that elevate their voices, bringing them from the margins to the mainstream.

Scott has generously shared a folder of resources with you! Go ahead — thank him here in the comments or on Twitter @LyricalsWordz. You can also comment with strategies you have used to adapt Notebook Time for your students! 

Mentor Text Wednesday: A MAD Fold-In Poem

Mentor Text: A MAD Fold-In Poem by Daniel Scott Tysdal

Techniques:

  • Poetic Form
  • Writing Rough Drafts
  • Analysis
  • Visual Presentation

Background – If you read this column regularly, you know that I’ve been reading a lot of poetry lately. I’ve actually made it a professional goal to explore poetry in my classroom with more intent the last couple of years. This means that my Twitter feed is almost saturated with poetry, a stream of sharing from poets and poetry journals. An especially rich feed lately has been that of poet Kaveh Akbar, who regularly posts images or links of poems that move him.

In December, he tweeted a handful of poems from what was then the new issue of Poetry. I did what I do on Twitter, and slapped my personal curation hashtag on them, and made a mental note to peruse that list later. I happened to be at a bookstore that carried Poetry, and bought it, recalling that Kaveh had tweeted some good pieces from it.

MAD Fold In Poem.jpg

via Tysdal’s Twitter

Then, I started reading, and flagging poems. One of those poems I’ve already played with in my classroom, and I’d like to share today. My geeky little heart pounded a bit faster when I came across Daniel Scott Tysdal’s poem “A MAD Fold-In Poem.” I remember the MAD Magazine fold-in so fondly. For those who’ve never seen one, the inside rear cover of MAD Magazine often featured this piece, where an image and phrase would form a different, related image and phrase when the page was folded, touching the A and B arrows together. I loved the art, and I loved the bit of satire that this often carried. Sometimes, it read like the punchline of a joke, but more often, the folding revealed some sort of hidden side to the issue being featured in the larger image.

Tysdal’s poem uses this conceit. As you read it, before any folding, you’ve got a poem. The poem ends with a colon, as if more poem is promised. When you follow the instructions, and fold the page, connecting A to B, another line appears, finishing the poem.

What a fun little device to explore. I knew that in January, we’d be exploring social justice issues in two of my courses, creating multigenre projects and zines. This poem was a perfect fit for those.

How We Might Use This Text:

Poetic Form – A funny thing about poetry as a form is that many students have a very set, preconceived notion of the conventions of poetry. They are prepared to rhyme, focus on rhythm, write in strictly numbered stanzas… almost as if they’ve been taught poetry using a checklist.

As a result, I feel compelled to expose them to poems that don’t adhere to such conventions. It seems very important to show them that the conventions are there to be played with. This is a great mentor text for that. The line lengths vary, and lie on the page unjustified. Until they see the MAD fold-in conceit, students are challenged by this. They look for reasons for this poem’s disregard for conventional spacing and left justification. I encourage them to consider why Tysdal made these choices.

The MAD reference went over my students’ head, which was nice. It allowed them to explore the impact of the folding without knowledge that there would be any such impact. After the chorus of “Cool!” and figuring out the fold, the reasons for the justification were made clear. Then, as frequently happens when we write poetry, the focus shifted to word choice.

This form makes word choice very important. The words that start and end many lines of this poem matter. As well, the words that get “lost” in the fold matter too, as they need to build to the line revealed in the fold, but they need to fit in the hiding place behind the fold. Lines can’t be too long, and where they lie must be staggered on the page.

 

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Kenzie working on her first draft

Writing Rough Drafts – The stress upon the layout of this poem actually pushes us to a drafting process. A specific part of my instruction to my writers when we began this was to start in their notebooks. We took a page and folded it. Most of them began with the line(s) that they wanted to be shown upon folding. We folded our notebook pages, and placed the words that made up that line left and right of that fold. Those pages were unfolded, and they filled in poems around that line. The words that began and ended their lines were already chosen. Words could be moved around in this draft based upon whether or not they were best suited for to begin or end a line. Writing this first draft also gave us an idea of what the poem would look like visually.

 

I also like that they would need to consider the space between the words that remain after the folding. Are they words from every line in the poem, or are there gaps. Are these gaps there for a purpose, to create a pause to slow the reader, and make them think?

Visual Presentation – The visual aspect of this poem loomed large for my writers. They needed to figure out how to set this poem up. We had a number of minilessons talking about the skills involved in achieving the right look. We talked about justification, and the appropriate tech tools to achieve the impact. I was showing them how to find gridlines and rulers to aid in layout.

I like using readily available programs, so this became a tutorial on some features in PowerPoint. To achieve the spacing we wanted, I suggested adding each line as a separate line, allowing for easier shifting of words to the right or left of the guidelines where the fold would create that final line. I love the idea of them having those skills to draw upon as they write other pieces, and need to use the placement of lines and words for impact.

Analysis – I gave my students a bit more instruction than, “Hey look at these! See how they work? Write one!” We discussed the form, and impact, and then I connected it to the work we were doing. I encouraged them to find a quote within the material we were looking at in our research, and reaction to, global issues and social justice topics. This quote was to be what the fold would reveal.

We had great discussions about how we could do this. The poem could leads to the quote as a final line, building context. What if the poem deconstructed the quote. If the quote were a lie, or questionable statement, then the poem could question, or challenge the quote. This proved popular, and allowed many of my writers an access point to their writing. We also had a great discussion about how this changed the impact of the fold-in, almost as if the truth behind the quote were hidden, and then revealed – such a symbolic gesture.


These global issues related projects were semester ending pieces, but as we wrote them, I could see other analytical uses for these poems. Much like The Golden Shovel, they could be used as a means of literary analysis and expression. Instead of the words from the existing source ending each line like The Golden Shovel, they could alternate between beginning and end of lines.

This poem encourages a lot of the things I think matter in a writing task. There is an opportunity to play, and be creative. There is a structure that exists, which can be used to support writers who need to have that comfort. It makes word choice matter. It can be simple, and challenging. It can be used as a tool to explore ideas. They are very cool when they’re completed, which makes the writer proud. If that happens, it’s pretty much a win, right?

What have you taken to class lately almost immediately after discovering it? Did it work out as well as you’d hoped? 

Leave a comment below or find me on Twitter @doodlinmunkyboy!

-Jay

 

Teaching From My Twitter Feed: Fun with Maps

twitter feed

I’ve found that it’s pretty easy to get lost in the weeds on Twitter–with all the wonderful educators and pundits and armchair comedians I follow, I can find myself miles from my original feed in just a few retweet-clicks.  Good thing Twitter is full of Brilliant Maps!

Or at least it’s the home of one lovely cartographical (I totally guessed about whether that was a word or not–no spell check squiggle!) feed that I’m excited to add to my classroom for both freewriting activities and some deeper context exploration this semester:  The aptly-named @BrilliantMaps .  This feed is the home of countless wonderful maps that do everything from highlighting current events and hot-button political issues to providing mind-bending perspectives about how we understand the physical (and sometimes psychological) spaces we exist in.

My students love visuals (actually whenever I say “visuals” they hope after the first syllable that I’m about to say “video” but the mildness of their disappointment tells me they like visuals almost as much).  They make for great writing prompts and spur class discussions that might otherwise dwindle after we’d picked apart a news article or story.  The subjects of the maps here are wide-ranging and not always practical, but man do they make for compelling conversation and writing opportunities.

Check out this one:  

brilliant maps adults living at home
image via @BrilliantMaps (Twitter)

I’ve actually had interesting conversations with students the past few years about the topic of living at home with parents after college versus striking out on their own, so this map would be fascinating to show kids and ask them to reflect on.  What factors might have caused the change?  What implications are there for the country or regions of it based on these shifts?  Why would anyone collect this data to begin with?  The mere fact that the information is so unusual compared to the sorts of things we usually encourage them to examine makes it worth our time!

Here’s another favorite.  It reveals how the election would have turned out if “Did Not Vote” represented a candidate instead of just people staying home.  

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image via @BrilliantMaps (Twitter)

Look at that map!  People staying home and not exercising their voting rights would have accounted for ALMOST 500 electoral votes!  An amazing stat, but more striking as a visual–especially if you have time to examine why a small handful of states actually have a more active voting population and escape the gray fate of the rest.

One of the coolest things about following @BrilliantMaps though is that it isn’t all heavy and serious.  Some of their maps are playful–and occasionally not really classroom appropriate, so be selective–and others take a crack at visualization just for the fun of mapping things never intended to be rendered into maps.  Like this one!  A map of every character’s travels throughout the first Star Wars film.  Yes they have one for each of the other original films.  Yes I’m going to make you go dig through the feed to see them for yourself.  

brilliant maps star wars

image via @BrilliantMaps (Twitter)

Maps might not seem highly useful to an English classroom at first blush, but consider the number of skills involved in interpreting one–they carry unspoken and varying degrees of implication and require quite a bit of synthesizing if you want to apply the information they provide to your own view of the world.  And besides, aren’t you already imaging what student-drawn maps of the major characters travels in their independent novels would look like?  

Pretty cool, I’d bet.

If you’re looking for even more cartographical cookiness (that’s a word too!  English is crazy!)?  Check out the utterly impractical but often laugh-aloud funny @TerribleMaps which is exactly what it sounds like plus wildly uneven, but fun follow that might just prove useful every once in a while too.  Like this gem:

terrible maps
–Mike

 

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Independent Writing — a Mid-Year Update

Happy EnglishLanguage Day to thee!You might remember that this fall, on a whim, I jumped into a year long independent writing routine with my students. I did it because I know that students needed more time to pursue their own writing interests, because I know it will build students’ writing muscles, because I know some of my own teacher heroes do it.

But I didn’t quite know how I would manage it. Or what the outcomes would be.

We’ve been doing this for months now — long enough to both form habits and fall into slumps. Here’s where we are mid-year:

What’s Working

  • Routine

    I wanted a routine, and we’ve got one! That routine is probably a little stronger for some students than for others, but students are now used to the regular assignment of working  on independent writing for 20 minutes at home, 5 nights per week.  Image-1 (2).pngThey come into class each day and record their nightly writing on the wall o’ charts (pictured in my first post on this topic).

    Building In Time For Other Writing

An unexpected fringe benefit has been that students now have built-in time to work on the extracurricular writing that might come up in their lives. My 8th graders are applying to high schools, and high school essay writing abounds. Many students participate in Model UN, and they use some of this time to work on position papers.

Initially, I paused at this “double-dipping”. While not for a particular class, should they be allowed to use independent writing time for other official kinds of writing they need to do? Is that really the spirit of the assignment?

I think YES! Students are spending outside-of-class time building writing skills. That’s what I am aiming for. And so, whether that’s planning for an application essay or preparing for a Model UN debate, they are writing. And the writing is the thing.

Building in the time for independent writing, however they use it, validates that our lives are filled with all kinds of writing tasks everyday. And hopefully, it becomes a writing habit that sticks.

  • Polishing Independent Writing in Workshop

The biggest highlight of our independent writing journeys has been students’ eagerness to polish and perfect some of their own work through a workshop study. In fact, it has worked so well that I’ve begun to wonder if every writing study should be independent. Because it always feels like the more freedom I give students, the deeper their focus, the more authentic their process, the more engaged their effort. When we limit their choices at all — even limiting it to a certain genre — we seem to limit some of that natural buy-in and ownership. (I haven’t answered this question yet or figured out what that might look like in my classroom. But I keep thinking about it.)

Students have written graphic novels and pieces of sports analysis and a commentary about the failings of a new video game and mini-novels-in-verse and album reviews and short stories and fan fiction. All the things. And they have been more loved than any other writing we’ve done in writing workshop this year.

What’s NotImage-1.png

  • Fake Writing

For all that love and passion, there is still fake writing happening. I know it. I don’t know exactly who (though I have my guesses) and I don’t know how much, but I am certain that every piece of writing recorded on our independent writing sheets isn’t real. Just like I know that every student who shows me that she has met her reading goal for the week probably hasn’t. That’s part and parcel of teaching my students, trusting them to do the real stuff of reading and writing (which is always the hard stuff), and building levels of independence that will live on past my class.

So, sure, there is probably some fake writing happening. I don’t know how to change that. I’m not sure there is a way to change that. I’m trying to make the right kind of peace with it.

  • Conferring about Nightly Writing

In my head when I started this thing, I envisioned regularly dipping in to confer with students not just about our whole-class unit of writing study but also their independent writing? I’d ask open-ended questions like, “Tell me what you’ve been working on recently? How is it going?” and I’d offer sage wisdom beginning with, “You know, a lot of times when writers are doing this kind of work, they try …”

Truth: I haven’t conferred with a single writer on nightly writing.

have conferred with them when they choose a piece to take to publication in a workshop but not on regular, ordinary nightly writing. I want it to happen — I think it would build in meaningful accountability while also helping students continue to move their writing forward. I just don’t know when it would happen. This is a problem to figure out.

Image-1 (1)What I’m Tweaking

  • Breaking Writing Slumps

If I were conferring with my writers regularly about the things they are working on after-hours, I would probably be able to help them out of their writing slumps. While some students have certainly found momentum in longterm projects during independent writing, many others have fallen into a monotonous slump.

I have tried to remedy this by reminding students all the different kinds of writing activities they could do during this time. Not just writing in sentences, but also brainstorming, writing off the page, annotating a mentor text, outlining a piece of writing, revising past writing, extending notebook time.

Intentionally and regularly introducing writers to different kinds of writing would also help if I remembered to do it. This semester, I have introduced Kelly Gallagher’s Article of the Week. I need to talk with students about how writers could do this kind of writing on their own.

  • Moving More Writing Into Workshop

Like I said, the thing that is going best is asking students to take something from their nightly writing and developing it into a “best draft”. So, I need to do more of this. In fact, I’m thinking that we might need to do MOSTLY this, and punctuate these free-choice writing studies with whole-class genre studies (instead of the other way around). I would love for students to be able to write three more pieces like this before the end of the year.

  • Periodic Nightly Writing Portfolios

To build in accountability and reflection, I am asking students to turn in a portfolio of nightly writing every so often. (Depending on how it goes, I’m thinking this might be a regular staple of independent writing).

Here’s what I’m asking students to do:

  • Choose 10 pieces of nightly writing (or writing that represents 10 different nights of writing work).
  • Move these into a new Google Folder called “Nightly Writing Portfolio”. (If the work happened on paper — in your notebook or on a mentor text — take a picture of that artifact and then put that picture in the Google folder.)
  • Add a document to the folder called “Nightly Writing Portfolio Reflection”.  In this document, explain why you chose each item for the portfolio, what is shows about you as a writer, and where you want these pieces to go next (Extend the work? Combine it with other writing? Abandon?)

I think these portfolios might help less-enthusiastic students take the work more seriously and also let students who ARE enthusiastic about their nightly writing feel like they are really doing something with all of it. We could share these in small groups to share ideas.

Okay — do you have ideas for me? How do you manage independent writing in YOUR classroom? What questions do you have about my classroom? Leave a comment below or find me on Twitter (@RebekahODell1), or on Facebook