The new year is a great time for both students and teachers to reflect on literacy practices and set some new goals. I decided to share my reflections and goals with you, and hope you all will have some time to do the same. Reflection and goal-setting is something we can do for ourselves, and it is always worth the effort!
I have evolved as a teacher over a career that spans 38 years of classroom teaching, facilitation of the K-5 gifted program, and extensive work as a writing extension teacher. This year is my 6th year as an independent consultant who often serves as a literacy coach. Perhaps my biggest reason for wanting to be in this role is my commitment to the changes in instruction that take place when you put into practice what you’ve learned. I look back on my experiences with the Pennsylvania Writing and Literature Project, and I know how important it is to “think big but start small!” – as Michael Fullan suggests.
When you begin to understand something new, you try to also figure out how it fits into what you are already doing. I think about the addition of portfolios in my own classroom, and how I first started with just a writing portfolio before eventually creating a portfolio across the content areas as well. As a literacy coach, I had to recognize when a teacher gets it – has this new understanding, and is ready to put it into practice. Then I had to think about what resources and supports he/she will need to be successful.
I have learned that helping my students grow as readers, writers, thinkers, and people is the greatest gift I can give them. Choice has always been the most important factor in achieving this gift, but I identified another component this past fall.
Lu’s interview emphasized what I had read in research articles and seen in best practice presentations: the need for multicultural literature in the classroom. Although this knowledge had influenced the novels I read, taught, and book talked, I observed firsthand the power that books can have on students when they recognize themselves in the authors and characters they read.
Emika Chen, Warcross’s female protagonist, left an indelible imprint on Cynthia, one of my current eighth graders. The student’s name is a pseudonym. As a seventh grader last year, I watched Cynthia grow into a confident, young woman. She developed her voice as a writer and found the confidence to engage in conversations with her teachers and peers. As a returning eighth grader this fall, she read Warcross. This independent reading book fostered a new level of agency that I had not yet seen.
While our reading conferences appeared standard—discussing characters, setting, plot, theme, and craft—the novel’s setting and the characters’ names became particularly interesting to Cynthia. During one of our early conversations, she wanted to clarify the change in setting from New York City to Tokyo, and she brought up how Emika Chen’s name revealed her Chinese ancestry. She also wanted to look up the name Hideo Tanaka in order to pronounce it correctly.
As an avid reader, Cynthia has read, discussed, and analyzed many books since September 2018; however, Warcross was the first book that she voiced her interest in the novel’s setting and the characters’ race. Her interest moved beyond simply reading the book for enjoyment to investigating Lu’s style. By studying and understanding the craft and decisions of a fellow Chinese American writer, Cynthia found her own agency as a writer. Cynthia recognized herself in both the protagonist and author which inspired her to make similar writing choices. This influence became evident during our short story genre study, for Cynthia’s final piece revealed a correlation between Lu’s novel and her own writing.
In Cynthia’s previous writing pieces and school assignments, she left her characters’ races and stories’ settings as ambiguous. While I never thought much about this writerly decision—and perhaps neither did Cynthia—this changed after reading Warcross. Seeing Lu as an empowered Asian female writer and Emika as the representation and extension of that authority inspired Cynthia to develop her own writing in a similar fashion. In the weeks that followed her reading of Lu’s novel, Cynthia spent much time crafting her latest short story with Asian inspired names: Ayane Hiyori, Kaito, Ruka Kanon, and Chika Ronshaku. Moreover, the details she included such as “sakura hair pin” and “red and gold kimono” provided the reader with context clues to help them understand that the story took place in Asia. Not only did Cynthia incorporate Asian names and cultural details into her short story, but also she developed her main character, Chika, with similar director traits as Emika. The more power Chika possessed the more confident Cynthia became. She used her writing as an opportunity to explore her own agency through her protagonist.
The manifestation of Cynthia’s authority did not stop with our short story unit but continued to grow during the weeks that followed. In November, Cynthia brought in Frankenstein: Junji Ito Story Collection and Smashed: Junji Ito Story Collection, two Manga books. This marked the first time that she brought in Manga for independent reading. During our reading conferences, we focused on literary elements and craft decisions, and we explored interesting moves made by Ito in terms of the storyline and artwork. Knowing Cynthia is an artist, I asked her if she would be interested in creating her own Manga for her next Self-Selected Writing Piece. Excited about this prospective idea, she shared her Manga with her table partner. Immediately, the two girls became invested in the project. Together they researched drawing tips, began developing possible plotlines, and sketched character ideas. Additionally, the pair brainstormed character names, settling on Ying and Yang for their twin girl protagonists.
With this new writing piece, Cynthia is now sharing her agency with her peers. She is writing herself into existence and finding her real-life director’s role through her ability to create strong Asian female characters. Lu’s work empowered Cynthia to write and discover her own authority in the world.
Choice enabled Cynthia to select books and authors that reflect who she is, yet the invitation to produce and manipulate language gave Cynthia her power. To facilitate my students’ growth, I must support them as they find their voices. This guidance in tandem with choice become the greatest gift the Writing-Reading Workshop can offer, for it allows students like Cynthia to establish who they are and who they wish to become.
How are you empowering your students in your classroom? Please share below!
For years I struggled with the need to teach my ninth grade students how to write a standard five-paragraph literary analysis. I knew I was responsible for moving them up to their future English classes with this skill, but it was also torturous teaching the formulaic approach to this writing task. As we moved through the lessons, students eyes would glaze over, my eyes would glaze over, and we all generally lost interest in writing. To make modeling easier, the essay prompts were all dictated by me in response to texts also selected by me. The result was bland, repetitive writing that lacked creativity or thought. This also made grading torturous.
Then, a few years ago when I started the C3WP approach to teaching argument and research writing, I experimented with applying this method to literary analysis writing as well. Accordingly, rather than reading one text together as a class then writing an essay analyzing some literary element within that text, we started to read many texts centered on a common motif and write in short bursts about the texts daily. After we had read and discussed around a topic for a while, we would revisit the texts as a whole and ask ourselves “so what?” These responses turned into a literary analysis that was developed after many days of thinking and pulled from several texts. As a result, the writing process and lessons got a lot messier, but the engagement and thinking grew exponentially.
Around the same time I started experimenting with this new approach to teaching literary analysis writing, I stumbled across this quote from Kelly Gallagher:
Reading helps us to enter the feelings, imaginings, and thoughts of others. We temporarily leave our world for theirs, and when we return, we hope our thinking will be expanded and strengthened. We hope to be enlarged intellectually and/or emotionally.
Now, whenever my students are gearing up to write a formal literary analysis, I share these words with them and prompt them to write about how the texts have enlarged them intellectually and/or emotionally. This prompt has much less structure than previous writing prompts that read something like “How does the plot development of this story communicate theme?” or “Identify a dynamic character and explain how their change influences the downfall.” As a result the thinking and writing is all over the place and the students are the ones putting in the hard work, with me there in the background to confer and support them along the way. I still model how I would approach the writing task, but my model often varies greatly from their writing and only serves as a support rather than a strict structure.
For example, we are just wrapping up a unit in which we studied a series of pieces dealing with the transitory nature of home for many people. While digging into this idea, we thought about and discussed a variety of texts: a poem called “Home” by Warsan Shire, a chapter from The Circuit by Francisco Jimenez, a short documentary called “Border Purgatory” from The Atlantic, and a book called Dreams and Nightmares: I Fled Alone to the United States When I was Fourteen by Liliana Velásquez. Students were also invited to find and read texts dealing with the topic on their own and to write and reflect on their own personal experiences with home.
The following is how one student, a recent immigrant from Venezuela and an emerging English language learner, introduced his essay:
And here is the introduction from another student in the same class:
Both writers have made insightful observations and crafted well-written introductions to their essays. Rather than the dread I used to feel at taking home a batch of essays to grade, I am excited to read these and to see what everyone else’s takeaways are.
What are some ways you move your students beyond the basic literary analysis?
December is a busy month for teachers, but it also tends to be a reflective one as well. The weeks leading up to a break from school or transition to a new semester and a new year are a natural time to think about where we’ve been and where we’re going. For many of us, that reflection might include looking back at moments of transformative professional learning and growth, whether at a conference, a school-based event, or within another type of professional or collegial network. Have we learned something new? Do we understand something differently or more deeply? What will this look like in our learning spaces?
My colleague and co-writer Mary Buckelew and I had the good fortune to attend and present at the NCTE/NWP conference in Baltimore, along with several Pennsylvania Writing and Literature Project colleagues, and Mary and I also stayed for the Conference on English Leadership (CEL), immediately following NCTE and NWP.
There were, of course, many highlights and significant moments, big and small. Finding new friends, meeting Twitter friends in real life, and getting deeper insight into ongoing relationships are all part of the experience. I’m grateful to all the people I had the opportunity to learn from and with, whether presenting or attending a session, or sharing a conversation or meal. I wanted to share a few highlights from three of the speakers:
One was the author Tommy Orange’s address on Saturday morning. I had read the highly acclaimd There There, and was looking forward to this presentation. Once Orange began talking, the space, with perhaps 500 people, felt intimate. Orange shared his journey from his early school experience as a sports-loving, non-reader who showed no literary promise whatsoever (corroborated by his first and second grade teachers!) to a young bookstore employee who got turned on to fiction when he took breaks from moving and re-shelving books. A love of reading led to a passion for writing, writing the books that he wished had been available to him. Like most writers, he wrote what he knew. When asked if they were literally true stories, he explained that people have “earned their stories” and are not his to take. No matter, his characters come alive on the page, and his words captivated us in the convention hall.
Two other memorable and moving talks took place at the CEL conference on Monday. At a breakfast session on Monday, Dr. Dana Stachowiak, an associate professor of Educational Leadership and Director of the Women’s Studies and Resource Center at the University of North Carolina in Wilmington, presented on the topic of “Creating a Community of Care.” She began by inviting us to ask ourselves how we can be fully present during our time together. How many of us had to put our phones down and resist the urge to tweet that suggestion? Dr. Stachowiak entered into her topic by using herself as an example of someone who challenges our perceptions of the gender binary, and guided us in reflecting on the characteristics that we have come to identify as male and female. With wisdom, humor, and grace, she led us to examine our gender biases and how to create healing-centered engagement at the school and community level.
Later that day, at the CEL lunch, we heard from Dr. Kim Parker, who is assistant director of the Teacher Training Center at the Shady Hill School in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and is one of the co-founders of #DisruptTexts. Her talk was called “#TheyDeserve: Creating Transformational Literacy Spaces with and for Young People.” Dr. Parker posed the question: “What does it mean to get out of kids’ way?” She spoke passionately about the need for us to share our internal reading lives with our students, and to set the conditions for them to create their own identities as readers. She went on to share examples of how she has approached this work in a variety of ways, including independent reading, Genius Hour projects, and Rumination Essays.
A common thread seemed to be that each of these presenters brought their full self to the presentation, and encouraged us to do the same. They took us on an exploration into the way their passions and vulnerabilities have infused their lives as writers, educators, and unique humans finding ways to navigate the world, and left us with a call to support our students and colleagues on our own journeys. Dr. Parker concluded her talk with a quote from Octavia Butler: “All that you change, changes you.”
What changes have you made this year? How have you changed? How will you share those changes with your students and colleagues?
Janice Ewing is an adjunct instructor in the Reading Specialist Program at Cabrini University and a co-director of the Pennsylvania Writing and Literature Project. She is a long-term member of NCTE and a new member of CEL. She and her colleague, Mary Buckelew, are the authors of Action Research for English Language Arts Teachers:Invitation to Inquiry (Routledge, 2019).
While I want to learn and I want to personally change, my wanting to contribute to universal changes in equity, social justice, and anti-racist structures and policies in education might also mean not thrusting my whiteness into conference sessions.
For some of my students, an authentic audience equals a writing competition or online publishing site. Yet, for most of my middle schoolers, writing for their own personal enjoyment or to someone in their life—a classmate, friend, family member, or teacher—creates the rewarding and exciting real-life writing opportunities they seek.
Nancie Atwell’s letter-essays, discussed in The Reading Zone and In the Middle, offer a great starting place. Students write to a classmate about a book they have read and receive a response back. I have been adapting this letter-essay assignment for my English class. In their October letter-essays, students recommended their Independent Reading Books and analyzed their texts for the interaction between elements of fiction, literary devices, and/or conventions. When launching the letter, I invited my students to write to anyone. I wanted my eighth graders to think about their recommendations as a piece of writing that could reach beyond the four walls of our room. Students’ letters became more than an assignment for school; their authentic audiences drove their writing and their focus.
While they shared their work with their tablemates, some students also addressed their letters to parents and siblings. Other students wrote to friends on different teams or in different schools. One student reached out to her cousin in Scotland. Another student recommended Drums, Girls and Dangerous Pie to a family friend dealing with a similar life situation. He wrote, “I thought that you would enjoy this book [because] it really shows how siblings are there for each other and how Steven helped his younger brother in times of need.” Two students recommended books to me, and one student recommended her book to our technology teacher. She reported, “Mr. H. already responded to my email. He says he’ll check out the book.”
In addition to writing about books, my students find authentic audiences for their genre studies and Self-Selected Writing Pieces. With weekly student writing conferences and small-group, teacher conferences (based on a recommendation from Dr. Mary Buckelew), students have been writing more for one another. Classmates become invested in their peers’ work and want to see how the final pieces turn out. To foster this collaboration, I might say to Evan, “Make sure to read Dave your ending; see what he thinks. And, Dave, you need to finish your story for Evan.” Their dedication to finishing the piece and sharing their work with someone fosters their writing process and progress. When Meg asked me to read her short story—which brought me to tears—I asked if everyone at her table had read the piece. They already had and revealed that they too had become teary-eyed.
Sharing and celebrating creative and original writing within our class has become a staple, and this mindset has propelled me to add a new question during my conferences: “Who are you writing this for?” For example, when a student began developing ideas for a picture book, we discussed who she might read it to when she was all done; her little cousin was on the top of her list. Another student, inspired by her Social Studies Research Project on Jesse Owens, created a short story about his life and his ability to overcome the hardships he faced. I encouraged her to share the writing with her Social Studies teacher. Last week, students, inspired by an astronomy lesson, decided to create a multiple perspective story, exploring if the sun died. Although still in the planning and developing phase, they are already excited to share their finished piece with their science teacher.
In December, the letter-essay will be adapted for an assignment after our whole-class reading of The Outsiders. Students will engage with the text by writing a letter to an adult in their life. They will recommend the book, explore a theme, and connect to our larger unit: Words to Live By. Like a more traditional literary essay, this assignment will ask my students to analyze The Outsiders and engage in theme development; however, it will also enable them to put a more personal touch on their writing. My hope is that these adults will read The Outsiders or remember when they read the book, creating a space for my students to have a readerly conversation with them. Also, my students will be conducting research for our January non-fiction unit. In addition to students selecting the topic they wish to learn about and the genre they will use to showcase their knowledge, an extra question will ask them who they are writing to—who they want to inform with their writing.
Finding authentic audiences encapsulates why we as humans write: to share our stories and let our voices be heard. Helping my students to think about who they are writing to and why they are writing has become a focus during instruction. The seemingly simple questions “Who are you writing this for?” and “Who will read this piece?” have shifted our writing process and created real-life writers out of my eighth graders.
I would love to hear the ways you are getting your students to write with authentic audiences!