Room 313

adventures in teaching creative writing

Archive for the tag “teaching”

Listen Up!

The first day of my summer break, I attended an English teacher conference in Texas with Gena, one of my besties. We drove down the night before, so we would be ready for a full day at the North Texas Council of Teachers of English Language Arts (NTCTELA) conference, keynoted by two of my teacher heroes Penny Kittle and Kelly Gallagher. The topic of the day was speaking and listening, two important ELA skills that are often overlooked because they are difficult to assess. (And don’t we need to teach one more novel or write one more essay?! Why make time to speak and listen?) But if we want our students to grow in their thinking, in their reading and writing, we have to create a space in our classrooms where students can also speak and listen.

For years now I have assessed my students’ reading by simply talking with them about the books they choose to read. I call these book talks, and I’ve blogged about them before. If we are really going to get to know our students and their interests, we must talk to them, and we must also listen. Penny and Kelly reminded us of this in their opening keynote.

In her session “Teaching Poetry to Transform Thinking About Writing,” Penny showed us a spoken word poem by Ethan Smith called “Letter to the Girl I Used to Be.” Give it a watch:

I was moved by this poem by a trans young man. I’ve taught spoken word poetry to my Creative Writing 2 students, and I’ve written an article about spoken word poetry for the Oklahoma Humanities magazine. (Look for “The Poet Has Spoken.”) I know spoken word poetry, but I hadn’t seen this poem before, and I was a fan. I began to think how I could use in CW2 in the fall.

We made it to the lunch break, and I saw I had a Twitter notification. I had been tweeting about the conference, and I had been getting some likes and retweets throughout the morning. When I opened the app, though, I noticed I had a direct message. I opened it, and saw it was from a former student, now finished with freshman year of college.

Hey Stevo! This might seem super out of the blue, but I just want to thank you. Your presence in my high school career was so helpful to me, and I can’t thank you enough. You were always so positive and fun while still teaching me so much.

If you haven’t been able to tell yet, I’m a trans guy and I’m finally coming out and transitioning (starting June 21!! woah!!) and the whole shebang.

You’d always been such a positive influence overall, and I just couldn’t stop thinking about how, my sophomore year, we had a book talk in which I complained about straight people always getting what they want. You replied, “yeah! that’s so dumb. stupid straight people,” and for the first time, an adult was affirming to my identity, and it was so important to me after hearing years of youth pastors and parents saying otherwise. (Also, having a cool democrat as a teacher was always so refreshing).

So I’m going to school to be a teacher because I want to be there for the weird kids like me who need someone on their side. Anyway, all this to say, I can’t thank you enough for being such a great teacher and inspiring me to be one too.

I wept like a baby. I was filled with so many emotions: pride, humility, love, gratitude. It was like what I had heard that morning about listening to students and validating them, plus the video about the trans boy, had now combined full circle into my life’s reality. It was incredible. Neither the student nor I could remember what book we were discussing. And actually, I don’t even remember making that offhand comment to my student. It just goes to show that our students are always listening to us teachers, and that what we say matters.

I wrote back to my student, and shared how I proud I was of him and how I honored I was that he was would trust me with his story. On the off chance that he had not yet watched the spoken word poem “Letter to the Girl I Used to Be,” I sent it to him. He hadn’t seen it, so he watched it and told me sobbed and loved it.

I have more to write about the NTCTELA conference and what I learned, but I’ll save that for another post.

Teachers, how do you honor and embrace speaking and listening in your classrooms? What purposeful strategies do you use? How do you know your students are better speakers and listeners at the end of the semester? the school year?

 

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Venn Diagram Poems

Without Twitter, I would not have discovered the concept of a Venn diagram poem. A couple nights ago before bed, I noticed that Joyce Carol Oates had retweeted what appeared to be a Venn diagram by Brian Bilston. Upon closer examination, it turned out to be a poem, which could be read three different ways:

At the Intersection

  1. him circle
  2. her circle
  3. the overlap

I knew immediately that I could challenge my Creative Writing 2 students with this writing task. I showed it to them on my SmartBoard and explained how it worked. Then I got a girl and a guy to come up and read the two different parts. They concluded by reading the overlapping section together.

To write their own Venn diagram poem, I told students to think about two characters who have something in common. This idea would go in the small overlapping section. From there, it was a matter of building off into two different characters. It seemed easier to me to write the right circle first and then write the one on the left. I cut students loose to begin their Venn diagram poem drafts.

Some struggled at first.

Squiggles

But then they started to get the hang of it. I really liked this poem about two friends, one of whom is about to move away.

Best Friends

One student captured the dynamic between a mother and daughter.

Mom Daughter

Even I got into the spirit of things and wrote a poem about school. I was having a bit of an Eeyore moment, and it felt good to write through my feelings–in Venn diagram form to boot!

Teacher Student

In order to type it up, I used PowerPoint, which has a circle maker. I wondered if I could just type the words and center them and add spaces, but my lines weren’t equally balanced between the circles, so I had to just space bar everything. It turned out pretty well.

Screenshot (106)

How will you use Venn diagram poetry in your classroom?

PRESLM 2013 Results: Pie-Charted

One of the most challenging and rewarding times of the school year as a creative writing teacher is overseeing the production of our annual student anthology of art, writing, and photography. After a few years of undertaking this project, I decided to submit our ninth volume of The Red Line to NCTE’s 2013 PRESLM contest.  We were delighted to receive a Superior ranking. On top of this, we were nominated for the highest award, which is only given to a handful of magazines. As you can see on the PRESLM website, 373 magazines were submitted and only 26 of them received the highest award, one of which was Eyrie from Edison Preparatory in Tulsa. Huzzah, you guys!

I wanted more data than this, though, and it crossed my mind in the flurry of the spring semester to sit down and tabulate the results. I never got around to this until today. After finishing my binge-watching of Scandal, I felt the need to do something a little productive, so I clicked on each state’s results on the PRESLM page and started making tally marks. My results are not completely accurate because I only got 372 entries, not the 373 that NCTE had. I’ve got to be pretty close, though.

  • State participation: 42
  • Highest Award: 26
  • Nominated for Highest Award: 106
  • Superior: 43
  • Excellent: 153
  • Above Average: 41
  • Average / Unranked: 3

PRESLM 2013 chart

In order to be nominated for the highest award, magazines must receive a superior ranking. In essence, 175 magazines achieved a superior ranking. The pie chart could be reworked to reflect this.

PRESLM 2013 chart 2

If you would like to submit your school’s literary magazine, the deadline for the 2014 PRESLM contest is July 2. You have time! We at Deer Creek High School have already submitted our tenth volume of The Red Line. If you’d like to preview or purchase a copy, check out our magazine on Lulu.com. It sells for $27, but our students only had to pay $10 because we sold ads and held a few fundraisers. I could save all that for another post.

Blackout Poetry #engchat

The weekly #engchat Twitter discussion will focus on blackout poetry on Monday, March 17, from 7-8pm EST. I will be co-hosting the chat with my Twitter pal Lesley Mosher. We’ve been planning some blackout poetry events for a while now to take place in April, which is National Poetry Month. Austin Kleon, author of Newspaper Blackout as well as the books Steal Like an Artist and Show Your Work!, has agreed to try to drop in for part of the #engchat. We’ll be discussing what blackout poetry is, how to use it in the classroom, and what successes we’ve had with it, among other topics. I hope you’ll make time to join us!

Weekly Poems for Spring 2014

After the December #titletalk chat on Twitter, I cemented my resolution to introduce more poetry into my Pre-AP English 2 classroom. I am going to modify my weekly schedule of how I start each class with a literacy activity. Instead of giving two book talks a week, I will now just give one on Tuesdays, and Thursdays will now be reserved for a weekly poem.

Looking back on the fall 2013 semester, I’m not happy with how much poetry I shared with my students. In late September we studied three poems all titled “Mockingbird” at the start of our To Kill a Mockingbird unit.  In the middle of October we studied “Miscegenation” by Natasha Trethewey as part of our examination of TKaM‘s Dolphus Raymond. In November we read “The Black Walnut Tree” by Mary Oliver as a model for an AP-style essay over “Those Winter Sundays” by Robert Hayden and “My Papa’s Waltz” by Theodore Roethke. Additionally, one of the ten required genres students read was a collection of poems. They had to find at least two poems they liked/understood and one poem they disliked/did not understand for our book chat. That’s quite a few poems, I suppose, when you count the poetry collections (if students got around to them), but I want to share more poems as a classroom community.

For spring 2014, students will get a weekly poem, which is something I can’t say for last semester. Most of the poems I selected are fairly easy to understand, but they do great things with figurative language and have a lot of heart. I can’t decide if I will just display them on the SmartBoard or if I will make copies for all students to have and annotate. Since I have some students also enrolled in my Creative 1 and 2 classes, I chose poems I have not used in those classes.

Without further ado, I present in order the 19 weekly poems of the 2014 spring semester in Pre-AP English 2:

I have around 275 poems saved in a folder on my laptop that I’ve collected over 9 years of teaching. Many of the poems from my list above come from The Writer’s Almanac, whose podcast I listen to regularly. You’ll notice that in general the list is in alphabetical order by poem title, which is how the poems are organized in my folder. I placed “It’s Raining in Love” around Valentine’s Day and “Shakespearean Sonnet” during the Julius Caesar unit. Otherwise, the poems don’t really tie to a particular time of year, at least intentionally.

Unintentionally, I selected 12 poems by men and only 7 by women. Perhaps I can help balance things out when I continue the weekly poem in the fall. I already have my eyes on Rita Dove’s “First Book,” Jill Osier’s “Requiem,” Naomi Shihab Nye’s “Torn Map,” and Lisel Mueller’s “Things.”

What about you? How do you use poetry in your classroom? Do you save it all up for April, National Poetry Month? Or do you, like me, try to pepper in poems throughout the year? Or do you avoid poetry altogether?

First Lines Writing Game

My parents have hosted dinner parties for as long as I can remember. Dad cleaned, Mom cooked, and my sister and I mainly stayed out of the way. Usually the families we invited over had children around the age of Lynn and me, so we kids entertained ourselves after dinner by playing outside or invading the play room. The adults usually just visited, but sometimes they played a game they called Dictionary, which you might know better as Balderdash. In Dictionary, one person flips through a dictionary and finds a word whose definition escapes everyone. That person copies down the actual meaning on a slip of paper while everyone else writes down a definition that will fool everyone. The more people you fool, the more points you get and win the game. Sometimes the game devolved into writing down humorous definitions instead. I observed this game, and  as I got older, I eventually got to play. I recall sometimes playing just with Mom, Dad, and Lynn.

Imagine my delight when I heard of a similar game but with first lines of novels. I’m a regular listener to the Book Riot podcast, which shares news about all things bookish in the world, including this First Lines game. The person who created this game focused mainly on genre fiction–romance, mystery, etc.–but I think almost anything could work.

Procedure

  1. Show participants the novel’s cover.
  2. Give participants the title of the novel.
  3. Give participants the summary of the novel from the jacket flap or back of the book.
  4. Have participants write down the best first line that fits with the title and summary while you write down the actual first line.
  5. Collect all the slips of paper and shuffle them. Read them aloud.
  6. Have participants vote for their favorite line. The participant with the most votes wins that round.

I decided to try the First Lines game with my Creative Writing 2 students. For the book, I chose The One I Left Behind by Jennifer McMahon.

Summary from the back of the paperback:

The summer of 1985 changes Reggie’s life. An awkward thirteen-year-old, she finds herself mixed up with the school outcasts. That same summer, a serial killer called Neptune begins kidnapping women. He leaves their severed hands on the police department steps and, five days later, displays their bodies around town. Just when Reggie needs her mother, Vera, the most, Vera’s hand is found on the steps. But after five days, there’s no body and Neptune disappears.

Now, twenty-five years later, Reggie is a successful architect who has left her hometown and the horrific memories of that summer behind. But when she gets a call revealing that her mother has been found alive, Reggie must confront the ghosts of her past and find Neptune before he kills again.

First lines from my students:

  • Today is Mother’s Day. [This line was ultimately chosen as the winner.]
  • Reggie sat up quickly, hands shaking from the reoccurring nightmare of that day in 1985.
  • Summer of ’85 was hands-down the worst summer of my life.
  • It was the summer of 1985 that my mom’s hand appeared on the step.
  • I’d never smoked pot before the summer of ’85.
  • He had a hunger that only hands could satisfy.
  • I have a weird face.
  • I try to forget what happened so long ago.
  • Nothing could ever be so horrifyingly unforgettable as the sight of her mother’s severed hand.
  • It was a dark and stormy night, when suddenly, all hell broke loose.
  • What’s worse than a bee sting? Seeing your mom’s severed hand. This is my story.
  • Cereal [sic] killers, to your surprise, do not kill cereal; they kill people.
  • Ever since my childhood passed, life was great.
  • Where are my hands?
  • Ring! Ring! Reggie’s phone began to ring.
  • Just one call and the nightmares resurface as I remember the one I left behind.
  • I had hoped to forget these things, along with my mother.
  • I guess you could say things got a little out of hand that summer.
  • I’m a cold, sassy tree.

The actual first line: It began with the hands. [No one chose this line as the actual first line, so I fooled all my students.]

I think this game offers students an opportunity to study the elements of different genres. It can also generate interest in the book being used for the game. If you’re ever at a loss for what to do in your English class or need something for a light day when half the students are gone, give the First Lines Writing Game a try.

Mockingbird Poems

HANDOUT: Mockingbird poems

My Pre-AP English 2 students are almost finished with Part 1of To Kill a Mockingbird. Before we even read the first chapter, though, we worked with some poetry. Knowing that my students rarely have the enthusiasm for poetry that I do, we began with a discussion of our beliefs and experiences with poetry. The responses I recorded fell all along a spectrum of YAY! and BOO! I only have two sections of English this year. I think you’ll recognize some of your students in these honest responses. I sometimes paraphrased what the students said, but other times I recorded what they said verbatim.

2nd Hour

  • In 8th grade, we wrote poetry. We were given rhyming and syllable restrictions.
  • Don’t like reading old poetry (could barely understand vocabulary)
  • Sometimes we have to read too much into a poem (grass is green, sky is blue—What was the poet really thinking?)
  • Studying poetry felt required. The teacher wasn’t excited. It felt like the teacher didn’t really want to explain it because the students had little experience.
  • Overused: “What is the author thinking?” Should be more like “What do you think?”
  • Don’t like long poems
  • Reading poetry  > Writing poetry
  • Don’t exactly like analyzing. Vague. Seems like you have to make things up.
  • Don’t like poetry. Sucked at writing them. Not that deep for analyzing. Feel okay with comprehending.
  • When you try to analyze, you get counted off for trying. Feel like there’s only one answer that the teacher got from the book.

6th Hour

  • Poetry is great because it soothes the soul.
  • Don’t like poetry because it’s hard to understand
  • Kind of confusing, written in stanzas
  • Writing poetry can be easy because you can make it rhyme.
  • Like the symbolism of the poem: each word represents something
  • Format has imagery, lots of description
  • I don’t connect with poetry on a personal level with the poems I’ve read.
  • I’ve written poetry for Valentine’s gifts and they’ve all failed. One girl crumpled up the poem and threw it in trash.
  • Poetry can be interpreted in lots of ways. There’s more one right answer when it comes to analysis. We get counted wrong for our interpretations.
  • Our teacher in 8th grade taught us how to write different formats of poetry.
  • We did not really read or write poetry in 9th grade.
  • Don’t like slam poetry.
  • Don’t like rhyming poems. (Too Dr. Seussy / elementary)
  • Poetry is a challenge. You have to think.
  • We like to use rhyme when we write.
  • Sometimes old poems have difficult vocabulary and the focus becomes more on the words than the actual poem’s meaning.
  • Poetry seems old.

After our discussion about our beliefs and experiences with poetry, I told my students that they were going to read three poems, which all shared the same title. Before anyone could groan, I explained that the main goal was to simply read the poems and decided which one was their favorite and why. The focus would be comprehension and enjoyment (plus a little deeper thinking with rationalizing their choice). I encouraged students to read the poems aloud and to use the dictionaries on their smart phones if they encountered any words that stumped them. (Perhaps I should have provided some footnoted definitions for some of the words in Kay Ryan’s poem.) Since my students blazed through the poems quite quickly, I added another task of identifying a different poetic device in each poem.

My students read three poems, all titled “Mockingbird,” by Judith Harris, Carol V. Davis, and Kay Ryan, a nice connection to To Kill a Mockingbird. I like integrating poetry throughout the school year instead of saving it all for a huge unit during April, which is National Poetry Month.

Overwhelmingly the students selected the Davis poem as their favorite because it told a story. “But it’s so much longer than the other two!” I goaded my students. “But we understand it the best,” they countered. I explained that the Davis poem was the only narrative poem from the bunch.

The other two poems, which are more lyrical, were not chosen as favorites as often. The Harris poem was sometimes selected for its nice imagery and its concision. Kay Ryan’s poem, while very short, had the hardest vocabulary–distempered, pastiche, capriccios, dispatch, and brios–and was only selected by one group as being the favorite. They liked it because it was difficult. Remember, these are Pre-AP English 2 students.

Overall, I was pleased with this first activity with poetry for the school year. It was not intimidating, nor formulaic (TPCASTT, anyone?). How do you use poetry in your classroom? How do your students respond to poetry?

HANDOUT: Mockingbird poems

Visual Reading Biographies

On the first day of school on Thursday, August 15, I introduced myself to my sophomores through a visual reading biography. I displayed it on my SmartBoard and briefly talked about each book. My most influential (and favorite) professor in college introduced me to One Hundred Years of Solitude. I devoured all the Ramona Quimby books as a kid. My second grade teacher, Miss Rice, read Charlotte’s Web aloud to us in 2nd grade, and I’ve reread it on more than one occasion. The funniest book I read over the summer was Jim Gaffigan’s Dad is Fat. And one of my favorite YA authors is A. S. King. I think my students quickly caught on that I loved books and reading, and that I would expect them to be readers in Pre-AP English 2 with me. I wanted to use this assignment as a way for my students to start thinking of themselves as readers.

august_2013_reading_bio

I told my students that they too would be creating visual reading biographies. This was the first homework of the year: tell me about yourself as a reader. I did not supply a rubric for this assignment, but I did provide these guidelines:

  • Use plain 8.5 x 11 computer paper
  • List your name on the poster
  • Choose 3-5 categories and label them on the paper
  • Find images of the books or create your own (a lightning bolt for the Harry Potter books works)

The reading categories:

  • Book I’ve reread
  • Book from my childhood
  • Book I want to read
  • Book I read this summer
  • Favorite series
  • Favorite book
  • Favorite author
  • Book I wish more people knew about
  • Book I was surprised I liked
  • Book recommended to me
  • Book I like more than the movie
  • Book I like less than the movie
  • Book I abandoned or struggled to finish
  • Popular book I haven’t read

(Notice I did not encourage my students to be negative. Least favorite book, author, and series were not listed as choices. This did not stop one of my students from sharing his least favorite book.)

The second day of school, a few students already had their posters ready. This was a Friday, and the assignment was not due until Monday. I kept their posters, so they wouldn’t lose them. On Monday, almost every student had their poster, and we took time in small groups to share our reading histories. This built community and reinforced that all students were readers at one time if they currently weren’t. Then every student picked one book from their poster and quickly shared it (along with their name) with the class.

By parent night, I had put up all visual reading biographies on the front wall of my classroom. For this blog post, I used pixlr to edit the posters to remove the students’ last names. I hope you enjoy their posters!

How do your students share their reading lives with their classmates?

collage

tylermasenhaydendestineenassershelbeeellinoahabbriellecorrinecameronjosh

Self Assessment with Google Forms

On the third of class in Pre-AP English 2, I had my students assess their English skills. I had created a Google form to do this, and I knew the vast majority of my students would have smart phones. They took the survey in class in just a few minutes. I was hoping to display the link to the survey in large text on my SmartBoard, but I had technical difficulties, so I just wrote the survey link on my marker board. Thankfully, I had thought ahead to create a tiny url out of the long Google form website. If you aren’t familiar with tinyurl, it’s a free, helpful website that converts long, bulky web addresses into much smaller ones. I had also thought of converting the website into a QR code, but most of my students don’t have QR code apps on their phones. Anyway, I’ll include the survey below, so you can see it, followed by some of the results and my thoughts on this activity.

I’ve done an activity like this before on paper, but using a Google form allows me to see and compare the results so much faster. I get a quick snap shot of where my students think they are at in their English skills.

student_survey_snapshot

When I looked at my students’ responses, I wasn’t too surprised. These Pre-AP classes are filled with many high-achieving students, and many of them rated themselves as 4 or 5 in most categories. I did notice, however, that some students were either very honest or very hard on themselves by ranking some of their skills as 1. I know now in advance to give them extra help and support. I can also use this data to form writing groups for my students comprised of students are strong, medium, and weak in their skills.

How will use Google forms in the classroom?

Favorite Podcasts

I resisted getting an iPod when they became popular when I was in college. Even when I started teaching in 2005, I thought I could live without one, or any MP3 player for that matter. A few years into teaching, though, I asked for an iPod for my big Christmas present from my parents. They got me an 8GB black iPod mini–at least, I’m pretty sure that’s what it is.

Overtime, I expanded the use of my iPod from just listening to music by subscribing to podcasts. I quickly found Grammar Girl‘s podcast along with NPR’s podcast featuring education news. I also discovered why Garrison Keillor’s A Prairie Home Companion is so popular. I rounded out my initial subscriptions with This American Life, another classic. While walking my dog, I could stay current on issues relevant to my profession as well as just enjoy some news and entertainment.

More recently, I discovered The Moth, which was featured on This American Life. The Moth features storytellers telling their stories live on stage, and they often deeply moving / hilarious / surprising.

My friend Maggie posted a picture of the Selected Shorts podcast’s logo on Instagram a few months ago, and I’ve found those podcasts to be equally entertaining, although a little challenging at times since the literature can be complex at times, and it’s hard for me not to have the text right in front of me.

Somehow a few years ago I stumbled upon Amanda Nelson’s blog, Dead White Guys or her Twitter. She was hilarious and bookish, and she wrote for a website called BookRiot, which recently started a very informative and entertaining podcast. I found out that Rebecca Schinsky, one of BookRiot’s hosts, also contributes to the Bookrageous podcast, which has quickly become one of my favorite book-related podcasts. Rebecca and her two colleagues/friends, Josh and Jenn, bring such a fun energy to their discussions about books, and there are many podcasts in the archives.

*     *     *

This summer I wanted to expand my podcast subscriptions. I reached out to Twitter (Thanks, Kevin!), and I also just browsed the iTunes library. Here are a few more podcasts that you might want to consider adding to your list of must-listen-to podcasts. I’ve organized them by topic.

POETRY

  • NewsHour Poetry Series | PBS Poetry Series | PBS
  • IndieFeed: Performance Poetry
  • Poem of the Day (Poetry Foundation)
  • Slate’s Poetry Podcast
  • All of these short podcasts can be found through Stitcher, a free iPhone app that automatically downloads podcasts. You can skip the syncing and just listen to them on your phone as you get ready in the morning. I’m still downloading in iTunes in case I want to keep any of them long-term.

BOOKS

  • The Lit Show
  • NPR: Books Podcast
  • ReadWriteThink – Text Messages: Recommendations for Adolescent Readers!
  • I’m so glad that Kevin told me about Text Messages because it fills what I thought was a void: a podcast about young adult literature. There are a few others out there, but Text Messages is definitely the best one. I still kind of think there’s room for another one. I just don’t know if should devote the time to tackling it. Me? A podcaster? We’ll see. 🙂

LANGUAGE & LITERATURE

  • Slate Presents Lexicon Valley
  • That’s What They Say
  • Garrison Keillor’s The Writer’s Almanac Podcast
  • New Yorker: Fiction

I’m not sure if I have time for another podcast, but I’m willing to listen to your recommendations. What are some of your favorite podcasts?

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