And the Tasty Writing Award Goes To . . .

part 1: I was always a reader

During tenth and eleventh grade, I probably read The Catcher in the Rye 20 times. I read it during geometry, which is why I am terrible at projects that involve measuring and fitting pieces together; I also read it during study halls when I should have been doing my homework; I read it on the bus, ignoring the spitballs and competing boom boxes; and I read it walking the halls between classes. Salinger’s book never left my side those two years–I lived that book. Holden was my friend, and he became part of my consciousness.

part 2: some things change and others don’t

More recently, I’ve graduated from Salinger, whom, incidentally, I still love. You might catch me reading his short stories or parts of Catcher on a snowy day or lazy summer afternoon. But now my scope of interest is wider. I don’t just read fiction. I read almost anything I can get my hands on–anything from astrophysics to history to self-help to literary fiction to graphic novels. One genre that I never read much of unless I was forced to were books about educational practices. But now that I have over twenty years in the field, I find that I can’t read enough of them. There are so many good ones! One that has had a substantial impact on my practice is Sarah Tantillo‘s The Literacy Cookbook . It’s currently available on Amazon for $15.97, which in my eyes, is a bargain for a book that contains effective strategies instantly applicable to any classroom.

part 3: reading about teaching reading and writing

I began reading Tantillo’s book shortly after I left high school and became a middle school ELA teacher in 2014. Tantillo immediately influenced my instruction because her suggestions are practical. If I were an administrator responsible for designing or guiding curriculum in a building or district, I would buy a copy for every teacher in my purview because every teacher is a literacy teacher. I can’t listen to educators of non-English/language arts classes when they try to refute this fact. It will never make sense to me. We are all reading and writing teachers, and Sarah Tantillo’s book is a sensible and efficient way to provide teachers of all subjects with the tools they need to incorporate more literacy instruction into their subject matter.

part 4: all writing is persuasive

Chapter 5 of The Literacy Cookbook is titled Tasty Persuasive Writing, and in this chapter she reminds teachers that all writing is persuasive, but in order “for something to be persuasive, it has to be tasty” (p. 145). This year I began writing instruction with this quotation to remind students that no one wants to read writing that is colorless and dull. People want to read compelling, thought-provoking ideas–they want to be moved, excited, and astonished. To reinforce this idea, I created a “Tasty Writing Award.” Every day I choose a delicious piece of student writing (a passage that is somewhere between one and three sentences long), and I feature it on the blackboard for the entire day. I always ask the students for permission to share their work, and I give them credit. You can’t win the award if you are anonymous!

part 5: the power of recognition

When I started this routine, I did not understand the power of recognition. I had no idea how much the students would enjoy reading and honoring the work of their peers. I also did not expect that students who did not like writing would now strive to write something so that they could see their name on my “Tasty Writing Award” board. At the beginning of last week a student who rarely writes more than two or three sentences, despite my efforts to push his thinking forward, asked me how he could get his name on the board. My answer was something along the lines of you have to wow me, and I moved on to another student who had a question. For the next few days, this student listened to the mini-lessons more carefully and asked for more feedback from me and his peers. He was determined to get his name on the board, and by the end of the week he did. He still does not write much, but what he is producing contains some juicy words. He is producing quality work, even though he is not producing volume. I do not have a sample of this particular student’s work because I forgot to snap a photo of it before I left school on Friday; however, I do have another example. One portion of my blackboard looks like this every day. In this pic, the student was writing about All Summer in a Day by Ray Bradbury.

Tasty Writing (1).jpg

part 6: feedback from my colleagues → the future

Other teachers have come to me and suggested that I turn this award into a contest where parents, teachers, and students vote on the best piece of writing every month, and then that student wins a certificate and a journal or some other prize that relates to writing, like maybe a special pen or highlighter. I have considered these ideas, but I’m not quite ready to do that yet for many reasons, one of them being that I have enough on my plate with the new curriculum changes in my district. I hope that maybe next year I can expand upon this idea a bit more and implement some of the suggestions other teachers have made. If you have any suggestions, I would like to hear them! Please feel free to post them in the comments. And if you use the “Tasty Writing Award” in your classroom, please let me know how it goes! I would like to know if you receive similar responses from your students.

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Scaffolding Abstract Thinking: Building Thematic Statements from the Ground Up

My school district began implementing Lucy Calkins’ Units of Study last year in grades 1-8. Even though teachers were required to teach only one of the three units with fidelity, I struggled. Unpacking the sessions and bends took me hours on the weekends, and I found that because my students were experiencing writers workshop for the first year, they struggled as well. They weren’t conditioned to writing for five solid minutes much less twenty or thirty at a time. They literally had no idea how to sit still and think and write for that long.

This year has been much better. The students have an understanding of writers workshop, and thanks to doyens like Kate Roberts, Maggie Roberts, and Angela Stockman, to name only two of the most influential mentors I follow faithfully online, I have more tools in my shed.

So right now my colleagues and I are teaching the 8th-grade argument unit, which is writing and publishing a literary essay.  I have not been looking forward to this unit because I knew how much work is involved in teaching one of these units for the first time, but with the help of my colleagues, mainly JoAnn Welsko (the most perfect teammate, champion, and ally anyone could have), I am beginning to find the magic.

My students have been genuinely struggling with finding the theme in the dystopian stories they chose, as I knew they would. Even though I followed all of Calkins’ instructions: using an anchor text as an example, guiding students through writing long about conflict, characters, and literary devices, and discussing ideas with partners, they still weren’t getting it. They weren’t doing the deep thinking needed to connect their stories to a bigger idea or create a postulation about the author’s message. So yesterday after school, I sat down at my desk and thought about the steps that anyone would have to follow to determine to create a thematic statement.

  1. Ask yourself: What is the topic/main idea of the story?
  2. Ask yourself: What does the author believe about this topic?
  3. Then find three pieces of textual evidence to support your #2. If you can find three good examples of textual evidence, your idea is probably solid. If you can’t find three pieces of good textual evidence, return to #1 and see if another topic works better.

The anchor text we read, per the Units of Study, is All Summer in a Day by Ray Bradbury. In the 8th grade literary essay unit, Calkins suggests this mentor text and provides sample thematic statements and a mentor literary essay that teachers can use. I went with Calkins’ suggestions so I did not have to create my own while teaching the unit for the first time.

Here is what I put on the white eraser board for students as they worked through this process:

Creating a Thematic Statement.jpg

If you look at the photo, the topic of the story is jealousy, so I had the students use the following formula for step 1: I think the topic of the story is _____. Some students spent the period brainstorming and discussing ideas to complete this sentence starter. About 1/3 of the students were able to start the step

2. For this step, they had to interpret what the author believes about the topic they chose for step one. The third step requires them to prove their theory with three pieces of textual evidence. I had a handful of students (about five out of 130) begin step three today so we will begin there on Monday.

Scaffolding this process led to many aha moments today. My perseverance, encouragement, and coaching are paying off. Students were choosing abstract concepts for topics and then drawing conclusions about their development throughout their stories.

Once we complete this process, the next step is to determine how the authors illuminate their beliefs in each of the three scenes students choose. Does the author use figurative language in the scene? Imagery? Irony? Dialogue? Short and long sentences? By identifying the moves the author makes in each scene, students will then have three specific literary devices to analyze in their literary essays.

If you are interested in using any of the dystopian stories I included in my text set for students, here is a list of those that are most popular:

  • “The Pedestrian” by Ray Bradbury
  • “2 B R 0 2 B” by Kurt Vonnegut
  • “Red Card” by S. L. Gilbow
  • “Ponies” by Kij Johnson
  • “Harrison Bergeron” by Kurt Vonnegut
  • “The Lottery” by Shirley Jackson
  • “We Ate the Children Last” by Yann Martel

I included a few other stories in the text set, but they were not popular with my students. I list them here in case you think your students might like them.

  • “There Will Come Soft Rains” by Ray Bradbury
  • “Amaryllis” by Carrie Vaughn (My students did not choose this story, but I included because it is the only dystopian story I have ever read that had a happy ending.)
  • “The Lake” by Ray Bradbury
  • “Frost and Fire” by Ray Bradbury
  • “Examination Day” by Harry Slesar