Learning to write is like learning to define fruit

In the first week of October, I told my seniors that learning to write in a genre is like determining what a fruit is. At first, your experience may go something like this:

Someone hands you an apple for the first time and tells you it is a fruit. They tell you or you notice it’s red, round-ish, somewhat hard, somewhat juicy and has edible skin. And you think to yourself, “ok, fruit”. Then the next day someone hands you an orange and tells you, again, this is fruit. So, based on what happened yesterday, you take a bite out of the orange and are immediately disgusted. You have to adapt your definition of what fruit is but you’re feeling good – you feel like you have a firm grip of fruit: so, sometimes it’s juicier and you can’t eat the skin.

But on the third day, someone hands you a banana and you’re like, “ok, I give up!”

I tell them, too often in school, you only ever get served apples. You’re told there is one often very specific way to write: the essay. And the essay looks like this:

One paragraph: introduction

Body paragraphs (usually 5)

One paragraph: conclusion

I tell them that’s one fruit and the world expects you to know how to read and write bananas and oranges and sometimes a fruit smoothie.

And this resonates with them – even students who come to school with little experience writing for school or pleasure – because they know that too many things are oversimplified for them by the adults in their lives and the formulas they’ve been given to navigate the complex world of their own ideas just don’t work.

And then I tell them that their writing is about to get very messy. I don’t want them to forget those basics, but honestly it isn’t something they should rely on too much because they’re more likely to get stuck there.

So we started the year by looking at some poems. I said we are going to look at a couple poems and decide what makes a poem. Inspired by both Rebekah O’Dell and Angela Stockman, I asked students to try to describe what they see (very few were familiar with literary technique terminology so I asked them to describe it in a way that made sense to them), and then after they had looked at 5-6 poems, to create a “must” and a “might” list. Then they create a “theory” about why someone might write in this genre.

To teach them some basic terminology (stanza, line break, imagery), I modeled how to notice and name what I noticed the author doing.

They worked in groups and it took them about two days. Some described what they saw as “the author is talking about love”, focusing more on comprehension than technique, which I had anticipated. As they worked, I would try to push their thinking by asking them “but how is the author doing that?”.

The work was awkward and difficult, as expected but they were learning to look at the texts in a new way and most students across all 4 sections came up with similar must/might lists (you can see below – and what they notice reflects their discovery, not them identifying/looking for pre-taught concepts. We discussed how these were still just four different “fruit”, but they now have a sense of how writers have both constraint and choice.

We did that for one week and at the end, determined a final “Must” and “Might” list with a little input from me as well, which they can refer to when they write poetry.

We then moved onto “super short true stories” modeled after the Modern Love column in the New York Times. i chose this genre next because, while short, they have a lot of the types of elements you’d expect in a narrative of greater length and because I want to start seeing them use narrative techniques, including anecdotes, in their essay writing across the other disciplines (math, science, history).

We did this genre for two weeks because quite a few struggled with either focusing on one moment, while others wrote more of a personal essay than a story.

To support their need for repetitive instruction and their right to pace themselves to their own learning style, I recorded lessons for their reference. Some lessons were “quick review” videos of techniques, looking at excerpts we had read and explicitly naming the technique, and showing them examples and other videos were “How to” videos where I model the writing they were doing.

Next we will begin Reviews and then Editorials.

This is my first time since beginning complete-student choice writing that I have done mini units where students are only exposed to one genre at a time. While I don’t love requiring them to write in a specific genre, it has been a great way to ground them as we get back to being in a school together post-remote learning.

We are doing one genre per week (or two weeks, depending), because I just want them to have a taste of the genres. I want them to experience thinking in those genres, becoming familiar with the types of choices that genre requires/allows for, and for them to ask themselves, “when do I feel like I’m really expressing myself?”. That way, when we begin our writing projects, they can make really informed decisions when selecting a genre. Plus, my goal is for them to have repeated practice with techniques that can be found across genres.

The poems we looked at were very different from each other, and since they had a choice, they didn’t all look at the same 5 poems. We did two together:

Part of must and might assignment, inspired by Rebekah O’Dell’s work
Some responses from students on poetry (slide design courteously of slidesmania.com)

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