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#NaNoWriMoTinyTip: ogres and onions

When my students create characters for their NaNoWriMo novels, I push them to get super detailed: to hear the songs their characters will listen to when they plug in their earbuds; to picture the snack food they’ll pull from their backpack as they walk home from school; to feel the clothes they’ll grab from their closet on a Saturday morning. But those details don’t get to the heart of a character, to the backstory and soul that really drive a person.

So this year I added some layers to our character development lessons. I found this great article by Roxanna Elden on the three layers of a complex character:

  • the outer, protective layer, which is usually “socially acceptable but superficial”
  • the middle, defective layer, which we try to hide with our outer layer
  • underneath it all is our inner, human core, the part of us that helps explain our other two layers. This core is also the part of us that is most universal. Elden says, “If we can see the human core of a character, we will understand and care for them. If a character can find and learn to accept their own human core, they will achieve inner peace to the degree it’s possible.”

Middle school students (and many adults) are not usually fully aware of their own layers, but after just a brief lesson on the topic, along with examples of characters we know well, my students started crafting some deep, layered characters for their novels.

We started, of course, by watching the “ogres are like onions” scene from Shrek (click image to view):

“Ogres are like onions!”

This was meant to be just a fun introduction, but as we watched I realized that Donkey really helped to drive the point home. When he suggested cake or parfait instead of onions, he clarified another reason that an onion is the best metaphor. I put these images on the screen and asked my students what they noticed:

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It took them a little while to see what I saw (I’m learning to let it be quiet longer than is comfortable so they can THINK), but eventually someone got it:

“Oh! I know! The onion has a center, but the cake and parfaits don’t. They are stacked layers, not layers that wrap around and hide inner layers.”

And – BAM – that sweet little insight really nailed the concept for many of us. We looked at the character of Snape, from the Harry Potter series, and how in the beginning he seemed to be an angry man who unfairly picked on Harry. But throughout the series he becomes one of the most complex, layered characters of all:

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My students spent the rest of class detailing the three layers of their protagonist. At the end of class we shared our characters’ layers in a quick whip around the room, and the depth was staggering. I can’t wait to read the stories of these layered characters!

Bonus: I could see a chipping away of the façade that teens often wear as they heard their classmates speak of the deep, human core at the heart of their characters. This fresh understanding of human layers just might help my students develop empathy both for each other and for characters in the books they read (and write).

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Go ahead: ask your students what they want to write about. They will amaze you!

On my first-day-of-school survey, I asked my 8th graders:

If you could write about anything this year, what would it be?

Their answers remind me why it’s so valuable to give students choice in their writing. I never would have guessed they would want to write about so many interesting topics. Here are some of their plans:

I would write about…

  • a kid who is anxious about the future.
  • equal treatment for everyone. Or mental health.
  • social difficulties and internal conflicts in the modern times because I can easily relate.
  • my dog because he’s really goofy.

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    Photo by Justin Veenema on Unsplash

  • an imaginary island.
  • people who are stuck in the wilderness, like in Hatchet.
  • a realistic fiction novel

(NOTE FROM THE TEACHER: WHAT 8TH GRADER SAYS THEY WANT TO WRITE A NOVEL?!? Must be an 8th grader who knows she will be a NaNoWriMo novelist this year!)

I would write about…

  • the U.S. military because it is something I want to be a part of.
  • Disneyland!
  • owning a corporation and the crazy antics that would follow because one of my dreams is to own a company.
  • politics and feminism.
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Photo by Jerry Kiesewetter on Unsplash

  • the impact of a family that loves and supports you, compared to the opposite because I’ve always wondered.
  • natural disasters.
  • my friend Jack, who has Down Syndrome. He means the world to me.
  • history.
  • my puppy being able to talk. It would be really funny.
  • a family surviving in a bunker after the world ends.
  • different cultures. The stories we would learn would be very interesting and it would be nice to know about other people’s cultures.
  • having to evacuate my cabin over the summer due to the Carr fire. I think I can be very descriptive about what happened.
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Photo by Denys Argyriou on Unsplash

  • current events. It’s important to know what’s happening in the world.
  • politics. There are a lot of political issues that need to be addressed.
  • intentional and unintentional racism in public schools. It’s a real issue.
  • mental disorders, because it’s a topic that nobody ever addresses.
  • my trip to Niagara Falls. It was one of the most memorable experiences of my life.

An added bonus to giving students choice in their writing is how it affects our relationship. When I ask them to tell me about their topics, their faces light up with enthusiasm as they share about the puppy they rescued, the rally they went to with a friend, the business they started over the summer, or the post-apocalyptic world they’ve created. What better way to get students invested in their writing (which means they are more likely to write thoughtfully, proofread carefully, and invest in the final product) than to let them write about their passions? Go ahead, try it! What would YOU write about?

 

Part 4: Reflections on our bulletin boards

In my last post I shared the beautiful and inspirational bulletin boards that my students created when they were given the challenge to make our classroom walls their own. Not content to end this project with their displays, I then asked them to choose one part of a bulletin board that they liked and reflect on its value to them and our community. Here are some of their responses, which they added to their digital portfolios:

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Finally, I surveyed my students to find out what they thought of this assignment. What were they proud of from their own contributions? Did they think the activity improved our classroom environment? Did they learn from it? Do they think I should do it with future classes? This is what some of them said:Screen Shot 2018-04-22 at 12.21.44 PM

“I am most proud of the the melted crayon art, because it was very hard to do and it turned out pretty good. I think the many different colors on this canvas represent how everyone is different but together we do great things.”

“I think that it was a good teamwork exercise because it requires people to work together and listen to each other… or it can go down the drain fast because you’ll have fighting, random things on the boards, and people just in overall bad moods. I learned that I can work with a lot of people, all of us with very different personalities, and we can still make a board that looks amazing and one that we’re proud of.”

“I think it was really fun and let everyone put a part of what they like in the classroom. I enjoyed looking at it when taking breaks from working, it gave me some inspiration.”

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“The item I enjoyed the most was the quote by Michael Jordan. I enjoy this quote mainly because it has the most meaning to me. I think this picture and quote can inspire the class to keep working hard and stay positive. Overall I think this quote has been very useful.”

 

“I think this experience was good and very positive. Personally I didn’t think that getting the materials was hard, but our bulletin board still may have had an affect on somebody’s day. I think at the end of the process the walls looked very bright and organized, and I think they sent powerful messages.”

“It was a lot of fun, and because we had to communicate with each other, we got a little closer.”

“I think letting students be in charge of what we see everyday is fun and gives us a chance to think outside the box, but it can get bad when the group does not work well together. If the group doesn’t agree with one person, drama can start and it can change the students’ behavior in the class with that person. That is why I think it was a good idea to let the students pick their partners.”

“It was cool that something I played a part in was on the walls for my class and other classes to see.”

But of course not everyone enjoyed the project:

“I honestly did not like it – too much responsibility – but I am pretty sure other people liked it.”

“It wasn’t that great and it didn’t really feel like it made a difference to the class.”

“I would have liked it more if my group had done some of the work, but it was kind of fun.”

“It was fun to do, but I don’t think very many people really pay attention to the bulletin boards and look at what’s on it.”

This feedback is helpful for how I can improve the project next year. Because I had made a last-minute decision to experiment with the bulletin boards, I didn’t have a full plan for how it would work. I can see now that we need to spend more time noticing what students put on their boards, talking about its impact, and digging in more to the symbolism. As I have learned many times in education, next year this will be even better!

Overall, I’m happy with their participation and feedback. Even students who didn’t love the project noticed benefits beyond what I had anticipated. While I wanted them to feel that their contributions mattered and see symbolism in classroom decorations, many students also commented on how much they enjoyed the chance to be creative, to work with a group, to learn about each other’s interests, and to feel part of our community of learners. The few negative experiences were far outnumbered by the many who said, “Yes, keep doing this!” I’m looking forward to seeing what future classes do with our classroom décor, especially since it means I will have one fewer task on my to-do list.

(This is the last in a four-part series. Click for part 1, part 2, and part 3.)

Part 3: Bulletin board inspiration

They arrived early on Day 1 of their bulletin board rotation, laden with bags of decorations, eyes and smiles full of anticipation and excitement. I handed them staplers and push pins, and stepped back to watch them work.

I had assigned this group to the largest bulletin board in the first round because I knew them well enough to expect them to produce a creative, thought-provoking display. I also hoped they would be an inspiration for the rest of the class. And they did not disappoint! They brought in beautiful pictures, inspirational quotes, 3-dimensional objects, bright flowers, and even two different strands of twinkly lights. They filled the enormous board with their creations, and then came back the following class day with more. They weren’t content to leave any large empty spaces.

When the bell rang and their classmates started arriving, their hard work was rewarded with “oohs,” “ahhs,” “wows” and “OMG did you bring anything for OUR board?!” Groups who had been assigned to the smaller boards formed quick huddles and started strategizing how they would get their decorations up later in the week.  Yes, they were frustrated that they had forgotten, but they were also excited to show that they, too, could inspire their classmates with their own bulletin boards. And they did:

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My students were clearly proud of their work and enjoyed seeing their classmates pore over the various images, quotes and objects they had contributed to our classroom. But I wanted more from this project. I wanted my students to better understand symbolism, to see how flowers or twinkly lights or a basketball jersey could represent bigger ideas, concepts that may be hard to explain but could be understood through symbolic objects. So after the boards had been up for a couple weeks, I had students take pictures of the items that were meaningful to them, and then write about the symbolic meanings of one of them.

Tune in next week for part 4 of this bulletin board experiment to see how the students responded….

(This is the third in a four-part series. Click for part 1, part 2 and part 4.)

 

 

Student #voice: bulletin boards and literary analysis

In my ongoing efforts to give my students more voice and choice in our classroom, I decided last summer that I would hand over the bulletin boards to them. I wasn’t sure my students even noticed what was on our walls, and I was pretty sure that I didn’t know what they needed to see that might impact their learning. But the start of the year came and we hit the ground running with our NaNoWriMo work. My bulletin boards continued to be filled with traditional classroom stuff: reminders of rules and procedures, inspirational quotes, book posters, comics that reflected fun with language, and occasionally some student work.

Over winter break I decided that the start of a new semester in January would be a good time to address this. Our classroom was now an established community, so it might be easier to talk about what we need on the walls: How could the walls support our learning? What could students add to the walls to make the room more their own while also inspiring them and their classmates?

I thought I would go in over the break and take everything off the walls, but then I decided it would be worth taking the time to have my students first notice what was there and try to figure out why I chose it and how it might affect our environment.

Then I opened my plan book and realized that I had a tight schedule in January that included lessons introducing literary analysis and the start of a novel that the class would read together. How could I squeeze in the bulletin board remodel? But then I noticed that the work I wanted my students to do with our current walls (what do you notice? how does it affect us?) could be tied to the very literary analysis lessons we needed to do. So this is my plan for Monday:

  • First I will introduce analysis in simple terms:
    • what do you notice?
    • why does it matter?
  • Then I will demonstrate this thinking with a couple items from our classroom walls:
    • “I notice a poster of a runner going over a hurdle, and the words, ‘Hard work beats talent when talent doesn’t work hard.'”
    • “This matters because it helps athletes connect the work they do in a sport to the work they have to do in school. This also matters because it reminds us that we have to keep working hard, even if we are already talented at the work we need to do.”
  • Students will then spend time reading the walls of our classroom and taking notes on what they notice and why it might matter to our environment and our learning.
  • We will come back together to share out what we’ve discovered and talk about what they would like to see on the walls.

The next step is still a little hazy for me. I don’t think I should have all 32 students decorating the walls at the same time, and I have another class of 32 students who will also need to participate. My plan is to divide the semester up into 2 or 3-week time periods and assign small groups to be in charge of certain areas of the classroom. To get them thinking about their contributions (while also practicing analysis), they will take pictures of their wall, add it to their Google Sites portfolio, and write a paragraph about what they added, why they chose it, and how it might positively affect our environment.

This is a brand new idea for me and I have no idea how it will be received and what my students will choose to put on the walls. But they didn’t let me down when I gave them ownership over other aspects of their learning (like writing their own novels, publishing their own magazines, choosing their own digital projects, or producing the school’s daily news show), so I am confident that they will surprise and impress me with (and I will learn a lot from) their bulletin boards.

I’ll share again in a couple weeks when our first student-designed bulletin boards are up! In the meantime, has anyone out there given students ownership over classroom walls? I’d love to hear your story.

(This is the first in a four-part series. Click for part 2, part 3 and part 4.)

 

#NaNoWriMoTinyTip: Holiday Meals!

What’s a holiday movie without a dozen relatives (and a newcomer) crowded around a food-laden table, trying to dodge conversational land mines (or in some cases, hit them) as they settle in for a chaotic, tension-filled meal? Those annual feasts bring together so many elements that make for great scenes: people of all different ages (who have known each other forever) trying to get along; fancy food dishes that may or may meet Grandmother’s expectations; significant others new to the family and unfamiliar with the traditions and family histories; and generations of relationships, resentments and regrets that surface and collide when families gather in one room. Add alcohol and meat to be carved, and the set-up is complete.

Holiday meals are fraught with high expectations and great potential for conflicts. (Photo by Allie Milot on Unsplash)

So how about adding a holiday meal scene to your NaNoWriMo novel? My goodness, the potential for increased conflict, fresh character details, and snappy dialogue is so great! And any holiday will do – it doesn’t have to be the traditional turkey-stuffing-and-gramma’s-pie holiday. Your scene could be set at a 4th of July BBQ, a Mother’s Day brunch, a birthday picnic at the park, or a welcome-to-the-family wedding rehearsal dinner in a fancy restaurant. As long as you seat lots of people around one table, you are sure to find a novel-worthy scene.

When my students return from fall break this week, we’ll talk about why big family meals can provide us with such great material for stories, and then we’ll watch some movie scenes for inspiration:

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But not every meal has to be chaotic to add tension and depth to a story. This awkwardly quiet dinner scene from My Big, Fat Greek Wedding makes a great contrast to the loud Easter scene.

And it doesn’t take a holiday to make a meal memorable. This dinner scene from New in Town introduces a big-city girl to a small-town Minnesota family, where she manages to offend nearly everyone at the table. It’s often that fish-out-of-water that makes a meal scene sizzle with tension.

So set the table, light the candles, bring on the food, and let your characters dig in!

 

#NaNoWriMoTinyTip: Whip it!

Most of our class time during NaNoWriMo is spent in silence (except for the tap-tap-tapping of the laptop keys), as my students need a quiet environment to focus on their writing. Many of them use earbuds to listen to music while they write, but they know that the room needs to be quiet so we all can concentrate.

But we have also learned that talking about what we are writing helps us get clear on our story while also giving us ideas for our next chapter. So we schedule in times to share aloud with one another. One of our favorite ways to do that is with a whip, which is simply a whip around the room, with each writer sharing just a sentence or two about their novel-in-progress. First I have students write a quick response to a certain whip topic, and then we move our chairs into one huge circle so we can all see and hear each other.

Photo by Steve Shreve on Unsplash

Here are some whips we have enjoyed:

  • Synopsis: Tell us about your main character and his/her status quo, the inciting incident that launches the story, and how the character reacts: My main character, _______________________, is ________________________ until ______________________ so then ________________________.
  • Tell us about your main character’s big dreams/goals and what is getting in the way of him/her achieving them: My protagonist, ______________________, wants ____________ more than anything, but __________________________ so _____________________________.
  • Status of the story: Tell us what just happened in your story, what will happen next, and what your “long game” is.
  • What is one secret in your story? What is it that a character does not want anyone to find out?
  • How has (or will) your character change throughout the story? In the beginning, my protagonist was ___________________________________, but in the end, he/she will be ________________________________ because ______________________________.
  • What has surprised you in your story? What is one plot idea that came to you that is changing the original direction of your story?

The best part about doing a whip at the start of class is that students go into writing time with some specific ideas about what they will write today. But whips work any time – in fact, if your writers are having a hard time concentrating during writing time, that’s also a good time to break up the silence with a quick whip.

So tell me – what’s happening in YOUR novel?

[Get more tips and tricks for using NaNoWriMo in the classroom from my NaNoTeacher website.]