My Story

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….

 

 

 

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Part 2: bulletin boards and student #voice

It took me a few weeks to get our bulletin board remodel going, but now we’re making progress. (See Part 1 here.) The bulletin boards are bare and my students are planning what they will create and bring in to hang on the walls.

(I left the life skill posters up on the green bulletin board because they are too high for me to reach and the students agreed that they were helpful reminders. The cursive alphabet is staying, too, if only for nostalgia. Maybe it will even inspire some students to give it a try.)

I surveyed my students a few weeks ago to find out who they would like to work with on a bulletin board, and then I put them in groups based on these requests. Some groups are big (6 or even 8 students) and some are smaller (the smallest is a pair). The size of their bulletin board will depend on their group size.

Today they started by brainstorming what kind of classroom environment they need in order to be successful. Their lists include:

  • inspirational
  • organized
  • safe
  • motivational
  • encouraging
  • positive
  • a celebration of accomplishments
  • a reflection of their interests

We talked about where they might find such inspiration: words of wisdom from people they admire (including song lyrics); photos of places and things that matter to them; humor that makes them laugh and helps them relax; their own artwork and creative expressions.

I can’t wait to see what they do with this! Photos to follow…

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.

 

#NaNoWriMoTinyTip: Houses & Hamburgers

The first few years that my students and I wrote novels with NaNoWriMo, I neglected settings. This wasn’t intentional, but my main concern was helping my students plan enough of a plot that they would be able to keep writing for the full month. My lack of novel-writing experience caused me to miss the fact that settings make a big difference in adding more story, more conflict, more ways to move the story forward while also revealing more about our characters. Last year we discovered a great way to detail settings for our novels before we start writing.

First, though, I want my students to see why settings matter. They read The Outsiders in 7th grade, and since it is a story that most of them love and remember, it serves as a great reference when we plan our own novels. The settings in S.E. Hinton’s classic novel show us just how valuable our own stories’ settings can be:

  • Ponyboy’s home and neighborhood, where we see the bond of the brothers who try to support each other without their parents; plus we see the fear and danger of walking the streets of their neighborhood, and the support the Greasers give each other when one of them is jumped by Socs.
  • The drive-in theater, where we see Cherry take on Dallas, and where she and Ponyboy begin to get to know each other.
  • The abandoned church, where Johnny and Ponyboy hide, and where we see their friendship develop. Later we see how courageous and generous the Greasers are when they risk their own lives to save children who are trapped in the burning church.
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Photo by Harry Miller on Unsplash

Looking back at these settings helps my students understand why they need to decide which settings will be important in their novels. But where do they get ideas for settings? How do they create settings that are realistic? #TinyTip answer: the Chamber of Commerce.

After my husband and I enjoyed a vacation in Grand Lake, Colorado, I decided to set my next novel there. I loved the tiny mountain town, the beautiful lake, the downtown boardwalks, and the live theater. But as a California native, I didn’t know much about living in Colorado. Thank you, Grand Lake Chamber of Commerce, for providing ideas for not just places, but also local hangouts, activities, festivals, and weather. After all, a novel set in Colorado must have some snowy winter scenes, and that is far outside my own experience.

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Photo by Alisa Anton on Unsplash

Even if my students want to set their stories in fictional towns, using a Chamber of Commerce site for that area of the country will help them plan settings that will improve their stories. Writing science fiction? Fantasy? Your characters still need places to live, to travel, to hangout, to enjoy a burger… and Chamber of Commerce sites are gold mines for setting ideas. Students can even visit Chamber of Commerce sites all over the world with this international list.

Where do you get ideas for your novel’s settings? How do you make them realistic?

#NaNoWriMoTinyTip: Ask & Suggest

My students are deep in the planning stages of NaNoWriMo, which means they have crafted their main characters and plotted some main events. But we are all a bit foggy about where our stories might go. Brainstorming ideas and bouncing them off our friends only takes us so far. So today we tried something new, and my students (and I) were so excited about the results that we knew it must be shared.

First I should confess: my own novel plan this year is painfully thin. I’ve got a main character and her dad, I’ve got a setting, and I’ve got a touch of mystery, but that’s about it. So my reason for today’s lesson is a bit self-serving: I needed my students’ help.

Photo by Callum Chapman on Unsplash

So I wrote a couple paragraphs about the story I have so far, and then I read them aloud to my students. I told them I wanted two things from them: questions about and suggestions for my story. As they peppered me with questions, I didn’t try to answer them. I just wrote down exactly what they said, using my laptop and projector so my students could see that I was writing down their exact words: “Where’s the mom?” “Why did they move?” “Who’s in the photograph?” Whether or not I could answer the questions didn’t matter; the ideas sparked by the questions would.

Then I asked them for suggestions, and that’s when they went crazy! I think we love to tell others what to write because we know we won’t have to actually make those ideas work. And again, as students shouted, “They live in an RV!” “The mom is a spy!” and “Her dad is actually her older brother,” I dutifully wrote down everything they said, smiling and nodding as if every suggestion would save my story (and some of those ideas really did!).

After I modeled the exercise in front of the class, my students partnered up and did the same. I had to remind them a couple times to just write down whatever their partner said and not worry about whether or not the ideas even made sense, and by the end of class they were glowing with excitement.

“Did this help?” I asked. They clutched their notebooks and grinned up at me. “Yes!” “I got so many great ideas!” “Mrs. Bradley, listen to this….!” Writing is usually a solitary endeavor, but the benefits of participating in a writing group are touted by many. We don’t need to (and shouldn’t) make this journey alone!

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Photo by Nik Shuliahin on Unsplash.

Sometimes the best lessons come out of our own desperation, and sometimes we just need our writing friends to inject some inspiration into our stories. My protagonist doesn’t live in an RV, but that suggestion triggered the idea of a mysterious friend who walks miles home from school every day because she doesn’t want anyone to see that she and her mom live in an RV on the outskirts of town…

This is what the Dare Machine on the NaNoWriMo Young Writers Program website does for us when we struggle with writer’s block. With one click we’re given a suggestion that might make no sense at all in our story, but if we just try writing about it, chances are our creative juices will start flowing again and our stories will get right back on track.

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Where do you get ideas for your novel? What’s your best strategy for developing your plot? Please share!

Teach writing? Then you’d better BE writing.

I told my husband that he needed to come with me for an evening canoe ride. We were vacationing at our cabin, and although I was working very hard at not working, I was also working on a piece of writing that had to get done. And I needed to bounce some ideas off of him.

We paddled up the lake a bit, the late sun bright and low, the water calm and clear. My mind was racing with an idea that had come to me in the middle of a sleepless night, and I thought it might work but I needed to verbalize it first, needed to hear it aloud before I could be sure.

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Fortunately my husband is used to this, as I often ask him to just listen while I try out an idea on him; sometimes it’s my writing, often it’s an idea for a lesson for my students. We reached the end of the lake and he listened while I ran through my idea. Saying it aloud not only helped me get clear on what I was thinking; it also gave me the opportunity to get feedback from someone else. And by the time we tied up the canoe at our dock, I was confident and ready to get these new ideas on paper.

I’ve been doing a lot of writing this summer, far more than usual, and it has reminded me (again and again) how important it is that, as a writing teacher, I am also writing. It seems so obvious: how can I really understand and teach the writing process if I am not experiencing it myself? But for many years I taught writing without actually writing myself. I gave students assignments; I gave them graphic organizers; I gave them feedback on their drafts; and I gave them grades. But what I didn’t give them was honest writing practice based on my own writing struggles. And, yes, writing is a struggle. Every time we put pen to paper (or, let’s be honest, fingers to keyboard), it is a struggle. It is making something out of nothing. It is creating something new. It is an art and a science and a production.

So when I tell my husband, “I’m going for a walk. I need to get away from my writing in order to find my writing again,” it’s only fair that I make a mental note: how can I let my students “go for a walk” so they can find their writing again, too?

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The writing classroom needs to be quiet, of that I’m sure. Writing is hard work, it requires concentration, and when writers are interrupted by noise, it takes a Herculean effort to find the writing again. So during writing time, I insist on a quiet writing classroom. So how can I give my students opportunities like I needed to go for a canoe ride or a walk, or to talk out their ideas with someone? Here are a few ways I try to support their writing needs:

  • in our flexible seating classroom, students are able to get up and move when they need to. They know that they need to be quiet, but they also know the value of movement as part of the creative process. Our furniture is on wheels, which allows them to move even as they write, but they are also free to get up and move, to walk around, even go outside (weather permitting) to walk a little.
  • we use Google Docs for most of our writing, so my students are able to bounce ideas off their friends via comments on their Docs. I also jump into their Docs during writing time so I can give them feedback as they work, rather than waiting until an entire draft is written and turned in.
  • homework: debate rages over whether or not homework is beneficial or even necessary for our students, but I am certain that writing for homework is critical, if only because it allows my students to figure out how they write (work) best. During NaNoWriMo, I have my students reflect on what they are learning about their own writing preferences; their answers help them see how they can work best on any assignment. They discover if they work best with music, with quiet, with snacks, and what time of day is ideal. These are discoveries that will help them now and in future work endeavors.

I may not be able to send my students out in canoes when they need a writing break, but I can learn from my own writing needs so that I can help my students find theirs. How about you? What have you learned about writing from your own writing experiences?

#NaNoWriMo: ask the experts

I’ve never published a novel of my own, so it’s intimidating to ask my students to write a novel under my tutelage. But since the answer to just about every question can now be found online, I decided this year to ask my students to search the web for writing advice from those most qualified to give it: published writers.

Much of the wisdom they found echoes what I will be teaching them in the next few weeks. Maybe my lessons will carry a bit more weight since the experts said it first!

  • Don’t give up. Trust your journey.

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  • Editing matters. Write truth.

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  • Your story matters.

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  • Make it real; make it scary; and … cliffhangers.

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  • Make it human (but don’t let your mom read it).

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  • Also good: tension and snap.

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  • When you get discouraged, remember: the world needs your novel!

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What advice do YOU have for my #WriMos?