Sunday, November 27, 2011

Narrative Essays - Getting Too Personal?

Narrative essays are my favorite kind of essays to read, and most students find it easier and/or more enjoyable to write about themselves than other topics, but they can be problematic on a few levels. I've learned some things from my mistakes.

First, the essays can become too personal. It's amazing what students will write about. Many do not write regularly, and when they think of a personal story, they often choose the most traumatic or dramatic incident in their lives. It's important to warn students up front that they shouldn't write about anything that they wouldn't want someone else in the class to read. I used to forget to mention this at the beginning, and then when group work day came, I'd have students who would quietly come to my desk and ask not to participate because they wrote about something too personal to share. Oops. My bad. Of course I didn't make them share, but then they lost out on the benefit of the group work.

After my first quarter of teaching narrative essays, and five student meltdowns in the girls' restroom, I make sure that my students understand that although writing about a difficult subject can be cathartic, it might not be appropriate for a school essay. When I ask students to OK their subjects with me first, I invariably get a few who want to write about their brother's recent suicide or their mother's drug addiction, or some other emotional subject. Often, the act of writing brings up unexpected emotion, and I find myself in the role of grief counselor, which is not my field of expertise. Now, I counsel these students that it is extremely difficult to write about these kinds of subjects. I ask them to make sure they have enough emotional distance to focus on the craft of writing and not just the subject.

If they insist they want to stick with their subject, I counsel them to go home and write it all out in a personal journal first, to get it all out, and see what emotions it brings up, and whether they are manageable, and then focus on creating an essay. Most decide to change the subject, but some stick with it, and some have written the most incredible essays with the most difficult subjects. This is why I don't discourage it entirely. I've seen true genius.

The last problem is in grading a narrative essay. Although the elements of the craft must be graded, the students should never feel that their experience is being graded. If a student pours out his heart about his beloved grandmother and receives a D on the essay, he might feel not only discouraged about his writing ability, but he might feel as if his experience is being discounted. This is why it is of the utmost importance to remind students that writing is a skill like any other. I often use the analogy that if I was a math teacher and showed them a different equation to plug into a problem to make it easier to solve, they wouldn't be offended, and the same goes for writing - perhaps if you said it this way instead of that way, the meaning would be clearer to your readers. With narrative essays in particular, it is very important to separate the content from the presentation. I also give a lecture on how to criticize constructively and give lots of guidelines in group work to make sure any criticism focuses on the writing and not the writer, or their experience.

Narrative essays will always be a part of the composition experience, but they can also be fraught with delicate emotions that must be taken into consideration in the critiquing and grading process. I'd love to hear from other teachers on your experiences with this.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Compare and Contrast

When you're teaching a class that some students see as hoop-jumping, it's important to keep it relevant. The compare/contrast unit in my composition class is a good opportunity for the students to become engaged in the topic. The final assignment is an essay that compares and contrasts two career choices. For example, if they are going into criminal justice, they can compare and contrast being a prison guard as opposed to a parole officer. If they are going into medicine, they can choose becoming a surgeon vs. a family practitioner. If they are unsure, they can compare and contrast getting a job right out of school or continuing their education.

Half the fun, though, is getting ready to write the essay. I use Venn diagrams on the whiteboard with funny objects such action figures or strange stuffed animals, or even just my pencil and my whiteboard pen. Then I explain two formats, point-by-point and block format, and how to write an effective compare/contrast thesis. When they have a good grasp on these concepts, I pull out the secret weapon-snack foods.

I divide the class into groups of four or five, then play a game to determine the order they get to choose their snack foods. Each choice comes in a pair--Oreo cookies and the store-brand copy; Ruffles barbeque chips and Lays; almond M&Ms and peanut M&Ms...Each group gets a poster board and they get to work with a Venn diagram, a thesis statement and a determination of point-by-point or block format. After we're done, they share their results with the whole group.

It's amazing what they come up with. It's rare that I get a simplistic thesis based just on taste. The students get creative, looking at nutrition information, packaging and value. Once, a group even based their thesis on the fact that one type of chips were manufactured in Mexico, and one in the United States. Of course there are great debates as to which is superior in taste. Needless to say, the whole class is engaged on many levels.

The point of this exercise is that it provides a clear template for the actual essay. I have them start on their topics immediately, following the same steps. These are almost always the best essays of the year because they know exactly how to proceed and they are interested, after all, in their own future careers.

The whole lesson plan with the handouts, etc... is here:

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Simple Activity with Spectacular Results

I came up with one of my most effective classroom activities out of frustration. I was teaching a remedial English class and we couldn't move on to more sophisticated grammar until my students learned the parts of speech. They were struggling and nothing I seemed to do worked. On a break, I put aside the workbook and hand-wrote a bunch of words on strips of paper. I chose some from each category: nouns, verbs, adjectives, adverbs, pronouns and prepositions. Then I wrote the categories at the top of the whiteboard. Here goes nothing, I thought.

When the students came back in from break, I randomly passed out the word strips. I said that if they could get them all in the correct category in three tries, I would bring them a treat the next week. They all had to work together, and after each round, I would only say how many were wrong.

I wasn't sure how the whole thing would play out, or if it would even work, but it was one of those serendipitous moments when I watched my class, sans teacher, work through the exercise, discussing, debating, rehearsing rules and working together. Best of all, every student was engaged because each had a stake in the results.

The result was that they succeeded, and they learned it better than any worksheet or lecture or demonstration could have done. By working it out with each other, they had to think and engage. Since then, I've used this exercise for not only parts of speech but other things such as fragments and run-on sentences and figurative language.

These activities take a lot of time to think of examples and ke your own, or you can get the lesson plan and word strips pre-made by yours truly here:

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

High Stakes Rough Drafts

Most of my students could get an A on their essays. Are they exceptional students? Gifted writers? Not necessarily. It's all in getting them to turn in a rough draft. A good number of my students used to skip this step, for any number of reasons, but most often nothing more than procrastination. I tried to convince them that the days of banging out an essay the night before it was due were over.

It wasn't until I raised the stakes and assigned a signficant amount of points to the rough draft that I started to see an improvement. I also devoted a day to group work with the rough drafts, meaning they missed out on participation points if they didn't have a draft. I still wasn't satisfied, though, because I had basically bullied them into turning in complete rough drafts rather than getting them to see the point and wanting to participate.

Finally, I remembered an exercise that I used to do when I traveled around as an author, visiting schools and talking about the writing process. When I pull the pipe cleaners out of my bag and start passing them out, my students wonder if they're back in first grade, but they also have big grins on their faces. Who can resist a bendable, fuzzy stick? The basic idea is they make whatever they want out of one set of pipe cleaners, and write instructions (words only!). Then they swap with a partner and try to make the other person's creations. (Download the complete instructions here). The writer is not allowed to say a word, just watch. Inevitably, it is impossible to stay silent. The writer always wants to clarify something.

And there's the think you've been clear on something so simple, and yet you can instantly see that you could have explained it just a little better here or there, or that you left out something entirely and your reader is confused. Here's a fairly typical result. The original is on the left.

This exercise is valuable in a couple of ways: Students instantly understand the value of re-writing, and they are open to listening to me tell them about how important it is, especially when we're dealing with more complex ideas and themes than making a silly project. It also gets them interacting and laughing and it's nice break to do something hands-on in a writing class.
The complete FREE instructions for this activity are here: