Writing With the Stars

We spend hours of our academic lives attempting to analyze and interpret the literary works of others. We strive define what an author’s text says, then determine what the writing means. While critical thinkers recognize the benefits of these literary discussions and classroom activities, occasionally we have to ask, “What does this matter?” Why dedicate so much time studying the words of authors whom will never share the truth? If we could simply ask Shakespeare if he intended to communicate what was recently Shmooped

The process is frustrating at times. It assigns students the role of the confused reader and authors as the untouchable expert. Learners in my high school English courses should consider themselves writers as well as readers. The most effective strategy I’ve used is to study our own work as literature. Here’s how.

DAY 1: Literary analysis with an added twist (because we can)

Ninth grade readers will analyze stylistic features of their own writing (usually something simple, like a 6-word memoir) from a third person perspective.

Learning Targets:

  • I know parts of an argument (claim, evidence, warrant)
  • I understand how to read like a writer
  • I create an argument defending a claim about my 6-word memoir (clever twist: from a 3rd person point of view)
  • (on day 2) I can edit and revise writing for academic purposes (mini-lesson emphasis: MLA format, conventions, point of view, tense)

As students enter class, they see this prompt on the screen.

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Then we follow this procedure: In a notebook…

  1. Record your 6-word memoir (from last week’s activity) at the top of the page.
  2. Review what it means to read like a writer (What does it say? What does it mean? What does it matter?).
  3. Spend 3 minutes writing an explanation of what the 6-word memoir means (interpretation with an explanation is typically as far as many surface level literary lessons go).
  4. After 3 minutes of writing, turn off the lights to create a Hollywood-worthy transformation in the classroom… because now we need to talk about “what it matters.”
  5. During the transformation, I turn on the spotlight (a lamp) and freshmen writers become a room of celebrities. Now in celebrity mode, they are expected to analyze the 6-word memoir written by one of their young fans.
  6. While explaining the task, review the parts of an argument for our guest stars—Who knows how long it’s been since their last writing lesson? Their job is to make a claim about the writer based on one detail that impacts the meaning of the work (diction, syntax, punctuation, order, structure, anything unique that stands out—particularly to a mind as deep and worldly as what we have assembled in the classroom). For more advanced courses or upperclassmen, the prompt might be: How does the author’s diction and syntax impact the meaning and tone of the piece?
  7. Celebs then provide the rest of the argument using critical thoughts and specific evidence from the 6-word memoir.
  8. After establishing clear expectations in the classroom, this year I treated the celebs to special circumstances. We spent the class period in the courtyard on a beautiful September day (must enjoy Wisconsin weather while we can).

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DAY 2

On the following day, my freshmen writers return to class to see if their celebrity crafted a worthy argument or if it’s time to invest in a more intellectual, eloquent idol. They are welcomed by the following greeting and task. 

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I want the typing of the document to go quickly (10-12 minutes), knowing we will revise and edit what is written. If the writing lesson is occurring early in the school year, I use it as an opportunity to check student understanding of proper MLA formatting of an academic document with immediate formative feedback. I add a mini-lesson about EDITING vs. CRAFT, and take care of simple, fix-now corrections. We then look at how the celebrity writer developed his/her argument. 

Ultimately, I am teaching more than basic argument and writing skills. Writers are learning about audience and purpose through references to point of view and voice. For example, the writer’s name (and even credentials) should be included in the claim. The complex aspect here is that students are analyzing their own work from a third person point of view—challenging for some learners to grasp at first, but valuable exercise for creativity muscles. All too often, young writers provide vague references to “the author” or “this poem,” primarily for the sake of the teacher as their lone audience. Again, I ask, “So what? Why does it matter?” 

A clever writer will assume the voice and style of the celebrity. This can transform a basic argument paragraph into a creative analysis told from the perspective of a well-known personality. Beyoncé and Jennifer Lawrence are observant, confident, and sassy. Jimmy Fallon and Ellen have a keen eye for detail and witty charm. Musicians, artists, and athletes better pay attention to technique, symbolism, and dynamics. Politicians likely had someone write an argument for them. And the Kardashians are literate after all. Who knew?

 

 

 

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