A journey of a thousand miles begins with just one step. That sounds so good on paper! Inspiring. Even motivating. The reality is that “one step” really means a long, arduous journey. Cliffs and boulders and raging rivers and ravines and steep inclines and wide oceans. It also means long sweeping vistas, smooth green meadows strewn with lovely wildflowers and playful romping animals, soft warm breezes on white-sand beaches, and a supportive companion to help you arrive at a desired destination. I see myself as Samwise Gamgee on a quest with Frodo, my students. We are on our way to Mount Doom, but we must pass through Mordor to get there. (Yeah, I’m a Tolkien geek, as well as a Trekkie.)
A small group of students and I embarked on just such a journey this week while exploring ways to incorporate writing into our novel studies. As I mentioned in a previous post, we are reading The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe by C.S.Lewis. I have struggled to engage my students in rigorous writing activities called for in the Common Core state Standards. I think I have found a way to successfully bridge the gap between simple recall questions to higher order thinking questions. Last week, while reading the Ehrenworth article “Why Argue,” I noticed the author’s inclusion of question stems to incorporate opinion/persuasion questions in Literacy Circles. I immediately thought of how I could include these questions in our writing activities. remembering the lessons of the past, and how important mentor texts are, I started looking for texts that I could use to model this new way of responding to literature. Alas! I couldn’t find what I was looking for. Then I remembered Dr. Buchholz’s suggestion that I use student writing as mentor texts. I conferenced with two of my strongest writers and explained what I was thinking in regards to this task. I showed them all of the stems and asked them to choose one to collaborate on. I asked them to discuss all of their ideas, but to write individually. They sat at the table together and had such a great discussion that I wanted to kick myself for not having a recorder next to them to capture their conversation.
As they talked, I noticed that they were not simply recalling the plot of the story. They were making inferences, drawing conclusions, making judgments, finding evidence in the text to support their claims, looking at topics from each other’s perspectives, and analyzing character motivation all while answering the question “Which character had the greater impact on events: the White Witch or Aslan? I was very happy to hear such rich “language arts” conversations.
I think I am getting the hang of this incorporating writing with literature. I shared these papers with my principal during this week’s grade level meeting, and she was very impressed with the level of writing these girls were able to produce. After they had finished writing their papers, I asked them to exchange papers in order to offer constructive feedback to each other. One rule: no saying things like, that’s good, or great job, or don’t change a thing! I asked them to tell one thing that the other did that was really effective, and one thing that could be improved. You would have thought I asked them to bring me the moon! They thought this was the hardest part of the whole assignment.
I was curious to see what a group of students who have just a bit less ability in writing would do with these questions. I once again explained what I wanted them to do, but this time I asked them to first talk about what it means to make a claim and defend that claim with facts from the text. These next three girls made an attempt at an argument, but were less successful. Alexandra made a claim, but the evidence was weak, Karlie wrote a list of examples to support her claim, but she argued for both sides, and Patience pretty much just summarized a section of the novel. Although these pieces of writing aren’t “as good” as the first two, I can do so much more instruction with my students using these pieces. There are more topics to discuss, more things to notice that are being well written, as well as areas for improvement. These are the papers that give me a glimmer of hope for the future of writing in my classroom.