Learning About Creative Writing with Real World Experts: Jenny Sadre-Orafai

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We are indebted to Jenny Sadre-Orafai, Associate Professor in the Department of English at Kennesaw State University, for her time today in our “virtual visit” with a creative writing expert! We appreciate how she took time to really think about the questions sent to her from the students, and how thoughtfully she shared her expertise with us. I learned so much today as a writer and teacher, and I know my middle school writers did, too! I am so pleased my SOAR Creative Writers had this opportunity to learn about writer’s craft, poetry writing, and literary journals.

Dr. Sadre-Orafi took great care and time to answer each of the student questions:

• What is your favorite writing genre?
• Did you want to be a writer when you were younger?
• What’s your writing process like?
• How much do you write in a day?
• What do you find most difficult about writing?
• How do you deal with writer’s block, especially when writing poems?
• What do you think it takes to be a professional writer (career)?
• What inspired you to write?
• Who are your favorite writers and why?
• Do you have favorite writing topics? If so, what are they?
• How did you figure out your passion?
• How do you get ideas for writing?
• Where is your favorite place to write?
• What are literary journals?
• Does creative writing get easier as an adult?
• What made you choose to write creative nonfiction instead of fiction?
• What advice do you have for aspiring poets?
• What advice do you have for someone who is interested in writing for a career and choosing a college and major?
• How often do you write?
• Where do you grow up and did your childhood influence your writing in any way?
• Do your life experiences influence what you choose to write about?
• Did you choose your career or did it choose you?
• Do you ever feel “powerful” because you are in control of a piece of writing like a poem?
• What is creative nonfiction?

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Some of the insights and “take aways” we gained from our virtual visit include:

  • To be a writer, you must be curious.  Soak in everything around you.  Think of yourself as a being with antennae and pay attention to everything around you.  Notice and observe!
  • If you want to be a poet, read as much poetry as you can; Dr. Sadre-Orafi specifically recommended we read contemporary poetry (yay!).
  • Very few people become “professional” writers, but majoring in English or a similar field can allow you to use your writing talents and find pathways into related career fields.
  • Literary journals are a great pathway to publication, especially for poetry.
  • A professor once told her that there is no such thing as writer’s block.  If you find yourself getting stuck for ideas, physically remove yourself out of your comfort zone if possible.  For example, walk down a different street or hallways.  A change of scenery or placing yourself in the unfamiliar can help you notice things around with you fresh eyes.

Thank you to Dr. Tony Grooms of the Creative Writing program at KSU for connecting us with Dr. Sadre-Orafai, and thank you to our tech expert Greg Odell for helping us connect through Zoom!  We will be connecting with three more faculty from Kennesaw State this month and in early March; we look forward to learning through these upcoming virtual visits.

When the Ponies, Unicorns, and Rainbows Finally Come: Welcome to Believeland or Growing Writers in the War Eagle Writing Studio

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The first twelve weeks of school have been a roller coaster in the War Eagle Writing Studio.  I’ll share more about our struggles and successes in a blog post I’ll publish this weekend, but over the last few days I’m observing signs that my students are growing as writers.  This week we’ve been inquiring into”Where I’m From” poems with mentor texts and “noticings” activities (another blog post in the making); we began working on our brainstorming list for ideas with a graphic organizer on Wednesday, and most students began drafting yesterday or today.

I’ve been struck by how so many students, especially my 6th and 7th graders, have been writing with a very deliberate and noticeable intention and purpose the last few days.  I began thinking about the parallels of intention and process in art studio work and writing studio work after my friend and fellow teaching colleague Dorsey Sammataro (did I mention how amazing she is?) showed me a video in early September created by one of her AP Art Studio students, Megan Dammann:

In our writing conferences and observations I’ve made of students thinking and writing over the last two days, I’ve been struck by how focused and invested students have been in their writing.  There is a new intensity I’m seeing as they think and write.  Many students now are talking about their writing process, what they are thinking about in their current drafts, and/or next drafts instead of merely asking if their draft “is good” when they talk to me about their work.  They also seem more responsive to my questioning I’m doing in our writing conferences (thank you Carl Anderson) as I try to ask them questions to prompt their thinking rather than tell them what I think.  Our writing conferences are starting to shift to conversations about process and decision-making by students; they have never been about how I would suggest they “fix” anything, but I see students now are starting to articulate their own thinking more clearly and in deeper ways.

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How do you assess and capture intention and process with your writers?  How do you celebrate that and make it more visible in your classroom?  I would love to hear what others are doing.

One class in particular, my 4th period group of 7th grade writers, has been especially invested in the poetry unit we’ve been doing for the last six weeks.  Earlier this week, they were asking about doing another poetry reading.  Today our principal, Jennifer Kogod, dropped in to visit and took time to chat with every writer and read his/her work.  As a teacher, nothing thrilled your heart like having a principal who is a literacy advocate who interacts with the students; for the students, her presence clearly conveyed to them that our principal genuinely cares about their work.  As we continued to conference and draft the last half of class, two of my male students said, “I wish I could stay in here and work on my poems the rest of the day!”  One asked if he could get permission from his last period teacher to come and work in my room; I told him I would email her and that if he had completed all his work and she was fine with the request, I was fine for him to join my last class of the day which is a 6th grade section of writing workshop.   The other student wanted to know if he could come in before school and work on his poems!

I KNOW, RIGHT?!?!

The class then wanted to do an impromptu poetry reading, so that we did.  The two students, Ben and Ryland, shared their drafts in progress.  Ben then asked me if I could text the video I made of him reading his poem to his mother (and I did).  His 6th period teacher graciously agreed to let him join us, and he helped me kick off my class by reading his poem in progress to my 6th graders.

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I cannot tell you what this kind of cross-grade pollination does to a teacher’s heart—I literally felt like we were all soaring as he shared his draft, his advice for my 6th grade writers, and how he went about the process of getting his first draft composed.  How amazing is this kind of participatory learning where the novices become the experts and share that expertise they are growing?  He then worked on his poem for a little while before breaking off to conference with 6th grade writers and serve as a writing buddy to listen to drafts and share glows and grows to those writers.

I am sure we’ll move and back along this continuum of growth throughout the year, but I feel like I’m seeing many of my students finally start to turn an important corner as writers and learners.  I am seeing my students to think more deeply about process and to work with more intention.   I can’t measure any of this growth with a test, and I need better ways of documenting that though I’m still figuring that out.  All of my classes were so engaged in their writing—-today is the first day I can truly say that about every single section–all six of them—and it is truly music to my ears.  It’s the kind of day I thought about all summer as I looked forward to returning to the classroom and this opportunity to teach writing all day.  I’m excited to be part of this journey as a teacher AND a learner with my students, and I can’t wait to see where we go next together.  The fact I’m sharing this with you on a Friday night probably speaks to how epic of an experience the last few days have been.   Welcome to BELIEVELAND!

 

Growing Understanding of Genre Through a Poem Reading Frenzy

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About ten days ago, I planned and implemented a “poem reading frenzy” for my middle school writers as part of my efforts to expose them to many kinds of poems, especially since the genre is new to them as readers and writers.  Like many of you, I think giving our students to read like writers and an opportunity to notice qualities of a genre of writing is essential in a writing studio.  The “reading frenzy” idea comes from my friend and fellow colleague Nancy Steineke; the basic premise of this activity is to give students an opportunity to read, explore, ponder,  and rank texts, such as informational articles or in this case, poems.

My Original Plan for Learning

When I planned the activity, I picked 8 poems for each grade level (grades 6, 7, and 8); I thought that I had picked a solid range of texts that would be on their reading level and expose each group of students to different styles of poems.  My game plan was:

1 .  Distribute the packets of poems to each student; each student would have the opportunity to read the poems quietly to himself or herself.

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2.  Rank the poems from favorite to least favorite using the form below.

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3.  Do some light annotation of the student’s favorite poem using the model I provided to each table group of students; this model was housed in my “shop ticket” pouches.  I made extra copies of all the poems so that students could have his/her own copy to mark up and annotate.  In addition, I kept these “noticing” prompts on the board for annotating:

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4.  Use the FSLL method of noticing qualities about a poem; I asked students to choose any talking points from the list of questions provided and complete the blank FSLL chart on the back of the “ranking” handout. I provided a completed example in the “shop ticket” pouches along with the example of the annotated poem.

Below are the examples I gave table groups to share and use for reference in my neon shop ticket pouches:

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My day started with my 8th grade classes.  Since we had previously done some light annotation and used the FSLL method a few weeks ago in small groups, I started the class period with a quick overview and review of our annotating strategies and FSLL method.

*An important note about the FSLL method—this method is a strategy I discovered in June 2016 in one of my Facebook groups for the Heinemann Units of Study.  I am embarrassed to say that I am not able to backtrack through all the discussions to give appropriate credit to the teacher who posted her photos of her students’ work using this method, and since she never posted a blog post over the summer with a link to any additional details, I don’t have anything to point you back to for more details.  However, I developed my own original graphic organizer for the FSLL method based off the photos she posted of student work; you can see the guiding handout and a blank graphic organizer below:

 

Adjusting the Activity by Responding to Student Needs

By the end of my first class (Period 8-2), I realized three important things I didn’t anticipate but probably should have:

  1.  The students were struggling with reading and understanding the poems even though I thought I had picked accessible reading levels and short, readable poems.  I should have anticipated they might need them read aloud since they were still newbies to the genre and the ways we read a poem, especially when the thought carries across multiple lines.
  2.  Even though I thought I had been VERY clear about the ranking system in my written and oral instructions (1 is the favorite poem, 8 is your least favorite—rank them 1 to 8), at least 3/4 of the class did not understand these instructions.
  3. The students were spending an inordinate amount of time copying the titles of poems into the ranking chart.

As a result, they barely even made it to annotating their poems and needed a second day of class to complete the activity, something I thought would doable in one period.

At the end of period 8-2, I quickly decided to punt and make some adjustments for the 6th and 7th grade classes:

  1.  Revamp the ranking template/handout to  include the names of the poems so students would not have to write them down.  Here is an example of how I did this for 7th grade:

2.   I decided to read aloud each poem 2x to help students really “hear” the poems and hopefully better understand each one.

3.  I reminded students that we didn’t have to completely understand a poem to appreciate or enjoy it.

These adjustments seem to make a big difference, especially for my 6th graders.   My 6-3 class clapped enthusiastically every time I read a poem from their packet, and they were eager to rank their choices!  Each student got to take a copy of his/her favorite poem to mark up/annotate; they also were quite earnest in their efforts to choose two points of “noticings” for their selected poems.   I was surprised and impressed that of all my classes, this class had the greatest spread of “favorite poems”—-favorites tended to lean toward 2-3 poems in all my other classes in every grade level/section.

For my 6-6 class who needs a little more scaffolding, we read the poems together, and they got to annotate/mark up each poem.  Because these activities took the entire period, I modified the assignment for them and didn’t ask them to do a FSLL chart, especially since they did a lot of this work orally in our individual to pair to group share during class.   Like my 6-3 students, this class seemed to take great delight in hearing and discussing the poems.

Another part of the activity that was a big hit with both classes:  I included a two-voice bilingual poem and asked a student to volunteer with me.  The class LOVED hearing another student read the poem with me since both my student volunteers took on the Spanish speaking part and showed off their linguistic expertise! Both 6th grade classes LOVED the activity and thoroughly enjoyed a diverse range of poems.

Even with the modifications, the my efforts to do this activity with 7th grade were challenging because we had to move to a different location so that our new writing studio furniture could be set up since it had arrived mid-day.  If you’ve taught middle school, you know that any disruption of the normal routine usually results in unusual behavior or student difficulty in staying focused.   Though the circumstances were not ideal and probably impacted the quality of the learning experience, my 7th graders were able to finish their annotations and begin their FSLL charts in class; they completed these on a subsequent class day.

Below is the rubric I created to assess their work; I made some slight modifications for my 7th graders and 6-3 class, but you can see the basic elements I looked at in their annotations and FSLL responses in this 8th grade assessment rubric:

Looking Ahead and Additional Modifications

I am planning on doing a modified version of this activity again with my students next week as we look at “Where I’m From” poems (a post will be forthcoming on this poem study).  Here are a few things I’ll be sure to do:

  • I will reduce the number of mentor poems from 8 to 4
  • I will read all the poems aloud
  • We’ll annotate using a modified write-around text on text activity where students can do collaborative annotations (I’ve blogged extensively about this strategy from Harvey Daniels and Nancy Steineke in the past)
  • We’ll use a graphic organizer to capture and record our noticings about these kinds of poems

I am hoping that with these adjustments, my 7th and 8th graders will be as enthusiastic about the activity as my 6th graders were.  What additional modifications would you make, or how are you doing reading frenzies with your middle school or upper elementary age students?

Creative Writing with Color Poems

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A few weeks ago, several readers inquired about the color poems I did with my middle school students.  The “color poem” strategy/formula is one that I learned in a class on teaching poetry at the University of Georgia; it’s one that provides structure for beginning poets but is flexible enough for more advanced writers to run with and exercise their poetic license.

Until this year, I had only used this strategy with high schoolers; they typically picked right up on the formula.  I discovered this fall that some younger learners may need more scaffolding even if you give them concrete examples that you have written and examples from other students.  I modified my handouts to include the following materials:

  • A general overview of the assignment with two examples/mentor poems/texts
  • A “writing plan” that includes some reflection questions to help the poet get started with a second page that has a modified copy of the “formula” that students can use as a template if needed
  • A reflection handout that students can complete once they have finished their final draft

All documents are downloadable as PDFs below.

Here is a sampler of poems written by my students using this strategy:

Most of my students initially found this challenging but were pleasantly surprised by the quality of their writing.   In the end, many of my students were proud of their work (as they should have been!) because this was the first poem they had ever written.

Are any of you using this strategy or a variation of it with your students?  What do you do to scaffold students who might need a little more support to get started?