Unit Plan: Author Emulation Handbook

Like many English teachers, I’m a little preoccupied with the craft of writing. I am always nudging my students to think about how an author wrote something before they start gabbing about what the piece was about.

The challenge to these conversations is that they can feel a bit dry. Why look at narrative structure or sentence variation when we could be dissecting the juicy points of the plot? As a result, discussion of craft was something I would squeeze in here and there, but it was only last year that I decided to devote a whole unit and benchmark project to the concept.

Essential Questions:

  • What systems do I use in my own writing?
  • What impact does writing style have on the reader?
  • How can we emulate the writers we love?

My bright idea was that students would pull from their independent reading to create a kind of handbook. First, they would learn the basic terminology and concepts of writing style, and then use those to analyze selections from their own books. Finally, they would write a miniature scene (300 words or so) of their own, seeking to emulate the author’s style they had just dissected.

This is a good example of a project that I had to try doing myself, at least partially, before I could ask my sophomores to try it. We used the online layout app Lucid Press, and I created both a blank template and a Partially filled out version.

Here’s a few examples of projects that met or exceeded expectations:

What Makes This Unit Work?

Letting students explore an independent reading book puts them in the driver’s seat — it’s on them to pick something they would like to spend a couple weeks dissecting.

I also emphasize the difference between emulation and copying. When it comes to creative expression, studying the style of others is how we define our own, whether it’s our clothes, our music, or our writing. Professional authors spend a ton of time thinking about the how in addition to the what, so we should all practice that.

I also asked students to do an “About the Authors” page where they included info about themselves alongside the author they chose to emulate. These are as fun to read as you are hopefully imagining.

Lastly, I made it a requirement that students reach out to the author they emulated to share their work, whether it was via Twitter or an email to their publisher. There were a bunch of automated responses, but a few personal ones as well. The process of sharing definitely made the students nervous, in a good way.

Oh — and after the gallery day of reading each other’s projects, they had to use somebody else’s handbook to overhaul their short writing piece. Trying to turn a piece of writing that was originally supposed to sound like Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie into something that sounds like Orson Scott Card? Weird, fun, in the spirit of Mad Libs but with actual skill involved.

Here’s the UbD unit plan with a sketch of the daily timeline, as well as the project instructions and rubirc.

Unit Plan: Science Fiction Short Story Writing

 

Editors note: I’ve renewed my commitment to posting more unit plans in the coming year. All of these resources are collected on the curriculum page.

You would think that working at a school with the word “Science” in the title would mean Science Fiction all the time. But I didn’t develop a unit for this genre until several years at SLA. At first, it was an interdisciplinary unit developed with former Physics teacher Rosalind Echols. Since then, it’s evolved into something that I merged with an earlier unit about short story writing.

Here’s the full unit plan. The basic flow is as follows:

  • A science fiction book club, where students can pick any novel or short story collection they wish, provided 3-5 students want to also read that book
  • A series of in-class activities to introduce students to both the history and concepts of the genre
  • An introduction to the terminology and concepts of short story writing
  • A series of in-class activities to expose students to different elements of fiction, including characterization, dialogue, modes of narration, and theme
  • Time to outline, draft, peer edit, and revise a Sci-Fi short story

What makes this unit work?

I used to give students free rein to write short stories about anything at all — and the work was often unfocused or uninspired as a result. Having the short stories emerge from a science fiction book club provides just enough of a constraint to keep students on their toes. The students who claim to not be big Sci-Fi fans are often the ones who draft the most compelling stories because they care about the plot, not the potential bells and whistles of time travel or aliens.

I also make a point to expose students to two college-level texts as a part of our analytical work. We read selections from Science Fiction: A Very Short Introduction and also Writing Fiction: A Guide to Narrative Craft. Since this is the last unit of the year, and it overlaps with asking my Juniors to write drafts of an essay suitable for college admissions, I definitely play up the idea that I am throwing them into the deep end a bit. The Oxford text, in particular, includes a lot of support for vocabulary.

“Accept, Reject, Dismantle”

murphy_cover_web_border-bmThis past summer, I got an email inviting me to write about what it’s like to work in a school that doesn’t really believe in standardized tests… but still has to administer them.

Unbeknownst to Brett Murphy, the esteemed editor of Inside Our Schools, I am one of the testing coordinators at SLA, so I had a lot to say on this topic. The title of the chapter became a summation of our options — and by “our” I mean all of us: Accept, Reject, Dismantle.

If that sounds heavy, don’t worry. The chapter also gave me the chance to share a delightful tradition we have for the role of testing coordinator at SLA. It was established many years ago by Mr. Zac Chase:

“From here on out, I am not going to be Zac when I am doing this work,” he announced at the start of one of our proctor training sessions, somewhere back in the Spring of 2009. “I don’t want to be myself while I’m doing this job. Whenever you need to talk to me about testing, you need to talk to Rick.” Rick was randomly selected, but subsequent testing coordinators leaned towards adopting celebrity names or fictional personas: Nurse Ratched, Marky Mark, Beach Dave.

After a brief brainstorming session, we hit on an obvious choice: Boris and Natasha. We would play the villains, but they would be the loveable, cartoonish kind. The fact that one of us is Russian leant a vague air of legitimacy to the choice. The staff responded positively to the appearance of our cartoon personas in the training slide shows. But more than anything, the names were valuable because they gave us open license to be grumps. Teachers stopped asking me about testing matters without any warning. They developed the delightful habit of saying, “I have a question for Natasha”—to which I could reply, “sorry, she’s not available right now.” Conversely, on a testing day, they would warn the (mildly confused) students: “Don’t bother her. She’s not Pahomov today.”

I am beyond excited to get my hands on the final product, not in the least because the other chapters are written by Michelle Gunderson and a host of other excellent educators, some of whom I will be meeting for the first time through their writing.

If you are at all curious as to what life is really like in schools, order your copy today. You can get 20% off your order directly from Harvard Press with the code IOSS17.

EduCon Reflection: How to Teach Like a Human

A lesson I am still learning from EduCon is that the less planning you put into your session, the more interesting the outcome of that conversation will be.

Here’s my write-up for this year’s session:

Classrooms in “progressive,” “alternative,” or “non-traditional” schools are often seen as magical spaces — free of conflict and without any need for classroom management. But teachers in these spaces actually have many concrete, specific techniques. What do they do? Come discuss and discover.

The secret was that I had not prepared any specific examples from SLA — this session was going to rely entirely on examples that we all generated together and shared.

The first step was to brainstorm what human qualities we wanted our students to develop in school — to think not about skills and content, at least not as it relates to our “subject areas,” but to think about what abilities we wanted our students to carry with them five or more years after they left our classroom.

Tables made free-form lists on poster paper.

After that, we looked at the most common practices of a typical school day or class period — openers and closers, direct instruction, class discussion, independent practice, keeping students on task, and dealing with conflict.

For each category, participants wrote their answers to the following prompts:

What exactly do you do and say?

What skills does this encourage in your students?

There was a lot of scribbling and typing for most of the hour. Many responses live on this 15-page Google Doc.

People had a LOT to share. The challenge of this session, though, was not just describing your practice — it was explaining how your practice directly supported the human qualities you wanted to instill in your students in the long term. Making a list of those in the abstract was easy. And most educators knew that their classroom practice did encourage their students to be better people. But when, exactly? And how?

Here are a few examples of how people made their practice transparent — in our session, and also to their students:

  • For group work, I encourage them to establish norms and expectations for their groups. I tell them, “How you work together here is at least as important as what you accomplish.” This helps them understand each other’s individual goals and build positive relationships with the folks they’re working with.  – Brian Lakatos
  • With my first period class we typically start with a little bit of time (3ish minutes) to just talk. Sometimes there’s a prompt (silly ice breakers at the start of the year, acknowledgement about something happening currently at school / in the city / in the country) sometimes it is just a chance to talk about how we spent our evenings. The idea is that we acknowledge there is a transition between home and school – they are different spaces which require different kinds of navigating. The idea is also to show that we value one another and the opportunity to just be together. – Hilary Hamilton
  • I often set up a backchannel conversation space or a collaborative notes document so learners can share their thinking during the instruction, and have a place to capture their questions and identify which should be addressed in the moment and which might be able to be addressed afterward. This encourages learners to take responsibility for their own thinking and learn how to share the responsibilities of notetaking as well as add to one another’s thinking. – Jessica Raleigh

What I like about these examples is that they are very concrete things that people DO in the course of a class period. They are not strictly “classroom management techniques” but they’re not curriculum-based either. They are examples of how the methods of teaching are what ultimately send the most powerful message.

You can check out the video of the full session here:

 

P.S. At one point, a participant did ask: when are you going to share the SLA examples? At which point my secret was revealed: SLA has lots of answers to these prompts, but we don’t have THE answer. The expertise does not exist in some distant book or building — it’s already in the room, waiting to be built out of the collective knowledge of the group. 

P.P.S. There were, admittedly, a few people utterly transfixed by the fact that their classroom practice did nothing to encourage the qualities they wanted to see in their students. I’m glad that they were in the room to think about it for the first time. 

 

Not By Force, But By Example

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What does it take for a movement to become mainstream?

I thought about this a great deal as I walked nine miles during the Women’s March on Washington yesterday. It weighed on me most deeply at the MLK memorial, where the above photo was taken.

I would not have described myself as a political person before I became a teacher. A voter, sure. In college, I was your average English major without a plan (being a teacher was not in the cards, or so I thought). What I believed in was reading, thinking about it, coming up with analysis, and writing that down.

The thing is, when you do these things well — when you truly are literate — you figure stuff out. And once you figure stuff out, you can’t go back to where you were before.

I have chosen to dedicate my life to helping students become literate, but I have not paused my own ongoing exploration of the world in the process. It’s been quite the opposite. As inequality in our country increases, I find myself both working harder to make my classroom a place where students can freely explore the “how” and “why” of our world, while also personally becoming more certain as to some of the reasons that our nation fails at ensuring justice and security for all its people.

There are plenty of moments I where I don’t share my personal opinion on something we are exploring in class. But that doesn’t mean I stop thinking it, or that I hide it from them permanently. My responsibility as a teacher is to both educate my students and advocate for a world in which they will be able to achieve everything that education promises them. They are capable of understanding that complexity.

So: I can have students making all kinds of economic arguments in their 2Fer essays, and also choose to stand with Fight for $15 protestors outside City Hall.

I can be honest about my personal voting record, and still watch and analyze the inauguration with my journalism students, imaginary press passes hanging around our necks.

I can both help a student revise their “Why I Supported Donald Trump in the Election” column and also be clear that, if our current president can’t bring himself to follow the three rules for conversation at SLA, he is not welcome in my classroom.

And when it comes to matters of civil rights, I can help set the stage for our nation to evolve  — not by force, but by example. Schools set the bar for what our world should and will look like. The pressure is huge, but the potential payoff enormous.

This coming week, teachers at my school are choosing to explore the foundational ideas of the Black Lives Matter movement with their students. This is a part of a citywide effort on the part of my union caucus to raise consciousness about issues of racial justice. I look forward to all of the conversations we will have, the moments of discovery and debate. I feel fortunate that my union, the American Federation of Teachers, has already given significant support to BLM. And I feel hopeful that individuals and groups who are just getting to know this new chapter in our nation’s history of civil rights will join us in our learning.

Figuring this out was not a complex political act. It is not activism. What it took was some reading, thinking, and talking with others. Stop by my classroom this week, we’ll be doing just that.

In The Room Together

What does a truly diverse school look like?

One of the things that I love most about SLA is that our student body is diverse on many fronts — their country of origin, race or ethnicity, socio-economic status, which neighborhood they hail from. We pack a lot into one building.

But what does this look like beyond the numbers? How does it actually play out for our students over the years?

One thing Matt Kay constantly points out to the freshmen (and then to staff) is that most of our students also hail from middle schools where most of their peers looked like them. Transitioning to a school where no single demographic makes up more than 50% of the population is not always easy. Our home is not perfect (and never will be). But I think it’s telling that, when you assign the juniors a project called “Best Personal Essay Ever,” many students choose to write about what that transition has been like for them, clear-eyed, honest, appreciative and critical of both themselves and the world around them.

Here are three two-minute “visual essays” from three students who, had it not been for SLA, may never have crossed paths in our fair city. With these stories, each of them is weaving themselves into the world, making it one more cohesive fabric.

https://www.wevideo.com/embed/#825167720

https://www.wevideo.com/embed/#825555890

Speaking of Love

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In my first year of teaching at SLA — which was my first year of teaching in my own classroom — a student asked me, “do you love us?”

The question gave me pause. This was a student in the crankiest class I taught that year (hello, Fire Stream, class of 2010) and it seemed, for a moment, that the query might be a trick. But I still knew the answer in my heart.

“Yes, of course I love you.”

The student wasn’t buying it. “What? You lyin’. We really annoy you in our class.”

Zac Chase, who was listening in, came to the rescue here: “You mean you’ve never been driven crazy by somebody you love?”

It was only a couple of years in that I came to realize how truly rare this conversation was at the high school level. Love exists between young children and their parents, with teachers serving as proxy; as those children become adolescents, the definition of love shifts towards romance. Our popular portrayals of “I love you” further narrow our understanding of the experience — with our heads full of images of (straight, white) couples in joy or anguish, we lose contact with the universal experience that love can be.

And yet. I am lucky — beyond lucky — to work at SLA. What I have witnessed here has helped expand my understanding of what love is and how it can save us.

When a student carries a friend in a cast down the stairs during a fire drill, that’s love.

When an entire advisory turns out for the funeral of a parent, that’s love.

When a teacher takes a student into their own home so they will make it to graduation, that’s love.

And when we feel concern, fear, even terror about the changing political landscape, our love for each other is not just comfort or safety, but an act of resistance against the forces that would prefer to see us tear each other down in hate rather than lift each other up.

Late in the evening of election night — but long before the results were made official — a question formed in my head: What are we going to say to the kids tomorrow?

That question lead to a few lines of text, which then became a collective letter that SLA teachers composed between midnight and 7AM the next morning. We got to school early, wrote it out on poster paper, and made photocopies for every teacher to read out loud at the start of first period.

These actions saved me that day, and it brought strength to many teachers (perhaps even more than the students).

At the end of the next day, I had a chance to debrief a bit with my advisory. I had to tell them: It’s not every teaching staff that would start a letter with “to our school family” and sign off with “love.”

And yet, I’ve been hearing and seeing expressions of love more than ever since last week.  Not just in my building, or in my house, but all over this fine city.

There are some dark times ahead. But it is the dark moments that make love the most precious, the most essential. Let’s not lose that.