The following is a collection of potential activities that might accomplish the unit objective. It is unrealistic to attempt each and every one of these activities, but they can be implemented based on the makeup of a particular class. In addition, some may be appropriate for middle school, while others may lend themselves more to high school level students.
It's important to note that this unit is not solely a writing unit, but is a reading/writing experience. At the middle school level, teachers are often encouraged to aid children in making "connections." Some of the hardest connections for kids to make are between their own lives and texts. In his comprehensive study on the connection between autobiographical writing and reading, Brian White stresses the importance of students making these connections explicit through writing. He suggests pre–writing to teacher–generated prompts in order to "prime" students to read texts with connections in mind, in addition to writing after analyzing a text
. By employing this methodology, I can help structure our reading.
In order to help students connect our model or mentor texts to their own lives, we can complete pre–reading writing activities that will prime students to see these connections. For example, if we are going to read an excerpt from
A Long Walk to Water
in which the protagonist is assaulted while trying to find his way to a refugee camp, the pre–writing prompt can ask students to consider where they feel most vulnerable. I would model that when I was in middle school, I always felt vulnerable on the school bus, as it was the wild west of our town. There was little adult supervision and anything, including alcohol consumption and bullying, could happen on a daily basis.
Reading rarely looks the same in my classroom from one day to another. My students come to me with such diverse reading abilities, that it is important to provide reading experiences that are accessible to all, without forgetting to challenge those students who are avid readers. On any given day, I might be reading a text aloud, reading a text while students follow along, students may be reading texts to each other, or students may be reading silently and independently. Each mode has a rationale behind it.
Generally speaking, I tend to employ read–alouds for short, provocative texts. Therefore, read aloud texts would be excerpts that students can easily access simply by hearing them and can immediately discuss without reflection or re–reading. Good read–alouds include particularly evocative paragraphs, short articles that elucidate another reading, or poetry that invites discussion.
Shared reading means that I will read a piece aloud while students follow along on their own copy. This is best for our most challenging reading material in middle school, as students will often need guidance in first decoding, and then comprehending the work. Shared reading does not work well for textbook style writing, but is effective for high interest pieces. I would use shared reading for an excerpt that I want all my students read and for excerpts I plan on referring back to in whole class situations.
Guided reading is when a teacher is able to sit with a small group and help them work through comprehending a text. This is essential to primary classrooms, and ideal for secondary classrooms, though often difficult to enact. Guided reading might be appropriate for a small group of students who are either struggling with a piece of reading, or would like to explore a text in greater depth.
Students may also guide each other through reading. These groups are generally called literature circles or book clubs. This mode of reading might be appropriate for times when students are responsible for comparing multiple texts on a single theme. It often works well to have each group read and become expert on one text, before presenting it to the class. Then, each group can take turns presenting and discussing what it is they've read.
In addition to the narrative non–fiction we'll be reading, we might also be able to look at case studies of high profile incidents in New Haven. Cases like the Trayvon Martin incident might also be relevant. We can use these case studies to make more direct connections to students' lives without having to rely on personal revelations.
While this unit focuses on the connection between reading and writing, I've often found that discussion can be an essential bridge between these two areas of the language arts classroom. Given the sensitive nature of much of the reading material, as well as the particular needs of the middle school age, discussions should be structured to avoid conflict and misunderstanding.
One of my favorite middle school activities is the Socratic Seminar. This is a highly structured discussion for small groups of students (up to ten). The discussion is based on a text and a series of related questions. Usually for a longer text (like an excerpt from a biography or memoir), I would assign the reading to the entire class ahead of time and then ask the seminar group to come in prepared to discuss. Alternatively, a seminar could discuss a text after a read–aloud or shared read. These are also sometimes called fishbowl discussions.
Middle school students love poetry. It is a chance for them to release their minds from their attempts to remember rules of convention, supporting evidence, building a thesis, or even the structure of a plot. Instead, they can focus on capturing an emotion or a moment. I am always amazed at the poetry they produce. Reluctant writers who usually struggle to produce a single paragraph suddenly become prolific poets.
I believe there is a place for poetry in this unit. It may be a way to initially write about an incident in their lives without the pressure of composing a narrative or expository piece. Poetry can also be a good opening to class, or conversation starter. One might ask students to write a poem based on a picture related to one of the mentor texts, for example. One way to differentiate for lower level students would be to give students sentence starters in the form of a poem for them to complete. For example:
I was_____________________/Today I am__________________/Tomorrow I will be_______________________
As it is possible that some students may not be comfortable writing about their own experiences, or may not have a direct connection to our material, one option might be to structure interviews between students. This would encourage students to write as biographers of another's life. Potential pitfalls might be comfort level between students, as well as uneven pairings of intellectual ability. Some students may not be satisfied with the work of their peers. This methodology will have to be employed selectively.
Perhaps the most challenging part of this unit will be to structure the written assessment, or product, to emerge at the end. The district curriculum asks for a persuasive essay as this is the genre of writing assessed on the Connecticut State Mastery test in the 8
grade. As the new Common Core standards are rolled out, the terminology will change to an argument based essay, but the basic assignment will remain the same.
How then, can I make a clear connection and structure a progression from the reading of narratives to the writing of an argument? I believe this will require a broad, yet relevant question for the students to answer. Perhaps it is worth returning to the essential questions of the unit—what effect does violence have on our lives? This can be wide open for students to write about personal experiences or, more broadly, about societal violence and its impact on adolescents. Students can utilize a combination of their personal experience and our class readings to structure their arguments.