Poetry is one of the best ways to expose yourself to language. You don’t have to connect deeply with every poem you read, but always read poetry slowly and aloud whenever possible. Delight in the word choices, images, and emotions. Blackout poetry begins with a printed page and seeks to find interesting word choices that are left behind to reveal a new work. My Advanced Creative Writing class has been experimenting a bit with the form. Enjoy!
What are annotations? Annotations are interactions with a text or media. They can be notes about the perspective, claim, evidence, questions, or comments.
Why teach and require them? The short answer (for people who read the last chapter first– no judgment here!): Stronger literacy skills and critical thinking, as well as better evidence for writing.
The longer answer:
I spend quite a bit of time at the beginning of the year requiring students to annotate different types of texts and media for different purposes. Many of them groan and ask why. Why annotate when I know what I think? Why annotate when I could just talk about it?
Here’s what I tell them: Annotations are a way to make your thinking visible. They force you to read more actively, instead of letting your eyes scan across a page (or multiple pages) until you reach the end and have no idea what you’ve read.
Here are the two questions students need to ask (and answer!) before reading:
- Why are we doing the reading?
- What are we going to do with the reading after we’re done?
The answers will vary depending on the field or discipline, as well as the type of information. Sometimes a teacher will answer these two questions before you read, but many times, they won’t. This isn’t a criticism or a disadvantage, because for the rest of your lives, you will read or view material without being given an assignment. Use this time to practice defining purpose for yourself.
Why are we reading? Some possible answers might be: to master material for a class, to try something new, to learn how to fix something, general research, grow as a person, etc.
What will we do with the info? Some possible answers: condense into notes for study, share with a team or friend for collaboration, use info to build something new, apply info to a new problem, combine with other info for research, etc.
I give students specific things to watch for in shorter, difficult texts, because I want them to have strategies and practice for reading longer, harder sources and material. In addition, I am teaching them how to approach different types of information– you don’t read a poem the same way you read a short story. Here is the annotations guide I give students to help them learn how to improve their annotations in fiction and nonfiction texts. My juniors have already received it, and my sophomores are working toward this model.
Want to see an example? Here are some great annotations by a student in one of my English 3H classes (who graciously gave permission to post his work).
Notice how he identifies claims, support, asks questions, and shows he is reading well. When he wrote his response to this article, it’s no accident that the support he used in his paper was directly linked to the annotations he made as he read. This is ultimately the best reason to annotate: to collect ideas for response and sharing.
Annotations model the listening skills needed to understand our information and media-saturated world, as well as provide support for asking better questions of what we see and read. This is the heart of literacy for our students at the high school level and beyond– not learning how to decode words, but how to decode meaning and apply it in new contexts for a variety of purposes.
I did quite a bit of reading and listening this summer about habits, creativity, and work that has led me to believe we are asking our kids the wrong question about their futures. From the time they are little, we ask:
“What do you want to be when you grow up?”
We expect them to answer with a predictable profession. This worked well fifty years ago when a person could reasonably expect they would work in one industry most their adult lives and retire with a nice pension. Maybe even twenty years ago. Increasingly though, I read and hear about people who change career fields two, three, four times or more over the course of their lives. It’s not just millennials either (I am exhibit A). How do we prepare our kids for a series of jobs, some of which haven’t even been created yet? How can we instill resiliency and help them learn to adapt knowledge and learning in a fast-paced global workplace?
We have to ask better questions. I’ve been experimenting with a couple that might help a student find their way more quickly. See what you think:
- Who are you? What strengths, passions, talents, and network can you develop that will guide you to become a resilient, healthy individual– the best version of yourself?
- How can you harness your personal inventory of skills, relationships, work ethic, and creativity to do meaningful work and make a difference in our community?
When we ask kids what they want, they often say “To be happy” or “To have more/enough money.” But what does that mean? Happiness is an elusive goal, especially if we depend on outside circumstances to supply it. “Enough money” is largely dependent on how well I live beneath my means and how I prioritize what is important to me. It all comes back to knowing myself and using my inventory of skills and passion for a purpose.
I have four children, two in high school. They don’t know what they want “to be,” and I thought I was struggling to guide them, largely because I’ve been thinking of it as choosing a vocation instead of as developing a resilient individual who can thrive in any environment. But I realized our experiences traveling, moving, reading, and expanding perspective are actually preparing them for whatever is ahead. There’s a famous quote by E.L. Doctorow about writing, but it applies to life as well: “Writing is like driving at night in the fog. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.” I’m shifting the way I think about their future, and choosing to help them set goals for today to develop skills they can use in any field. If they know how to learn and adapt, they will be ready for anything.
High school can be a terrific place to discover passions, talents, and strengths, and I wonder if helping them explore various fields, uncover their strengths, and valuing process over product might be a good start.
What do you think? How can we ask kids better questions to prepare them for their next steps?
A friend recently wrote a piece about returning to nature to find solace when the world seems to be spinning out of control. Her meditation on the ocean reminded me of the question Whitman asked and answered in a section of Leaves of Grass, and his words encouraged me:
Oh me! Oh life! of the questions of these recurring,
photo via Pixabay, CC public domain
When my creative writing classes worked on creative nonfiction, I spent a week or two helping them collect dozens of ideas. Creative nonfiction lends itself well to childhood memories, and I decided to try something to shake some of those memories loose, while helping students analyze their own creative process.
I assigned a day of play.
It took me a couple days to pull together the materials: play dough, legos, water paints and paper, coloring books and pencils, and fort-building materials (sheets and duct tape). On the day of play, I dragged four bags of fun from my car to my classroom and waited in anticipation— this was either going to be phenomenal or a complete flop.
As they came in, I directed them to choose one of the activities from a list on the board and to play for the period. I wish I had video. The questions came rapid-fire:
“How will this be graded?”
“Are you serious?”
“Is there a rubric?” (I nearly died.)
“What’s the catch?”
I had decided ahead of time that I would not interrupt the process with explanations or analysis. I was determined to get them to play. My answer repeatedly was: “No catch, no grade, just play.”
Most cheered. Some whined. But everyone chose something and began. As soon as the lids came off the play dough and the sound of digging in the lego bin ensued, the mood shifted.
“I remember this smell!”
“Can you find another wheel for my car?”
“I haven’t done this in a long time.”
“Can I stay in here the rest of the day?”
Most were relaxed and jubilant by the end of the period. Some spent the period frustrated with their creation. Most telling? No one was on their phone, except to take pictures (which I asked them to do). When I called for five minutes until cleanup, there were groans and protests.
As they left, I heard statements like:
“I feel so relaxed.”
“That was more fun than I thought.”
“Can we do this again tomorrow?”
“I forgot how much I loved doing this.”
And my favorite, from a junior with a pretty intense schedule:
“I really needed this. It was completely therapeutic.”
The next day, we had a debrief, first in writing and then aloud. When asked how they felt when told to “play,” the answers were all over the map:
“I kept waiting for the catch.”
“I wasn’t sure what you meant.”
“It felt stupid and condescending.”
“I thought maybe you didn’t have lesson plans.” (HA!)
“I was so happy.”
When asked to analyze their creative process and choices, most students admitted they chose something they knew they could do and either replicated something they had done before or followed a model online (yes, some students looked up examples— from play dough to drawing inspiration). Most noted that they took a minute to envision the final product and then set about making the medium match their vision. Others just began playing and let the free form become a shaped product. Only a few (out of 100 students) tried something they had never done before.
I think their experience mirrors what we see in a society where failure is associated with shame. Students (and adults) are either afraid of or completely oblivious to opportunities to take creative risks, even in non-threatening environments where the price of failure is low. I expected to see some of this, but I was surprised how many didn’t take more risks. I shared the findings from Tom Wujec’s Marshmallow Challenge (it’s a design challenge–not an eating challenge). He found the groups who developed and tested prototypes, failing multiple times in the process, tended to be more successful than those who sat and tried to plan it out in advance in their heads—and kindergartners were one of the most successful groups.
We discussed how they felt emotionally, intellectually, and socially during the activity, and all but my few frustrated artists said it was the most relaxed they’d felt in school in a long time. When asked why it was relaxing, students had a number of ideas from “no grade pressure” to “being able to use my hands to create something.”
Many gleaned memories to use in their writing. Some were nostalgic, “I realized this was the last time I would probably play at school, which made me a little sad.” Some students found their story in the actual activity, like the student who was thrilled to help build a fort, saying she had never done it before.
At the end, I revealed the three-fold purpose of our activity:
1. Collect childhood memories for writing.
2. Analyze creative process and risk-taking.
3. Demonstrate the need for space and down time for optimal creativity and performance in any field.
When I planned the activity, I thought the second objective was likely the most important, but after hearing their reflections, I found the third one was nearly foreign to my students who stand in front of a firehose of information and connection all day long, both academic and social. A few students came in later that week and said they had dug out their coloring books or paints at home— to help them relax. As we fight depression, poor social skills, over-dependence on devices, and over-scheduling in our lives, I wonder if creating more directed and undirected down time and space would help us reconnect with the best versions of ourselves. I think it’s worth exploring with a bit of play.
As you head off into summer break, take a couple minutes to consider a different set of “R”s. With a little planning, you can revise this summer into your best one yet.
- Reflect: what went well this year? What would you like to do better in the fall? What habits can you practice now?
- Read: What will you read this summer? Choose books, blogs, magazines, in all genres and formats.
- Relax: How will you take a break? There are many ways to recharge: exercise, rest, travel, writing, reading, games, and time with friends and family. Consider taking short breaks from social media to let your brain recharge.