Four Ideas for New Year’s Writing Activities

BY: LIZ JORGENSEN

Hey there, happy Sunday! If you followed the advice of the many teacher blogs telling you to relax and take time for self-care over break and are now scrambling for some back-to-school lesson ideas… We got you, sis/bruh. Or, if you’re an impeccably focused and responsible teacher who did plan over break but wants to spice up your lessons with some timely writing activities, we got you too!

There’s something about the new year that makes people both reflective and forward-thinking. You go to write the date for the first time in January, and you realize that you’re writing a whole new number at the end of the date; the year is new, why can’t you be new as well?

This leads to thinking back over the past year and remembering the best and worst times of the past year. People tend to think about their mistakes and how they can do better the next year, and people of course make New Year’s resolutions.

And it’s not just adults who have those thoughts—our students are thinking about these ideas as well. With a time of year upon us that is so rife with personal reflection, analysis, and goal setting, how can we not capitalize on that in the classroom?

So, here are a few writing-based ideas that center around the ideas of reflection, goal-setting, resolutions, and the new year in general.

 

I Wish You a Merry New Year

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(Almost) yearly, author Neil Gaiman posts an open-letter-style New Year’s wish on his writing blog. Of course, because he is Neil Gaiman, they are beautifully crafted pieces of art. Any of his New Year’s wish letters, or a combination thereof, would make excellent mentor text writing for your students.

First of all, accessing these letters. Here is an article that posted portions of the letters from several years. If you find one that you like, you can Google it and find the full text on Neil’s blog. Also, here is the full letter from this year.

For those who haven’t delved into the realms of mentor text writing, the jist is that students examine an exemplar piece of writing, notice what makes it well-written, and then use the style to write their own piece. I teach freshmen in my English classes, so they need scaffolding with pretty much everything, and mentor text writing is no exception. Here are the directions I give to students when I have them use mentor texts:

For Mentor Texts, you must write the following:

1) I notice that…

-Write down what you see that makes this a good piece of writing

-In other words, what are techniques that the author is using to make it sound good?

-List at least TWO interesting things that you notice about how this piece of writing is written

2) My Turn…

-Use the techniques you noticed to write your own piece

I actually make them write the number 1 on their paper and write the heading, “I notice that…” and list their techniques, then we go over them as a class. Then, I show them my list, note any that we have already talked about, and also highlight any important factors that they missed. Then, I always also write my own “My Turn” portion to show the students how to use the style of the author to write my own piece. Then, I release them into the wild to write their “My Turn” portions.

Something to keep in mind for mentor text writing is appropriateness of length for writing readiness. It would be very difficult for my freshmen to take Neil’s entire blog and mentor-text it. There’s too much going on for them to hone in on the writing techniques being used. If I use this mentor text writing with my students this week, I will probably pick a paragraph or two for them to imitate. If you teach older or more advanced students, though, you may want to have them write an entire New Year’s open letter blog.

Also, notice that Neil focuses on his wishes for the world for the new year. You could have your students write their wishes for the world, their wishes for the school/community, their wishes for their family, for their soccer team, for an estranged friend etc. Having an option of a smaller focus may also be a good scaffold for students who struggle to think super broadly and feel that writing wishes for the world is too big.

 

I’ve Been to the Year 3000

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Another timely writing activity would be having students write a letter to their future selves. Generally, letters to the future both reflect upon the past and project into the future, which are the exact feeling that a new year stirs up.

To aid in this activity, some lovely people have set up an online version of the future letter concept. Simply type in your email address and your letter, set a date when you want your letter sent to you, and voila! You could specify that students set the date for the last week of school or the last week of 2020 to make the letter more appropriate to the new year specifically.

When I have done this activity with my students, I have written my own future-me letter and shared it with them first. Like mentor text writing, this gives them a concept of what their letter could look like and gives them a high standard of the reflective and critical thinking that they should put into their letter. Also, the Future Me website gives a plethora of examples from people who have volunteered their letters to be shared. So many mentor texts for the win!

 

One Word More, Another Word Another Destiny

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An oldie-but-goodie is to have your students choose a One Word for their new year. This has been an annual trend on Twitter for several years now, but choosing a guiding word for the year as a springboard for writing really never gets old. Just search for the hashtag #OneWord2020 on Twitter, and you will see tons of examples.

When I have used this in the past, I have had my students start by brainstorming about how they see themselves in a new year or a new semester. What are their goals for the new year? Whom do they want to become? In what ways do they want to grow? Then, I have them refine their brainstorming and look for one word to sum up the essence of what they are claiming. We look at some examples on Twitter as well.

I have them make a small poster displaying the word, defining it, and using it in a sentence. They must also decorate the poster in a way that shows how they hope the word will apply to their new year. I then display those in the classroom to keep their vocabular resolution in the forefront of their minds.

Here is a PowerPoint that I used last year for this lesson. OneWord2019 project

 

Information, Information, Information

What better way to start off the new year than with some depressing statistics about how people don’t keep New Year’s resolutions, am I right?

Ok, but for real, analyzing infographics that give statistics about the demographics and success/failure rate of New Year’s resolutions can help people see what is helpful and not helpful and how to have a better shot at meeting their goals, not just at New Year’s, but also in life in general.

Plus, being able to “read” a visual, a.k.a. analyze a visually curated piece for the argument that the creators intended to communicate, is a vital skill in our digitally-driven world.

When I have my students analyze a graph or infographic, we look at it together, discuss it informally, and then I have them write a 5-sentence analysis. Again, keep in mind the freshman factor. Scale up or down as needed for your own kiddos. Here are the directions I give them for analyzing an infographic:

Infographic Analysis Directions:

Write a paragraph of at least FIVE SENTENCES about this infographic.

  • You need to include both observation and analysis in your paragraph.
  • Observation = one thing/fact that you notice.
  • Analysis = something deeper about that fact, such as why it is important or what it means.

Analysis Questions to consider when writing your paragraph:

  1. What could that thing/fact/statistic cause?
  2. What has caused this to be true?
  3. Why is this important?
  4. What else could this tell me about this topic?
  5. What does this remind me of?
  6. How does the layout of the graphic help you understand the information?
  7. What information is NOT shown?

 

So, for the infographic samples. Here’s a bunch about varying statistics surrounding New Year’s resolutions.

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New-Year-Infographic

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And here’s a fun one about the history and traditional practices of New Year’s. For example, did you know that England didn’t replace the Julian calendar with the Gregorian calendar and adopt January 1st as the beginning of the new year until 1752?? I didn’t. Actually, I fact checked that before I posted this one so as to not spread any fake news on the blog.

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So there you have it! Hopefully some of these ideas will give you a leg up in getting back into the school year grind. Happy 2020!

Liz Jorgensen (formerly Keiper) is a contributing blogger for WVCTE. When she’s not dressing up in togas or running around her classroom with foam swords reenacting Shakespeare, she can be found enjoying the great outdoors, playing guitar, or adding to her rather out-of-control rubber duck collection. You can follow her on Twitter @LizJorgenTeach.

WVCTE is wondering…

  • What are some other lessons that you use to help students both reflect and look forward during the time of the new year?
  • Share some strategies you have used to help students tackle mentor text and infographic analysis.

Leave us a comment, Tweet us your thoughts @WVCTE, or connect with us on Facebook!

3 Tips for Using Literature as Mentor Texts

“When it comes to writing and mentor text study in a literature intensive course, I rely on a few tricks of the mentor-text trade that encourage students to deliberately craft their writing, not just get words on the page in the allotted time. The best way I know how to do that is to the use the literature itself as our mentor texts.”

Here are 3 tips for using the literature you’re already studying to guide your writers. @ncte #nctevillage

By Karla Hilliard

*This post originally appeared on Moving Writers. See the original post here and make sure to follow this INCREDIBLE blog for effective writing strategies for your classroom. 

Teaching is often a balancing act. We’re constantly balancing, sometimes battling, the seemingly opposing forces of lesson planning vs. grading, eating the cake in the workroom vs. not eating the cake in the workroom, literature study vs. writing study.

But why can’t we have our cake and eat it, too? And by cake, I mean writing. (And actual cake.)

As an AP Literature teacher, I feel the weight of the heavy-duty curriculum and the ticking of the exam clock, no matter how hard I try to balance the scales of the classroom.

When it comes to writing and mentor text study in a literature intensive course, I rely on a few tricks of the mentor-text trade that encourage students to deliberately craft their writing, not just get words on the page in the allotted time. The best way I know how to do that is to the use the literature itself as our mentor texts.

Tip 1

Use intentionally chosen passages from the literature you’re studying as mini-mentor texts.

I like to…

  • Choose mentors based on the device I’d like the students to practice or replicate.
  • Tag particularly rich or moving passages that evoke a reaction or response. 
  • Look for variations in structure and style.
  • Choose passages that I admire or aspire to.

Take for example the following excerpts from short stories and literary nonfiction my students recently studied: 

The hills across the valley of the Ebro’ were long and white. On this side there was no shade and no trees and the station was between two lines of rails in the sun. Close against the side of the station there was the warm shadow of the building and a curtain, made of strings of bamboo beads, hung across the open door into the bar, to keep out flies.

***

He picked up the two heavy bags and carried them around the station to the other tracks. He looked up the tracks but could not see the train. Coming back, he walked through the bar-room, where people waiting for the train were drinking. He drank an Anis at the bar and looked at the people. They were all waiting reasonably for the train. He went out through the bead curtain. She was sitting at the table and smiled at him.

‘Do you feel better?’ he asked.

‘I feel fine,’ she said. ‘There’s nothing wrong with me. I feel fine.’

 – from “Hills Like White Elephants” by Ernest Hemingway

“There stood, facing the open window, a comfortable, roomy armchair. Into this she sank, pressed down by a physical exhaustion that haunted her body and seemed to reach into her soul.

– from “The Story of an Hour” by Kate Chopin

I have seen that dream all my life. It is perfect houses with nice lawns. It is Memorial Day cookouts, block associations, and driveways. The Dream is tree houses and the Cub Scouts. The Dream smells like peppermint but tastes like strawberry shortcake. And for so long I have wanted to escape into the Dream, to fold my country over my head like a blanket. But this has never been an option because the Dream rests on our backs, the bedding made from our bodies. And knowing this, knowing that the Dream persists by warring with the known world…I was sad for those families, I was sad for my country, but above all, in that moment, I was sad for you.

– from Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates 

Tip 2

Always follow the Read Like a Reader rule. Then ask: What do you notice?

Allow  students to read and react to the mentors as readers first. My students’ gut reaction to these mini mentor texts can go a couple of different ways. If they are not yet familiar with the text, they will want  to piece together the context or discuss potential symbolism, rather than examining how the writing is put together, which is exactly what they’re trained to do. So, let them do that. If students are familiar with the text or we’ve already tackled the piece in our literature study, students tend to first discuss the passage in context, which sounds something like, “Oh that’s where he…” or “Remember, that’s after they…” or “I love/can’t stand how this character…” 

Allow students to experience the joy and surprise and emotion of reading beautiful passages in literature. 

After that, one simple question will do the rest: What do you notice? 

(Or I sometimes ask, what do you notice about how this is put together?)

With this question, students begin to see the mentors with new eyes. 

For our classroom discussion and share out, I typically have students talk about their “noticings” first with their small groups, as I work the room and coach. After four or five minutes of small group discussion, we bring it back to the whole class. I ask one person from each group to share something they noticed, and I build a list of their noticings on the board — or what Allison and Rebekah call “writer’s moves.” From there, the students riff off one another. 

I’ve found that even if some students don’t have the language for language, they are still willing to offer up what they see as important about the construction of the passage. I believe if we create opportunities for these conversations about the writing itself, students will be well on their way to Reading Like Writers and employing a few writerly tricks of their own. 

Allison recently published a great post on this subject as well — on reading like readers, reading like writers, and identifying writers’ moves. You should definitely check it out. 

Here’s what my students had to say about the second Hemingway passages in class:

Here they are reading like READERS: 

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Here they are reading like WRITERS.

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Tip 3

Create opportunities for students to be inspired by the mentors in their own writing. 

If this seems like an exercise in invention or creative writing, it is! This is so much of what I love about the mentor text approach. Mentors allow my literature students to live in both worlds — to study great and powerful Literature-with-a-capital-L, and through simple writing exercises, to continue to explore their creativity, their depth of thought, and most importantly, themselves as unique and valuable individuals. 

I tell students that after we practice and practice and practice with these mentors – these rich and evocative passages – that the deep structures of what we notice about the construction of  writing will transfer to their own writing as long as they are making intentional choices in their craft. I’ve found that getting students to consider how they’re constructing their writing is half the battle. As soon as students are open to the idea that repetition, detail, diction, dialogue, and syntax are so.much.morethan unwieldy words we sometimes throw into a literary analysis, and that by taking control of their own voice and being aware and cognizant of how they, too, can craft their language like the pros – well, we’re getting somewhere. 

Below are a few examples of some lovely student writing as a result of these methods.

The mentors we studied come from “Hills Like White Elephants” by Ernest Hemingway; “The Story of an Hour” by Kate Chopin; and an excerpt from “Between the World and Me” by Ta-Nehisi Coates — all of which are found at the beginning of this post. 

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How do you incorporate mentor texts into your literature classes? What stories or passages from literature might be fit for mini-mentor text study? I would love to hear from you!

Leave a comment below, find me on Twitter@karlahilliard, or connect with us on Facebook! 

-Karla