Monday, February 9, 2015

Picnic Paper Plates, M.K. Asante, & Mentor Texts?

I tried out an exercise I experienced at a San Diego Area Writing Project  study session, one on revision and mentor texts

In several classes, we are in the middle of a narrative project, and I wanted to see if I could use a mentor text to illustrate how solid story telling skills. I didn't use the process exactly as the facilitator did, but I did keep with the spirit of it.

After the requisite "beginning-of-class-throat-clearing-noises," I projected an image of a picnic scene to the class. I asked folks to chat in pairs about a favorite (or least favorite) outdoor meal they recently had. I told them we'd be doing a fluency exercise, to simply practice writing as quickly and clearly as we could. As they chatted, I passed around paper plates.

Then I directed students to write the best story they could about their best or worst experience at an outdoor meal - picnic, barbecue, party, whatevers - directly onto the paper plate. 

I loved this strategy when the SDAWP leader modeled the revision exercise - having writers compose not on standard paper but on a paper that matches the topic. For picnics, pass out paper plates. For a story about a trips, use old maps. For a holiday story, use the back of wrapping paper. Use old postcards for a remembered vacation. You get the idea. This move doesn't simply add novelty and a sense of play to the activity - it somehow signals we can be creative, experimental. Messy, even.


After ten minutes, I asked students to put their paper plates aside, and we shifted to reading the first few pages of M.K. Asante's Buck: A Memoir. We read aloud to hear the rhythm and tone of his words. 

Then students paired off, investigating the piece for interesting, remarkable moves Asante made. This part took some prompting because many students had difficulty focusing on moves and strategies. They got caught up on the content, simply repeating or summarizing what Asante wrote. 

Given that this was one of the first times we did something like this, I anticipated this stumbling block. Though we've discussed this concept before, it's difficult for developing writers to distinguish between an author's content and the author's strategies. So this was another of those opportunities to iterate the difference (and deep correlation between) what an author says and how the author conveys that message

With only a little prodding, student identified many strategies: using dashes to set up illustrations, using dashes to set off explanations, "stitching" dialogue with action, and using fragments to quicken the pace. They noted various patterns of descriptive moves Asante made, for instance using "like" to set up similes. They also observed he chose short sentences and brief paragraphs that made the piece kinetic, active. 

After reviewing what students observed and giving those moves names (labels we came up with during the exercise, not anything highly technical. Certainly nothing we would find in a standard grammar book!). But the names worked for our purposes. 

We returned to the paper plate drafts. I instructed students to revise their stories, to repeat what they wrote but with a twist: "try on" as many of Asante's moves as possible. Experiment. Make an attempt, no matter how messy. In fact, embrace the messiness of trying something new. This time, however, they wrote on regular paper, with their paper plate, Asante's text, and their notes in front of them as they revised. 


I'll transcribe a couple of "before-and-after" drafts in a later post. They're pretty amazing. But for now, I can post representative comments from the "exit tickets" I asked students to write before leaving class. 

For the most part, students attempted to improve dialogue, enliven the action, and us more descriptive language. What I found hopeful was that many writers labeled the moves with exactly the names we came up for the moves in the analysis. Hopeful because if those names stick, then what they observed in Asante's writing will be more likely to show up in their own work - now that they've named those moves. 

1) I also tried to add description the the “stitch/sample/dialogue technique” Asante used because I find this to be very effective in his piece. 
2) I tried to “splice” and use “like” more. I felt those were great ways to add action within the text and to add personal flavor.   
3) I tried to use the “stitch/sample” [strategy] and style because his strategies fit my story.
4) I added more description. And I added [comparisons that began with ] “like” because I felt it captured the exact moment for me.
The last two comments illustrated that students did more than observe and name strategies. They began to see how they could apply Asante's technique in  their own writing. They see themselves as writers, or at least capable of using writers' craft. 

A few found the exercise a bit awkward:
1) It’s a little uncomfortable because I'm new to his strategies, and it might not come out the way I want it to. But I tried my best, and I enjoy trying out new ways to write.
2) It was difficult since I had to think about if I was using the techniques properly.
3) It felt different but also [it] felt good to switch up my writing style."

Even those critiques pointed toward a sort of pleasure and intellectual work. I'll count that as a win. The majority of the comments were explicitly  favorable: 

1) It was easier to write as I had an example to look at.

2) My writing felt more natural, more focused, more directed. And I felt very comfortable looking at Asante’s moves for inspiration.

3) It was fun, entertaining, and thoughtful. I had to look at what I wrote and combine [what I wrote] with the new ideas.

4) I'm going to try to uses similes. I feel that it makes our stories more interesting and keeps the reader engrossed in the story.
 
5) It was great for me to add more dialogue to help readers get more involved in the story, as Asante did.

More language that suggests the students see themselves as writers! They also recognized that paying close attention to a writer's craft can be a source of inspiration, a model. They got it. And somehow, with minimal prodding, students recognize that their writing choices have an affect on readers. I hadn't anticipated that this exercise would iterate that lesson. Another win!