By Rachel Schultz Nguyen

At the start of the second semester of English 11, I taught the ERWC 3.0 module, The Things They Carried and the Power of Story. This was my students’ second approach to narrative writing; they wrote short stories during the Danger (and Power) of a Single Story module in the first semester. For this module, I was particularly interested in students developing new narrative techniques by studying a mentor text. They did! But I did not anticipate a secondary outcome that has changed my approach to teaching writing. 

The Things They Carried module is designed for students to complete eight writing tasks in response to their reading of Tim O’Brien’s constellation novel about the Vietnam War. By all accounts, this is A LOT of writing, writing that my students who hid behind black Zoom boxes for a year were not accustomed to. Thankfully, we were all up for a challenge. Why? Because the risk was low, and they knew they would get feedback. 

For the sake of time and technology access, I assigned five writing tasks. I used standards-based narrative writing success criteria and gave both individual and global feedback each week as we continued to study and discuss the novel. The end result: a digital publication called Letters I Carry, which included all five of their letters, an Author’s Note, and a process reflection.

This experience gave me a new view on the classroom writing process regarding prompts, mentor texts, and revision. Here are the three things I carried from The Things They Carried module.

Takeaway# 1: Good Prompts–And Lots of Them–Make All the Difference

We know that well-written prompts make all the difference. We also know that choice, a key component of Universal Design for Learning, helps in recruiting interest to better engage learners. This module contains over 20 (fantastic) prompts for teachers and students to choose from. 

Not only do the prompts ask students to try new techniques like Stream of Consciousness and Breaking the Fourth Wall, they also provide students a chance to rewrite their previous tasks in a new way: changing the perspective, inverting characters, re-writing endings. 

Offering a variety of prompts–some based on childhood memories, some asking students to try new techniques, and all challenging awareness of purpose, audience, and occasion–creates an atmosphere of engagement, risk-taking, and growth. Students reflected that they felt both challenged and supported by the prompts

Here’s how one student put it:

I think this activity has been really helpful for me as a writer. Having the prompts allowed me to rewrite narratives in a new way or write things that I’ve been meaning to but have never gotten around to. It can be frustrating sometimes when you want to express something so badly, or tell a story, you have all the words, but there’s something missing. It’s not writer’s block but a different kind of creative block that you can’t think of a different way to tell a story than to just tell it, but these prompts gave me the opportunity to do more than just tell a story, and I really appreciate this. I also really enjoyed writing inspired by the choices Tim O’Brien made in The Things They Carried. The combination of the prompts and the inspiration from his novel gave me a wonderful opportunity to write my stories the right way, how I wanted them to be.

Katelynne Hall

One key goal I have for my students is to understand rhetorical situations and respond effectively. The majority of the writing prompts in this module ask students to write letters, or, as I called them, “epistolary narratives.” By asking them to choose their own audience for their letters, students had to think carefully about audience, purpose, and occasion. I found that my feedback often came back to this, and student reflections affirmed this to be a key takeaway:

Through the process of brainstorming, drafting, and ultimately writing the letters in this collection I learned valuable lessons on audience, purpose and messaging. As the letters went on my targeting of a specific audience improved, my purpose for writing each letter more clear and my messaging more direct. 

Thomas Hunter

Takeaway# 2: Literature Is A Mentor

So often in the secondary classroom, we have students merely write about good literature (and often in the driest of ways. I’m looking at you, FPE). Teaching this module reminded me of the power of using literature as a mentor text. Students went straight from the text to their own stories, carrying with them techniques they had never tried before. Here’s how a student responded to “On the Rainy River,” in which O’Brien breaks the fourth wall:

Dear Dad,

I’m writing to you because I want you to understand how surreal those motorcycle trips were for me. I think we went on three, maybe four, but I remember them; I remember them because sometimes I look back and can’t really believe we did that together.

Get this: you’re seven. Or maybe you’re six or maybe you’re eight. It doesn’t matter, though, because you’re on the back of your dad’s motorcycle and the world is like you’ve never seen it before. You feel kind of gross, because the wind’s all cold and biting and sometimes everything smells bad, and you’re all achy, too, because when you’re seven, twenty minutes of nothing but sitting on the back of a motorcycle feels like twenty hours. But most of all, you’re super cool, because all you’re thinking about is, I’m riding a freaking motorcycle. And you’re thinking about how your friends have never ridden a motorcycle and you’re thinking about how awesome you’ll look with your own motorcycle when you’re older.

Aubrey Stewart

The process of creating in response to a published text meant that students were more mindful of the writer’s choices than ever before. I first taught The Things They Carried ten years ago. While students enjoyed the book, they didn’t take away the same level of appreciation for O’Brien’s storytelling. This active use of mentor texts challenged students to write like O’Brien (one option is to write to him, which presented a surprisingly fun mini-lesson on how to address an envelope). The general reflective response from my students was: “challenge accepted.”

I am mostly proud of my last letter because I feel that I incorporated some of the techniques used by O’Brien. I wrote a good story that made sense and a very thorough thought out story that included pieces of real and false information just like O’Brien’s writing.

Eric Oceguera

Takeaway #3: Process Portfolios Make Formative Assessment Formative

I have tried a variety of approaches to process writing in my classroom over the years, but nothing seemed to work for me. I want the writing that students do in my classroom to be connected to unit goals, personal, and meaningful. Tall order, I know. I also want students writing throughout a unit, not just at the end. (Among other things, this cuts down on the chances of prolonged disengagement and—dare I say it?—plagiarism.) 

Many of the new ERWC 3.0 modules provide multiple opportunities for students to write throughout a unit, and I’m here for that! Sure, it requires me to be giving more feedback more often. But since the feedback was not connected to a score, students were invigorated by it. I created global feedback mini-lessons, wrote comments on their Google Docs, held brief writing conferences, and facilitated peer reviews throughout the course of the unit, not just at the end of it. 

I feel like I have improved a lot on my writing and have grown to love writing more that I know more about it. I enjoyed learning new techniques and being able to look at past work and look at it and immediately know what I could do to improve on it. I also feel like I grew as a writer and still will in the future and that these letters were more of a beginning.

Sarah Hall

Carrying On

As I finished up this unit and prepared to teach Night to my sophomores, my PLC team and I decided to try this same approach of writing throughout the unit. My planning partner and I put extra energy into creating strong engaging prompts. We gave time for students to write thoughtfully and formally weekly. We collected writing and gave immediate feedback, both individual and global, in accordance to our success criteria. Students reflected that their confidence, skills, and writing fluency increased through the process. 

Have you tried a process portfolio with an ERWC module this year? We would love to hear about it!

Rachel Nguyen has taught English Language Arts to students in the Sacramento region for the past 15 years. She is an ERWC Workshop Leader, and she served as a coach and module editor for the ERWC 3.0 adoption. Her classroom experiences with ERWC 3.0 led her to start a writing club at Bella Vista High School. She recently earned a Master’s degree in Education in Language and Literacy at California State University, Sacramento, where she instructs the Academic Literacy course for secondary preservice teachers. Rachel is a mom and a marathoner–view her “Ted Talk” on running that she created for her 10th grade students during their We Should All Be Feminists module here. Follow her on Twitter @msschuyen. 

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