Three Things I Carried from Teaching The Things They Carried

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. 

Simple Formative Assessment

By Jonathon Medeiros

“Question your most dearly held beliefs.” Puanani Burgess teaches this as a way to help us build community. Questioning our beliefs, especially those we hold most dear, helps us to understand why we believe what we do, helps us to discover when our beliefs need to change, when they are holding us back, when they are counterproductive. The interrogation of our beliefs should be commonplace. We should go through this life assuming we can learn, change, grow. Too often, we prefer the opposite, shoring up our ideas, walling them off from potential questioning. 

Our large systems, like public schools, are purpose built to function on a set of “unquestionable” beliefs, beliefs so unquestionable as to be rendered invisible. Often we do not even know we are clutching to a belief, they way we do not always notice that we are breathing.

Over this strange year, we have been faced with many hardships, many forced changes, many problems to face down. But also, this year has been full of countless opportunities to question our beliefs about school, about what school is, what it is for, how learning happens and why. We’ve had the opportunity to struggle with questions of attendance, of late policies, of where and when and how to hold classes, how to encourage learning, to encourage growth, and how to measure it, if we should even try to measure it. Those of us willing to grapple with these questions, to interrogate our old beliefs, have come away with new answers, with new perspectives, with more energy and safer, more effective and inclusive classes.

One question I grappled with was how to track student growth when I can’t see students in person regularly. I think the most effective formative assessments are simple, frequent, useful to the student, and repetitive. We learn by working and part of my job, even when assessing learning, is to make sure students are always pushing themselves, still learning and growing. Assessment should be part of the learning work that students do, not something that is done to them. 

Assessment should be part of the learning work that students do, not something that is done to them. 

So, I decided to just ask my students one simple question: What did you learn this week? I am not sure students are used to being asked this question, but it is a powerful self reflective tool, a way for students to prod and track their own learning, as well as a perfect way for me to see the students’ growth while giving regular, purposeful, useful feedback.

The question forces self reflection, allows students to dive into and identify what they are learning, how they are growing, and why. But it is flexible and can be tailored as needed. I can focus on developing writing skills. I can focus on speaking skills by having them record their responses. I can be extremely targeted and focus on supporting ideas with evidence or I can zoom out and simply focus on writing fluency.

The key is students are doing the work, investigating their own learning, mulling it over, finding pride and excitement in their own growth, particularly as the year goes on, so I can see their growth but the assessment doesn’t interrupt the learning.

Jonathon Medeiros has been teaching and learning about Language Arts and rhetoric for fifteen years with students on Kauaʻi. He frequently writes about education policy and is the former director of the Kauaʻi Teacher Fellowship. Jonathon enjoys building things, surfing, and spending time with his wife and daughters. He believes in teaching his students that if you change all of your mistakes and regrets, you’d erase yourself. Follow Jonathon on Twitter – @jonmedeiros or at jonathonmedeiros.com

Is Homework Too Late to Check for Understanding?

By Marisol Puga

As a student in my teaching credential program, I was involved in a heated debate in my Global Education course regarding the controversial question of “should teachers give out homework?” I, of course, vehemently argued that homework is necessary in order for the student to demonstrate the skills that they learned in class that day. 

That was my trained opinion, yes, “trained” because through the span of my student career I was trained by all of my teachers from 1st to 12th grade to expect homework on a daily basis. Homework, by the way, I sometimes never saw again after it was turned in, and if I did, it was returned with a meaningless grade with no explanation behind it as to how I earned that grade. Or even, more importantly, what I could do to improve the skill I was applying for that particular assignment. 

It should be clear by now as a teacher in my fifth year in a classroom, that I no longer hold the same opinion on “traditional” homework. This is not to say that the concept of homework cannot be beneficial to students. If used correctly, “homework” can help build a positive digital classroom environment and community. This may sound complicated, but it is done by simply creating “homework” that does not require any physical product and that the students can choose whether or not to “complete.”

Currently, all of my distance learning CHOICE “homework” serves three purposes. First, to get to know my students and vice versa (since I always “complete” all of our homework assignments, too). This is done by assigning something as simple as “Ask your favorite person to describe you in 3 words.” Most students will jump at the chance to tell you what their friend or significant other said (especially via private Zoom chat)! Second, the choice homeworks facilitate communication between students and their parents; this is done with assigning something that will spark a conversation, such as “ask your parents what is their most embarrassing memory from when they were your age.” I can tell you that most of my students chose to complete that one (since it’s usually the parent witnessing or causing their embarrassing moments)! Lastly, my choice homework introduces students to being aware of their mental health by having them create a weekly “to-do” list of three things that they will try to do at least once a day to help them manage their stress.

However, as you might recall I did not start off with, what some might call  a “New Age” idea behind homework’s use. This type of homework promotes positive rapport, an inclusive classroom culture, and builds community that bridges the gap between the school, parents, and their students. Facilitating such bonding and relatable content, sparks increased socioemotional learning, connection, and engagement when students and families need it the most. 

As a meek novice teacher, I continued to follow the educator’s norm of assigning “traditional” homework (i.e., we did this in class, so surely that means you can apply this skill perfectly on your own) even if I did not always see the value of it. 

The main issue I constantly encountered, however, as I would walk the class and grade their work, was I found myself RETEACHING yesterday’s essential skill to at least one student per group. This would happen DAILY. Sound familiar to you? As to be expected, I was frustrated, but I could only blame myself for not doing more…This pattern helped me realize, why wait until the following day to see what your students didn’t understand. Better equipped with this self reflection, I immediately solved this issue by transforming what would have normally been homework into an exit ticket, which was then checked in real time during class. By using this strategy, I was able to address the miscommunication right then and there!

Since distance learning began, at least from my experience, I have witnessed many teachers assigning homework as a means to squeeze in material that they could not cover in class due to shortened instructional time. This creates more workload and subsequently more stress  for BOTH teachers and students. My suggestion is to concentrate on what skill they are supposed to practice that day and create an opportunity for them to demonstrate their level of proficiency,” Therefore, establishing a stress free and manageable check for understanding, enabling students and teachers to monitor their learning.

I know that we can no longer for many reasons “lurk” over our student’s shoulders to check for their understanding, BUT, thanks to easy to maneuver online learning platforms we are still able to accomplish the same means digitally! For this purpose I prefer Google classroom, Padlet, or Peardeck since these all allow you to view what the student is doing in real time. 

This real time check for understanding exit ticket using technology eliminates the need to assign homework for your students to demonstrate what they know or don’t know. Thus, avoiding student disengagement and excess stress for all parties involved by checking for understanding in class when there is still time to correct student-teacher miscommunications. And if you must assign “homework,” then please consider using your homework as a means to nourish the class environment at a time when student buy in is extremely vital for their success. 

Marisol Puga is the favorite (ONLY) freshman English Teacher at Health Careers Academy in Stockton, CA. When she is not teaching, you can find her running, reading Victorian novels, and posting her “Teacher Outfit of the Day” on Instagram. You can follow her @marisolpugarangel.