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. 

Creative Spaces: Conference Preview!

Editor’s Note: This month we’re featuring previews of sessions from California State University’s upcoming ERWC Literacy Conference. Author and teacher Martin Brandt is presenting June 27 in Northern California.

By Martin Brandt

I wasted many a Saturday or Sunday morning of my youth watching football before I learned that coaches actually have names for the “gaps” in the line of scrimmage–that is, those spaces between the linemen which can be expanded for either blockers or ball-carriers to run through.

On either side of the center (that’s the guy who hikes the ball, for you non-football fans out there) are the “A” gaps. Beyond those gaps are the guards, whose outside flanks are designated “B” gaps; on the other side of the B gaps are the tackles, who (if there’s a tight end lined up next to them) create a “C” gap.

Why do they name the gaps? Because coaches design offensive plays to create holes in those gaps for players to run through. In other words, the gaps create space for the creative act of offensive football.

I guess I started thinking about this because I wanted to find a way to reach the athletes in my classroom, to help them see that what I am asking them to do at the sentence level–to make use of phrase additions–is analogous to what they already do on the field, court, or diamond–indeed, that it’s something they already understand: they have to find the spaces in order to create.

In baseball and softball, you hit the ball where the other guys ain’t; in basketball and soccer, you create open spaces to make shots possible. And to return to football (but away from the offensive line), receivers must “get open”, either by juking their defender one-on-one, or by finding the “soft spot” or seam in the defensive zone.

In writing, these “soft spots in the zone” present themselves in every sentence we compose. And if our students learn where to look for them, how to find them, and how to make use of them, they can begin to experience writing not as another odious chore inflicted by their sadistic teacher, but instead as the joyful act of creation that it is–as something like scoring on the field.

These spaces have names, too. In the sentence, they are the Left Branch–introductory phrasing which precedes the subject-verb core, situating the reader to the action of the sentence; the Parenthetical, which splits the subject-verb core to comment on the subject; and the Right Branch, which extends from the subject-verb core and comments in some way on the action of the sentence.

Students who can learn to see and make use of these creative spaces can experience exciting and significant growth in the course of a school year, improving both their confidence and their syntactic maturity. And finding ways to help my students understand this has become the driving creative problem of my career. For if we understand the humble sentence better, we create the possibility for authentic growth, both for the student and the teacher.

Martin Brandt teaches English at San Jose’s Independence High School, a large urban school with a diverse student population. He is a teacher consultant with the San Jose Area Writing Project and former winner of the California Teachers of English Award for Classroom Excellence. Martin is the author of Between the Commas: Sentence Instruction That Builds Confident Writers (and Writing Teachers).

“What Is A Text?”

By Jonathon Medeiros

I often tell my students that our job is to be curious, to be critical, to notice the way everything around us is manipulating us, bending our behaviors. They smirk as I ramble on, assuming paranoia or overzealous, curmudgeonly zeal, worthy of temporary entertainment, and nothing more. I go on, asking them to tell me everything they know about text.

“What is a text?”

“It’s on my phone.”
“Words.”
“Books.”

“Is this a text?” I ask, holding up a poem. “And this?” playing a snippet of a song. “And is this a text?” pointing to a painting.

Yesses, and umms, and unsteady nos.

Eventually I reveal my full crazy idea, that anything created by a human for a purpose is a text. We quickly make it through essays, books, poems, and songs being texts. They think they are clever to state that movies are texts, because they can’t read the words. Slowly, we agree that paintings and pictures and sculptures are texts, crafted by humans, afterall, to communicate some idea. The creator of each made specific choices to reach their goal. I eventually push it too far, trying to convince the students that the desks they are sitting in are texts, built to communicate a certain belief system, to manipulate students into behaving in a specific way, purposefully designed to communicate to students that they need face this way, they need to work and listen and write right here, feet on the ground, separate from neighbors.

In my experience using the ERWC, these fundamental yet expansive ideas about text, about reading and writing rhetorically, about the rhetoric that is beyond printed words, are key to helping students to understand their role in making meaning out of the world around them. I have found that one of the most effective ways to help students understand these fundamental ideas is through visual rhetoric. If you have time, I suggest starting the year with a mini unit on the basics of ethos, pathos, logos, on speaker, audience, purpose, but to do so with “texts” that contain no printed words. The ERWC mini-module “Introducing the Rhetorical Situation”–a short unit that uses paintings as its central texts–is a good starting place.

Practicing reading pictures rhetorically is novel enough for most students to find the learning enjoyable, but it is also a way to remove a barrier your EL students might face. For a person just learning about rhetoric, the ideas can be alien enough. If you also struggle with the dominant language, that may be a barrier too many. Once students master and internalize the work of rhetorical analysis and the associated jargon, by practicing on images without printed words, they are more able to put into use the same work as you and your class move through more complicated texts. (See Glen McClish’s post “Reimagining Aristotelian Ethos” for an example of what this next step might look like.)

Yearly, I receive cards, messages, or emails, sometimes passing lines in essays or speeches, talking about the rhetoric of the chair, and I smile.

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.

Using Antiracist Reading Practices to Help Writers Engage in Meaningful Revision

By Dutch Henry

In a recent meeting of English teachers one of my colleagues asked, “What are the things you see from students that make you say ‘oh no, not this again?’” Over the laughter, one of the other teachers said, “A ‘revision’ that is the same as the previous draft. I try so hard but I just can’t get my kids to revise. They feel so good about finishing something that they don’t want to keep working on it. They have so much to say and so much greatness in them, I wish I could get them to revise.” The chorus of agreement was so loud I had to turn down the volume in the Zoom meeting.

I think about this lament a lot and I always come back to what I’m doing to help my students meaningfully engage in revision. I’ve tried many different approaches over the years, but without much success. Finally, though, I’ve found that what works best isn’t about me at all. In some ways, it’s not about the writers either, it’s about their readers. Student writers care about the views of their peer readers in ways that are profoundly different than the way they care about me, the teacher-reader. 

In  Asao B. Inoue’s “Teaching Antiracist Reading”, he advocates for antiracist reading practices that “ask [readers] to…investigate the deep and hidden structures that make up their personal reading habits, personal reading habits that are also structural and social.” The varied practices Inoue outlines in the essay involve a series of steps that boil down to two core elements. First, Inoue asks readers to pause while they are reading and ask “What am I feeling right now reading this text? Why am I feeling that? What in the text did that to me?” Next, readers ask themselves “Where in my world do I get the ideas that help me respond this way? Where do those habits come from?” Using these two steps in the process of peer review can help readers engage with their fellow students’ writing in ways that improves their reading process and provides feedback that inspires writers to revise.

Based on Inoue’s ideas, I now ask readers in peer feedback to use these questions to share with their classmates how the writing made them feel and what specifically in the writing made them feel that way. Early in the process I support them with sentence prompts to make specific references to the writing. I also ask them to tell their fellow writers how their response to the writing relates to something in their life or experience. Writers, then, reflect on whether the response the reader shared is the one they were hoping for and how they might revise their writing to increase or alter the reader’s experience. This can then lead to more detailed discussions about how to apply the key elements of rhetorical reading and writing in ERWC.

It may be our lament as teachers that students don’t always reach the goals we set for them, but maybe it’s the “we” in that process that is the problem rather than the students. If we focus on what students are already doing and can do well, we can see them reach goals we hadn’t even anticipated for them. If we turn the experiences of reading and writing over to the students more fully we may find that they reach their own goals, which may be even better than the ones we dream of for them.

Dutch Henry teaches English at Shoreline Community College north of Seattle, WA. As the Higher Education English Lead for the Bridge to College Project in Washington, he has partnered with ERWC on module development, coaching, and professional learning.

Scaffolding Student Writing Using Mentor Texts

By Robby Ching

We all need scaffolds when we face an unfamiliar writing task. As a brand new ESL coordinator, I was asked by my boss to write a memo to a university administrator. I’d been a graduate student working in dusty library stacks and a college ESL teacher. I’d never seen a memo, let alone written one. So I wrote what I thought was a memo but failed to copy him on it. When he asked to see what I’d written, he yelled at me so fiercely for not copying him that I left his office shaking. What I now know I needed was a mentor text–a model of what a memo is and what it looks like. Then I would have seen the cc: line–problem solved.

A perennial question for teachers working with students who are developing academic literacy is how to provide scaffolding for academic writing while preparing them to become independent writers by the time they leave our classes. How much is too much? And how can I teach my students to find their own scaffolds? Mentor texts are an inquiry-based way to help students learn how to create their own scaffolds. 

When students analyze a professional text or a well-written student text, you can guide them as they discover what makes that text successful. For example, in the Juvenile Justice 12th grade module, which I wrote, students write an open letter about juvenile sentencing as their culminating writing task. I received feedback from teachers who piloted the module that students were unsure how to write their own open letters, so I built in an activity that engages them in looking at an open letter of the teacher’s choosing As an example,I suggested one about Colin Kaepenick’s decision to take the knee before a game but proposed that they find one with currency when they teach the module). Students work in a group to analyze the key rhetorical features of the letter (Who is it written to? Where was it published? What caused the writer write it? How is it structured? What rhetorical appeals does it make to its readers?).

Students identify success criteria for an open letter–several characteristics that they think all effective open letters should have. The teacher then guides the whole class in compiling a set of criteria that can guide their writing. This last step gives her a chance to shape the criteria that she will use to grade their work while ensuring that students have ownership of what those criteria are.

While it’s tempting to tell students directly what form their letter should take and what each part of their letter should do, and how it should do it, students can end up like me–utterly perplexed when confronted with a new genre and what the expectations are for it. If somebody had taught me how to figure out for myself the answers to those questions, I could have avoided a painful experience. And now when mentor texts for every conceivable genre are only a few key strokes away, how empowering it is to teach our students how to make use of them instead of relying on us.   

Robby Ching is a professor emerita at Sacramento State in English and a member of the ERWC team since 2002. She has written many ERWC modules, most recently those with an ELD focus.

Reading Like an Author

By Chris Street

Have you ever tried to explain to someone else why you liked a particular piece of writing? It can be difficult to find the language needed to explain exactly why a particular piece resonated with you. Trying to discern how authors make their writing powerful, beautiful, emotional, or descriptive is tough to do.

Yet when we demystify authors’ styles we can learn how writers accomplish the incredible things they do with words. For example, by looking at how writers use active verbs, sentence variety, precise nouns, rhythms of language, vocabulary, organizational schemes, sensory details, repetition, parallel structures, and punctuation—we can begin to acquire the language needed to discuss the ways in which their writing appeals to us.

Another way to consider this is to ask yourself a question: If you were going to replicate the style of a piece of writing that you admire without copying the exact words, how would you do it? It’s not easy to focus your attention to look at a piece of writing this way, but this is what careful readers do when they are trying to learn the craft of writing.

Reading like an author is a skill that all aspiring writers learn to do. Reading like an author helps you to discover different stylistic devices, find various ways to engage readers, and leaves you with a greater awareness of how to target your writing for specific audiences.

As teachers you are all already accomplished readers. Now, I’d invite you to try reading like an author.

For teachers interested in learning to write articles for publication in professional journals this would mean reading the kinds of journals that might publish one’s work. For teachers more interested in writing successful grant proposals this might mean reading previously funded grant proposals as a way to internalize the features of writing that separate the successful from the unsuccessful proposals. The same would be true of aspiring bloggers or web site developers. The models are all around us. All we need to do is read them carefully—as potential authors—and we will surely learn important lessons about the craft of writing.

Since part of our work as English teachers is to support students as they strive to make connections between the texts they read and the writers we want them to appreciate, we can apprentice students in the task of reading like an author by modeling for them how this text-based task is performed. As with all complex literacy tasks, learning to read like an author takes time and guidance. The strategic guidance we can offer students is that much more powerful when we are able to model for students what it means to “think rhetorically,” as an author would. As we uncover the power of an author’s craft for students, we enable students to feel that they are personally part of a larger discourse community, or conversation. And when we help unlock the power behind an author’s words, we allow students to feel they have increased power over the texts they read. Reading like an author can indeed be a transformative event for developing writers, allowing them to see themselves as rhetorical writers who can apply their newly learned skills as they write with increased confidence, skill, and power.

But students are not likely to learn to read like an author unless we model for them what this looks like. As an example, here’s one of my favorite pieces of writing and a few words describing why I like it:

“When I stepped out into the bright sunlight from the darkness of the movie house, I had only two things on my mind: Paul Newman and a ride home.” (The Outsiders)

The opening words to S.E. Hinton’s short novel immediately ensnare me in her world—the world of a teenager coming to grips with a gritty reality. The crisp words offer a glimpse of the main character and narrator while hinting at the struggle of good versus evil that will occupy the mind of the young story teller.

Hers is a book that tells the truth about life through a teenager’s eyes. The eyes that adjust to the bright sun are Hinton’s eyes, the eyes of a teenager who wrote The Outsiders “because I wanted to read it.”

Using just 29 words, she makes me feel the same way.

Chris Street is a Professor of Secondary Education at California State University, Fullerton, where he also directs the masters program in secondary education. He helps lead the statewide implementation of ERWC as a professional learning facilitator, module author, and member of the ERWC Steering Committee.