Emulation 101: For the Love of Writing?

        In her book Book Love: Developing Depth, Stamina, and Passion in Adolescent Readers, the fabulous Ms. Penny Kittle discusses the importance of using mentor texts to guide student writing. In addition to escaping into an intoxicating other-world, students learn to appreciate craft as they read–as well as take their own writing to the next level as they compose. (It goes without saying that the exploration of authorial craft permeates the ELA Common Core State Standards.) As they read, it encourages students to pay attention to diction, syntax, and deliberateness.
       In that vein, I recently asked my high school students to create an Emulation 101 journal to house prompts (both teacher- and self-selected) and student emulations of said prompts. I provided my students with the first prompt, which I excerpted from Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird:
     
Summer was on the way; Jem and I awaited it with impatience. Summer was our best season: it was sleeping on the back screened porch in cots, or trying to sleep in the tree house; summer was everything good to eat; it was a thousand colors in a parched landscape; but most of all, summer was Dill. (Lee 34)

I then shared my own emulation as a model (which I do for each entry–partly to see what they will have to do and partly to gauge how long it might take for my lesson planning).

My attempt at emulating the untouchable Ms. Lee (with borrowed Lee-isms in caps):

Autumn WAS ON THE WAY; Amy AND I AWAITED IT WITH IMPATIENCE. Autumn WAS OUR BEST SEASON; IT WAS “helping” Dad rake the leaf-carpeted yard, OR worrying about whether or not my new teacher would like me; autumn WAS the intoxicating baby-doll smell of new plastic binders; IT WAS A THOUSAND fiery crimsons and bursting oranges in the boasting trees; BUT MOST OF ALL, autumn WAS my annual Do-Over.

     I was thrilled with what the students produced, four of which are represented below:  

       Summer was on the way; Josh and I awaited the beaches with impatience. Summer was by far our best season: it was letting sunshine and volleyball dictate our days, and trying to find songs everyone can sing around the fire; it was the very best of the hot and the very refreshing of the cold; it was the ocean breeze and new sunglasses and smiles of new friends in a kaleidoscope of aqua and gold; but mostly, it was the renewed hope that change and excitement was right around the corner.
 
       Summer was on the way; Matthew, Mia, and I awaited it restlessly. Summer was our best season: it was sleeping on the porch in Maine, or imploring our parents to put the air conditioner in; summer was endless days stretched out in front of us; it was the silhouette of the Rocky Mountains from the window; but most of all, summer was growing up.
 

       Winter was on the way, and Nolan and I awaited it with impatience. Winter was our best season. The trees were bare of leaves, and any day now snow would cover the town, making it unrecognizable from its former self. Winter was the holiday season and we’d be stuck inside for days on end, but most of all, winter was a time of celebration for holidays and a new year,

        Summer was on the way; my brothers and I awaited it with impatience. Summer was our favorite season together: it was going down the Cape, or running on the beach at sunrise; summer was a plethora of ice cream to eat; it was a thousand people together encompassed in the Cape Cod elbow; but most of all, summer was precious time spent with the family.

Remember: These are English students, not Creative Writing ones. So, without regular practice, they might not otherwise include sophisticated techniques like repetition and metaphor in their narratives. And while they may not hereafter, it’s a start–and one of the very reasons we read.

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Finally, a Reading Challenge for the Rest of Us!

Since the beginning of time the year, there have been a slew of reading challenges circulating. However, most of them made me (Beth) feel like a complete failure as a reader. “Tackle a book a day!” (Which I assumed was a joke, since I’m lucky to read through everything my kids schlep home from school each day.) “Enjoy a book a week!” (More humor, as I am often trapped under piles of student essays each week.) While I absolutely love reading, most of my pleasure reading happens during summer vacation–which is the same for many of my busy students. (That is, until the fabulous, book-whispering Donalyn Miller challenged what I did in the classroom–which now includes setting aside ten minutes in the beginning of each class to read for pleasure.) Until recently, no reading challenge had felt attainable.

Enter book-loving blogger Modern Mrs. Darcy.

Her 2015 Reading Challenge calls for devouring twelve books in twelve months. Finally, a reading challenge for the rest of us! In fact, it was so feasible that I turned it into a class activity to promote a love of literacy. I recreated her list in chart form, asking my high school students to select a title that fulfilled each category. (And dang it, her categories are fun!) The next step required my students to log into their Goodreads accounts (which we set up earlier this year), create a new bookshelf entitled “2015 Reading Challenge,” and then add these twelve new titles to their shelves. The catch? They will cull their next few independent reading assignments from this list. (Next year, I will have my students create a similar version in September and independently enjoy one book a month–regardless of what we are studying together in class. I’m still ironing out the details; however, I know that reading conferences and the standards will play a role.)

Assignments like this are what I call “Literary Sandbox” activities: quick, real-world tasks in which my students get to “play.” Often technology is involved, as it is here, but only when it fits. (And fit it did right before the holidays, when my students created their own Amazon Wish Lists called “What-to-get-for-the-adolescent-who-has-everything.”) These Literary Sandbox activities promote and foster a love of reading–the professional goal Chris and I have committed to this year–and the reason many bibliophiles pursue a career in teaching in the first place.

Feel free to beg, steal, borrow, modify, or ignore the assignment.

Happy reading!