I’m looking for ways for my seventh graders to create real world, authentic writing that they can also share with an authentic audience. Critical reviews are a great way to teach kids how to form a specific, focused opinion, how to evaluate the best evidence to effectively support this opinion, how to write in a lively, engaging way, how to persuade us that their opinion has merit and is worthy of consideration, and always, how to let their voices shine through. Lots of meaty skills all in one little package!
When I decided on reviews for our next unit, I originally debated; should I keep it simple and stick to Nancie Atwell’s book, movie, or TV review? But then I read Beyond Literary Analysis, which reexamines the definition of a text. It talks about cultivating both authority and passion to analyze texts on a deeper level. So many times, I’ve had kids write about a book, poem, or story they didn’t connect with. No passion. Very little authority. Or, I’ll give them tons of choice for an informational or persuasive essay. The research required to deeply explore the topic takes forever. By the end, more than two months later, we’re all desperately sick of the work, and I am grumpy. No one wants a grumpy English teacher, right?
After spinning ideas around in my already overcrowded teacher brain, I decided to open it up full throttle and let my kids fly. Students can choose to write a critical review about a video game, a book, a movie, a TV series, season or episode, a restaurant, a music album, song, artist, or concert, or they can analyze a sports-related topic-a team’s lineup, a game, a trade, a particular athlete.
Of course, when I ran all these varied options by my students, thinking, wow, this is a lot for me to grab on to, one chatty kid, a kid who fights independent reading time like it’s his job, a kid who has also finished three books this year, a new record for him, immediately raised his hand.
“Can I review skis?” I knew some of my students would ask about reviewing products, and then I’d be searching for yet more mentor texts. It would complicate matters. But this kid races. We talk about the snow conditions almost every day and look up the snow report. He knows skis. He loves skis. Skiing is his passion, and if he can write about his passion, his writing will be stronger.
Another student loves all things mechanical: four-wheelers, trucks, and especially diesel engines. This might be the only topic that lights him up, that he knows a ton about. Authority and passion. I said yes. Sold. After all, this year is all about the learning, the messiness, the process, and creating situations where my students can fly.
We started off brainstorming, thinking, talking, and writing. On Valentine’s Day, kids wrote down five non-human things they loved. Then they ranked them. Then they partnered up to explain why they ranked them that way. A few kids didn’t follow directions, imagine that, put family, pets, or friends on the list, and discovered that they kinda missed the point.
My list was: books, running, mountain lakes, sushi, and nacho cheese Doritos. In that order. Many students ranked sleep first! I should have! Our classroom filled with lively discussion, pointing, and wild gestures. It’s a loud group. Sometimes they deceive me with their volume. I assume they’re way off the deep end, and then it turns out they’re arguing the finer points of J.D. Martinez moving from the Diamondbacks to the Red Sox. They finished off with a quickwrite where they wrote about any of their topics and explained the reasoning behind their rankings.
The next day, I wanted to encourage messy thinking. I’ve been reading about making the writing classroom into more of a makerspace. Every year, many of my kids are super kinesthetic. They’d much rather be fixing a four wheeler, racing down Slalom on Big Mountain at forty miles per hour, or building vacuum engines out of Legos than writing some essay thingie. Fair enough, but I still need to teach them to write effectively and powerfully.
I’m trying to figure out strategies to help writing be more hands-on. Angela Stockman’s book, Make Writing, had some killer ideas about tinkering, so I jumped on it.
Kids brainstormed three main topics they’re interested in, and I let them go wild here, not worrying too much about it. They got three different colors of sticky notes, fifteen total, and a big piece of construction paper. They had to come up with their “Top 5” for each topic and rank them. They could move the sticky notes around on the paper to rank them, which many hands on kids appreciated. Plus, what’s not to love about colorful sticky notes?
Okay, having kids hand out the sticky notes was a hot mess the first time around. I kept hearing, “I don’t have enough purple!” Then again, this particular group has come a long way. Nobody even stuck them on their foreheads!
Finally, we arranged ourselves in an inner and outer circle, partnered up, and had two minutes to explain some of their rankings. We rotated through two or three more partners, and then, at the end of class, they used their thinking in a quickwrite.
This is getting us closer to topics. As I listened to their conversations, they were analyzing! Yes! Most kids already had a starting point. Of course, there are students who looked at me slightly panicked or way too blase, not knowing what to write about yet. I didn’t make a big deal out of finishing the sticky note posters-even if kids wrote five topics down, it’s getting them somewhere. But I also talked with one student who hasn’t loved the past few genre studies. He was telling me about Primus, the bass player from Primus, his influence on different Primus albums, and the guest drummer on some of their albums. Brilliant. I can already hear his thinking shifting and deepening. Another student, who does not love to read at this juncture, could talk about the changing characters, conflict, and how it affects the plot in Riverdale. Bingo! Sold again!
We are saving these posters. Each student has a folder, and we’re going to keep dropping all of our prewriting, drafts, writing off the page, checklists, and peer revisions into the folder as a holding tank. When we are ready to reflect, students will have one place to examine their thinking through this genre study. Half the battle for me this year is how best help students track their writing process in a meaningful way.
Now we’re riding the review highway, paved with sticky notes, conversation, and most likely some detours as we discover our passion, and authority, as we write again about what matters to us and why it matters, as I learn right along with my learners and watch them fly.
Here we go.
Note: This blog post was completely inspired by Beyond Literary Analysis by Allison Marchetti and Rebekah O’Dell. It’s a huge piece of the puzzle for me. I highly recommend reading it-full of great strategies and resources to give kids more room to think, learn, write, read, listen, and breathe.