Exploring Themes

This term we are reading the book ‘The City of Ember’ by Jeanne DuPrau. We’re reading this as part of a focus on dystopian fiction over the year. Our school wide, year long focus for 2015 is sustainability, so this is the sense through which we are exploring dystopia – as sustainable (or otherwise).
The City of Ember is a particularly interesting read with a sustainability lens. The book opens in the prologue with the builders of the city discussing how long the city will last and how people will know when it’s time to leave. We then fast forward a couple of hundred years to a classroom where the class 8 students (equivalent of our year 8) are waiting to receive their job assignments. We follow two main students as the begin their jobs, and lives as adults (yes, at 12, and yes, that blows the students minds!). As they settle into their responsibilities as citizens of Ember, they discover that the city is not built to last, and in fact was never intended to last. Things are falling into disrepair and one day, the lights will go out for ever.
You see Ember is a city in darkness, though we do not know it at the beginning Ember is built deep underground and sustained by electricity generated from a hydroelectric generator that uses water from an underground river.
We’re about 4 chapters in at the moment, and the students are really enjoying it. In our literacy focus session yesterday, we explored some of the imagery and themes a little bit deeper.
We started off with 3 portions of text from the book, which described what Ember looked like and how it worked.
Students then had to discuss the question – ‘What sustains life in Ember?’
They came up with all sorts of ideas:
But eventually, we distilled them down to one main one – electricity. Without electricity there is no light, no warmth. This led us into a discussion about themes and ideas that run through books. We focused on the idea of light v. darkness and talked about how this links into the citizens’ greatest fear – that one day the lights will go out and com back on.
We used the text to look for evidence to support and back up our ideas and talked about how we can use quotes from the text to support this.
I then asked the students to discuss why the city was called Ember, and to make connections with all that we had discussed that afternoon. They came up some really interesting ideas that I hadn’t even thought of (I love it when that happens!).
We then took one of two phrases/themes – either the word ember or the theme of light versus dark and using a limited colour palette we created quick images that represented this. On the back of these we then wrote a list of words or phrases or ideas that we associated with the picture.
We will use this to build understanding of metaphor and simile over the coming weeks.

Writing Mileage

As teachers we know that most things get better with practice. In fact, we talk about this all the time in teaching. Reading mileage, basic facts practice, but what about writing?

In junior school students are writing all the time, constantly exploring and processing their experiences through writing, admittedly in only a couple of sentences often. But the expectation of teachers and students is that writing is a daily occurrence. By the time they get to intermediate and year 7 and 8, students have spent hundreds of hours writing (or at least we hope they have).

By the time students go to college, they are expected to use reading and writing as tools, but when they arrive in year 7 many of our students still view reading and writing as subjects. The challenge for us, as both teacher and students, is to move from learning to read and write, to reading and writing to learn.

At our school we are lucky to have reading and writing support lessons for all our students who need them, as well as WordQ (an awesome piece of software that helps struggling writers by supporting them with vocab and spelling suggestions). This means that the students who need extra help get it, and the focus in class can be on integrated learning.

In focusing on integrated learning in English, we usually have a big topic and our English work is based around an inquiry in this area. I love that this provides an authentic context for reading and writing and research skills, and the students always love getting into a big project too. One thing I have noticed though is that by taking this approach, we don’t always spend a lot of time practicing writing, and creative writing or reflective writing doesn’t usually end up being much of a focus. So this year, one of my goals is to create more opportunities for writing in class.

Everyday we make time for independent reading, so this year I have decided to make time for independent writing too. Every morning we begin our English time with 10 minutes of journal writing. Journal time is an opportunity for students to write whatever they want, they only criteria is that they must date every entry and they must use language in some way. Some students draw comics, some write poetry, lots write stories, and others just write about their lives. I also put a topic or a sentence starter on the board for those who need a bit of help with what to write, but it’s entirely up to the students to decide whether they use it or not. I always make sure I take part in journal writing too – in fact the first draft of this post began as a journal entry.

I check the journals every week or two. The agreement we have as a class is that I just flick through and see that they are writing. If a student doesn’t want me to read a page they fold it in half, and if a student wants me to read and comment on something they hand their book in open at the page.

So far the students seem to be enjoying it, and everyone is engaged. It’s definitely challenging some of my boys to be quiet for 10mins to focus on their own writing, but they still seem to enjoy it. It’ll be interesting to see what comes about in the students’ writing as a result of this, and it’s definitely something I want to track over the year.

Later in the year I want to get my students blogging (not a possibility yet, unfortunately), and I’d like to use more of the techniques and activities from Rip the Page: Adventures in Creative Writing by Karen Benke to promote creativity.

What are some of the things you are doing to promote writing in your own classes this year?