New Writers Soar, by Quinn Jacobs
Delaware Writing Project 2018-2019
Quinn Jacobs, Cape Henlopen High School
In Greek mythology, the phoenix is a bird that arises from the ashes of its predecessor. The phoenix is reborn and a new journey begins. Like the phoenix, my 10thgrade students needed to arise from the ashes of learning from outdated lessons and dry writing prompts and enter into a literary world where they would explore a unit with a sense of vitality. It was through the opportunity to participate in Delaware Writing Project that this new journey would begin.
Too often, students do not connect nonfiction work to their own lives. They see the texts as too formal with zero relatability. They are more concerned with their Snapchat streak than they are a seminal U.S. document. However, through the use of mentor texts and breathing new life into a lesson, I was able to teach a lesson that each student was invested in and took ownership of.
The Delaware Writing Project paired me with the brilliant Kimberly Collins from Caesar Rodney High School. We were fortunate enough to have the incomparable Diane Albanese (Cape Henlopen School District) as our mentor. Together, we decided “Unit 6: Hard Won Liberty” from the Collections series was our best option for our DWP unit and it would center around “The Letter from a Birmingham Jail” by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. The original writing prompt left little room to “hear” student voice. As mentioned in our seminar, when grading our students’ papers, we are reading regurgitated statements and ideas we lectured about. By modifying the prompt, this time would be different. We were going to “hear” student voice.
Once the week-long lesson ended, each student connected to different elements of King’s document. Each student was going to bring their own insight to the revised writing prompt that asked one powerful question: Why should all Americans read this document? Although it seems like a simple question, students were not ready to take flight. Real investigation, real thinking, real work was going to be necessary to answer this prompt. They may have close read like they never did before and connected deeply to the text, but writing about it was different.
With each class, we looked at various mentor texts that answered the same prompt, but had nothing to do with King or the themes we analyzed. From “Why should all Americans listen to the Beatles?” to “Why is Michael Jordan the best basketball player of all time?” to “Why is Little Women still so important?” (they disagreed immensely with this op-ed), students were loving and placing value on mentor texts. Moreover, they were able to not only understand how to author answered the why, but they were also able to see how authors gather information and write well. With writing workshops and numerous drafts, students were able to take flight with their writing. They became fiercely protective of King’s purpose and truly wanted all Americans to read his document believing it should be their civic duty to ensure history does not repeat itself. Most importantly, they were writing with meaning and when students write with meaning, they soar!