Creating Extraordinary Profiles of Ordinary People – NVWP Summer Institute – Day 10 pt. 1

Today begins with a presentation by Lauren Jensen.

LJ Cover

Literary Lives: Writing Extraordinary Profiles of Ordinary People

She gets us writing with a quickwrite: What’s your initial response when you think of teaching non-fiction writing to your students?

Well, for me the answer depends on the sub-genre within non-fiction. For instance, I love teaching anything dealing with the affective realm. Memoirs, personal narratives, biographies, little slices of life, etc. The type of non-fiction that centers around an emotional core. I’ve stayed as far away from research papers as I could possible get. Not for any real reason. I think I was more interested in pursuing a strictly “creative” writing path last year for myself and my students. 

My “bleargh” attitude towards non-fiction suggests a certain lack of personal creativity and investment in the factual side of things. During a county-wide ELA meeting, for example, we talked a lot about using high-interest (teens, war, depression) texts to teach children about the exciting, creative side of non-fiction. It was an embarrassing moment of “oh yea, duh.”

My final thought chunklet has to do with genre. Creating specific genre divisions seems a bit too arbitrary for my liking. But, I think this is again a reaction to what I perceive as how non-fiction is usually handled in schools. This is odd because I used to quite like “dry” academic style writing. This is an area I need to explore. 

Jensen places this lesson within the context of non-fiction. She’s from NY, where PARCC, the Gates Foundation, the Wal-Mart family, and Common Core have created curricular approach centered around non-fiction. How could she motivate young writers in her classroom given the circumstances? She tells us to ignore mandates we don’t agree with and take control of our classrooms. Cosign!

She teaches “real-world” non-fiction writing. Composition rooted in the events and purposes and complexities of a student’s lived experience. That, as Grant Wiggins would say, ‘audience’ and ‘purpose’ are not mere buzzwords; they are task-defining. Jensen uses a focused quickwrite to help us understand how the profile project fits into her curriculum.

Quickwrite2: Pick a topic and write on it! Does war affect both those directly involved and those on the periphery? If so, what are the effects? How does war fundamentally change those affected by it?

I’m going to answer this one from my own experiences. This is a tough issue to write about. Just thinking about war in the abstract brings up so many issues: patriotism, sacrifice, power, class, propaganda, money. (Also, I remember buying the Desert Storm trading cards that came out during the 90s.) Take the war(s) in Afghanistan. I struggle to find specific ways I’m affected. This probably reveals an embarrassing blind-spot when it comes to my knowledge of the human cost of war and the way massive conflicts shape public policy. I don’t know anyone who has fought in a war. I don’t come from a military family. My understanding of the human cost of war comes through primarily secondary sources. Wounded Warrior commercials. Works of fiction. Now, I’m not devaluing the role of fiction in portraying the reality of war. I’m just explaining that my perception of it is filtered through complex layers of politicized media and consumer goods. Everything I’ve written ignores the question. 

We share out. Some of us talk about how this question leads to a wide variety of answers. Everyone has different experiences. ESOL kids, people living in the NOVA area. So many factors affect the answer. Jensen uses this project to find and give voice to people who have participated in war. This is her framing device. She uses profiles to get answers to the two quickwrite questions. Her 10th graders went out to retirement homes and the community to find people to answer these questions.

She begins by introducing the genre to students. Immersing them in examples of the genre from the “real world.” Where are profiles found: The New Yorker. InStyle. Rolling Stone. Sports Illustrated. She reads us part of a profile to have us try and figure out what a profile is. We listen. The piece is called, ‘Showdog’ by Susan Orlean. We talk about the elevation of the quotidian. Insider vs. outsider perspectives. Physical descriptions.

OK. Here is Laura’s process for teaching portfolios:
profile genre study: genre immersion, tons of examples, creating a class list of genre characteristics, annotating profiles for those characteristics. LIVE AND BREATH THE GENRE BEFORE WRITING
find interview subject/write: write a letter of invitation to ask permission for someone to give you part of their life
letter of invitation: what it sounds like
write contextualization essay: a little research on the military conflict in which the individual was involved. or about being a spouse/military family, etc. This helps them write questions and approach the subject correctly.
practice with recording equipment: record using digital recorders, have them use their phones, etc.This allows the student to write down other obsservations about body language, description, mannerisms, etc.Video recording works as well.
conduct mock interview questions: Laura has them come up with interview questions and practice with her

(This process is true to the inquiry model of instruction. Think Katie Wood Ray.)

Activity 1: We partner up and grab copies of mentor text profiles Laura kindly brought for us.We read and fill in. The sheet we fill in has us list any characteristics we notice and then write out evidence from the text for it. SheetWe come up with genre conventions like quotes, family background, physical description, quirks, others’ comments and observations on the interviewee, reason for the interview, text features, and the gradual occlusion of the interviewer’s voice by the interviewee.

Profile Charac

Activity 2: Select an angle (showcasing how extraordinary the person is) for the interview. Open with biographical questions (trying to focus on open questions vs. closed questions). Record details about the setting, physical description, mannerisms, and other minute details. So many “soft skills” at work here. Empathy, discourse, personal skills, reading body language. Connections here with the oral standards, with helping ESOL/ELL kids, active listening. All of this has to be taught and practiced before the actual interview.

Activity 3: Interview! OK. So I’m going to interview my neighbor. We both decide to use the angle of “how you became interested in progressive values.” Sweet! Now I’m going to come up with my five questions. Her responses are after the questions.

1.Tell me about yourself. I’m _______. I grew up in Boston and have lived in the DMV area for five years. I’ve pretty much known forever that I wanted to be a teacher. My mom was an activist involved in the community. So I grew up in a social justice type environment. Her mom helped steer her into teaching as a job. She volunteered in a public school her senior year of high school. A fight broke out in the classroom she was observing, leading her to examine her own privilege.

2. What is the most difficult part of your job? I’ve definitely worked with some challenging kids, but the hardest part is dealing with the adults, who don’t see issues in the same way that I see them. I consider myself to be very educated, and I get pissed off when I see teachers following trends without thinking critically. So negotiating those interactions and trying not to cuss someone out. At my old school, for instance, at my old school we had a major test prep initiative. I was one of the only teachers to raise questions about why we were doing it and what the purpose of it was. It was a situation of educators doing things even though they’re not the best choices for kids. It’s very hard to explain these things without coming across like a jerk.

3. What do you like about teaching? I love interacting with quirky kids. I love being around children and their different personalities. Sharing with them the power of reading. Not analyzing a text to death, but what does this particular book help you understand life. This view of reading is in conflict with the road I think we’re heading down, which is a process of reading a text to death. I was just reading about an EngageNY program about close reading a text for seventeen days. I’m leaving a private school to go back to public schools because I felt disconnected from the larger debates about education.

4. Do you hold values in conflict with society?

5. Describe for me your growth as a teacher. Well, I am extremely neurotic. I’m a perfectionist, partly in recovery (hopefully). When I do things I want them to be done well. That has really been the drive that has pushed me to grow in terms of my instruction and has pushed me to find resources outside of the school-led PDs. I think this is another reason why I’m able to call BS on practices that I think are harmful to the cause. In terms of the politics of it, I have a sense of great unease with what I see in education. Especially at my first school, where we had testing pep rallies, token economies, and the like. I always hated this. Children should be in class learning, not making rap videos about testing strategies. I’ve always been this way. The cognitive dissonance spurred me to seek out other voices. I found a few in my school to talk through the things I saw that disgusted me. I also somehow stumbled upon education scholars such as Diane Ravitch and Paul Thomas. Too many awards and not enough substance. Now I feel I have the ability to be more outspoken about my views. I’m trying to build in my head these arguments I can use against people. (side note, I do this too! I often think about these imaginary dialogues when I go running)

6. What is your take on the state of American education? I think that American education is under attack by people claiming that they really care about poor children. However all of the policies show that they don’t actually care about them, and that in fact they want to keep the underprivileged in their place. When I hear Diane Ravitch talk about how public schools haven’t changed that much, I realize that I need to work to understand that. I know that schools can’t do it all. Corporate ed reform has this belief that schools can do it all. We need to start addressing poverty and supporting community growth. Not just attacking schools and teachers.

Wow, that was so fun! We both just opened up. Talking and riffing off of one another. We share out about how amazing this was. How much we learned. How even the most “basic” question has the power to illicit a wealth of discourse.

The interview is done. Now what? The Process:
1. Transcribe the best parts of the interview/select quality quotes: 2-3 pages max
2. Craft lessons (based on student requests): selecting quotes, describing the setting, giving them options. Then, they go and write three freewrites on particular genre characteristics discussed earlier. Like, a freewrite only focusing on physical description.
3. Draft, revise, revise, revise:
4. Write thank you notes to interviewees: Like actual notes
5. Compile portfolio: Use students! Create committees! Put them to work!
6. Class publication / public reading with distinguished guest:She requires students to select their best, most emotionally charged 2-3 paragraphs to read out.

Activity #4: Take some of your interview and what you know about the profile genre and just start writing. See what happens.

“We can sit on the floor, if you want. I don’t mind getting dirty,” Janique tells me as we search for a place to conduct our mutual interviews. You can tell a lot about someone by what they say when the stakes are low. This off-hand comment hints at an identity uninterested in the trappings of formality. A sense of self favoring action over poise. Janique Parrott comes from a family of agitators. Social justice as a birthright, a mantle. 

That took me a while! I’m a slow writer, especially when I want to do a subject justice. We go around the room and share out. Smiles overwhelm almost every face. So great!

Phew! What a lesson! Time for lunch.



  1. Pingback: Writing Extraordinary Profiles of Ordinary People – NVWP Summer ISI – Day 1 | Mr. Anderson Reads & Writes
  2. Pingback: Writing Resources from the Northern Virginia Writing Project | Mr. Anderson Reads & Writes

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