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Q&A With Charlotte, N.C. Teacher Patrick Ames

Learn tips about how to integrate ThinkCERCA with existing writing practices.


How do you help students connect what they’re learning to real-world experiences or events?

I believe central elements that empower students to connect their learning to life (i.e. real-world experiences and events) are the thematic connections that lend themselves to multiple points of view, interpretation, and application.

For example, my students recently completed an assignment in which Kurt Vonnegut’s “Harrison Bergeron” and Chandler Tuttle’s 2081 were juxtaposed against Joshua Weigel’s short film, The Butterfly Circus. These works of fiction provide distinct and different perspectives upon the ideas of justice, equality, struggle, fear, beauty, and redemption – ideas which were further explored via Julia Butterfly Hill’s essay, “Fear is Simple and Profound,” Karen Thompson Walker’s TED Talk, “What Fear Can Teach Us,” and William Ernest Henley’s poem, “Invictus.” After considering all of these works (and various others), students completed the following culminating activities: 

  1. Debate: Life is full of trials and struggles. Resolve: The external conflicts in life (i.e. problems, struggles, and conflicts) have the greatest impact on forming an individual’s identity. One side affirms and the other side negates.
  2. Short answer/personal prompt: Imagine you are having an “existential crisis.” You are trying to figure out the purpose of life and why you are here on this earth. Explain how The Butterfly Circus, “Fear is Simple and Profound,” “What Fear Can Teach Us,” “Harrison Bergeron,” and “Invictus” could help you discover the purpose of life. What do these works teach you about your own identity?
  3. Culminating essay: Adapted from AP Literature’s 2003 Form B prompt, students answered the following:

    Novels and plays often show characters caught between colliding cultures - national, regional, ethnic, religious, institutional. Such collisions can call a character’s sense of identity into question.

    In either Joshua Weigel's
    The Butterfly Circus or Kurt Vonnegut’s “Harrison Bergeron,” write a well-organized essay in which you persuade whether the external conflict (i.e. colliding cultures) or internal conflict (i.e. personal convictions) had the greatest influence on a character’s identity. Explain how the character’s identity develops and supports a theme of the text.

The day before my students’ essays were due, I heard my name called out in the cafeteria during my lunch duty. Two of my students waved me over to their table where they were having a debate.  They wanted me to arbitrate and vindicate one of them as being right. One student truly believed our external conflicts shape us more than our internal struggles, and the other was adamant that this was absolutely absurd.

How would you respond to such a request?

I listened to their arguments, and I responded as any elated educator would respond. I responded with more questions (of course!), asking what foundational value each one was defending. In the end, I think I left them with more questions than answers. 

Here is the point of this lesson and this story: Students will connect their learning with other experiences and events when we immerse them into texts and themes that are relevant to their personal story. When this occurs, they will better understand the stories that surround them – stories found in a multiplicity of texts – and thus become more effective at telling and retelling the narrative of their lives. 

How do you extend Writing Lessons?

Writing is more than putting a pencil to paper or dropping “pixelated ink” into a “digital locker.” Writing is a form of thinking – a snapshot of the inner dialogue of our being. I believe that seeing writing in this fashion makes extending it a much simpler process. The extension of writing is merely the extension of a conversation in which students must explain the interconnections and relationships between various texts. Students may explain the relationship between two or more passages (i.e. compare/contrast); they may explain the relationship between their ideas and the ideas of other texts (i.e. evaluation); they may explain the relationship between the devices/strategies of a text and a theme or central idea (i.e. analysis), or they may explain the relationship between a peer’s writing and various exemplars, justifying their responses with a rubric (i.e. peer review).

Thus, an extension of a writing lesson is any opportunity in which students are required to explore the “unsaid conversations” of their minds, whether in a formal or informal context, as they translate their internal dialogue into artifacts – typographical, digital, artistic – that explore the relationship(s) among their perceptions against the backdrop of other texts, events, and ideas. 

How do you provide effective feedback to students on their writing?

I think it is important that almost everything that my students write receives feedback, and I think the most significant feedback students receive from me is on their analytical charts. It is a three-column graphic organizer. Column one is for evidence; column two is for literary devices/rhetorical strategies (i.e. identifying whether the author is using imagery, irony, symbolism, logos, pathos, diction, etc.), and column three is for their inference, which is the column where my students explain how the evidence and device/strategy supports the author’s theme or central idea. The theme/central idea is written at the top of the chart, and this must be completed prior to starting an analytical chart.

This is essentially the ThinkCERCA framework in miniature format, and it allows me to quickly assess their writing structure and their analysis. I can efficiently provide written or verbal feedback as to how effective my students have synthesized both the evidence and strategies into a coherent inference. I can also see whether they have followed the process to identify a central idea and create an effective summary due to what they write at the top of their charts – typically my students will use SOAPSTONE or SWBST in order to write their summary. 

For me, these charts are central to my teaching. By week five or six, I remove the charts as students write the same inferences by circling their evidence and drawing arrows to the margin of the paper where they write their strategies and inferences. These inferences eventually morph into more fully constructed paragraphs, and these paragraphs eventually become the foundation for fully developed essays. 

It was this writing structure and feedback that made transitioning to ThinkCERCA relatively simple. I require students to identify the literary device an author is using in conjunction with the evidence they highlight (i.e. pink/blue highlighters) during "Step 3: Engage with the Text" of their ThinkCERCA activity. In this way, the highlighting becomes an activity in formal analysis – it is a method for extending my students’ writing as they explain the relationship between an author’s ideas and the means by which an author uses language to communicate those ideas.

What advice would you share with fellow ThinkCERCA teachers?

ThinkCERCA is an excellent platform that encourages writing across the curriculum and standardizes the writing process. With that said, I would offer up the following five pieces of advice for using this digital graphic organizer: 

  1. Don’t feel that you must complete all the steps on the computer.
  2. And… don’t feel that you must complete all the steps. Step five and step six are the most essential to the entire process.
  3. Scaffold and diversify the writing process with supporting activities and readings by not relying solely on the ThinkCERCA material and activities.
  4. Make your own ThinkCERCAs. (This is the next level of my professional development and experimentation.)
  5. Finally, extend students’ writing by extending their writing. Have them begin with short, one-paragraph responses, and then work up to a two- or three-paragraph response. I find it helpful to provide a writing structure for an extended response. For example, students will summarize a passage in paragraph one. In paragraph two, they could explain how the passage relates to a previously read text, and they conclude their miniature essay by justifying whether the similarities or differences were most important in their comparison/contrast. 

In order to create these extended responses, I have modified the CERCA model. The claim includes the subject and the purpose/reason/support. For my students, the reason part of the CERCA framework is never used to create a claim; rather, reason becomes the subordinating arguments for the claim (i.e. topic sentences). (I mention this because I realize that some educators use the reason part of the graphic organizer in order to split out the two portions of a claim, but in my opinion, this makes extended responses difficult within ThinkCERCA.) Other than these minor changes to claim and reason, everything else is the same: reasoning is still the explanation of the evidence, relating the evidence back to the claim. Finally, the above mentioned change to the graphic organizer has also helped in explaining counterargument as a ‘reason’ from the opposing argument – a perspective that will be qualified, turned, or negated. 

As I have continued to use the CERCA Framework and have discussed it with other teachers, the above recommendations are what have been most helpful to me and fellow colleagues.

What is your favorite ThinkCERCA Writing Lesson to teach?

Several years ago, a colleague and I were experimenting with a strategy for analyzing narratives. She initially began using a timeline for students to chart the development of a narrative. I really enjoyed this idea, so I decided to employ the concept to the basic plot sequence of a narrative: exposition, rising action, climax, falling action, and resolution. For each segment of the narrative, my students had to couple the evidence with one or more literary device.

I find that this activity has a twofold effect: it allows students to discern basic patterns within a narrative and provides the necessary intellectual scaffolding for writing complex essays. For example, the exposition will often begin with an emphasis on setting and character; the climax will always expose the internal and external conflicts of a passage, and the resolution will provide essential clues for understanding a story’s theme(s).

With regard to ThinkCERCA, I tested this idea out on Richard Connell’s “The Most Dangerous Game.” The ThinkCERCA prompt required that students answer, “Is Rainsford driven by terror or his own desire to dominate Zaroff? Analyze his motivations throughout the story and support your claim with evidence from the text.” When students highlighted the passage in pink and blue, they had to couple their evidence with a literary device. After completing the first reading with the highlighters, they transferred their notes on to a narrative chart. (See the examples here.)

Once they completed their charts, students used them to create their essays. More advanced writers could deviate from their charts, and less experienced writers could use their charts as an outline for their entire essay.

What I enjoyed most about this process was melding “pencil and paper” with the digital elements of ThinkCERCA – I believe the marriage of both mediums created a superior learning opportunity.

My hope is that my method for teaching “The Most Dangerous Game” serves as a metaphor for my ideas on how to use ThinkCERCA. It is one tool of many in the educator’s grab bag of tools. I do not intend to completely replace my writing methods and tools with ThinkCERCA. I intend to mix it into the matrix of my existent pedagogy and classroom practice. In this sense, ThinkCERCA is just another way to extend student writing – it will enhance the many methods I already use to help students a.c.e. the writing process.

Mallory Busch

Mallory Busch

Mallory Busch is ThinkCERCA's Editor of Content Strategy. A graduate of Northwestern University, Mallory came to ThinkCERCA from stops in audience strategy at TIME magazine and news applications development at Chicago Tribune and The Texas Tribune. She holds degrees in Journalism and International Studies, and was a student fellow at Knight Lab in college.

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