Teaching transitions in writing

Don’t teach just transition words… teach transition ideas as well.

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I taught this book for eight years in my middle school ELA classes. It’s such a ride! Plus, when you read it as a writer, you notice key skills the author James Swanson utilized heavily when he wrote this little gem.

For me, teaching transitions is one of the most difficult concepts to teach in writing and one of the most needed. When you teach transitions, you are helping students learn how to write smoothly, to make their ideas flow from one paragraph to the next, even from one sentence to the next.

In short, we’re talking about the concept of cohesion in writing. As you know, cohesion happens when an idea is carried through from the introductory paragraph(s) to the supporting sections of the text and finally, to the summary or conclusion. There are two ways to accomplish cohesion: transition words and ideas as transitions.

Transition words

I’ve done what many other teachers have done. We post anchor charts around our classrooms that divide transition words into groups based on their intended jobs within a piece of writing. It’s a fairly cut-and-dry skill to teach. Here are three examples of many:

  • Transitions that show sequence: first, second, third, etc.
  • Transitions that show cause and effect: as a result, consequently, etc.
  • Transitions that compare and contrast: on the other hand, in contrast, etc.

Yes, anchor charts do an adequate job of supplying these phrases for students as they write. In addition, I’ve also distributed handouts that list these same groups of words. And that’s all fine and good. Most students understand how transition words can help their writing flow smoothly so the reader can easily follow their ideas.

Transition ideas

But there’s another kind of transition—transition ideas—that are just as important, if not more important, than all those transition words. It’s also more difficult to teach because there aren’t a lot of examples out there and you can’t point to a list of words and phrases for students to use. That’s why I was excited when I found several examples of transition ideas in a text that I routinely taught, Chasing Lincoln’s Killer by James Swanson.

Transition ideas rely on words used in the text by the author to connect the scenes in a story, the claim in an argument from one paragraph to the next, or important big ideas in an informative article.

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Chasing Lincoln’s Killer contains several examples of transition ideas. And since it’s often easier for me to show this than it is to explain it, take a look at the photos below.

The first photo below is from Chapter IV in the book. I’ve underlined in red the transition ideas… places where the writer wanted to move the story from one scene to another on the night of April 14, 1865 when President Lincoln was assassinated. To continue his story from one location to another Swanson utilized key words to carry the reader from the home of Secretary of State William Seward to the scene of the Lincoln shooting, Ford’s Theater.

As you can see, Swanson intentionally repeated key words and phrases–“drenched in blood”– to help his reader make the leap in the story with him.

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Here’s another example. Swanson’s narrative needed to transfer from the farm and home of Dr. Mudd back to Ford’s Theater. Swanson showed the Mudds sleeping and transitioned that idea to President Lincoln, who was also “sleeping” after being shot by the assassin John Wilkes Booth.

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Below is yet another example where Swanson carries the reader, at the conclusion of Chapter VII, into the action of Chapter VIII. He uses transition ideas to switch the reader from the lowland river areas where Booth and conspirator David Herold prepared for camping to Washington, D.C., where Mary Surratt, another conspirator, also was wrapping up the busy day.

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And below you can see how Swanson began Chapter VIII in a way that echoed the action at the end of Chapter VII.

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If you’d like even more explanation of transition ideas, show your middle school and high school students this video by Shmoop. It’s quirky and a little weird, but that’s Shmoop.  It gets the point across well, I think.

Transition words and transition ideas are super important. They help students write smoothly and cohesively. Both are the key to writing pieces that absorb the reader, causing them to focus intently on the message of the writing. Use these passages from Chasing Lincoln’s Killer and this Shmoop video the next time you prepare a mini-lesson on transitions.


Thanks for reading again this week! How do you teach transitions? Leave a comment to share your ideas and follow my blog for weekly posts about teaching ELA.

My top three movies for the last week of school that will let you keep your teaching integrity

Walter Mitty starring Ben Stiller

Rated PG; 114 minutes long; Reason to watch: To see a movie that advocates living life to the fullest; Bonus: Great for graduating students. In fact, I show this to my graduating 8th-graders as they transition to highs school.

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Sully: Miracle on the Hudson starring Tom Hanks

Rated PG-13 for stressful moments during plane landing; Length: 96 minutes; Reason to watch: To learn about a real-life hero who remains humble and respectful; Bonus: Discusses the “human factor” and how in a high-tech age, we must always respect the individual and his/her unique decision-making abilities.

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The Walk: The Triumphant True Story starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt

Rated PG; Length: 123 minutes; Reason to watch: To learn about the World Trade Centers and how important and integral they were to millions of Americans and people around the world; Bonus: Your kids will have a deeper appreciation of Sept. 11 terror attacks after watching this film. My 6th-graders absolutely love this movie!

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Thanks for reading! Follow my blog for more ELA teaching ideas. Happy summer!

Use this totally free source for movie and TV transcripts

Every so often, this website comes in really handy.

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Photo by Denise Jans on Unsplash

Ever need to know exactly what a character said in a movie? Ever want to show your students how dialogue is done for film?

I recently found a free —I repeat, FREE—source for any and every movie transcript. At the time, my class had just finished watching The Conspirator, a 2010 movie directed by Robert Redford about the trial of Mary Surratt, the first woman executed by the U.S. government for her involvement in the assassination of Abraham Lincoln.  I was helping a student find the lines spoken by a Civil War general during Surratt’s trial.

Here’s a link to this incredible websiteSpringfield! Springfield!

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This is a screenshot from the movie, The Conspirator, which shows how the scripts are provided: just line by line, without character names, directions, or setting details.

This website gives you the entire script for a movie from start to finish. While the site doesn’t show which character speaks which line, it does contain the entire spoken dialogue for films. You’ll need to scroll through the script for the particular scene you may need; therefore, you’ll need to already be familiar with the movie.

That being said, this site is invaluable.

In addition to thousands of movie scripts, the site also offers scripts for thousands of TV episodes for current and past series. The movie database contains scripts ranging from current releases to the oldies. Go here now to surf around and see what you may find or bookmark the site for later. Your students will thank you when they’re needing to cite  a movie for a paper or for research.

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Thanks for reading! Check out last week’s post about how not to feel guilty for showing videos or movies before a holiday break.

How not to feel guilty about showing videos before a break

Plus: the movies we watched the final two days before Christmas break

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Here’s what it looks like when kids watch movies in my room. Here, they’re watching The Conspirator, a movie starring Robin Wright and James McEvoy. We watch it as part of our Chasing Lincoln’s Killer unit.

Every teacher knows the feeling. You’re in the final week of school before Christmas break. There’s no point in starting something new, and often, you’re finishing up a project or unit and you need a couple of extra days for the late work to pour in, so you have time to grade and update the school’s system before submitting them for the end of quarter. Those couple of extra days you need require some type of activity to keep the kids busy. And for many of us, that means a movie.

If you’re like me, you feel a wave of guilt when you even think about showing a movie when there’s no real point to showing it other than as a time-filler.

But here’s the thing: as long as a movie has educational value for your students, meaning that it teaches them something they don’t already know, you should feel good about showing it.

I keep my eyes open for valuable movies with at least one of these two characteristics:

1) a strong, life-affirming theme

  • I’m not going to show movies that don’t end on a positive note. There must be a “moral to the story” that’s worth knowing.  Kids are exposed to so many negative

2) a wealth of information about a historical or news-worthy event or an important person on the world stage.

  • Kids need background knowledge about national and global affairs i order to progress through school. How will they connect with Chasing Lincoln’s Killer if they don’t have adequate prior knowledge about the Civil War, for example?

Of course, the movies must also be rated G, PG, or PG-13. For PG-13 movies, my district requires a signed parent permission slip, so if I plan to show one of those, I must have the permission slip ready to go home about a week before I plan to show the movie.

So, what videos did we watch two days before Christmas break? 

In seventh grade, we watched the History Channel drama miniseries America: The Story of Us episodes 4 and half of episode 5, which focus on the years leading up to the Civil War and also the Civil War itself. Watching these helped us prep for our reading in January of James Swanson’s Chasing Lincoln’s Killer, one of my favorite seventh-grade units.

I was unfamiliar with the series when I found it on YouTube (it’s also available on History Channel’s website). I consulted Common Sense Media, and it rated the series suitable for kids ages twelve and up. One caution: episode 5 gets grisly with scenes of battlefield medical care. It’s bloody and graphic, but doesn’t show actual surgeries; it leaves much to the imagination. If your kids have watched Grey’s Anatomy, (which by the way, Common Sense rates for ages 15+), they’ve seen worse.

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On Tuesday, Jan. 8, we’ll finish episode 5 and review what we learned about the Civil War by watching these two videos.

What I like about these documentaries is that they contain live-action scenes with the quality of a feature film that kids might see at a theater. The episodes also contain “talking heads” commentary by historians and authors, but also by popular celebrities many of the kids recognize: Sean Combs, Michael Strahan, Tom Brokaw, and others.

The scenes are interspersed with arresting images such as an extreme slow-motion of a minie ball bullet spiraling down the barrel of a rifle and then hurtling through the air. The boys really paid attention to that. In fact, episode 5 opens by introducing the minie ball and asserts that the minie ball —and the bloodshed it caused— is just one example of how the Civil War contributed to and was a reflection of the rise of industrial technology, especially in warfare.

The series contains twelve episodes. Look through the episodes and find those that may provide your kids with the background that will help them connect better to your literature units.

In eighth grade, we watched Sully, starring Tom Hanks and Aaron Eckhart. It’s “The story of Chesley Sullenberger, an American pilot who became a hero (in 2009) after landing his damaged plane on the Hudson River in order to save the flight’s passengers and crew,” according to IMDb. We watched this movie because it riffs on what defines humanity and therefore ties in with our human rights dissertations we are currently building.

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Near the end of film, Sully says to his critics at a hearing of the cockpit voice recordings, “You still have not taken into account the human factor. You’ve allowed no time for analysis or decision making. In these simulations, you’re taking all of the humanity out of the cockpit.” We’ll discuss the crucial point Sullenberger was making when we return from break. In fact, students will copy this quote from the movie into cursive on Monday, Jan. 7 and then we’ll discuss how Sully’s point may find a place in our human rights dissertations that we’re building throughout the year.

We didn’t discuss Sully in depth after we watched it. Frankly, we ran out of time and few students were in the mood to analyze it in-depth since it was the last time eight-graders would be in my class before break. That’s okay. At least they’ve gained some background knowledge about an important national event. Plus, we’ll get to have an interesting discussion about what this movie says about humanity, the human spirit, and the essence of being human.

So to conclude, choose the right movies to show your students and avoid the teacher-guilt. Focus on worthwhile movies with rich, life-affirming themes that are full of historical and cultural knowledge. Movies shouldn’t be used to merely fill up time!


I’ll be posting near the end of the year about my favorite end-of-year movies to show. I typically show Walter Mitty to my departing eighth-graders and The Walk to sixth-graders. Seventh-graders watch New York: The Documentary to build background knowledge they’ll need the following fall. Follow my blog to catch that post!

 

Outlines have a time and place; a personal essay isn’t one of them.

One of my students is learning that “Discovery is the thing.”

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This book contains nuggets of writing wisdom that make great mini-lessons in my Writer’s Workshop sessions. Another one to be discussed in another post: the importance of being specific.

Last week, I wrote about Writer’s Workshop and how I am really enjoying it this fall in my middle school language arts classes. I have a few books that I pull ideas from to use for mini-lessons before the kids transition to working on their writing projects.

One of those books is Bill Roorbach’s Writing Life Stories. It’s a book I ordered a year or so ago for ideas on memoir and biographical writing. I have found several eye-opening sections in the book that I have shared with my students. One of these points we’ve discussed is the value of digression in writing. To digress, Roorbach recommends writing without a plan, of allowing your writing to reveal your thinking on a topic.

In class, we read this excerpt:

“Part of what’s in your head is going to be stories, and when you start telling stories from your life, your life itself becomes evidence. The personal essayist examines the evidence until it’s plain to both reader and writer just what’s evident. Abandon the outline, all ye who enter here! Discovery is the thing. Too firm a plan, and you miss the digression that takes you where you didn’t know you wanted to go.”

Writing Life Stories by Bill Roorbach with Kristen Keckler, PhD; Ch. 1

Kids usually breathe a sigh of relief when they find out they don’t have to use an outline. And when we read this in class, I clarify that there are indeed times when an outline will help them. For example, outlines are useful when their writing is an assemblage of pertinent facts and details that need organizing or when they’re having trouble getting started.

However, for some types of writing, outlines may actually hinder the thought process that writing spurs. That’s what Roorbach is getting at. Following an outline may constrain a writer’s thinking and inadvertently cause her to shut down her analysis of a life situation or recollection of a life event.

One of the projects on our Writer’s Workshop assignment list is a memoir or personal narrative essay. I have one student in particular (I’ll call her Camille) who I can tell is learning how the act of writing is helping her to define and refine her thinking and stance on a very controversial topic.

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To observe Camille intentionally and willingly struggle through her draft means she is growing as a writer, thinker, and learner.

She’s been working on her essay for a few days now, and I can tell as she works alone at a table in the back of the room, she is muddling through her ideas. She is starting and stopping, backing up again, and then restarting a sputtering paragraph to finally blaze through it as she clarifies and discovers how she feels on her topic.

She told me on Friday at the end of class, “It’s so hard to write about this because I have to think about every possible perspective and there are so many ways to look at it.” It’s obvious that Camille is learning that “writing is thinking.”

For me, this is one of the most difficult things about writing: giving myself the time to discover my own thinking. Most of the time, I want to get the piece done. I don’t want to spend the time lost in thought and unsure of how I feel. I want to say what I know and move on.

Those hours of mental wandering used to feel like torture to me (and still do, at times), but I’m learning to accept that this is writing. I must allow myself to not know where a piece is going and to just write, knowing that clarity in some measure will result… eventually.

Seeing Camille learn this writing truth and find that “discovery is the thing” is a huge personal accomplishment for me as a writing teacher. To observe Camille intentionally and willingly struggle through her draft means she is growing as a writer, thinker, and learner. Understanding that “writing is thinking” will serve her well as she continues into high school and beyond.


Thanks for reading! There are other similar viewpoints to Roorbach’s on outlines and other forms of prewriting. I’ll discuss another teacher/author’s ideas on this topic in an upcoming post. Click like if you found this interesting and follow me to get that upcoming post. 

Three Points I Pull from “They Say I Say” in My 7th & 8th Grade ELA Classes

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They Say I Say (Third Edition, 2015)

 

I came across this book, They Say I Say (Third Edition, 2015), when my son’s college English composition instructor required it for his freshman-level course. I thumbed through it, read a few chapters, and found some very concise passages written to help students solve probably the number one problem that I see in their academic writing: a lack of idea development.

While this is a college-level text, I use three points from it with my middle school students because of how easily accessible the explanations are. I’ll be honest. It’s hard for me to explain how to interpret a quote, how to elaborate, etc. It’s really a skill learned with practice. Still, kids need an introduction to it before they can practice.

This text puts into words these difficult concepts and how to master them. I usually use a combination where I read-aloud from copies of the text and then all-class discussion during and after reading.

Here are the three areas that I have pulled from this book and use with my seventh- and eighth-graders to teach them 1) how to quote sources, 2) how to write a counter-argument, and 3) how to make their writing flow. Here are the parts of the book that help me teach these three things:

  • The Art of Quoting (Chapter 3) gives great advice for how to adequately introduce evidence into expository writing. For example, writers should:
    • quote only relevant passages
    • frame or introduce every quotation with a little background that builds up to the quote and provides context
    • don’t be a hit-and-run quoter… after presenting the quotation, writers should stay “on the scene” and explain how the quote supports the point being made
    • try the templates in the chapter that can be used for both introducing quotations and explaining quotations
    • blend the author’s points with the writer’s
  • Putting a Naysayer in Your Text (Chapter 6) offers students good ideas for adding counter-arguments and rebuttals to their arguments. For example, writers should:
    • anticipate objections. Here’s a passage I read aloud and then we discuss as a class:

“But wait, you say. Isn’t the advice to incorporate critical views a recipe for destroying your credibility and undermining your argument? Here you are, trying to say something that will hold up, and we want you to tell readers all the negative things someone might try against you? Exactly. We are urging you to tell readers what others might say against you, but our point is that doing so will actually enhance your credibility, not undermine it. As we argue throughout this book, writing well does not mean piling up uncontroversial truths in a vacuum; it means engaging others in a dialogue or debate– not only by opening your text with a summary of what others have said,… but also by imagining what others might say against your argument as it unfolds. Once you see writing as an act of entering a conversation, you should also see how opposing arguments can work for you rather than against you.”

    • use the provided templates for entertaining objections
      • Example: Of course, many will probably disagree because…
    • use the templates for informally introducing objections
      • Here’s one: However, does the evidence I’ve cited prove that…
    • use the templates for making concessions while still standing their ground
      1. Here’s one: On the one hand, I agree with X that _____. But on the other hand, I still insist that___.
  • Connecting the Parts (Chapter 8) is actually the first of the three areas I use from the book with my students.  Outside of argument writing, showing students how to connect their sentences, how to make their ideas flow from the beginning of their essay to the very end, is something that students struggly with greatly. Templates provide a concrete way to learn a skill, and while there are no templates for connecting the parts, there are transitions and a few key moves that writers make to create writing that flows.
    • The book provides a variety of transitions for elaboration, example giving, contrasting, conceding, and others.
    • It suggests using pointing words, but carefully. These are words such as this, those, and other demonstrative pronouns. (For me personally, I don’t spend much time on this tip because I also know that students struggle with vague pronoun references. Skilled writers only would be able to distinguish”and skillfully use pointing words without inadvertently creating vague pronoun references.)
    • It suggests using key terms and phrases. I use this a lot in my own writing. Repeating a specific word here and there can uphold the ideas I’m writing about.
    • It also suggests “repeating yourself, but with a difference.” In other words, writers should always figure out different ways to express the same idea in order to flesh out or develop them. That builds clarity. I require students often to begin sentences with “In other words,…” where appropriate. “In other words,” is hugely important and helpful. I’ve had one high school student come back to my classroom who told me that using that one simple phrase helped them greatly with developing  their essays.

Another bonus: They Say I Say includes “readings” in each chapter, mentor texts that show the methods being explained in the chapter. These are super valuable, even though some are too advanced. Choose carefully.

Check out Amazon.com and see if you can find a used copy of They Say I Say. It has some real teaching gems that have helped me in conveying clearly some very important methods that students can employ to better develop their writing. And again, I don’t use the whole book, but just the three chapters above (and only excerpts of those chapters, actually).

Idea development, including elaboration and interpretation, is probably the most difficult concept to teach and this book, although a college-level text, has really helped me in my teaching.


Thanks for reading! Click like and leave a comment if you have a question or have any other resources for teaching elaboration and interpretation in academic writing.  Follow my blog for more about middle school ELA teaching.

Understanding Laura Ingalls Wilder through historical context

There’s a standard for that, and students are mastering it.

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Students get it. They are learning to appreciate the historical and cultural contexts of literature. Photo by João Silas on Unsplash

There are two reading standards contained in the Missouri Learning Standards that address the historical and cultural contexts of the literature that students in grades 6-12 read during their education. One standard, coded RL3C, specifically requires students to be able to explain how a story’s plot and conflict reflect historical and/or cultural contexts. The other standard, coded RI3C, requires students to explain, more generally, how a nonfiction text reflects historical and/or cultural contexts.

Both standards reveal educators’ and legislators’ expectations that student readers recognize the era or timeframe in which a narrative or article is written. It could also be said that students are expected to take into account the prevailing attitudes of that era when evaluating, discussing, and even merely appreciating the work.

At an English education conference last week, I noticed how applicable these two standards are to the discussion regarding the removal in June of Laura Ingalls Wilder‘s name from a prestigious annual authors’ award given by the Association for Library Service to Children (ALSC), an arm of the American Library Association.

According to an ALA press release, “This award honors an author or illustrator whose books, published in the United States, have made, over a period of years, a significant and lasting contribution to children’s literature.” Formerly called the Laura Ingalls Wilder Award, the prize is now named the Children’s Literature Legacy Award.

In effect, the removal of Wilder’s name from the ALSC’s award ignores two things: 1) the values these standards support and 2) the work of teachers (in Missouri, at least) who are actively teaching their students to:

  • recognize and explain the historical contexts of the literature that they read.
  • consider how texts reflect the history of the era in which they were written.
  • appreciate a historical author’s work, including its prejudices and biases, without feeling it necessary to denigrate the author.
    • For example, students are prepared to read Little House on the Prairie and understand that Laura’s descriptions of the Osage Indians reflect her biases and prejudices.  Students can also do this with Huckleberry Finn, To Kill A Mockingbird or any other text they may read.

Let’s give students some credit, ALSC. Thanks to these two standards, students get it. They understand how a piece of literature can be biased, show prejudice, and perpetuate stereotypes, but at the same time, be considered an important record of a specific time in history.


Thanks for reading! Click like so others can more easily find this post. Follow my blog for more essays on education and, more specifically, middle school ELA.