Here’s what Writer’s Workshop looks like in my middle school classroom

I’m so glad I didn’t give up on what is now one of my favorite activities

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Since I began teaching seven years ago, I’ve learned that sometimes it may be necessary to try a new technique, a new curriculum unit, or simply a new idea more than once in order to fairly assess its effectiveness.

Usually, the first time I try anything, it fizzles. At the conclusion of the semester, when students were turning in their final drafts of their projects, I was glad Writer’s Workshop (WW) was finally over. I didn’t like the unstructured nature of class time that the workshop encouraged. Perhaps my classroom management skills weren’t up to par, or perhaps I’ve just relaxed a little. Perhaps it’s a bit of both, but the less structured nature doesn’t concern me like it used to because…

I’m sold on Writer’s Workshop now.

Besides, my WW is fairly structured in its procedure to begin with. That built-in structure requires that kids stay on task. If I had decided to give up on WW after my first attempt, or even the second, I would have missed out on an activity that some students say is their favorite. Many students seem to like coming into class, having a short lesson, and then being able to work at their own pace on the projects of their choosing.

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Zoom in to see the Writer’s Workshop project list for 7th graders. Students choose eight projects from the list of twelve. The procedure for each assignment is on the back.  This entire procedure is based on one by K-12 teacher Corbett Harrison.

Writer’s Workshop puts these two things front and center: student choice and the writing process. Here’s what it looks like in my classroom: Every student gets a project sheet that lists about twelve possible writing projects. The list includes a mix of discourses: narrative, informational, argument, and poetry.  I usually don’t specify how many of each discourse they must do, since there’s enough of a mix to guarantee they’ll write a variety.  Kids must complete eight projects of their choice in a given time period. This fall, we started Writer’s Workshop on November 1, and their final portfolios are due Dec. 14. Here’s the rest of the basic procedure:

  • On day one of WW, as a class, we discuss the entire project list. Some of the assignments are new and don’t require that we go over them, but I introduce a few new projects each time, so we make sure to briefly discuss those. I pass out an assignment sheet to each student and we talk through each assignment, brainstorm some ideas, and talk about other details such as that assignment’s word count requirement.
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These two racks hold all the paperwork for Writer’s Workshop. On the left are the 7th and 8th grade project lists and responder sheets. On the right are the folders that contain the individual assignment sheets for each project, as well as mentor texts, and contest guidelines, if applicable.
  • After discussing each assignment, I gather up the project sheets and put them in a manila folder labelled with the project name in a rack on a book shelf at the front of the classroom for kids to reference later when they need them. (By the way, the procedures for WW are listed on the back of each project assignment sheet.)
  • Writers choose a project, read through the project’s assignment sheet, and then brainstorm, and write a first draft. The first drafts can be handwritten or typed at this point; eventually, they’ll need to be typed.
  • After completing a first draft, writers must find a classmate to be their reviewer, who will provide feedback and suggestions for revisions. This is done by attaching a narrative, informative, argument, or poetry responder sheet to the first draft. (The responder sheets are also kept in labeled manila folders in a rack next to the assignment project sheets at the front of the room.)
  • The reviewer then must answer in writing four questions listed on the responder sheet. The reviewer writes their answers on the back of the responder sheet on the lines provided. One thing I learned after my first WW attempt: If I don’t provide lines on the back of the page, students won’t write their answers down. They’ll simply jot a few very brief notes, or just tell the writer, “It was great. You don’t need to change anything. The lines on the back of the responder sheet holds students accountable to be more thorough with their feedback. I check these first draft sheets and talk with students who aren’t doing their fair share of feedback.
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Zoom in to read this responder sheet for an argument assignment. There is one of these sheets for poetry, informative, and narrative assignments, as well. Students must answer at least four questions about a classmate’s first draft on the backs of these sheets. Writers make changes to their first draft based on the answers their reviewer provides. After making their changes, writers staple their first draft and the responder sheet to their second draft and place it in my WW box for my feedback.
  • After providing their feedback, the reviewer gives the first draft and responder sheet back to the writer, who makes revisions, edits, and any other changes suggested. This creates a second draft, which the writer then places (with the first draft and responder sheet) in my second draft box. I do set a deadline for students to turn in their second drafts. At this point, that second draft deadline is one week before final portfolios are due. (I may need to reset that deadline to an earlier date.)
  • I read the second draft and fill out my own responder sheet, which has my suggestions and notes for the student. I ask that students give me a few days to return their second drafts to them.
  • After I return the second draft to the writer, they generate a third and final draft, referring to my ideas, revisions and edits that I suggest. While I don’t have time to mark every issue I notice on a paper, I do make sure that students understand what I do mark. I’ll usually talk with students when I hand their second draft back to them. This is always a good time to get in some one-on-one conferencing with each student, which, by the way, I am doing now on my phone with the help of Google Forms.  (I’ll explain this new experiment from Two Writing Teachers in a future post after I become more accustomed to it.)
  • After completing their final draft, students compile all three drafts, responder sheets, and any prewriting or brainstorming and staple their “latest greatest” final draft on top. They then keep these finished projects in a two-pocket folder in a file cabinet in my room. On December 14, these folders will be turned in. And yes, I get it, that’s a lot of work being turned in at once; however, I’ve already seen every assignment in the folders (if students put their second drafts in the box). It’s basically a matter of verifying that students used the writing process to complete the assignments.
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You’ll need to zoom in to see what’s inside my memoir assignment folder. This folder contains the instructions for the memoir, three student-written mentor texts, and two handouts with memoir topic ideas. Students use any or all of these as they need them. 

only aspect of WW I’d like to change for next time would be a more direct way for students to publish their work. Right now, I plan to post articles and stories and poetry in the hallway or in my room. Next semester, if all goes well, I will be having students choose which of their projects they would like to publish online in their Kidblog portfolio. (Again, that’s another future post.) Having an audience and a readership is crucial for motivating kids to write; I know this from my own writing experience on this blog and on Medium.com.

Here’s where I give credit where credit is due:

My Writer’s Workshop format is based on one designed and used by Corbett Harrison, a K-16 teacher with an EXTREMELY comprehensive website I located on the internet. Search his site (and its associated Northern Nevada Writing Project and WritingFix websites) for all kinds of ELA materials and ideas. (In fact, block out an hour or two if you intend to look at his site. It’s chock full of ideas and resources.)  In the past, I’ve also had success with his creative approach to vocabulary instruction that provides as much choice and accountability as his WW.

Harrison offers a free 18-page PDF that explains how he facilitates WW in his middle school classroom. This PDF also includes the responder sheets and my second draft responder sheet.  I can’t recommend Harrison’s plans enough. If you haven’t tried WW in your classes, his would be a good place to start. The plans have definitely worked for me by providing me a template to tweak here and there over the past couple of years. I’m so glad I didn’t give up on this solid, necessary, tried-and-true activity in my middle school ELA classroom.


Thanks for stopping by! Click like and follow this blog for more posts about middle school ELA. Also, feel free to leave a comment about how you approach Writer’s Workshop in your classroom. 

A Poetry Project that Draws Connections Between the Fires at Triangle Waist Co. and World Trade Center

The Essential Questions: How can history inform public policy? How do people prevent past tragedies from reoccurring?

 

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My 8th-graders evaluate poetry projects on the final day to choose the six projects that most effectively met the criteria of the assignment.

Based on those essential questions (developed with help from our school’s art teacher, Joan Edgmon, by the way), I’m sure that some may think I’ve forgotten that I teach Language Arts. They may even wonder if I’m actually a history teacher in disguise. But to that, I would answer:  Actually, I just see value in using historical events for writing topics because they…

  • 1) teach kids about the world and broadens their background knowledge.
  • 2) provide relevancy to writing and connect school with the outside world.
  • 3) reveal to kids that remembering past tragedies can help prevent their reoccurrence.

Connecting the Triangle Waist Co. fire, the most tragic industrial workplace fire in U.S. history until the World Trade Center (WTC)  fires on Sept. 11, is one study we delved into again this fall like we do every year in my 8th-grade classes. However, this year, I designed this poetry project to help students creatively explore the connections between these two events. In the past, I’ve assigned a written essay to explore these connections, but this year, with the DAR American History Essay Contest right around the corner, I wanted to give the kids more variety with a non-essay genre: free verse poetry.

Read this post to get some background on my Triangle Fire & World Trade Center unit. In short, skyscraper building codes that had been developed in response to the 1911 Triangle Fire were relaxed during the early design of the World Trade Center towers in the 1960s. These building code changes (including a reduction in the required numbers of emergency stairwells, permission to cluster elevators in central areas, and the absence of brick masonry requirements, plus others) likely contributed to the death toll on Sept. 11, 2001. 

The rest of today’s post focuses on this culminating free verse poetry project I tried for the first time with students this year. The results were not perfect; I already know a few things I need to change for next year. However, I was pleased with the thinking my students engaged in, and I was also pleased with the creativity they showed in producing the visual elements of this assignment.

Here were the requirements for the poetry project:

Triangle Fire and World Trade Center Fires

POETRY PROJECT

  1. Write a free verse (non-rhyming) poem about the Triangle Fire.
  2. Write a free verse (non-rhyming) poem about the WTC fires.
  3. Juxtapose the two poems on construction paper or some other paper.
  4. Include a “gallery label.” See below for details.

Requirements for the project:

  • Each poem should be at least ten lines long.
  • Each poem should give this information: date, number of deaths, causes of death, lessons learned (Triangle reforms & WTC recommendations)
  • Each poem’s shape or appearance should remind us of the specific building the fire occurred in. Ideas: line for each floor? Arrange the lines to represent flames?
  • Each poem should also mention a lesson learned from the fire. What positive element can you add? The reforms made as a result of the fires?
  • The poems should “allude” to each other. There are a few ways one could do this…
    •  Have your Triangle poem mention somehow the World Trade Center or vice versa.
    • Make both poems share a line, i.e. the same line appears in both poems.
    • Make both poems share a line, i.e. the same line literally connects the two poems.
  • Write a gallery label that will appear alongside your juxtaposed poems.
  • The gallery card needs to explain the two fires, relate how your poems address the two fires. You may want to also explain: how the two fires are connected historically, what we can learn from the tragedies to ensure that history does not repeat itself in this way again.
  • Get creative! Need art supplies? Let me know what I need to bring.

I passed out a handout that listed all the requirements at the beginning of the project. Then we decided that when we finished it would be fun to post all the completed projects in my room in “gallery walk style” so students could vote on the top six, which would then be posted in the hallway. The gallery walk took nearly a full class period because they were so interested in doing a good job. I changed the selection of poems to post in the hallway by removing one that, while being in the students’ top six, didn’t express any lessons learned from the tragedies. Plus, I included a couple more projects that showed strong effort.

Here are some of the most effective projects. Even though the poems were the most important part of this assignment, the visual elements also had a job to do, which was to convey meaning to the poetry. Some of the photos have been cropped so the poetry can be more easily read.

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One thing I know I’ll change for next year is to require that no airplanes appear in the projects. While I’m glad that students understand what ultimately caused the disaster that took so many lives, the unit was intended to focus on how builders and developers literally forgot many of the fire-prevention lessons learned from Triangle Fire.

Finally, it’s always good to focus on the Essential Questions: How can history inform public policy? How do people prevent past tragedies from reoccurring?


Thanks for reading! Feel free to leave a comment if I’ve left out some key point— or if you spot a typo! I wrote this up fairly quickly over the weekend, and feel like there’s got to be a grammar issue or two somewhere in here. I’ll update this post as I think of other ideas or tips to include. Have a great week! 

Click here for a post about my 9/11 resources.

Click here for my main Triangle Fire unit.

Click here about a field trip we took this fall to remember 9/11.

 

The Candy Memoir: A Sweet Assignment

This candy-themed essay is a great intro to the genre of memoir

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I made this image using Canva.com and included it on my Instagram account, @elabraveandtrue.

My second writing project with sixth-graders (after the Sometimes Poem) is memoir writing. We dip our toes into memoir writing by documenting memories that involve candy. If kids can’t think of anything or don’t really like candy, they can write about a favorite food instead.

Memoir is usually a new genre for sixth-graders, so we first learn what a memoir is. To do that, I start with what they know… a story about something that’s happened to them. It can be a happy time or a sad time, but it just has to be a true story. This is called the personal narrative, and this year, when I asked who could tell me what a personal narrative is, several hands shot up. That’s an awesome sign! I so appreciate the teachers these kids had in their elementary years. They have established such a firm foundation to build on!

After discussing the features of a personal narrative, I passed out a memoir to everyone. This one was called “Whatchmacallits and Me” and had been written by Hunter, a former student who is now in high school. Several of the kids knew this student and were curious to see his writing.

I turned on my document camera, and asked kids to draw a line on their copy of the memoir. This line was just above the last paragraph, which contained a reflection or observation written by the student about the memory. I then asked the kids to crease the paper on the line, folding the last paragraph under the sheet of paper. I made a point to call the part they were now looking at a personal narrative.

I read aloud the narrative from the beginning to the line that we had drawn. As I finished reading, I told them, “That was the personal narrative.” Then we briefly discussed the strongest moment in the narrative, the weakest moment, and other things we noticed.

Then I asked the kids to unfold their paper After everyone had unfolded their paper, I announced, “Presto! Abracadabra! Just like magic, Hunter’s narrative has turned into a memoir!” By folding down the final paragraph, which contained the reflection, we revealed the memoir. I explained it this way so they could see that a memoir contains everything that a narrative does, but that it also includes a moment of reflection.

I also show a Powerpoint slide that shows the differences between the personal narrative and the memoir. I leave this up on the Smartboard for the duration of class. See below for these lists:

Here are the features of a personal narrative, as listed in my Powerpoint:

  • A story based on a memory or experience
  • Uses 1st-person point-of-view (I, me, we, us, our…)
  • Has an interesting lead that “hooks” the reader
  • Has a beginning, middle, and end
  • Uses sensory language (sights, sounds, smells, tastes, texture)

Here are the features of a memoir, as listed in my Powerpoint:

  • A story based on a memory or experience
  • Uses 1st-person point-of-view (I, me, we, us, our…)
  • Has an interesting lead that “hooks” the reader
  • Has a beginning, middle and end
  • Uses sensory language (sights, sounds, smells, tastes, texture)
  • BUT ALSO: Has a reflection… a “lesson learned”, a realization, or an explanation of why the memory is important to you
  • BUT ALSO: May contain exaggeration, and made-up details, if necessary.

We repeated this same procedure for another former student’s memoir about chocolate-covered graham crackers. For good measure, we did this one more time with an essay titled “Ice Cream” from the book, Candy and Me: A Love Story by Hilary Liftin. I searched on Amazon.com for it and its current edition’s title is Candy and Me: A Girl’s Tale of Life, Love, and Sugar.

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Liftin’s book contains several (around 30-40) memoir essays about specific candies. I especially like the chapters on Bottle Caps, Ice Cream, Tootsie Rolls, the Bubble Burger, Sugar, Candy Corn, and Conversation Hearts. (There are a few essays with passages not suitable for middle school, so plan ahead for that.) However, this book provides enough texts to share with students to help them get ideas for their own.

Following all of these read-alouds, we did quite a bit of sharing. We talked about our favorite candy, why we like it so much, and then we tried to narrow our ideas to a specific memory with that candy.

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Memories with our favorite candy don’t have to be life-changing to make a good memoir; if sitting around the campfire eating s’mores just reminds one of being happy, then that’s a special enough memory for the assignment. It’s okay for the reflection to simply acknowledge that a s’more reminds you of good times.

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This is the table of contents from the Liftin book, Candy and Me. It’s full of fun chapters.

At this point,  I had students get out a sheet of notebook paper and asked them to do some free-writing about their favorite candy. Getting thoughts down about their candy was the main objective. They could start by simply describing their candy… flavors, texture, appearance, or what the

Many started bringing me short paragraphs about how great their candy was and that was okay. However, at this time, I asked them to record a memory with the candy. It could be as basic as just riding home from the grocery story in the back seat of the car, slowly peeling back the wrapper and inhaling the white chocolate aroma of a Zero bar. This usually prompted students to get a little more down on paper.

Sixth-graders love to write a few lines and then come up to you and ask, “Is this good?” They really want to do well.

As a usual practice, I like for kids to do their initial writing by hand on paper. When they have filled up the front of a sheet of paper, I allow them to get out a laptop and type it up, making any changes they need to as they go. One page of writing is a lot to a sixth-grader, so I offer to give them ideas if they get stuck and can’t fill up the page.

Probably the best thing about these candy memoirs is they allow me to talk with each student individually and get to know them a little better. It’s fun to find out that we like the same candy, for example. Sometimes we find out that someone’s favorite is someone else’s least favorite.

It is difficult for some kids to add reflective moments into their narratives. Many will simply not add them until I prompt them with a phrase such as, “Looking back on it now, …” or “Eating Skittles showed me that…”

The candy memoir is an entry point into the genre of memoir. In fact, we follow up this sweet assignment by writing a memoir that isn’t based on candy, but on a memory of a special moment from their young lives. As we get into this part of the unit, I’ll fill you in on those details.


Thanks for reading! Check back with me next week for a continuation of this post. I’ll write about the next step… venturing out into writing a memoir about a special or memorable moment. 

 

Save time. Always be planning.

I started this Triangle Fire bulletin board in May. I’m not usually that organized.

 

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I finished this bulletin board today. I started planning it before school released in May. 

At the end of the school year last May, my seventh-graders started our Triangle Fire unit, a study of the 1911 tragedy in New York City that killed 146 young, mostly female immigrants. The fire had unknown origins, but rickety fire escapes, locked doors, and empty water buckets resulted in the worst workplace disaster by fire in our nation’s history until 9/11.  The owners of the factory were eventually exonerated.

 

The positive of this horrible tragedy? The New York Factory Investigating Committee, which was established to enforce regulations throughout the metropolis.

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 Here’s a full straight-on shot of the bulletin board. I wrote the students’ summary words on pink sticky notes and placed them randomly among the photos and pictures.

We study this unit at the beginning of my students’ eighth-grade year and then transition into a study of 9/11… its own workplace fire tragedy. Even though the catalyst for 9/11 was terrorism, it’s arguable that some lives that were lost could have been saved if Triangle Fire-era building codes had not been relaxed during the planning stages and design of the towers.

Last spring, my seventh-graders (now my incoming eighth-graders) watched portions of New York: The Documentary that dealt with the era of first wave immigration, the early 1900s. Watching this doc set the stage for the study we will continue in a couple of weeks.

As we watched the documentary in May, I asked the students to choose one word to summarize the excerpt we viewed. While we discussed their words, and as students defended their word choices, it occurred to me that I should keep track of these words for fall. I quickly started jotting the words down on a sheet of notebook paper.

Hallelujah! For once, I had my act together!

In addition, I knew I had some previously printed photos of New York immigrants, which were primarily of Eastern and Southern European descent.  I had printed and saved these photos from the DAR American History essay contest of 2015.

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I photocopied our textbook’s cover and decided the black-and-white copies made more sense for this bulletin board than if I had printed them in color.

I also knew I had a packet of postcards that my daughter had purchased for me when she toured Ellis Island a few years ago with a group from college.

I compiled the list of words, the printed photos, and the postcards and placed them in a folder and left it on top of the pile of binders and books in my closet over the summer. I wanted to leave it someplace where I would easily find it this week, which I did (score!).

I also had made a mental note in May to order some kind of New York City street map poster. I found this subway map that looks vintage, but actually shows the current layout of today. This poster was purchased for around $6 on Amazon. I love it!

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I stapled some of the pictures and posters so they extended beyond the edges. I like how the twinkle lights, which are actually behind the NYC poster, make it glow!

So over the past few days, I assembled all these pieces together and designed the board as I went, adding in some black paper positioned diagonally as a background. Just this morning, I decided to photocopy the front and back covers of two texts that we use during the unit, as well as an article, and a poster of pre-9/11 NYC that I already owned. I arranged all the pieces together and then encircled the board with white lights.

I think it turned out pretty good. It’s a lot to look at, a lot to take in. That’s probably my only concern, but overall, I think it tells a story AND builds on my students’ knowledge from May.

I also like using the very last days of the school year to build prior knowledge for fall. It sends the message to students that even though school’s almost out for the summer, they’re still going to learn and I’m still going to “always be planning.”

It saves so much time during the hectic days before school begins to know how I’ll decorate the first thing students see when they enter my classroom.


Thanks for reading! Follow my blog for more articles about teaching middle school ELA.

The Triangle Fire and Human Rights

Triangle Fire forms the first literature unit for my 8th-graders’ human rights dissertations

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Here’s the chart that shows the progress each student has made during the school year. This goes up on my wall in early September and remains up until the project is finished in March.

This week I’ve been writing about the unit on the Triangle Waist Co. fire that my 8th-graders start the year with. For them, the last few weeks of seventh grade was an introduction, a sort of “paving the way” for the more in-depth reading and studying that we will begin in just two short weeks. Check out my Monday post on the Triangle Fire resources that I use and some of the activities that we do. Check out my post from yesterday that discussed how I connect Triangle Fire to another horrific disaster, the 9/11 attacks.

Today, I’m going to write about how the Triangle Fire study forms the first section of a project that I call the 8th-grade human rights dissertation. Human rights education is vitally important in my view.

If students don’t know what human rights are, how will they know when those rights are being violated?

There are many materials available to use in teaching human rights. Since I began this project, I used materials produced by an organization known as Youth for Human Rights International. However, since I learned last year that YHRI is a front organization for the Church of Scientology International, I have decided not to use them anymore.

Read my post, Dear Parents: The Church of Scientology Wants to Get Inside Your Child’s Classroom, about that topic. This year, I will be developing new curriculum based on materials from other organizations.

Read my other post, Dear Teachers: Avoid These So-Called Educator’s Kits from the Church of Scientology for alternative human rights education materials I’ve located.

The human rights dissertation is a project that I have done with my 8th-graders for three years now. The first year was a complete trial-by-fire and I hesitate to even let it count since we literally ran out of time toward the end of the project. The second year was a success. Students completed the dissertations in the way I foresaw the project culminating. This past school year was again a successful year, and I would say an even more successful year than the first because I modified and/or improved the project in several ways, which I will discuss later.

The human rights dissertation is actually an expanded five-paragraph essay. Throughout the year, as we read and study these texts, students determine three human rights that each text supports or are revealed in the text that need protection or upholding.

It’s really up to the student to determine how they wish to discuss the rights; as the year progresses I am aware of the direction that they are taking with respect to the human rights and the literature we read. The founding document that we study even before we write the Triangle Fire section of the dissertation is the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the 1948 document drafted by a United Nations committee led by First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, in response to the atrocities of World War II.

There are six sections to this project:

  • an introduction
    • Students write this usually after all their second drafts have been finalized, usually in mid-February. This introduces the entire scope of the paper. We spend a lot of time honing these sections and massaging them into being revelatory personal statements.
  • an explanation of  human rights
    • -Students usually write their first draft for this section in September.
  • a section that connects the Triangle Fire to three human rights
    • -Students usually write their first draft for this section in October.
  • a section that connects “Inside Out and Back Again to three human rights
    • -Students usually write their first draft for this section in November.
  • a section that connects Frederick Douglass’ Narrative to three human rights
    • -Students usually write their first draft for this section in late January/early February.
  • a conclusion
    • Students usually write their first draft for this section in February

First drafts and second drafts are assigned as homework. I have very detailed take-home packets that provide students what they need to know for their drafts. First drafts can be any length, but second drafts will have a two- to three-page length requirement.

Second drafts for each portion are written throughout the year, i.e. they are not written immediately after their first drafts. I believe in taking a break from a piece of writing so the second draft will be a homework assignment a month or two after the first draft is written.  This also gives students time to get that first draft written if they failed to do it on time initially.

Students keep paper copies of their first drafts, which have my notes and revision suggestions, in the file cabinet in the classroom.  They also have digital copies in Google Drive.

As students turn in their drafts, I put a sticker on a large chart on the wall. At any moment, students and I can see their progress.

After we write our second drafts, students must pay special attention to connecting their “essays within the essay.” They complete several rounds of revision as they attempt to make their individual sections blend from one to the next. This gets interesting and students know by this time that this is a needed task.

I’ve even had students, before we get to this point of the project, ask me in class, “Mrs. Yung, how are we gonna make this flow? It can’t just sound like individual papers.” And then to myself, I think, “Hallelujah! They figured it out on their own!”

It’s so wonderful to know that they have learned how important it is to make our ideas connect smoothly in our writing.

This paper gives me the opportunity to reinforce the concept of what I call “interpretation,” the explanation that is needed when quoting from a source or text. This is a skill we practice all year, but the human rights dissertation is the project where this skill really shines. I require at a minimum that each quote from each text be followed by four to six sentences of explanatory exposition that reveals how the quote supports the point they are making.

My go-to piece of advice for students is to make their first or second sentence after a quote begins with “In other words,…”

Last minute additions to the paper include a comprehensive Works Cited page and a title page. The details for these items are included on a final to-do list that students use as they go through the project. The title for these papers is “Humanity Revealed: Understanding Human Rights Through Literature;” however, students may use another title if they wish.

This sheet also has several editing and revision requirements listed, as well as an approximate timeline. We devote about three to four weeks to revising and finalizing these papers in class. Lastly, I provide them with a heavy-duty Avery Flexi-View report cover.

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It’s such a good feeling when students start turning in their dissertations– for them and me!

The human rights dissertation is really my “piece de resistance” of my language arts classes. By the time students finish theirs, they’ve been my students for three years, and I’ve learned so much about their abilities, their interests, their personalities, and their goals for the future.

I truly enjoy watching students wrap up their dissertations and they are always excited to see their accomplishment. Many of them will end up with a paper that is fifteen or more pages long. Some even really go “all out” and see just how much they can write. It’s always a discussion to see who has the longest paper! (And yes, I make a point to tell them that more doesn’t mean better, but for middle schoolers to be excited about writing “just one more page,” who am I to shut that down?!)

As this project kicks off in the fall, I will be posting about it and providing news and photos about any changes that I decide to make this year.  One change I may make is to allow students the choice to add a World War II text to their paper. This change is discussed in this post I recently wrote called “How to Forget the Holocaust.” I plan to eventually add the handouts, timelines, and editing checklists to my future TpT store.


Thanks for reading! Follow my blog to find out more about this project and to receive updates about changes I make to it this year! Do you do a similar project with your students or do you have any suggestions for me? Feel free to leave a comment!

Past to Present: How Triangle Fire Connects to 9/11

History won’t be boring if we show how it affects students’ lives today

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Photo: https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/legalcode

 

Reading and writing about the Triangle Waist Co. factory fire allows middle school language arts students to make connections between events from more than one hundred years ago to more recent events. This is the unit my 8th-graders will be starting the new school year with next month. Read here for how we start building knowledge for this unit in May and then continue it during the first days of school.

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Find this on Amazon.com.

These connections to present-day events are made explicitly when we read a book review written by Gregory Stein entitled, “Doomed to Re-Repeat History: The Triangle Fire, the World Trade Center Attack, and the Importance of Strong Building Codes.”

This review analyzes the book Triangle: The Fire that Changed America by David Von Drehle and a book called 102 Minutes: The Untold Story of the Fight to Survive Inside the Twin Towers.  

In doing so, Stein draws upon memory and the human tendency to forget the lessons we learn as we progress (or fail to progress).

 

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Photo: Pixabay

Stein specifically focuses on building code changes instituted following Triangle Fire that were later modified (and by modified, I mean relaxed) during the preliminary planning for the building of the World Trade Center towers in the late 1960s.

Here is an important passage from Stein that shows how he draws connections between the two tragedies:

Now imagine this: “Roughly sixty years have gone by (since the Triangle fire), and there have been no major building disasters since 2001. The building industry argues, with decades of recent history to back it up, that buildings are excessively safe and that the number of tragedies in which the excess safety has mattered has proved to be low, and perhaps zero. Spirited dissent from the few remaining old fogies who have personal recollections of 2001 sounds as antiquated as memories of Pearl Harbor do to most of us alive today. It has not happened in so long, it probably will not happen again. That, more or less, is what happened in New York in 1968. Fifty-seven years after the Triangle Waist Company fire, in which 146 people trapped in the upper floors of an unsafe building burned, jumped, or fell from a collapsed fire escape to their deaths, New York City relaxed its safety rules for high-rise buildings. Technology had changed. Firefighting skills had improved. High-rise fires could be restricted to a few stories, and in most cases people could move a floor or two away from the danger and wait safely for emergency responders to complete their jobs.”

This powerful paragraph powerfully engages my students and shows them how studying something buried in the past like Triangle Fire can indeed have ramifications upon contemporary times. This book review is an incredibly important part of my Triangle Fire and 9/11 unit. I am so grateful I stumbled upon it while researching online.

Another important passage: “The towers, like many lesser high-rises, were built under the assumption that there would never be an occasion in which all occupants would need to vacate at once.”

When I read the following paragraph, I am amazed at the leniencies given to the WTC developers.

And still another: “The Empire State Building, completed in 1931 under the more demanding standards required by an earlier code, has nine stairwells at its broad base and six that run the entire height of the building, one of which serves as an air-locked fire tower that is supposed to be more impervious to smoke. Each of the 1,350-foot tall World Trade Center towers, with slightly greater height, nearly double the rentable square footage, and the capacity for about 33% more occupants, had only three stairwells throughout-the same number as would have been required for a seventy-five-foot building-and no fire tower. All three of these stairwells were bunched together in the least rentable space in the core of the building. Two of the three stairwells in each building went only as far down as the mezzanine, a feature that one fire chief had described as ‘a major building design flaw”‘ in a report commissioned after the 1993 bombing.”

As we make connections between Triangle Fire and the World Trade Center attacks, I make it clear to students that I do not intend to place fault on the WTC engineers and architects for any part of the 9/11 atrocity.  After all, Stein’s review and this World Trade Center evacuation study notes that 87 percent of the people in the towers evacuated safely within two hours. The remaining 13 percent, however, causes me to grieve when I know that it’s possible that some shortcuts (and other factors out of the control of builders) may have contributed in some way to their inability to escape. See the evacuation study for more on this.

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Photo: Unsplash

It’s important that we link events from the distant past to those of the present, relatively speaking. History won’t be boring if we show how it affects students’ lives today and then ask students to reflect upon those effects through writing.


Thanks for reading! Tune in tomorrow when I discuss an assignment about Triangle Fire that finds its way into a culminating project known as the 8th-grade human rights dissertation.

 

Back-to-School with 8th-graders: A Unit on Triangle Fire

Resources for teaching about the event that put a fire alarm in your classroom

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Taken on March 25, 1911 | The New York World, Mar. 26, 1911

On August 15, my 8th-graders will pick up where we left off in May—with a prelude to our study of the 1911 Triangle Waist Co. factory fire and its societal effects.

During the last few days of school, we watched a portion of New York City: The Documentary. It’s usually available at no charge if you have an Amazon Prime account. It is an excellent film that fills eight DVDs, and is directed by Ric Burns, the brother of award-winning documentarian Ken Burns. Interspersing historical photography with contemporary interview clips, including one of Donald Trump commenting on New York City architecture and geology, the film discusses the first wave of immigration of the early 1900s and its effects on our nation’s cultural heritage and economic strength.

The film helps students build the prior knowledge they will need to study the Triangle Fire tragedy next month when school starts. This disaster, noted as being the worst workplace fire in our nation’s history prior to 9/11, resulted in the death of 114 mostly female immigrant workers of Eastern European descent.

This website adds to what students learn in the film with an extensive selection of files. Check out this website from Cornell University to see profiles of survivors, obituaries of those who perished, timelines, newspaper accounts and other historical artifacts to complement the film, and the books that are discussed later in this post. This site is a a true treasure trove.

dvd power and people

We will begin reading portions of Flesh and Blood So Cheap  by Albert Marrin immediately when school starts. I read part of this text aloud and then I assign a chapter or two to students to read in groups at the four tables spread throughout my classroom. At the tables, students read the text jigsaw style, answering questions regarding their respective chapters. After reading their chapter, each student reports back to their “home” group to brief their group members on the particular chapters they read.

Doing this jigsaw activity is a good way for students to capture the gist of the chapters within the book. Working in groups is beneficial and helps students understand the big picture of what I would like students to learn about this time in history: our national response to this disaster and how our society ultimately learned from its failure.

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Our reading activities for Triangle Fire are interspersed with text-based questions that students answer in writing. The style and format of these short text-based question activities are a mainstay of my teaching. I was inspired to create these prompts by this article about New Dorp High School in The Atlantic magazine.

These exercises are a prompt of sorts with some student choice built in. And while I realize the prompts are very formulaic, I’m okay with that, since I believe students need guidance in using the specific tools writers use to express their ideas clearly.

Note: I’ll be writing a post next week with more details about these text-based question exercises, so follow my blog to get a notification if you’re interested in learning more.

Additional short readings are introduced as well in the Triangle Fire unit. We read from a pivotal text, called Triangle: The Fire that Changed America, written by David Von Drehle.  It’s a fascinating book with exciting narrative passages that perfectly illustrate how writers blend narrative into a nonfiction text. Von Drehle’s book explores the causes of the disaster and the outcomes of it. One chief result from the Triangle Fire are the better working conditions that came out of the Factory Investigating Commission, which was established in the fire’s aftermath.

Those better working conditions are something all students can relate to: fire drills. In fact, at the beginning of the unit, I ask students:

  • Why do we have fire drills?
  • When did these fire drills start?
  • Who decided that fire drills are necessary?

These discussions about the positives that came out of the tragedy are important. In fact, focusing on the good that resulted from such a horrifying tragic event —where scores of women jumped to their deaths to escape the factory flames— is about the only way I can see to present this topic. (After all, I’m not out to depress anyone or to add to anyone’s anxiety.)

I must focus on the positive take-away from Triangle Fire: to show students that we can learn from our mistakes. We can take the horrible events of life and turn them around for good. Yes, so many precious lives were lost… but ultimately not in vain.

  • Triangle Fire resulted in those red fire alarms that are placed in every classroom.
  • Triangle Fire resulted in outward hinged doors in places of business.
  • Triangle Fire resulted in fire drills, sprinklers, and other precautions that businesses and public spaces are required to provide for workers and the public.

Learning about Triangle Fire, reflecting, and writing about it will give my students greater understanding of the forces that have shaped our society. It will also make them more empathetic and well-rounded with their world knowledge. We complete the following writing activities to gain a better understanding of Triangle Fire:

  • Text-based question prompts
  • Student’s choice of an essay that may be either
    • informational (as in writing a survivor profile)
    • argumentative essay  (arguing any number of topics, such as the justice in the final acquittal of the negligent factory owners)
    • or narrative (as in writing a letter written by a survivor or surviving family member)
  • An essay that discusses three human rights found in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights that were not protected and/or were violated in the time leading up to the Triangle Fire.

So this is where I will begin the new school year with my eighth-graders. While Triangle Fire is a devastating subject to teach, it is also inspiring and ultimately a testament to the resilience and innovation of our great nation.


Thanks for reading! Click like if this resonated with you. Feel free to leave a comment or questions and to follow my blog!

In tomorrow’s post, I’ll be writing about how I connect Triangle Fire to the events of Sept. 11, 2001. In the meantime, read my post of 9/11 resources. Also this week, I’ll be sharing about the human rights dissertation that eighth-graders complete in the spring. The last essay bulleted above provides one part of this dissertation.