Use Article of the Week assignments to build relevant mini-lessons

Photo by Javier Sierra on Unsplash

The AOW can help you design targeted instruction in specific problem areas of writing

Don’t you love it when a classroom activity teaches something not only to your students, but to you as well? That’s the case with my most effective writing assignment, the Article of the Week (AOW). Not only do Article of the Week assignments teach my students to produce informed, structured writing in response to texts on current events, but these babies also teach me what specific problem areas of writing my students need targeted instruction in.

The AOW is a win for students and a win for me.

Here’s my Google Slides presentation. It’s nothing fancy, but gets the job done.

Modeled after the assignment developed by author and English educator Kelly Gallagher, AOWs can also be used to teach and reinforce lessons in grammar, usage, and mechanics… if I approach them as learning tools for me about the writing skills of my students.

Stay attuned to the ten percent

With my AOWs, I’ve learned that I must make a conscious effort to do more than just mark each paper when I grade them. When I’m reading students’ essays, I consciously stay attuned to the “ten percent,” the errors that I see ten percent of my students making.

Approximately 45 students were on the rosters in my junior classes this past school year. When, for example, I noticed the same error or style problem in the writing of four or five students, it was a signal that I needed to discuss that error in a mini-lesson.

This slide shows passages from two students’ essays. Even though they began their interpretations with the transition, “In other words,” several students had trouble actually putting those quotes into other words. In class, we also discussed how the second passage doesn’t contain enough of the direct quote to make sense for the reader. Honestly, I was surprised how difficult this was for students to grasp.

Knowing that I can address errors in future mini-lessons gives greater purpose to my grading. Beyond assigning points to student writing, I search for common areas of confusion that exist among the highest and lowest skilled students. For example, it surprised me this past winter when one of my strongest writers, who could pass a college-level class with flying colors right now, told me he struggled with the difference between then and than.

During this past school year, I gave these mini-lessons on Tuesdays right after I passed back essays from the previous week and before passing out the next one.

Again, this slide shows how important it is that when writers begin a sentence with “In other words,…,” they actually put the quote into other words, and not bring up new information.

When I notice a recurring grammar, usage, or mechanical error, I quickly mark the error on the student’s paper (I have students hand in assignments on paper, in general), and write a quick comment nearby in the margin. For example, I might draw a star and write, “use different words than those in the quote.”

Then I make a Google Slides presentation that addresses the error. I retype the sentence or paragraph that contains the writing error the student made either from their handwritten or printed paper onto a slide. As the year progresses, I add a slide to the presentation each time I feel the need to present a mini-lesson.

When I project the presentation, which I titled “AOW Noticings,” I make a point to ensure that students know they are looking at the writing of their peers. They seem to pay better attention when they know they are looking at writing from class, as opposed to an unrelated text.

Elaborative sentences that start with phrase such as “For example,…” must actually provide information that is an example of the information that came before.

And of course, the writer’s name isn’t identified, but I know students recognize their work. When they do, some readily raise their hands and say, “Yep, that’s mine!” Rest assured, I make sure they know I’m not in any way putting them on the spot. In fact, I mention to the entire class to check their papers for my comments in the margins to see if they also made the error.

In other words, we’re all learning.

Then we spend a few minutes discussing the error, figuring out revisions and edits, and otherwise clearing up any confusion that exists in the writing.

Whether we’re talking about…

  • accuracy in paraphrasing,
  • punctuation,
  • the use of transitions,
  • or really any writing topic…

…the goal is to notice and repair areas of confusion within the writing.

Many kids don’t know how to handle someone’s name in an article, so I made this slide to address that. Many students want to refer to well-known people by their first name.

When we’re finished, I encourage students to revise and/or edit their AOW writing to earn a higher grade. True, only a handful will make those corrections, but it’s still worthwhile to make the extra effort.

And now it’s confession time.

Don’t tell anyone, but I’m not always faithful to adding to my AOW Noticings slides. At times during the school year — and especially when things get really busy — I do little more than mark up the essays, enter the grades, and move on. Yes, it’s always good when I do provide that targeted feedback (including accolades for the many things they do right!), but it can’t always be done. In other words, #endteacherguilt.

In closing, for all those times when I do manage to keep all the balls in the air, it’s nice to know that I can learn as much about my students and their writing — and then apply that to a relevant mini-lesson — as my students do from my AOW assignments.


Thanks for reading again this week! AOWs are a mainstay in my high school (junior and seniors) English classes. They definitely provide the most bang for the learning buck. Do you use AOWs in your teaching practice? What tips do you have for me? Leave a like, make a comment, and become a follower for more posts like this one.

Mini-lesson idea: Avoiding first-person point of view in academic essays

Photo by Christina Morillo from Pexels

For the most part, it’s an easy fix.

It’s nice when a common issue you know your students have with writing can be easily remedied. This is one of them: avoiding unintentional and unnecessary first-person point of view in academic writing.

For the most part, the first-person words can simply be removed with… wait for it… NO ADDITIONAL CHANGES.

Easy-peasy.

In the “before” photo below (from a literary analysis of The Old Man and the Sea), I’ve underlined the first-person verbiage that needs to be removed for three reasons: 1) it doesn’t accomplish anything, 2) it’s not intentional (meaning it’s not used for any desired effect), and 3) it has no purpose.

Project these examples in a mini-lesson to show a student-written mentor text:

In the “after” photo below, the student had to merely remove those first- person references to infuse his writing with more authority and credibility.

Here are those changes again, but now removed from their context:

  • “…and I think they are right;…”
  • “Instead, I believe the religious aspect doesn’t change…”
  • “We have one story in which…” changes to “There is one story in which…”

But to back up a bit… why is first-person point of view so objectionable in the first place?

I usually take the traditional view that using unintentional and inappropriate first-person point of view in academic writing lends an air of opinion to the writing… and therefore, some bias… and therefore, some weakness to the argument. When the first-person references are removed, the message is more direct and convincing.

At the same time, first-person point of view does have its place, even in academic writing. Above all, first-person point of view should be used with a sense of purpose, especially with regard to the intended audience of the piece.

And that’s the problem. With the example in the photos above, this student didn’t foresee the effect of using the first-person.

She just plopped those words into the text without thought or intention.

Purpose and intention are key. As this handout from Duke University advises:

Finally, academic writers should consider their audience and message when employing the first person and/or the personal voice.

What is an appropriate tone to take with regard to a certain topic? What is one’s own relationship to the subject at hand? For example, if one is writing about the Holocaust or a natural disaster, it may not be appropriate to cite personal material unless it is directly relevant and can be included in a respectful manner. On the other hand, when writing about topics such as race or gender, one’s own experience(s) of living in a racialized/gendered society may be not only appropriate but even necessary to include. Academic writers must decide whether, when, and where first-person references and the personal voice are appropriate to their message and their audience.

“The First Person in Academic Writing”; Thompson Writing Program at Duke University

In other words, writers must be intentional and weigh their options with point of view, try out different perspectives, revise, and make the needed changes… often only to go back to the original version after all.

Basically, choosing point of view in any written piece is a judgment call.

And that’s why teaching writing is so hard. It’s full of judgment calls,…

and it takes time to make them… more time than kids want to invest, unless they genuinely care about the assignment. (Learning how to create assignments that kids genuinely care about is another blog post entirely.)

Then and only then will students be willing to take the time to get the perspective intentionally and purposefully right.

Until that time, though, know that removing first person POV — when it’s unintentional and unnecessary — can be as easy as deleting a few words and leaving the rest as is.

Ahhhh. Like I said, easy-peasy.


Thanks for reading! Do you grapple with this common, hard-to-explain issue with your students? Tell me your approach by leaving a comment. While this post shows my best effort to help kids with this, I’m open to your suggestions, as always. Check out this recent post and become a follower for more.

Corona virus journals foster creativity

A student’s journal entitled “The Lost Journal of a Miss Savannah B.”

A reminder that students can still thrive in uncertain times

Don’t underestimate your students when it comes to distance learning. Some of them might surprise you and take your assignment to new heights, as my senior student Savannah B. did with her journal (shown in photos).

Savannah took my Life in the Time of Corona journal assignment and made it her own. She ditched the laptop and wrote it on brown kraft paper, burned the edges to give it an antique look, and added stains to age it some more. She even glued a swatch of toilet paper to the cover!

In short, it’s unexpected, innovative and has an anachronistic time-travel vibe.

I was intrigued with Savannah’s motivation and process, so I asked her a few questions (via the Remind app) about her journaling experience:

Q: What prompted you to get so creative with your journal?

A: I had started doing it on a Google doc and to be completely honest, that was very boring to me. Who would want to read that? I had a hard time concentrating on it and actually wanting to do it and I remembered I had created something similar for an assignment at my old school and so I took that idea and created something new with it. I wanted to hook people in.

Q: Why did you decide to give it a historical tone?

A: I was definitely going for the ancient effect. I figured it would give it more character.

Q: Your journal almost sounds imaginary due to its historical look and the word choices you made. Was any part of it made up?

A: Everything, or almost everything, in it was true. For example, I really did have a family member that got tested for COVID-19 and it was scary. Thankfully, the tests were negative though.

I am convinced that someday Savannah’s journal will be a treasured record of her life during this historic global event. It will also be an expression of her creative mind and aspirations as she heads off to college in the fall.

I’m sure you have students like Savannah. Y’know, those students who enjoy what you teach (for the most part, right?!) and thrive with projects that get them away from the notebook or keyboard for a while. Savannah is one of those students who saw the potential in doing some extra time with this project.


Here’s what the assignment initially asked students to do:

Over the next week, keep a journal of your activities, thoughts, and experiences in the midst of the coronavirus outbreak.  Here are some ideas:

  • Write about what you do know about the virus.
  • Write about what you don’t know.
  • Is it business as usual? (Describe business as usual… your normal routine.)
  • Are you going out? Where?
  • What have you cancelled?
  • How has COVID-19 affected your life so far?
  • Have you tried to shop for supplies in case of a lockdown? How did that go?
  • Do you know what to do if we are restricted?
  • Write about the contradictions or confusion that exists in the media.
  • Reflect on the memes that seem to be multiplying faster than the virus itself.
  • What news stories have you heard, read, or watched?
  • Has anything or anyone inspired you in the midst of the coronavirus?
  • In short, write about whatever you want to write about as it relates to the pandemic.”

For a link to this assignment sheet that you can adjust to fit your needs, click here.

It’s important for kids to be writing about their lives right now. Years into the future, we will need to hear their stories and it’s always more valuable when those stories are written down as they are happening… and not in retrospect.

On one of my favorite blogs, Two Writing Teachers, children’s author Laurel Snyder advises students that…

“…for much of history, kids got left out of most storytelling. Which means that what we know about the children of the past are mostly the recollections of adults, trying to reach back in time, or to guess about the thoughts and feelings of the children around them.  But of course, most grownups see the world differently from kids, and that is why it’s so important that you record your voice. Tell your story. So that in ten or twenty or a hundred or a thousand years, people will be able to look back and know what it was like in the Pandemic of 2020, for someone like you.  What it was really like.

Beyond that, write about the things this moment is decidedly NOT. Write about the places it takes you in your dreams at night, your imaginary games, your flights of fancy. Build worlds of your own, invent people to talk to. Reach beyond your current moment, and down deep into what you have always carried inside yourself. The physical limitations of this pandemic have no power over your imagination, where you can wander anywhere you like.

Laurel Snyder, Author Spotlight, Two Writing Teachers

And didn’t Savannah do exactly what Snyder suggests? She built a world of her own and invented people to talk to. Yes, she reached beyond the current moment. With her journal, Savannah indeed exemplifies Snyder’s notion that the corona virus has no power over her imagination.

Receiving this jewel of a journal in my homework inbox last week was a real day brightener, and I just wanted to share it with you. It’s a reminder that our students can still thrive in these uncertain times.


Thanks for reading again this week! Have your students ever just totally surprised you with their inventiveness? Have they ever taken one of your assignments and took it to new levels you hadn’t dreamed of? Feel free to share your experiences below to let us know about it. Also, leave a like and become a follower for more posts like this one.

Word clouds spice up distance learning

Image by Alexandra_Koch from Pixabay

Have kids make word clouds about life during the pandemic

My students have been home since March 17. As part of their distance learning, I’ve asked them to write a couple of paragraphs every other day or so for a “Life in the Time of Corona” journal.

This journal, which we will finish in the fall, will document their personal experience during the global pandemic.

I got the idea for students to create these journals thanks to a tweet from Kelly Gallagher in March. Here’s the assignment sheet I created to guide students through the journal assignment.

To add variety to their journals, I suggested that students illustrate life during the pandemic by making a word cloud… a collage of words from a news article or words they select on their own that this website then assembles into a composition based on the frequency of the words in the selection. Students choose the shapes of their clouds among other details explained below.

Sidenote:

Do you remember how several years ago these creations were known as wordles? I tried the wordle website, but found a message asking me, for security reasons, to purchase it in my app store. That seemed like too much hassle, so I kept looking and eventually found wordclouds.com, which was easy to access and use.

I gave students this website to use, wordclouds.com, which is published by Dutch game developer Zygomatic. I also provided them an example cloud, which I made by selecting the first paragraph of a news article I found online.

Here’s my example, which appeared quite small on the assignment sheet for the week:

My example I gave to students was in the shape of a butterfly.

In essence, a word cloud is a graphic representation of the ideas within a short text.

I’ve posted a few of these below that students have sent me by email or turned into my homework crate in the school lobby during the closing.

Camisha C.

I like how each word cloud is different. Each reflects the thoughts, emotions, and interests of each student.

Hannah G.

Students can customize fonts and cloud shapes, from coffee cups to continents.

Ella D.
Sara W.

Students can also choose the colors used to make their cloud.

Addysen G. (I took this picture directly from my laptop screen, so it appears pixellated.)

Some students have limited internet access. Those students –or even those tired of screentime–were able to make a word cloud by hand, like this one:

Riley C.
Jazlynn G.
Hayley J. (I took this picture directly from my laptop screen, so it appears pixellated.)
This screenshot shows the variety of shapes students can choose for their word clouds.

Along the way, I also asked students to collect scrapbook items they could add to the journals to add variety and interest. I’ve had kids collect order pad stubs from their restaurant jobs, labels off of hand sanitizer bottles, squares of toilet paper, four leaf clovers, and other items. I think I’m really going to enjoy seeing these journals come together next fall!

I like word clouds. They’re quick, fun, and allow students to be creative. Even if they’re merely copying and pasting words from another text, it’s still interesting to see what each student designs. Word clouds were a nice diversion in the middle of distance learning.


Thanks for reading! Have you ever used word clouds? Is there something else I should know about this activity or wordclouds.com? Leave a like, make a comment, and become a follower for more posts like this one. Here’s a link to a post from two weeks ago, How to Get 8th-Graders to Write 16-page Essays.

How to get middle schoolers to write 16-page essays

It’s always a fun moment when the eighth-grade dissertation is finally finished!

Try “The 8th-Grade Human Rights Dissertation

Want to be impressed by your middle school ELA students? Want to see them rise to the writing occasion? Try this extended writing assignment that I call in my classroom the 8th-Grade Human Rights Dissertation.

Sidenote: Obviously, this is not an assignment for distance learning. It's designed for a normal full-time schedule with in-class teacher support available at each stage of the assignment.

Pick three books, choose an overarching theme or topic those books all relate to (in my case that’s human rights) and write about it over the course of a school year.

And don’t let the word dissertation scare you because while this assignment might sound complicated, it’s not.

In fact, the only reason I call this extended writing project a dissertation is so kids understand the distinction between a regular essay and this particular assignment, which is actually a compilation of four individual five-paragraph essays.

As for length, each individual five-paragraph essay is three to four pages long. When the essays are combined, the resulting dissertation ranges from 15-17 pages, not including the title page, Works Cited page, and the Appendix.

The official title of the dissertation, when it’s all said and done, is “Humanity Revealed: Understanding Human Rights Through Literature.”

My eighth-graders completed this stamina-building project in my previous teaching position. After a couple of years, the dissertation turned into a sort of Language Arts rite of passage for students before they graduated from the K-8 school district.

But believe me, most kids weren’t too enthusiastic about it at first. In fact, at the beginning of the year, when I told my eighth-graders they would be writing a sixteen-page (or more) essay, they couldn’t believe how mean Mrs. Yung could be! (Haha)

However, after I explained that the paper would break down into manageable “bite-size” pieces over the next several months, they relaxed and ever so gradually seemed to look forward to tackling each part of the process and seeing the paper come together bit by bit.

Now that I’ve moved on to another English position at an area high school, I’ve decided to adapt it for my junior and senior English classes and plan to incorporate it for 2020-21. Sure, I’ll make a few changes for the older students. For example, they won’t be required to write traditional five-paragraph essays, and if they want to substitute another text they’ve read that fits with our overarching theme, that’s fine.

I developed this project over the course of four years, adjusting it from year to year to arrive at its current form, which I’ve tried my best to describe below.

There are three goals for this writing project:

1) to read and write about literature and non-fiction texts

2) to synthesize those readings into a study on human rights (or whatever overarching theme you choose to apply to your chosen texts)

3) to build students’ organizational and time management skills

Students essays stack up in March! I purchase these Avery folders for students because I like that they present the papers professionally.

To complete the dissertation, throughout the year students read various texts as a class, and write a five-paragraph essay about how each text connects to human rights. For example, for our study of New York City’s 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire, we read a book called Flesh & Blood So Cheap by Albert Marrin.

This historical account tells the story of the 146 garment workers who perished inside locked doors inside a factory without properly maintained fire escapes or other precautions. When we finish reading the book, we think about the human rights that the workers were denied, using the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR).

In case you’re unfamiliar with the UDHR, it’s an internationally recognized document created by the United Nations in 1948 in response to the atrocities committed in World War Two. The UDHR designates and describes thirty non-negotiable rights granted freely to all humans. Students choose three human rights from the thirty listed that the young factory workers were denied (had the UDHR been in existence) and then discuss those three human rights in a five-paragraph essay. For example, a student might choose these three UDHR articles: 23, 20, and 12. Respectively, these human rights are: Workers’ Rights, Right to Public Assembly, and Right to Privacy.

Students follow this basic process for each of three different texts that they read in class from roughly September (right after my 9/11 unit) through February. Each text’s “human rights connection” essay eventually forms one portion of the dissertation.


Here’s a basic outline of the complete dissertation:

Introduction

1. Human Rights Explained

2. Literature Connections: Flesh & Blood So Cheap

3. Literature Connections: To Kill A Mockingbird -or- Inside Out & Back Again

4. Literature Connections: Frederick Douglass’ Narrative

Conclusion

For my high school students next year, we will obviously read different texts. In addition, the topic we connect with those texts will likely not be human rights. I’m still working out the details on that and as my plans shape up, I will for sure keep you informed.


This photo shows the class handouts for the four individual essays that are eventually compiled and merged to create the human rights dissertation.

Here’s a more in-depth description of the individual essays that make up the dissertation with a brief explanation of each essay:

  1. Human Rights Dissertation Part 1, otherwise known as HR1
    • Students write a first draft of an informative essay about the history and origins of the concept of human rights. I supply students with some basic articles from the United Nations website to use to support a thesis statement for this essay, which we work on together as a class.
    • This is the thesis statement we developed together a year ago: An explanation of human rights, including their history and evolution, as well as the thirty provisions of the UDHR provides a foundation of human rights knowledge.
    • Students also digest some informative materials, including videos, that I find online from various sources, including the United Nations. One important note: Avoid the very professional materials available from the Church of Scientology’s front organization, Youth for Human Rights International. Here’s an article I wrote that discusses how Scientology influences classrooms by aligning itself with human rights, despite its own human rights violations. To find alternative human rights materials, read this post.
  2. Human Rights Dissertation Part 2, otherwise known as HR2
    • HR2 follows the same basic procedure for HR1 except students write an essay that connects three articles from the UDHR with the book, Flesh & Blood So Cheap by Albert Marrin (see above for more about the book).
  3. Human Rights Dissertation Part 3, otherwise known as HR3
    • HR3 follows the same basic procedure for HR2 except the text changes. Students write an essay that connects the UDHR to their choice of one of the following texts: To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee or Inside Out & Back Again by Thannha Lai. They again choose three human rights addressed in the book and explain how the characters are deprived (or not) of those rights during the course of the narrative.
  4. Human Rights Dissertation Part 4, otherwise known as HR4
    • HR4 follows the same basic procedure for HR2 and HR3 except the text changes again. Students write an essay that connects the UDHR with my favorite book of all time, The Narrative of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave.
  5. The Remaining Essential Components
    • These include important additions necessary to combine and weave the individual HR essays into one cohesive essay. These include the following:
    • a title page (Even though MLA style doesn’t require a separate title page, we make one anyway so the finished product looks better.)
    • a Works Cited page
    • an introduction that leads the entire paper and precedes HR1
    • a conclusion that follows HR4 and brings the entire paper to a close, and
    • transitional sentences and paragraphs at the end of HR1-4 that cause the individual essays to flow together conceptually or hold hands, if you will.
    • an appendix that’s actually a PDF of the UDHR simply inserted into the paper
I’ve underlined in red an area where a former student worked to join her HR 1 to her HR 4 on Frederick Douglass. (And by the way, students can arrange their essays however they wish. This student chose to discuss Douglass’ narrative immediately after the human rights background essay instead of the essay on the Triangle Fire.)

In fact, these transitional sentences and paragraphs are one of my favorite instructional aspects of this assignment.

I think it’s important to teach kids that their sentences need to “hold hands.” This metaphor, which I discovered while reading the college text They Say, I Say, illustrates how each sentence’s meaning should flow from sentence to sentence, i.e. each sentence should grow conceptually out of the preceding sentence.

Yes, transition words will help with linking to some extent, but adding transition ideas (such as repeated words or ideas from one essay to the next) will link the individual essays together even more solidly to build a cohesive dissertation. After all, for the dissertation to achieve cohesion, each essay within it must grow out of the one before it.

And fortunately, kids usually understand the need for transitions words and ideas between the individual essays. In fact, by the time that March rolls around, they often bring up this topic themselves. At this stage of the dissertation game, various kids have asked me over the years,

“Don’t we have to do something so all these essays fit together?”

When middle schoolers ask this, I praise them for noticing the need for these transitions. It’s such a good feeling to know that they have figured out — on their own — that they need to make the essays “hold hands.”

Students complete these final essential components at their own pace during the final two to three weeks of revision, editing, and assembly of the dissertations. I provide a final “To Do Checklist” that they work on for two to three weeks as they finish up.

Here I’ve included photos of a Works Cited Page guide, a final TO DO EDITING CHECKLIST, and an example of the title page structure that students use.

Here are the materials I supply to students:

—an instruction sheet for each individual essay (HR 1-4)

—a five-paragraph essay outline that I require students to fill out prior to starting their first drafts

—paper copies of the articles that they will cite in their essay

—timelines and To-Do checklists

this Avery presentation folder

—All these materials are provided on paper and in Google Classroom.

Here’s a variety of materials I provide for students. The sheet in the front is an article from the United Nations for those students without internet access at home. Students include a copy of the Declaration of Human Rights page in their dissertations as an Appendix These are available from the National Center for Civil and Human Rights in Atlanta, GA. The Human Rights Toolkit is available from the The Advocates for Human Rights in Minneapolis, MN.

How I grade the individual essays:

After students turn in their first and second drafts, I methodically read each essay word for word. As I read, I ask myself: Does the essay have a clear thesis statement? Does the paper stay focused on that thesis? Do the ideas ramble? Is the paper backed up with the textual evidence?

Those first drafts mainly contain my notes and suggestions for better idea development. At this point, it’s not about commas and punctuation, it’s about ideas. And to be honest, I don’t focus on editing in any first draft of any assignment actually. (Well, okay, I do hand back work that contains a three or more K-6 errors… y’know, those silly mistakes, such as basic capitalization rules and the dreaded lower case i that students should know about by the time they reach middle school.)

It seems that I’m still deciding exactly how I want to assess this project. This is a simple rubric I used a year ago. I have used more involved versions, including one where students filled out their own grades before me, but that one didn’t work as well as I hoped. I’ll probably go with this simple approach again. Of course, I write comments on these sheets off to the side.

Because those first drafts are just that—first drafts—they are evaluated with a grade that’s akin to a participation grade. As long as the student fills out and turns in their outline, plus a first draft (either typed or handwritten) that contains a beginning, middle, and end (and, therefore, the major parts of a five-paragraph essay) students receive a successful grade.

Still, many co-workers often see the student’s final dissertations and lament to me how time-consuming it must be to grade all those 16-page and longer essays. But really, because I limit my “grading” to the first draft that I mark up, a second draft that I compare to the first draft (to confirm that students made the needed changes), and a final draft that I skim just before binding, this project doesn’t require an unreasonable amount of time to assess.

And since the project extends throughout the year, I get my eyes on their individual essays frequently enough that we revise and repair it as we go multiple times during conferencing. As a result, by the time March rolls around, I am thoroughly familiar with each student’s essay.

In addition, after students compile and merge their essays into one document and add the essential components, they assemble into four-person groups to peer review. This allows another yet stage of revision. When all is said and done, most students’ essays undergo three to four drafts, and maybe even five.

How my students stay on track during the year with this project:

This is a long project and I know that. And yes, it might seem daunting for middle school students to stay organized with an assignment that stretches across several months.

Here are two vital tricks:

1) Students store their drafts in a classroom file cabinet. In fact, I write KEEP in big letters across the top of every draft that needs to be filed. I even tell those who are really disorganized, “See the word KEEP at the top of the page? That means don’t lose it. File it away right now.” Middle school kids are fun, but they sometimes just need me to be as direct as possible.

2) Students put stickers on the giant progress chart posted at the front of the room. Each essay in the dissertation has spaces for two stickers, one for the first draft and one for the second draft, which is generated at least a month after the first draft. (I think it’s important for a good amount of time to pass between these two drafts so kids can look at it with fresh eyes.) The giant sticker chart is actually a big deal to students; it keeps them aware of their progress.

I jokingly tell kids that our progress chart might be the last time, sadly, that they ever get stickers in school.

Plus, the chart is a quick way for me to see who I need to help on any essay they may be struggling with. I do my best to help kids manage their time and stay on track as the project is just too big to complete all at once at the last minute.

And that time management idea brings me to the last reason I like these the eighth-grade dissertation:

Students learn that they can be successful with any big project, in school or in life, if they break it into manageable steps.

I think this is such an important lesson for eighth-graders to learn as they approach high school. It should carry that same message next year for my high school students as they look ahead to college or their career.

This is a schedule or “tentative timeline” I give students as we near the time to compile and merge the various essays they have completed over the school year. This also shows a slip that provides directions for adding page numbers in Google Docs in MLA style.

Disclaimer: Yes, I realize that in the eyes of many in academia and in more progressive high schools, the five-paragraph essay is being disregarded and shunned even for its formulaic and staid structure and style. And while I agree to some point with this thinking, I also know that students — especially those in middle school and some in high school — need the structure of a five-paragraph essay to achieve cohesion in the organization of their thoughts. That’s why I believe the five-paragraph essay definitely has a place in my writing instruction.

However, I am also an advocate for more creative approaches to writing. I feel that when teachers focus too much on academic writing, they stifle the student’s personal expression and originality and actually turn kids off to writing. Balance is needed.

The dissertation gives me that balance. It allows me to teach students academic writing and its more formal organization and structure on an on-going basis throughout the year. This then frees up more time for creative writing pursuits such as poetry, presentations, memoir writing, creative contests, blogging, graphic essays, and headline poetry.

Another dissertation is completed! Happy day!

In closing, next year I plan to adapt the dissertation project for both my high school juniors (who read American Literature) and my seniors (who read British Literature). I’m excited to return to this project!

I know that I definitely missed including it in my curriculum this year.


Thanks for reading again this week! Just so you know, I plan to upload materials pictured in this post to my new Teachers Pay Teachers store, where you can download for free a Google doc with five simplified AOW rubrics. See this post for more about those rubrics.

What kinds of extended writing projects do you tackle with your students? Let me know in the comments and make sure to become a follower to catch more posts from my high school ELA classroom.

Photo Friday: Graphic Essays

I like how graphic essays, in many cases, help students hone their skills with the most crucial parts of a thematic analysis essay.

Graphic essays break down theme into bite-size chunks

Graphic essays break down theme into bite-size chunks of textual evidence, interpretation, and symbolism. Read this post to see how my juniors creatively demonstrated their knowledge of various themes found in Ernest Hemingway’s short story “In Another Country.”


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Graphic essays for high school students: A creative way to teach theme

Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash

Here’s how I’ve used graphic essays and what I’ll tweak for next time.

My junior English classes recently read the short story, “In Another Country” by Ernest Hemingway as a follow-up to reading “The Old Man and the Sea.” Because they had just completed a traditional written thematic analysis of the novel, I opted to have them produce a graphic essay instead focused again on a theme revealed in the text.

It's worth knowing -- as a side note -- that I decided to do back-to-back thematic analysis projects during third quarter for a specific reason. Last fall, after reading Shirley Jackson's "The Lottery," I could quickly tell that students were struggling with identifying and commenting on story themes in their essays. At the time, I had intended to have students generate third drafts of those essays, but after the second, I quickly drew the assignment to a close. Too many students just weren't ready to write extensively on a theme in Jackson's story. It seemed they were struggling to even identify a theme. Maybe it was the text, maybe it was me, maybe... who knows, but it just wasn't working. I quickly had students turn in their second drafts and we moved on to a month-long writer's workshop project, which allowed them to get more comfortable with writing in general, and more creative pieces in particular. And honestly, that was a nice change, especially since I was a new teacher at the school and was still getting to know the students.

I’ve assigned graphic essays before at my last school where I asked my eighth-graders to create these at the conclusion of a study of Frederick Douglass’ narrative. Click here for a post about that graphic essay assignment. It was a successful project; however, since it was the first time I had tackled the graphic essay, it left room for improvement. And by the way, that need for improvement always happens, and it doesn’t matter if it’s a new assignment or a tried-and-true one, I always discover things I want to “fix” for next time.

And, of course, our “In Another Country” graphic essays followed that trusty pattern.

Regardless, I’ve decided to write this post about this project based on a short story I wasn’t even sure I wanted to approach with students. In my view, there are other more interesting pieces by Hemingway (think “The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber,” but now in retrospect, I am SO GLAD I plowed ahead and experienced “In Another Country” with my students because this story is rich with themes and historical context and it paves the way for good discussions about World War I (and by extension World War II), the Lost Generation, the birth of modernism, and even more specifically the influence of avant garde art on writers.

This graphic essay used three quotes from the text when the assignment requested one. I actually see more value in students using and interpreting one piece of evidence (especially when the text is short to begin with). This student’s work shows a thorough thought process, creativity, and neatness.

To culminate our reading of “In Another Country,” the graphic essay project was intended to:

  1. offer my students a break from traditional essay writing;
  2. help them discuss theme with evidence and their own commentary;
  3. allow students to discuss symbolism; and
  4. allow students to get creative and apply their artistic skills.

I found the graphic essay idea a little over a year ago in a post by teacher and author Buffy Hamilton at her blog, Living in the Layers. Hamilton’s post references projects created by students at North Atlanta High School, including the graphic essay project created by teacher Casey Christenson. Her students created graphic essays based around Henry David Thoreau’s Walden Pond.

Last year, I modified my Frederick Douglass graphic essay project to conform itself to a shorter work. Douglass’ narrative runs 175 pages or so depending on the edition you read, and can support a more extensive graphic essay. “In Another Country” is quite short. It covered four pages in our Glencoe Literature textbook.

The only change I did make, however, was to have students use one piece of textual evidence to support their chosen theme instead of three. I like this modification; it compels students to find the absolute best passage from the story instead.

This isn’t an art project, and I get that. Clear commentary and interpretation take precedence.

I also allowed students to look outside the story for their symbols, which were to symbolize in some way their chosen theme. This is one detail of the project I may modify next time, but the jury is still out on that one. In short, due to the brevity of the story, there really aren’t that many possibilities for symbols used within the text; however, maybe I need to read the story more closely with that precise need in mind for the next time I plan for this project.

Even so, for this graphic essay, I did scaffold the theme identification process and provided five specific themes from the story that students could explore.

Here are the five specific themes:

  • loss
  • isolation
  • dislocation/being a foreigner
  • self-doubt
  • the technology dilemma (For example, technological progress can both help and harm mankind; the machines of war can be destructive (as in weapons and artillery) but they can also heal (as in the physical therapy “machines” in the story).

Maybe I made this project too easy by providing students with predetermined themes. After all, in our recent essays written for “The Old Man and the Sea,” we read articles that addressed specific themes in that novel. Those articles (here’s my post about those five articles) assisted students in identifying themes within the book to write about. It will be interesting to see how well students are able to notice and discuss themes next year when I have them as seniors. Perhaps at that time I’ll have them recall these two thematic essay projects to jog their memories.

Anyway, I provided them with these five choices for themes and then let them run with it, following the guidelines provided on a printed handout. Here’s a screenshot of the assignment sheet. Here’s a link to the Google doc of this handout.

This project took my students two to three work sessions of thirty to forty minutes each.

I assigned this project on a Friday with about twenty minutes of work time available and scheduled it to be due at the end of class the following Tuesday. After vocabulary bell work and a mini-lesson, students had about thirty to forty minutes on Monday and Tuesday. Looking back on it, two and half class periods were just about right. Most students were able to finish without needing time outside of class; some were finished by the beginning of class Tuesday, which fortunately just happened to be our last day of school before closing for COVID-19.

Overall, I’m satisfied with this project.

Am I happy with the final products? Mostly.

Many of my students are more concerned with getting the project finished quickly, and so could have spent more time on their graphic essays.

Here’s what I would change for next time:

  • Have students spend more time developing thesis statements. I provided an example on the sheet as a guide, but many students basically copied it, swapping out the theme provided for theirs, if needed.
  • Stipulate that symbols need to be objects and not illustrations. For example, a stick figure drawing is an illustration, not a symbol. I might need to explain the difference: a symbol represents something; an illustration shows something.
  • Call for students to add a sentence or two near their symbols that explains the symbol and how it represents the theme discussed.
  • Require color and lots of it. While this isn’t an art project, I would still like them to create an interesting, eye-catching layout.
  • Require that handwriting be done in pen, i.e. no pencil.

Without further ado, here are the rest of the graphic essays I’ve chosen to include in this post. I’ve included two photos for each of the five themes discussed. These graphic essays below tended to be a representative sample of the quality of work my juniors turned in. See the captions for more thoughts.

Note to self for the future: remind students that symbols are objects or concepts. A thought bubble with words could be improved upon. For example, a family photo the soldier carries with him be a symbol of his desire to please his family and his lack of confidence to do so.
I’m not sure that I like how this student has labelled each part of her project. But then again, if that helps her organize it, I guess that’s okay.
I’m not a fan of pencil for this type of project. Next time, I’ll ask students to use pen if they handwrite.
Italy was the symbol for this one. An explanation of Italy at the time the story was written would have been helpful near the country cutout, but I’m glad this student included the islands of Sicily and Sardinia.
I thought this student did an exceptional job with interpreting the theme of isolation as found in the quote used. Noting that being “guinea pigs” with a medical procedure is isolating in itself demonstrates deeper thinking.
This graphic essay needs much more interpretation of the evidence. This student could explain the dilemma she is addressing. She discusses the doubt in the technology, but not the dilemma that modern technology brought during World War I.
This essay has a thesis question, but not a thesis statement. Some students really struggle with writing thesis statements, although generally, if they can write a question, with a little work they can turn it into a statement. Also, this graphic essay would have been more effective with more color and an explanation of the symbols.

Thanks for reading! I haven’t seen students since the day these projects were turned in and, as of the latest, we will be out of school until Tuesday, April 28. This project will seem so far in the past at that time that I doubt if many constructive comments will arise. But that’s one of the downsides of distance learning and the passage of time.

Regardless, have you tried graphic essays with your students? Let me know of your experience. And follow my blog for a future post about my lack of success — so far, anyway — with the popular One-Pager.