Something there is that doesn’t love a Coronavirus pandemic

Photo by Evgeny Dzhumaev on Unsplash

The coronavirus and Robert Frost’s “Mending Wall”

Holed up at home at my dining room table, I’m continuing with my lesson planning as scheduled during our two-week school closing. After our recent Ernest Hemingway unit concluded last week, my plan was to introduce my juniors to Robert Frost.

Lucky them.

Frost’s poetry is poignant, honest, and direct and comments beautifully on personal wonderings, human relationships, and living in general. I always find Frost’s work to be rejuvenating and clarifying.

My plans call for students to first read Frost’s “Mending Wall,” and then “Birches,” and finally, “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening.” Once we return to school, we’ll tackle “The Road Not Taken.”

On my distance learning plan for today, I scheduled my juniors to read some short biographical background articles on Frost in our textbook.

Robert Frost in 1910 Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Then, they were to freewrite in response to a prompt designed to prepare them for reading “Mending Wall.”

“Mending Wall” is one of Frost’s most well-known poems. It’s about the barriers that people use (and often work darn hard to maintain, by the way) to keep others at a distance. Here’s the freewriting prompt my students have for today:

“Think about the people who live near you. Do you see them often? Are you good friends, or do you barely speak? What activities, if any, bring you together? What things keep you apart?”

When I first read this prompt, I thought of the coronavirus.

What brings us together? Coronavirus. What keeps us apart? Coronavirus.

Yes, the coronavirus is literally keeping us apart. Social distancing is the new buzzword and best practice.

However, we can also say that the coronavirus pandemic and school closings are bringing us together. For example, I’m emailing regularly with one of our neighbors, an elderly woman who lives across the street. Before the social distancing began, even though she lives just across the way, our busy schedules prevented us from seeing her outside of our weekly meet-up at church (which is now cancelled indefinitely, of course). However, now, due to the coronavirus, we’ve had more contact with her this week than we usually do.

Bottom line: the walls that keep us from more regular contact with our neighbor — busy schedules — don’t have to exist. And that’s what Frost is getting at with “Mending Wall,” his little poem that questions why humans erect and then maintain barriers that distance themselves from those nearby.

And that brings me back (yet again) to another reason why I love Robert Frost. His work, and “Mending Wall” in particular, is as relevant today — possibly more so — than it was when it was written in 1914.

And that’s a good reason to stick to my regularly scheduled lesson plans during this two-week school closure.

My daughter took this picture of me visiting Robert Frost’s grave in Bennington, Vermont in 2002.

Thanks for reading! I’m writing daily about my Life in the Time of Corona along with my students. We are journaling and keeping artifacts from this time of school closings and social distancing to document this history. Since I think a great deal about school and lesson planning, my daily journaling about the pandemic and this blog naturally coincide.

Feel free to leave a comment about the lessons you have planned for the school closing.

Prepping for the Coronavirus break

Yes, I use technology in class, but I’m also an old-school fan of paper. Scroll down for a photo of what I sent home with students yesterday for the coronavirus break.

Paper paper everywhere. Distance learning doesn’t mean high-tech for me.

Yesterday at 3:35 pm, my school released until April 1st in an attempt to control the spread of the coronavirus. The night before, I was sitting at my dining room table preparing plans for students to accomplish over the break. Just because we’re not in school doesn’t mean we’re not learning.

My plans involve students creating a journal/scrapbook that will document their experience in this once-in-a-lifetime global event. About every other day, they will write a half-page to one page journal entry on what’s happening in their life, this local area, the nation, and world. They are also to collect some kind of artifact or memento each day they write… a photograph, a newspaper clipping, sheets of toilet paper???

I also sent them home with an AOW (article of the week) assignment on recent advances in bionic prosthetic limbs. No, it’s not pandemic-related, but that’s probably a good thing; we don’t need to dwell on the coronavirus 24/7.

My plans also call for good, old-fashioned textbook reading and response. Juniors are reading three classic Robert Frost poems, “Mending Wall,” “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening,” and “Birches.” When we return, we’ll read the ultra-popular and oft-quoted “The Road Not Taken.” Seniors are beginning a study of Medieval Period literature. They’ll be reading “Sir Patrick Spens” and “Barbara Allen.” When we return, we’ll tackle some Chaucer. My Composition students are reading Norman Maclean’s A River Runs Through It over the break.

Taking a slightly different route, my Novels class is writing a Southern Gothic short story, the culminating activity in our study of this genre.

My school administrators encouraged teachers to send paper assignments home with students as 47.8% of our students do not have internet access at home using a computer, laptop,or Chromebook.

Here are some handouts I prepared at my dining room table Monday night. I arrived at school early enough Tuesday morning to make copies for my classes. I checked out textbooks “just in case” to students last Friday and gave them class codes for Remind messages on Monday.

I also like the idea of putting learning materials, a ten-day schedule, and instructions in their hot little hands instead of assuming all electronic messages will be received and/or acknowledged. I’m also keeping in touch with students via Remind, a messaging app that feels like a private Twitter for groups.


Thanks for reading! How are your “coronavirus break” distance learning plans going? Feel free to leave a comment below. I’ll be doing some writing alongside my students, so stay tuned for future posts about our journal/scrapbook activities.

Teaching students to write essays that answer the question: So what?!

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Image by Image by dragonkim29 from Pixabay

Asking “So what?” makes the difference

My juniors finished reading Ernest Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea. Instead of taking an objective culminating exam, they will show their learning by writing a literary analysis essay. However, each student will choose the content and the focus of their essays instead of selecting a topic from a list.

With this essay, I wanted to provide an assignment that would be individualized to reflect the lessons and insights they took personally from the novel.

To accomplish this in their essays, I asked students:

  • What do you want for us to see in the text that we might not have seen otherwise?
  • Even better, what does seeing such a thing DO to our reading and understanding of The Old Man and the Sea, or of Hemingway, or the time period, society at the time the books was published, society today, etc?

Based on their first drafts that they turned in a few days ago, I can tell that students have written on a variety of topics. Some have written about the theme of masculinity in the book, some have written about the correlation between Jesus Christ and Santiago, some have written about perseverance, and some have focused on the benefits of experience and wisdom.

But here’s another thing I can tell: most students haven’t explained the significance of those discussions. Another way to put it: they still need to explore their claims in the hopes of uncovering the greater significance of those claims.

In short, they need to ask themselves “So what?”

  • For example, it’s great that one student thinks that Hemingway wrote about a man with a fighting spirit and a firm determination to succeed,” as one student wrote. But so what? What was Hemingway trying to help readers understand by writing about that man with a fighting spirit and a firm determination to succeed?
  • It’s great to claim that Hemingway uses many examples of masculinity in the novella. But what was Hemingway’s point in doing that? So what? What does that DO to our understanding of the novel?
  • It’s great that you see a correlation between Jesus Christ and Santiago. But what’s the purpose? So what? What does seeing that symbolism do for our lives?

Read this explanation from the blog, Writing Power.net, which I think does a good job of explaining the importance of answering the So What question. For example…

“Three other ways to phrase the So What question are as follows:

  • What is significant about your claim?
  • How does this enrich my understanding?
  • What are the implications of your claim?

In each case, the reader is asking the writer to look beyond his or her own navel and connect the paper’s idea to a larger conversation in which both the writer and the reader are stakeholders…

The most compelling interpretations are the ones in which the reader feels that the writer’s claim is significant, that it matters.”

On my assignment sheet for the culminating essay, I included a rubric of sorts. It contains a list of needed items in the essay: three pages, MLA formatting, two sources, in-text parenthetical citations, two direct quotes, a counter-argument.

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Image by S K from Pixabay 

But really, I also have another purpose — a much greater purpose — to the assignment: I would like to challenge my students to answer the question, So what?

I want them to go further than writing a claim that shows they noticed something in the book. I want them to explain why it’s important to notice that thing in the book. How does noticing that thing affect our lives? What does it teach us? Basically, tell us why it matters. Answer the question, So what?!

And to be truthful, the meaning is more important than the rubric. If a student expounds on their claim, but is short a few paragraphs in length, that’s okay. It’s more important to answer the SO WHAT question than it is to cross off all the boxes.

My juniors will read and revise their first drafts during peer review groups later this week. Hopefully, reading and discussing their essays with their classmates will give them the opportunity to see the importance of  answering the So What? question.


Thanks for reading again this week! Meaning is more important than a rubric. That’s a really hard idea to teach. It’s always easier to focus on mechanics and grammar; it’s harder to help kids think on paper and then communicate their thinking clearly. Have you taught the So What question? If so, please leave a comment with your ideas and experiences.

Slice of life writing: here’s a mentor text for high school students

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Slice of life essays written by elementary students are everywhere; high school slices are harder to find. Here’s one.

Last fall, near the beginning of the school year, I introduced my high school juniors and seniors to slice of life writing. Slices are short narratives that celebrate the ordinary moments in our lives that we may often overlook as worthy of documenting.

To read my post from September about how my students approached Slice of Life writing, click here.

By the way, I learned about slice-of-life writing from this inspirational group of writer-teachers. Teachers write and post their own slices on Tuesdays at this site. For information about this group’s Slice of Life Writing Challenge for classrooms, visit here.

Slice of life writing has few guidelines. Writing a slice is largely a way for students to merge narrative writing with autobiography. Writing slices helps students, especially those who don’t enjoy writing, experience some success within the confines of an essay that runs around 250 words.

Here are the main guidelines that I use when introducing high school students to slice of life writing:

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If your students need a word count,

ask them to shoot for 250-300 words.

I also provide mentor texts so students can read examples of the moments that slice of life writing is intended to document. Because this is my first year teaching at the high school level, I didn’t have any examples written by secondary students; all my examples were written by students at my previous middle school position.

And let’s face it, middle school is middle school.

High school students definitely have more mature concerns, goals, and preoccupations. After all, college and career is on the horizon, social relationships deepen, and many students have jobs.

As a result, I decided to share with you a slice written by Kenna, one of my high school juniors. Feel free to use this as an example when you introduce your own older students to slicing. I especially like this slice because it’s very visual and takes its own sweet time to record an activity that many, if not most, girls can identify with. Curling one’s hair is an oft-repeated task that, while mundane, can come alive when approached creatively.

By the way, this was a third draft that she completed during our Writer’s Workshop weeks last fall. It was nice to see her slice improve gradually over three drafts.

Golden Perfection by Kenna D.

“My hair is long, golden and shiny. It flows through my fingers like the flow of a summer breeze. My hair is flat, and fairly straight. It almost looks like it would be stiff…until you run your fingers through it, and until I decide to style it. When you see it, you can already imagine without touching it, that it is soft and silky like a fleece blanket. 

As the curling iron heats up on the bathroom counter, I look in the mirror to see how all of the lights are aiming down on my hair. They are making it shine like a star in the night sky.

I begin to curl my hair. The beautiful, golden caramel colors, heating up and twisting around and around the hot iron. As the iron gets close to my head, I can feel the heat, beaming off of the iron. It reminds me of the warmth of a fireplace on a cold, snowy winter morning. 

 Ten seconds, twenty seconds, I hold the golden swirl of hair around the iron, and wait for it to give the golden swirl that perfect spiral shape. Thirty seconds pass by and it’s time to release  the hair. I gently let it unravel itself from the iron. Almost as if it’s in slow motion, my hair falls. For a moment I wonder: Is it really going to curl? Will I have to redo this piece of hair?

Fortunately, the golden spiral coils. I stare back at myself in the mirror to see this beautiful, golden swirl of perfection.

I repeat this over and over again. Little pieces of hair at a time. Until every single piece of my hair is curled into a perfect, bouncy coil.

But wait, here’s the plot twist, I’m not a very “girly” girl. After all that work, I end up putting it up into a ponytail of golden, caramel swirls.”

Wasn’t that an awesome slice of life? For a link to a Google Doc file of this slice, click here: Golden Perfection Slice of Life.

I sat up in my chair as I read it, mesmerized by how Kenna zoomed in on a seemingly boring activity and made it come alive with sensory imagery. I loved seeing the “mind movie” as I read.

In addition, Kenna gave us a glimpse into her personality.

Who of us hasn’t put on our best clothes, or spent a lot of time on our hair, only to abandon it all to throw on a pair of jeans or opt for a ponytail instead?


Thanks for reading again this week! I’ll be adding more high school slice of life essays to my blog over the next few weeks. Follow my blog to catch those mentor texts!

The struggle is real: top grammar issues my students struggle with

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Photo by Jonny Caspari on Unsplash

Now I know exactly what they each need to focus on

Last week, I gave each student a sticky note and asked each of my students to write their  top one or two grammar or conventions issues they struggle with on a regular basis.

I suggested, “Y’know… those things that you always have to look up on Google or wherever… those things that you continue to stumble with.” 

As for me, I struggle with the difference between lay and lie. It always makes me stop to Google up Grammar Girl or some other such website. For whatever reason, I just have to look it up every time. I also struggle sometimes with commas between certain coordinate adjectives.

Anyway, I wanted my students to tell me what they struggle with in particular. Knowing their problem areas will help me plan mini-lessons over the next few months.

Without further ado, here are the top grammar issues my students struggle with followed by the number of students who reported the particular item listed:

  • Semicolons (18)
  • Run-on sentences (6)
  • Commas in dialogue (4)
  • Hyphenated words (4)
  • Commas inside or outside of quotation marks  (3)
  • Commas in a series (The Oxford comma)  (3)
  • Than vs. Then (2)
  • There/They’re/Their (2)
  • John and me versus John and I (Subject vs. object pronouns); (2)
  • Where vs. were (2)
  • When to use single quotation marks (1)
  • Capitalizing Dad vs. my dad (1)
  • Affect vs. effect (1)
  • To/Too/Two (1)
  • Apostrophes in possessive case (1)
  • When to paragraph (1)
  • Semicolons vs. colons (1)
  • Commas before who or which (1)
  • Parenthetical citations in MLA style (1)

When I have only one student struggling with, say, run-on sentences, I’ll be able to help them individually during one-on-one conferencing time when we do Writer’s Workshop. For other issues that a few or several students mentioned, I can plan to address those in mini-lessons.

And here’s another thing: some students may not even know they are struggling with a particular issue. For example, I know that more than six students struggle with run-on sentences. I see this issue all the time in many students’ drafts. So, as useful as this list is, I also possess my own knowledge about my students’ problem areas… whether they know about those problem areas or not.

Still, I’m glad I have this list. My copy contains the problem area(s) next to each student’s name. I can reference it continually to recall who needs to work on what. To make sure I remember to teach each of these issues, I’ve decided to enter them into my plan for future class periods in my lesson plan calendar on Planbook.

Eventually, my idea is to know without a doubt that I’ve addressed each student’s particular grammar problems. That will be a good feeling.


Thanks for reading again this week! How do you keep track of exactly what each student needs special help with? Become a follower of this site to receive emails when I publish a new post. Also, feel free to share your comments and ELA teaching experiences.

 

 

Teaching transitions in writing

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

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

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

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

Transition words

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

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

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

Transition ideas

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

When bad grammar creeps into the Associated Press

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Photo by Dmitry Ratushny on Unsplash

What’s an English teacher to do?

I have the Associated Press’ app on my phone and I frequently check it to stay up-to-date on current events. I often (and by often, I would estimate sixty percent of the time) notice one recurring problem: missing words. However, last night after reading a story about Facebook, I noticed another problem: sentence fragments.

And I get it. An intentional sentence fragment can add spark and sentence variety to a piece of writing, but the key is whether the fragment is written for its effect or… is it just an error?

I’ll let you be the judge, but I think these sentence fragments are errors on the part of the writer. I took the screenshot below and circled the two fragments in question.

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This screenshot of an Associated Press article contains two sentence fragments.

The top fragment, actually a dependent clause, should be joined to the independent clause before it, by lower-casing the W on which, and changing the period  after installed to a comma. Intentional fragments that start with which are tricky; they don’t offer the bluntness or the spark that other intentional fragments do.

In the bottom fragment, things are more tricky. Though and although are basically interchangeable (although is usually considered more formal), which means both words can be used to begin a dependent clause, which would then be attached to an independent clause. In this case, however, there is no independent clause, and an unintentional fragment is the result.

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The lead of the story that contained the two unintentional sentence fragments.

Of course, in this case, a writer could use some artistic license. For example, in this explanation from Stack Exchange, “A writer might take liberties and use though as… a subordinate clause separated from its main clause by a period… for effect, especially with a long main clause and an impactful subordinate clause.” And then Stack Exchange provides this example:  Every morning from then on she would set out from her cabin at dawn to wander through the forest, enjoying the smell of pine and the sweet relief of solitude. Though she never completely forgot Ted.

As for impact, Though she never completely forgot Ted certainly is more compelling than Though media watchers remain skeptical that Facebook is really committed to helping sustain the news industry. Furthermore, I believe the impact derives from the shorter length of the clause. Simply put, six words provides more impact and rhythm and variety than sixteen.

So who cares?

Well, as an English teacher, many kids unknowingly write unintentional sentence fragments. All the time.

Who could blame them? When what they read out in the real world contains poor grammar, it plants the seeds of poor grammar in their own writing.

And yes, the 24/7 news cycle isn’t helping either. When stories are churned out every few hours or so, being timely — and not quality-oriented — receives the emphasis. So, it’s understandable what might be causing these writing issues.

Still, the Associated Press needs to improve its proofreading. When missing words and sentence fragments are allowed to creep into its stories, it causes me to doubt the credibility of its reporters’ sources, the quoted material they use, their claims to unbiased reporting, and other aspects of quality journalistic writing.


Thanks for reading again this week! I just noticed this confusion and thought I would try to make sense of it in the context of teaching grammar. I also suppose that this could be turned into a mini-lesson on fragments, specifically the confusion that exists in using although and though.

Feel free to leave a comment — especially if I’ve been unclear or am mistaken — and follow my blog for more posts about teaching high school ELA.