I’m pretty proud of the written response in the picture above. It’s written by a seventh-grade student who, while being a strong writer, struggles with turning in work, whether assigned as homework or completed during class.
He is not doing well in my class “grade-wise”; however, this paragraph shows the higher level of thinking he is able to record in writing. (Yes, there are problems with this response, such as misspelled words and run-ons, but this student’s idea development is strong and that’s more important to me. We can always fix the editing later.)
Some of the paragraph may be hard to discern, so I’ve transcribed it below without corrections:
“In the book, Chasing Lincoln’s Killer, we learn/learned more than most people would normally know. Most people just know Lincoln was shot watching a play but there is more. I learned for the first time their was a twelve-day manhunt. Acorrding to the novel James Swanson authorther of Chasing Lincoln’s Killer, “There was a plan.” In other words, Booth had it all figured out. Close to the end after Booth was shot, and paralized he asked someone to hold up his hands whe they did he spoke useless, useless. I think when Booth says this he is saying that all his efforts, his plans, and evan his completed task was useless cause he felled to live on, he felled to tell his story, he felled to fight on for the south.”
This paragraph was written in response to the prompt below. Here’s what I love about this response:
it builds up to and introduces the evidence in a satisfying way
it interprets the evidence with two sentences, including that final golden one
it uses repetition effectively (and I made sure to tell him that when I spoke with him about it)
the writer put his own “spin” on the material… it feels original and fresh
Here’s that prompt:
I realize that there are quite a few “requirements” in this prompt. Sometimes I feel that I’m overly prescriptive with my prompts.
And then I receive a response back like this that reminds me that many kids thrive with the guidelines. They’re able to combine the guidelines with their own ideas and voice to create accurate, effective communication that also possesses a distinct style.
Thanks for reading! I use similar prompts like this throughout the year. Sometimes I’ll add other items for kids to use such as sentences that begin “For example, …”. What do your writing prompts look like? Feel free to leave a comment!
I’ve been reading Chasing Lincoln’s Killer by James Swanson to my seventh-graders and we just finished it on Friday.
About every two chapters or so, they’ve written a response to a question I’ve posed to help them comprehend the text as well as think critically about some of the questions and topics it raises.
Because our students have plenty of independent reading time in their Humanities class, I have chosen to read-aloud this book. I also think it’s important to model reading, so from cover to cover, the students follow along while I read. Well, nearly all of them.
About a week ago, I noticed that whenever I glanced up from reading to check the class, one boy who sits at the back of the room was quietly looking back at me as I read. Apparently, he was listening. He was also making connections. The next day his father gave him permission to bring some actual Confederate States of America bills to school. Arranging the money on my desk for the photo below, there was no doubt that he had been paying attention even though he wasn’t “following along.”
Another student—I’ll call him Joe– was drawing on a sheet of copy paper as I read during the course of three or four class periods. Early on, I asked him to follow along once or twice, and finally decided that I wouldn’t ask again, especially when I looked at the drawing that Joe dropped into the seventh-grade basket at the end of class each day.
He was working on a portrait of John Wilkes Booth from a photo in the book. He surrounded the portrait with words posed as questions. It was interesting and thought-provoking and showed that he was indeed paying attention during the reading. He may not have been “following along,” but he was definitely engaged.
So just because a student isn’t following along, don’t assume they aren’t paying attention and learning. In fact, Joe and his drawing has caused me to consider how other kids may better show their understanding (and misunderstanding, too–let’s be real) through drawing or sketching. Recording their thoughts and thinking must not always equate to producing a written response, after all.
Thanks for reading! Our next step in the unit is to watch a movie called The Conspirator, which focuses on the trial of Booth’s conspirators, including Mary Surratt, the owner of the boarding house where the assassination was purportedly planned. The end result? An essay that argues Surratt’s innocence or guilt. Follow my blog for more posts about middle school ELA.
Gallagher developed the Article of the Week assignment to help students gain more background knowledge about politics, history, current events… in short, the world around them.
When I took Gallagher’s cue and began assigning AOWs in my own classroom, I chose to do so because I agree that kids need to expand their background knowledge. Many can’t relate to the literature we teach because they don’t possess the personal prior knowledge to connect to that literature.
I also like the idea of kids writing to reflect or give their take on a particular topic. Plus, reading and responding to nonfiction texts takes a different set of skills than reading literature: identifying central ideas, finding evidence to support those central ideas, noticing patterns and sequences in the content of the articles, and more. AOWs would surely help my students develop or at least practice those skills.
Gallagher’s AOWs are concise. His handout consists of a reprinted article, with a box at the top of the page that asks students to do three things: 1) mark their confusion, 2) show evidence of a close reading, and 3) write a 1+ page reflection.
How I tweaked Gallagher’s AOW to make it work for me
However, the steps outlined by Gallagher are too open-ended for my middle school students. The expectations for their writing are not focused in a way that my students (most of them anyway) would appreciate. Instructions so brief would only lead to confusion for many of them.
For that reason, I’ve provided more specific instructions and I’ve used each assignment to teach two specific skills I am focusing on this year that actually go hand-in-hand: interpretation and idea development.
Here’s a photo of the rubric for the AOW shown in the photo at the top of this post:
Another important aspect that I feel makes these assignments essential is their frequency. I assign these once a week. (The AOWs are in addition to in-class writing activities, such as writing prompts and essays.) Every Monday morning, students are given a new AOW that is due the following Monday. Writing a thorough response on a weekly basis outside of class gets my students in the habit of writing regularly.
I assign these responses weekly to help students develop writing stamina and to help them learn to write on demand. My own daughter was required in her eighth-grade classes (at another district) to write weekly and I know it was invaluable in helping her develop the confidence to write consistently.
Kids need narrative practice, too
One change I have made over the past year, however, is to alternate AOWs with what I call EOWs (Essays of the Week). EOWs focus on narrative writing skills and include a list of twenty or so prompts around a certain theme. Recent themes included style and health, politics and power, and food. I decided to create EOWs after I determined that kids needed more practice writing in a narrative style. These essays allow kids to inject more of their personal voice into their writing.
Kids tell me they enjoy writing the EOWs much more than they do the AOWs; they like the increased creativity involved. Another difference: the rubric obviously doesn’t require annotating, but may require that students open their essay with dialogue, for example. The EOWs also have a longer length requirement: they must be two pages typed instead of the usual one page for AOWs.
I pull my prompt topics from a list of 650 writing prompts published by the New York Times. One good thing about these EOWs: they can be reused from year to year. However, make sure you don’t just “cut and paste” a swath of topics from the list, since some are definitely geared to older students.
One downside to using AOWs is that for them to be topical, I must spend time every other week to find an article to use. I have used several from Newsela.com, modifying them for a printed handout. I have also found many elsewhere. I keep my eyes and ears open for the current week’s news so I can provide a really up-to-the-minute assignment.
Introducing an AOW usually takes the better part of our 53-minute class periods. After I pass out the handout, we briefly talk about the article’s subject, then we’ll look at the prompt and the rubric to see what they require. Following this introduction, I’ll often read aloud the article, using a document camera while I read, all the while demonstrating annotation.
This is how we do it
After we finish reading the article, I’ll show the kids a related video from Youtube or a similar video source. For example, for one AOW on football head injuries, we watched one to three short clips of players who suffer from concussion injuries.
The EOWs don’t require as much time to introduce. We just skim through the list, discuss a few that look especially interesting to some students, and move on. They know what to do beyond that, which is to put their things away so we can carry on with whatever else I have planned for the day. AOWs and EOWs are homework assignments.
I put a lot of thought and time into creating these weekly assignments, which I consider my number one most effective writing assignment. However, I know these assignments help my students conquer their fear and hesitation with writing. Writing on a regular basis is a great skill that I know will benefit them immensely in high school and beyond.
Thanks for reading again this week! Let me know how you’ve tweaked Gallagher’s AOW concept for your students.
Students presented their writing contest entries for an end-of-semester critique
The last week before Christmas break was super productive. Oh, don’t get me wrong… we still watched videos late in the week, but we ACCOMPLISHED SO MUCH early in the week with our contest entry presentations that my self-inflicted and totally undeserved teacher guilt over watching videos instantly evaporated when I pressed the play button.
By the way, teachers shouldn’t feel guilty about showing videos right before Christmas IF they find movies that have real value that they can connect to their curriculum. Also, avoid Elf, Remember the Titans, or any other movie that kids have already seen at least six times. (You’ll find out what we watched in my classes in a post later this week.)
And now, back to my regularly scheduled article:
We had a goal; more specifically, we had a writing contest deadline. On Friday, December 21, the last half-day of school before Christmas break, I planned to mail in the submission forms for ten students, a mix of both seventh- and eighth-graders, who had written entries to the Scholastic Writing Awards.
On the Monday and Tuesday before that Friday, I had asked students to choose their favorite pieces of writing from their Writer’s Workshop portfolios to present to the class. For the ten students who were submitting contest entries to Scholastic, I specifically asked them to read those entries. We could use the presentations as a final check before sending them off.
Reading the pieces aloud to students might reveal any areas of confusion and editing issues that remained. True, the pieces had been through at least three drafts, some four or more; however, there’s nothing like reading your writing aloud to someone who’s never heard it before to find areas for improvement.
We started with the students with Scholastic entries. I had given each student a rubric form to fill out as they listened to the Scholastic entries aloud. This form was based on the rubric students use when they listen to their classmates present their One-Word Summaries. This version was less involved, however, since it mainly was asking students to listen for confusion. In other words, if something didn’t make sense, it needed to be addressed.
Let me say this: I was so impressed with how seriously the students took this activity. Despite it being the last few days before Christmas break, and despite having turned in the final project of the semester (their Writer’s Workshop Portfolios), students approached this last “Speaking & Listening” activity in a constructive, critical, and professional manner.
Their discussions were focused, direct, and helpful. The rubric contained a blank for them to circle “Yes” or “No,” in response to the question: “At all times, I was able to follow the writing without becoming confused.” This part of the rubric was crucial and helped spur effective conversations. I prompted students to raise their hands if they noticed any confusing areas from the writing to discuss. For example, one student’s poem contained a line that caused confusion. It was a line that defined happiness as the feeling one has when you throw your playing cards down in anger after losing a game.
Some students expressed confusion with how anger could be used to define happiness. These students asked the writer to repeat the poem, including the confusing line. These students listened carefully. They offered these questions:
Would frustration be a more accurate word than anger?
Does using frustration really solve the issue, though?
Would adding the word “playful” before anger or frustration provide the tone needed and eliminate the confusion?
Consensus decided that using “playful” would indeed help. At the conclusion of that student’s turn, before she sat down, I made sure to let her know that it was strictly her decision whether or not to use the word “playful.” It was her poem, after all. The main point for her to remember, I reminded her, was that the line caused confusion in the mind of the reader. When readers are confused, they lose interest, unless the material is something they intrinsically need to understand.
It’s the writer’s job to make the reading experience as smooth as possible, so the reader doesn’t become confused, and therefore, lose interest.
Word choice was a significant part of our discussions during these end-of-semester presentations. It was fun watching students suggest better, stronger, more precise words in a group setting. Some students even left their desks to offer help, making notes on or looking at the copy of the writer’s essay or poem.
Another important change was suggested with another student’s (let’s call her Susan) essay. This suggestion was made after several students expressed confusion over the main character in Susan’s short story. Students didn’t understand if the main character was, in fact, a bird or a human. Susan relayed to us that the character was indeed a bird, a creature of reverence to Crow Tribal members.
To help clear up the cryptic nature of Susan’s writing, I asked students, “Without Susan there to answer questions, how will the Scholastic judges understand the story?” Students came up with their own idea for Susan: provide a prologue, a paragraph or two of background at the beginning of the essay that explains the connection to the Crow. It was an excellent and practical idea and one students arrived at on their own.
These are just two examples of how my students took the writing critique seriously. Even more, one boy who is usually very disinterested in group work made the comment that he wished we had done these presentations earlier in the Writer’s Workshop process. I told him that I agreed and made a mental note that we definitely should conduct these critiques sometime during the Writer’s Workshop, when it has more relevance.
Since there was still time for the Scholastic Award entrants to make changes to their entries, the activity was indeed relevant. For those other students, who were actually reading completed final drafts with no additional opportunity to make further changes (since I had already entered grades due to our schedule), there wasn’t much point to suggesting changes.
However, some of the writing will be worked on next semester for upcoming contests. In March, students who chose to enter the Outdoor Writers of America Norm Strung Youth Writing Awards, will revise their poems from their portfolios and submit those. (I plan to have students present their entries for that contest in March.)
Finally, it’s good to discover another new activity that proves effective for my classes. (And to think we did this valuable activity in the final days of the semester amazes me!)
In addition, I’m always looking for easy ways to provide opportunities that address the Missouri Learning Standards’ “Speaking and Listening” components. Having kids present their work at semester’s end was perfect for that task. Plus, it allowed those Scholastic Writing Award writers another opportunity to further revise and check their work. It was a positive and beneficial way to end the semester!
Thanks for reading! Click “like” if you found this article helpful and then leave a quick comment about the ideas you found most beneficial. Don’t forget: follow this blog to catch my next post on how not to feel guilty about showing videos right before a break.
I’m following a year-long plan that I have outlined in my spiral planner that I keep on my desk on top of another binder where I keep printed copies of my Planbook plans. As you can see, I’m a very paper-based person.
So even switching to entering my lesson plans online was a huge step; however, it’s going well. I like how I can skip around to the next week quickly, or bounce back to the previous week or month to see exactly what I did during each class.
In addition, the search function is priceless. For example, I can enter “run-on sentences” into the search bar and a list of lessons pop up that show me exactly when run-on sentences were taught or discussed. In the past, I had to manually page through my binder and search.
Planbook’s $15 annual subscription fee is worth it. Before jumping into the subscription, however, I investigated Planboard, another online lesson planning tool. (Planboard is free of charge, by the way.) To set up Planboard, it required several details about times of classes, duration of terms, and other aspects of scheduling. At the time, I wasn’t able to devote that much thought to it, so I reverted back to Planbook because it is so straightforward and simple to begin. I bet no more than five minutes passed between when I initially logged in to when I began entering plans.
So, bottom line: Planbook is working. Planbook is simple. If you haven’t started using an online lesson planning tool, I would definitely recommend Planbook. It has completely changed the way I plan lessons.
Thanks for stopping by! How do you plan your lessons? Planbook? Planboard? Do you use good ol’ binders? Comment away with your experiences with lesson planning. See you next week.
Last week, one of my students came across the term “hyperbole” on a vocabulary assignment. “What does hyperbole mean?” he asked.
Wow, I thought. Five years ago, my students knew that term. Why? Because I taught it to them, along with other common figurative language techniques. Why? Because they were specifically listed in the standards, which at the time were known as Grade-Level Expectations (GLEs) and were in place when I began teaching in 2011.
And this illustrates my one and only complaint with the MLS for English Language Arts: They just seem a little vague, when compared to the old GLEs, which were clear, specific, and practically a checklist even, of the techniques and academic language terms Missouri kids were expected to know. Heck, I even remember printing out the figurative language section of the GLEs for each grade that I taught (6th, 7th, and 8th), and crossing off each device as I covered it in my classes.
In general, I’m a fan of the Missouri Learning Standards, and their progenitor, the Common Core. I can support the various standards and the modifications made.
Yes, at first, I questioned the subjugation of grammar, mechanics, and conventions (known as language standards) under various subsections of the writing standards; however, as a teacher in my third year of implementation of the MLS, I have reconciled what some may perceive as a dismissal of grammar with what I believe is a more authentic approach that 1) stresses an initial emphasis in the writing process on ideas, and 2) leaves the grammar checks and editing for later. In the words of the late writing instructor Gary Provost, “Good grammar does not guarantee good writing any more than a good referee guarantees a good basketball game.”
Still, my support for this aspect of the MLS is tempered by a desire for greater specificity within those standards, especially when those specifics include literary techniques that I know my students will be expected to know during standardized testing in the spring.
In effect, the CCSS and MLS have left it up to the educators to pinpoint the devices they will teach. And, yes, it’s excellent that educators are allowed the freedom to teach the devices they choose, but how am I supposed to help my students do well on a standardized test (that ultimately determines federal funding of my school district, by the way) if I am unaware of the items to be tested?
So, even though I support the CCSS and the MLS, holes do exist in them. I’ve attended standard setting meetings with other educators where we’ve pored over the standards line by line. And true, one could say the standards reflect overall what educators have deemed necessary; however, those needs do not always match up with the tests that students undergo every spring.
To remedy that, my ideal standards would be a melding of the old GLEs into the MLS that would precisely include the specific skills, techniques, and terminology that students need to know not only to express themselves accurately but also to successfully complete a standardized test.
Thanks for reading my blog again this week! I’m sharing this activity below from Education.com even though I’m receiving no compensation for doing so. This puzzle, which you could use as a bell-ringer, exit ticket or simply as a discussion starter, will help your students learn the seven most common figurative language techniques: simile, hyperbole, alliteration, metaphor, personification, onomatopoeia, and oxymoron.
The Essential Questions: How can history inform public policy? How do people prevent past tragedies from reoccurring?
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
Write a free verse (non-rhyming) poem about the Triangle Fire.
Write a free verse (non-rhyming) poem about the WTC fires.
Juxtapose the two poems on construction paper or some other paper.
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.
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!