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

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They Say I Say (Third Edition, 2015)

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

The Triangle Fire and My Students’ Human Rights Dissertations

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

There are six sections to this project:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

 

Better the second time around: Whippersnappers

We’re jumping into year two of this 7th-grade PBL project

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Photo: Jigar Gamit on Pxhere

We’re doing it again! My seventh-graders will again this upcoming school year be writing the content for a newsletter for kids called Whippersnappers. It’s an activity my students produce in partnership with the White River Valley Historical Society, a regional organization based in Forsyth, Mo.

Last year, the idea for a unique PBL project resulted at the end of the summer when I placed a call to the WRVHS’s director, Leslie Wyman. I simply asked if the society had any writing or research-related needs that my seventh-graders could help with. She replied that, yes, as a matter of fact, their children’s newsletter could use some revamping and some “new blood.”

And just like that, this unique project was born.

My students were so excited when they learned about the project last fall. Many of them jumped right into our brainstorming sessions where we came up with article ideas. They also enjoyed and listened carefully when Wyman visited one day to get the ball rolling. They especially loved taking field trips to the society’s two local museums.

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My students listen to WRVHS Director Leslie Wyman explain how to research for their Whippersnapper stories.

The best moment of all? When Wyman hand-delivered the first issue. They loved seeing their names or their classmates’ names in print. It was a good feeling. We produced a total of four issues and I plan to continue the program this fall with my new seventh-graders. They know all about the project (since most are subscribers) and most seem interested in picking up the baton and running with the second year.

I was just at school yesterday morning unpacking boxes that held the items I requisitioned last spring. Inside one package was a clear plexiglass brochure holder that I’ll mount near the door to my room. Here is where I’ll post extra copies of the newsletter. The cardboard sign that our graphic design students created last year looks a little tired; my new holder should work perfectly.

As I begin to plan for fall, I have a few things to do to get ready for Whippersnappers year 2:

  • I’ll have to dig out the “story starter” page that I created with my students last year to help them begin to assemble ideas and notes for their stories.
  • I’ll also have to remember to schedule a day to show them how to access historical articles on the WRVHS’s website. These were our main sources of information for our stories last year, and I’m not entirely happy with that. I would prefer there be a wider mix of sources–other online articles and databases, in-person interviews, books–for students to use.
  • Fine-tune more research methods. Privacy and safety concerns are my main concerns when determining other research sources. In order to learn more about that, I may need to meet with Wyman before school starts to see what alternative ways we can develop for kids to safely and privately find information.
  • One idea: Private Facebook group where students anonymously interact with researchers at the WRVHS? That’s one idea Wyman and I have bantered about, but haven’t acted upon yet. This fall may be the time to pursue that idea.
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The first issue of Whippersnappers, Oct. 2017

Another goal for this upcoming school year: boosting the circulation of the Whippersnappers.

  • Could it be promoted to other area schools?
  • Could it be promoted to area readers through libraries?
  • Could we secure corporate support? The WRVHS utilizes grant money to print and mail the Whippersnappers right now. Is there a local company who would like to work with us? So many questions!

Regardless, I’m excited to start another year of Whippersnappers. I think it’s so important for students to write for a real-world publication. When I was a seventh-grader, I would have loved to see my name in print like my students do.

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The second issue of Whippersnappers, Dec. 2017

It’s my sincere hope that my students will see that they have the ability to be real-world writers, especially since they already are… thanks to the Whippersnappers and the WRVHS.


Thanks for reading! Follow my blog to hear how the second year of the Whippersnappers goes. I’ll be posting about it this fall. If you have any unique PBL projects, I’d love to hear about them. Feel free to leave a comment!

I love this back-to-school poetry project for 6th-graders from YA author Kate Messner

It combines poetry and revision (and publication!)

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“Sometimes on the beach, I see balloons floating and people walking.” Photo by Gabriel Baranski on Unsplash

“The Sometimes Poem” is one of my favorite ways to start the school year with my sixth-graders. I’ve used this project for two years running and I plan to use it again in August. It includes three skills: poetry techniques, revision, and submitting for publication. I credit children’s and YA author, Kate Messner, for her inspiration and ideas for this project.

In 2016, I attended the Write To Learn Conference and sat in on Messner’s presentation on revision strategies.  Her presentation allowed the teachers in attendance to create and revise their own “Sometimes” poems.

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This book contains real-life strategies real authors use when they revise their novels, articles, and short stories.

Here’s how I present this lesson that’s based on Messner’s slideshow and her excellent book, Real Revision. (My copy, shown at right, is old, but awesome.)  I’ve tweaked Messner’s slideshow for my own use over the past two years. First, download the Google slideshow. Then, skim through the slideshow to become familiar with the project. Notice that I have hidden some of the slides for this project. As you skim, you may decide to modify my changes to fit your needs and students.

  1. Ask students to write for three minutes to describe a place that they love. We use pencils and paper for this to get fresher ideas and more thoughtful writing. Laptops can be used later after revision and before submitting to the publisher.
  2. Before students begin, I share a paragraph I’ve written about my favorite place, which is on a swing in my yard. My paragraph serves as a mentor text.
  3. After three minutes, ask if students would like two or three more minutes, extend the time. usually, in my experience, students need a few minutes more.
  4. Students may share their writing about their favorite places.
  5. Have students listen as you read aloud from Messner’s own poem, “Sometimes On a Mountain in April.” Messner’s poem can also serve as a mentor text, but in addition, it shows students how their paragraph will soon be transformed into a poem.
  6. Show students your attempt at turning your paragraph into a poem. Read aloud one more time your paragraph, and then read to them your poem. Discuss with students how to pull details from the paragraph to create lines for a poem that are filled with imagery.
  7. Also show students at this point how to use repetition in their poem, just like Messner did. She added the words “Sometime on a mountain in April” about every three lines. This creates a poetic structure and rhythm to their writing.
  8. For me, this step is usually when students really begin to like what they’ve written. Have students transform their paragraph into poetry. You’ll need about five to eight minutes for this step, but allow more if students need it. For those who struggle, help them locate one detail that they can craft into a line of a poem.  After helping them do this one line, it’s their turn to find another.
  9. After students have six lines for their poem, tell them that it’s time to revise.
  10. Go deep with a quick discussion of theme… what the poem is REALLY about. On the surface, my poem is about sitting in a swing in my yard. However, it’s REALLY about appreciating the little things in life. In a word, contentment. I learned to spend a small amount of time on theme with this project, but not too much. If students can end up telling you what their poem is about on the surface AND what it’s really about, then you’re good. Let revision be the focus for this project.
  11. To revise, ask students to add more imagery and sensory language. To do this, have students add one fragrance to their poem. It should be a new line of poetry. Show them yours. It’s good to have your original six lines on the board. Then add the new fragrance line(s) below. Students may add as many lines as they would like, but one helps them see how sensory language enriches their writing.
  12.  Keep revising! Have students add one more of the five senses to their poem. They definitely have sight if they’ve written anything at all, and they’ve also added in a fragrance. Students should be adding a sound, a taste, or a texture to their poem now. Show them yours again, if needed, as a mentor text. With this step, students see that adding details is one way to revise.
  13. Revise some more! Have students scan their poem for these overused words: very, really, just. With this step, students see that removing unnecessary words is another way to revise.
  14. Keep at it! Have students remove five more unnecessary words. Tell students to look for the least important words. If kids struggle to find five, require that they at least remove three.
  15. Now revise with a partner! Put slide 95 on your screen and leave it there for the partner work. Have one student pass out a pink, green, yellow, and pink highlighter to each student. Note: Use any four different colors, but everyone needs to have the same colors. Read aloud this slide first with your students after they pair up.
  16. Students will use the pink highlighter to indicate areas that should be removed. They’ll use green to indicate confusing areas. Blue indicates areas that should be more precise or more detailed. Yellow indicates that a line or area is effective as is.
  17. Before students begin highlighting, pass out one sticky note to each student. Tell students that they are to write notes for your partner that explain your highlighting (if needed)  and to offer suggestions.
  18. When students are finished highlighting and writing notes on the sticky note, show them the “When your partner is done” slide. Have students rework their own poem again, considering their partner’s suggestions.
  19. Use this moment to revisit theme. Have students ask themselves “What is my poem about? What is my poem REALLY about? Is that theme clear in my poem?” You may need to help students think of words and phrases that will help them convey their theme. This is tough. Don’t stress it with your sixth-graders. It’s good that they are putting effort into this higher-level skill.

So that’s the basic framework for this exciting poetry project. I have used it for two years with both sixth- and seventh-graders each August. It’s a great way to get back into the “writing zone” and it helps me get to know my students and their personalities. In fact, here’s a poem written by one of my students last year:

Sometimes in a Tree Stand

by Alex J.

Sometimes when I’m sitting in my tree stand,

early in the morning,

I can hear dogs barking through the hills

and can see the birds fly above us.

Sometimes when I’m sitting in my tree stand,

I can hear the leaves crunching when animals walk,

and sometimes smell the pine trees.

Sometimes in the tree stand,

I can feel the morning breeze.

Then time goes on.

The dogs go quiet,

and the birds settle down.

The leaves stop crunching.

And the smell of the pine trees

are replaced by the smell of the day.

The morning breeze dies down,

and I know it’s time to leave,

but I’ll come back tomorrow.

The heavy emphasis on revision subtly shows students challenging and fun ways to add sensory language and delete unnecessary verbiage from their poems. What’s more, it exposes students to theme and guides them in seeking elements of deeper meaning in their work.

But that’s not all! Have your students enter their “Sometimes” poem in Creative Communication’s Poetry Anthology contest. Their work just might be published in a hardcover book! Alex J’s. poem (above) was published and showed Alex that he has real potential as a writer. Read this post for more information about the anthologies.

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Creative Communication’s Poetry Anthology Collection includes volumes for 6th-graders (not shown).

I can’t tell you how great it is when students realize they’re sending their poems to a publisher. They will definitely step up their effort and take greater care with their work once they know their poems are going places! In fact, you may want to tell them at the beginning of the project that they will eventually submit their poems to a publisher. I assure you that it will set the stage for more engagement.

Thanks for reading! Try this project. I really think you’ll enjoy using it as a BTS project. Thanks to Kate Messner for her inspiration and materials!

Where have all the “thank you” notes gone?

Here’s what happened the first time I taught the “thank you” note

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Okay, where are the thank you notes? Who said they were no longer necessary? Someone must have, because I often don’t receive one anymore. And it’s not as if I’m expecting one, but I would like to at least know that the gift I shipped was received. Unfortunately, sometimes I never find that out.

So, to counter this trend, last year I added thank you notes to our project list for writer’s workshop.

Here’s the background on how I have done writer’s workshop in my class for the past two years:

I have only done this structured form of writer’s workshop during the first and second quarters of the school year. I gave students a list of 8-10 projects from which they could choose to work on during dedicated workshop time. They were required to choose six projects from this list and complete the projects in any order they chose. There was a writing process to follow for each project. The process included:

  • writing a first draft
  • collaborating through peer response to the first draft
  • revising, editing, and then generating a second draft
  • receiving my feedback on their second draft
  • making final revisions and edits, and then generating a final draft.

At the end of the workshop period, usually the end of the quarter, students turned in all projects andaccompanying paperwork (prewriting, previous drafts, etc.) inside a two-pocket folder. Writing projects included poetry, how-to and/or listicle blog posts, academic essays, contest essays, arguments, short stories, and thank you notes. 

At the beginning of the school year, I bought a few boxes of thank you notes students could use for their notes. They were to write a short (one- to two-paragraphs) note to someone they knew, thanking them for a gift, their friendship, or their help. I asked them to draft out what they planned to write on a sheet of notebook paper, and for this project only, submit that to me as their first draft.

Unfortunately, the thank you note project didn’t go as well as I wanted. Here’s why:

  • Kids tended to rush through this project because they knew it was one they could complete more quickly than the others.
  • Nearly all of my kids didn’t have any idea where to put “Dear Mom,” or “Yours truly,” on the card. I should have spent an entire class period practicing filling out a note card. See the photo below as an example of how kids simply didn’t know how to fill out a note card.

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  • Some of the writing was very personal. Some were so personal, in fact, that I didn’t feel comfortable reading them. Once this happened a few times, I simply asked students to show me their drafts on notebook paper. Then, due to the personal nature of some of the writing, I would skim the notes for mechanical errors instead of reading them carefully for content. Then I would initial their drafts and they could then write their note on a note card. Many of the notes probably contained unclear thinking and I hope they didn’t cause confusion for the readers. My approach seemed like a very lame way to handle the project; however, I just didn’t feel comfortable critiquing such personal messages.

So for the school year that starts in August, I’m undecided about how to teach students to write a thank you note. I think it’s a valuable skill, but I clearly need to take a different approach to it based on my experiences last year. Here are a few things that may help:

  • Perhaps dedicating an entire class period to the basic format or layout of a note card would be sufficient.
  • Also, maybe it would help if, instead of having students write their drafts on notebook paper, I provided a template cut to size so they could practice writing it on the space provided. Transferring their note from a full sheet of paper to the dimensions of a standard-size note card proved difficult for them last year. In fact, from my own experience, I know that figuring out where the words will be placed and where I’ll put any hyphens and such helps me create a more attractive, well-written note. It just makes the note look more planned out, more intentional.
  • Encouraging students to slow down with this project. Just because it’s only a paragraph of writing doesn’t mean it should be done carelessly.
  • For next year, I may also require them to write their thank you notes in cursive. They need to know that many readers will keep their notes as keepsakes and will want to read them again. Writing in cursive will make their note more formal and meaningful.

I’m interested in your ideas. Do you teach traditional letter writing or thank you notes? Do you think this is an important skill or one that may as well be done on a laptop? Leave a comment and let me know!


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New mini-lesson resource: 100 Ways to Improve Your Writing

This “new to me” book will be fun to try this fall

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A year or two ago, I found an effective paragraph that explained sentence variety perfectly. Read the post about it here.  I dug a little deeper about the author and eventually made my way to this book, 100 Ways to Improve Your Writing, by Gary Provost.  Gary Provost was an author and writing instructor who died in 1995 right in the middle of his career.  In addition to his own books and articles, he produced a series of how-to writing books and seminars.

I ordered 100 Ways from Amazon last week and, after skimming through it, know I’ll be able to use several chapters in my language arts classes next year. I hope these short readings and the discussions they spark will make great mini-lessons to kick off a writing work day.

The book is divided into eleven chapters. Here are a few of them followed by one or two points discussed within each:

  • Five Ways to Write a Strong Beginning (Find a Slant, Set a Tone and Maintain It)
  • Twelve Ways to Give Your Words Power (Use Active Verbs, Be Specific, Use Statistics)
  • Ten Ways to Avoid Grammatical Errors (Do Not Change Tenses, Avoid Dangling Modifiers)
  • Six Ways to Avoid Punctuation Errors (How to Use Colons, Semicolons, Quotation Marks)
  • Twelve Ways to Avoid Making Your Reader Hate You (Avoid Clichés, Avoid Parentheses)
  • Seven Ways to Edit Yourself (Read Your Work Out Loud, Use Common Sense)
  • Nine Ways to Save Time and Energy (Use Transitions, Avoid Wordiness)

While the 158-page book deals with more technical topics, such as punctuation and grammar, the author also discusses the finer, more esoteric qualities of good writing. For example, in “Stop Writing When You Get to the End,” Provost writes,

When you have done what you came to do, stop. Do not linger at the door saying good-bye sixteen times.

How do you know when you have finished? Look at the last sentence and ask yourself, “What does the reader lose if I cross it out?” If the answer is “nothing” or “I don’t know,” then cross it out. Do the same thing with the next to last sentence, and so forth. When you get to the sentence  that you  must have, read it out loud. Is it a good closing sentence? Does it sound final? Is it pleasant to the ear? Does it leave the reader in the mood you intended? If so, you are done. If not, rewrite it so that it does. Then stop writing.

I like the tone of Provost’s writing. Concise. Clear. Practical. Warm. It’s an easy, friendly read, and has its share of funny writing snippets.

In addition, many chapters contain side-by-side examples of ineffective and effective writing. For instance, in the chapter entitled “Be Specific,” several examples of general and vague writing appear on the left-hand side across from their more specific counterpart on the right-hand side. Here’s one: The general “Various ethnic groups have settled in Worcester,” is shown alongside its more specific “Greeks, Italians, and Puerto Ricans have settled in Worcester.”

The book has a copyright date of 1972, so some of the examples used are outdated. I’ll just explain this to the kids, or pause while we read to explain obsolete terms. One I noticed was “word processing.” That term just isn’t used much anymore.

Some of the chapters overlap with existing lessons I already use; however, it never hurts to review the same concepts in different ways. This book will enable me to do that.

Check out this book by buying a single copy. I purchased a used copy on Amazon for about five dollars. That’s an inexpensive price for a potentially valuable new resource. Maybe a class set will be in my future.


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