To the parent who told my student she’d never be a writer

Thanks but no thanks for the motherly advice.

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Photo: Luke Southern on Unsplash

Yes, a student informed me about a month ago that her mother told her she wouldn’t ever be a writer.

“Say that again?” I asked when I overheard Claire report to a friend what her mother had said the previous evening as she revised a narrative essay.

“Yeah, she told me I wasn’t gonna be a writer,” Claire told me.

“Do you know why she said that?” I asked, to which Claire replied, “No, not really.” She didn’t really seem bothered by it. She just thought it strange that her mother would make such a pronouncement.

I have two things to say to Claire’s mother: 1) what would possibly compel you to say something so negative to your daughter (who is one of my most pleasant, optimistic, and thoughtful students, by the way) and 2) you’re late in your unwelcome advice, because—sorry, Mom—your daughter is already a writer.

Gary Provost, the late author and writing coach, opens his classic writing tome, 100 Ways to Improve Your Writing with this jewel of a lead:

This book will teach you how to write better ransom notes. It will also teach you how to write better love letters, short stories, magazine articles, letters to the editor, business proposals, sermons, poems, novels, parole requests, church newsletters, songs, memos, essays, term papers, theses, graffiti, death threats, advertisements, and shopping lists.

If Provost knows his stuff (and he does), this list proves that writing is all around us. We don’t have to be sitting in a classroom. It’s not relegated to literary pursuits. It’s not reserved just for word nerds. Writing is something we all do to some degree all the time.

True, writing out a recipe is quite different from crafting a short story. And true, Claire isn’t one of my most prolific students. Her grade is usually a solid C at any given time due to a lack of organization skills that (at 13, mind you) she’s still honing.

But she’s exploring words and ideas. She’s trying on personal writing projects and seeing where they lead. In fact, she’s on her fourth draft of an especially touching essay about the home her ancestors were forced to abandon in their war-torn native land… and the pet cockatiel left inside that a relative promised to care for. She knows that’s a story that she needs to keep alive.

So, whether Claire’s mother realizes it or not, and whether she likes it or not, Claire is indeed already a writer. All this motherly advice, this practical shot-in-the-arm that Claire’s mother may have thought helpful, is actually moot.

The point is not that Claire won’t ever be a writer, or even want to be one, the point is that she already is one.


Thanks for reading! I just don’t understand why a parent would discourage their child from writing. It’s a skill that’s too important. Feel free to leave a comment about this post and follow my blog for more essays on teaching language arts.

When you finally visit a place you’ve taught your students about for years

I searched through lower Manhattan to find the Triangle Shirtwaist Co. building

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There’s nothing like visiting a place you’ve only read about in books. Last week during spring break, my daughter and I visited New York City primarily to visit the City College of New York, where my daughter will begin graduate school next fall.

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Last Tuesday, instead of taking the subway from Brooklyn to Manhattan, we took the NYC Ferry across the East River to Wall Street Pier 11 to see the sights of lower Manhattan, including the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory building, where 146 workers, mostly young female immigrants, died in a fire that swept through the building in about thirty minutes on March 25, 1911.

Among other gross negligences, exit doors were blocked, water buckets were empty, and fire escapes were found unable to withstand the weight of those rushing down. It was a horrific sight for onlookers to watch scores of young women leap to their deaths onto the concrete sidewalks below.

The fire ultimately ushered in many improvements to working conditions that Americans of all industries now enjoy.  For example, fire drills, fire exits and escape routes, and outward-swinging exit doors are all safety stand-bys that we take for granted.

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All those most basic of precautions were a direct result of the horrible Triangle Fire tragedy, which was the worst workplace disaster by fire until the World Trade Center fires of 2001.

There are two plaques on the corner of the former Asch Building (as the building was known in 1911) that commemorate the disaster. The lower plaque, which designates the site on the National Historic Landmark, is shown above. The upper plaque, placed by the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union, reads as follows:

On this site, 146 workers lost their lives in the Triangle Shirtwaist Company fire in a March 25, 1911. Out of their martyrdom came new concepts of social responsibility and labor legislation that have helped make American working conditions the finest in the world.

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The exterior of the Triangle Fire building appears exactly as it did in 1911. Today, it is known as the Brown Building and houses the biology and chemistry classes at New York University. It stands at the corner of Greene Street and Washington Place, about a block east of Washington Square Park and its famous arch.

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It’s so valuable to me to visit a place that I teach about. It adds relevancy to the book I read with my eighth-graders each fall, Flesh and Blood So Cheap by Albert Marrin.  If you’re ever able to see a location in person that you’ve read about, take advantage of the opportunity.


Thanks for reading! Have you ever visited a location you’ve taught or read about? Leave a comment to let me know. Here are some links to other posts in this blog regarding the Triangle Shirtwaist Co. fire.

  • Click here, here and here for three posts regarding our Triangle Fire unit. I also discuss how I incorporate Triangle Fire into my eighth-graders human rights dissertations in this post. 

 

The Scholastic Art and Writing Awards: Six tips for entering your students’ work

Your students need to enter this contest!

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Photo by bruce mars from Pexels

 

Last December, ten of my students’ entered their writing in the 2019 Scholastic Art and Writing Awards. Two of those students won Silver Keys and three won honorable mention awards in the Missouri Writing Region awards, a qualifying round before the national level. (Students who win Gold Keys at regionals then have their work advance to nationals.)  In 2018, one of my students won a Gold Key in poetry at regionals, and then a Silver Key at nationals. So far, I’d say we’ve had a great run!

However, it did take me a year or two to become accustomed to the submission process.  The Scholastic awards do involve more than other contests I’m familiar with; it takes some extra planning to figure out.

If you’ve never entered your students’ work before in the Scholastic Art and Writing Awards, you should try it. It’s rigorous, prestigious, and one that your winning students should list on their high school honors records.

In case you’re unfamiliar with these awards, here’s some info from their website (link below):

“The Scholastic Art & Writing Awards are presented by the Alliance for Young Artists & Writers. The Alliance is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization whose mission is to identify students with exceptional artistic and literary talent and present their remarkable work to the world through the Scholastic Art & Writing Awards. Through the Awards, students receive opportunities for recognition, exhibition, publication, and scholarships. Students across America submitted nearly 350,000 original works this year in 29 different categories of art and writing.” 

Notable alumni award winners include Ken Burns, Lena Dunham, Robert Redford, John Lithgow, Richard Linklater, Sylvia Plath, and Joyce Carol Oates.

Scholastic Art and Writing Awards

Here are six tips to keep in  mind:

1. Start early. Students can open their online accounts and start submitting works for the 2020 awards on September 12, 2019.  There are forms that parents must sign, so have your students enter early to allow time for those forms to go home for a signature.

2. Get parents’ best email addresses, ones they check often, prior to submitting. One of my students didn’t know her parent’s email, and that cost us some time. Also, make sure parents know that they will receive an email message about their child’s submission(s), as well as an invitation and RSVP to the regional awards ceremony.

3. Don’t have kids enter during normal class time because they’ll no doubt have questions and need some hands-on help. Or at least plan an independent activity for the students not entering the contest so you can assist those who are submitting entries.

4. Decide how entries will be paid for. Do this ahead of time. Entries cost $5 each in all categories (check out the categories here); five poems can be submitted for a single $5 fee. If a student qualifies for free and/or reduced lunch, they can print out a form to waive the fee. This form needs to be signed by a parent. This year, my school paid for all the entries; the check was mailed in separately with the ten submission forms to the address on the receipt. If your school also pays your entry fees, don’t forget to allow time for your school’s requisition process.

5. If your student enters poetry, plan a little extra time to prepare their entry. Because they can enter five poems in one entry, they can also order and arrange the poems in the single entry “file” as they see fit (such as putting their strongest one first, for example).

6. Visit the website, find your affiliate partner (the regional contest) and deadlines, and open your online educator account before your students start submitting so you can see how the system works. There is some getting used to the submission process for this contest for both students and their teachers.

I’m sure I’m leaving out some details and it’s quite possible I don’t have all the facts exactly straight. To be honest, I’m still learning. However, this contest is important and it deserves your attention and time. If you notice a detail that needs correction in this post, please leave a comment below and I’ll respond ASAP.


Thanks for reading!  I hope these tips will help you and your students enter the 2020 competition! Follow my blog to get updates on more contests for students.

Breakthrough moment: How to teach what “be specific” means

I think I’m finally on to something

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Photo: Pixabay

Be specific!

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve written that on my students’ essays, poems, and narratives. They know the importance of adding relevant details and crystal clear descriptions to their writing. We talk about it all the time, after all. In fact, “add more detail” and “be more descriptive” are the top two comments I hear them saying to each other during peer review groups. However, for some reason, kids still often neglect to be specific.

Maybe they don’t recognize “vagueness” in their own writing. Maybe they’re in a rush and don’t see the value in taking the extra time that being specific takes. Maybe it’s late the night before their essay is due and, as a result, they’ve lowered their standards. The loosey-goosey thoughts that make it into their first drafts—however general and lackluster— are good enough to turn in at the last minute. Whatever.

Last fall, I came upon a chapter in Bill Roorbach’s Writing Life Stories and discovered a helpful section on the merits of being specific in writing. By “being specific” Roorbach means putting a name to the objects, things and people in our writing.

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This is an awesome book that I’ve found helpful (like REALLY helpful) in my classroom.

For example, if one mentions a tree, Roorbach suggests being exact. Is it an oak? maple? pine? If possible, he suggests going further. Is it a chinquapin oak? silver-leaf maple? lodgepole pine? If one mentions Dad’s car, Roorbach suggests identifying the exact car: Dad’s brown 1995 Subaru Forester or his sleek, brand-new silver Prius.

Roorbach stresses that “naming is knowing.” Putting a clear and precise label to the objects in our writing lends credibility and a subtle authenticism to our writing. (He also discusses how determining the exact name of something—a particular flower, for example—may help writers discover unexpected revelations about their pasts. Seriously, check out this book!)

I notice that in my own writing I will often add the specific labels to things on the later drafts of a piece. I often do this work intentionally, taking care to notice generalities as I read and re-read, and re-read again. It’s amazing how much richer and concrete and visible my writing is when I follow Roorbach’s advice and specifically name things in my writing.

So with Roorbach’s book in hand, I created a mini-lesson for class. Maybe this time, I thought, with the help of Roorbach’s down-to-earth and eloquent text, students will understand what I mean when I write “Be specific” in the margins of their papers.

For the mini-lesson, I decided to read aloud from Roorbach’s “Naming is Knowing” exercise. Everyone agreed that the specific examples given in the text were effective revisions of the more general originals. I asked the kids to keep this in mind as they wrote that day… “Don’t just say that you put on your clothes; be specific. Name the clothes. Say you put on your bright white NASA hoodie and a faded pair of jeans. ”

About two days later, a student named Jacob dropped a poem into my second drafts box during writer’s workshop. I read it, noticing that it was about a trip to Florida he took last summer with his family. The poem mentioned finding “a coin,” “finding “a food,” and visiting “the museum” and finding “something” there.

Here we go again, I thought. More vague writing.

I asked Jacob, “Remember when we talked a couple of days ago about how it makes sense to be as specific as possible and put a name to things when we write so readers can visualize our stories better?” He nodded. I inquired what kind of coin he found; he replied “a Spanish medallion.” I asked him what exactly he found at the museum; he said “a Honus Wagner baseball card.” I asked him about the food mentioned in the poem; he replied “chicken Alfredo.”

Try naming those things in your poem, I suggested. He returned several minutes later with another draft, this one much more specific, much more visual, and much more effective.

“Yes! You did it!” I told him after reading his revision. “This is what we were talking about!”

I asked him if I could use his drafts in class the next day to show everyone how much more visual his second draft was. He agreed and printed copies of his poem’s “before and after” versions.

I placed them side by side on a sheet of paper and ran off copies for everyone. The following day we revisited our “naming” lesson and with Jacob’s poems in front of them, everyone readily was able to see the difference between vague writing and specific writing: it all has to do with naming things.

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The next day, I asked Jacob to read both poems aloud. After that, we all discussed how effective the changes were and the consensus was that the “after” version was definitely the draft we all preferred. Why? Because we could visualize the Spanish medallion (someone said it was probably all crusty and gross) much more clearly than we could visualize a coin. We could taste the chicken Alfredo. And of course, we all knew that a Lamborghini is the ultimate fancy car.

Of course, being seventh-graders, the added details spurred conversations about coins that kids had found or lost. Practically every kid in the room said they loved chicken Alfredo. I guess all that conversation proves that specific writing resonates. Being specific helps readers connect better with the writing and, in the end, that’s what it’s all about.

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I made this slide on my Smartboard using a quote from the exercise on “Naming is Knowing” in Bill Roorbach’s book, Writing Life Stories.

One student asked,  “What if the extra detail seems distracting?” I acknowledged her smart observation and advised her to play around with being specific. Yes, it’s entirely possible to have misplaced detail, I told her. If that’s the case, she as the writer then has a decision to make. For example, if it seems distracting and irrelevant to know that you wore a bright white NASA hoodie, then leave it out and go general. But try naming and being specific first, I told her because you never know until you try. Plus, you can always change it back later, I added.

I feel as if I’ve finally hit on something when it comes to teaching kids to write specifically: it’s about naming things. Since teaching this “Naming is Knowing” mini-lesson—with the help of Roorbach and Jacob’s examples— my students better understand how to add relevant, visual details and names to the people and objects in their writing. It’s nice to know that they finally understand what “Be specific” really means.


Thanks for reading again this week! Click “like” if you learned something with this post and feel free to follow my blog for more news from my classroom. How do you teach your students to be specific in their writing?

One road-tested way to connect with your students

Put a “lotion station” on your desk

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This is the “lotion station” on my desk. 

 

If you’re wanting another way to connect with your students, try adding a small box of lotions to your desk or wherever it might fit best in your classroom. Male English teachers (all five of you out there) can try this, too! Find a couple of macho-scented moisturizers you like, buy those, toss in a few women’s versions, and jump in!

I’ve always been a big fan of hand creams and lotions. Some of them can be a real pick-me-up throughout the day, especially when they have an aromatherapeutic fragrance. In the past, I kept my hand creams to myself, but this year I decided to stock a small collection in a recycled red box on my desk. Bath & Bodyworks is a favorite source.

I cycle new bottles and tubes in occasionally, and I added some holiday “flavors” for the Christmas season. Although it’s difficult to find men’s lotions or moisturizers, I did discover Vaseline Men’s Healing Moisture at Target and threw that one into the mix as well.

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 I bought these new lotions after Christmas to add to the box when school resumes next week.

Having my lotion station has been a positive in my room this year for this reason: it gives students and me something to connect around other than school.

At the beginning of class, as kids are settling in for the hour, a couple of them will go to my desk to try a new lotion after they turn in their bell work. That’s when I’ll hear comments such as…

“Mrs. Yung, you should get more Wild Madagascar Vanilla. It’s almost out!”

“This one smells so good, Mrs. Yung.”

“See, Mrs. Yung… try this one.”

Trying on and talking about the lotions also provides a tiny little time to talk. That’s helpful during a tightly scheduled school day. For instance, kids have about fifteen minutes to eat breakfast and socialize before their eight classes begin each day. Lunch lasts for 25 minutes,  which also includes an eight-minute recess.

At the end of the day, our buses depart as soon as the kids leave last hour and exit the building. There is little opportunity to talk with any student during a normal day.

And because my class periods are usually fairly structured, time to talk one-on-one with students during class is limited. Having a lotion station gives students a reason to mingle and talk briefly with me or others nearby. Obviously, if the extra talking becomes a problem, I simply say, “Okay, make it quick and have a seat.”

So far, the lotion station has not been a problem or a distraction at all. In fact, I will definitely continue keeping my lotion box stocked and would recommend it to anyone who needs a quick, easy way to foster better relationships with your students.


Thanks for reading! What ways have you found to connect better with your kids on a personal level? Feel free to leave a comment! See you soon.

Dear Teachers: Thinking about the first day back at school after break?

Even though I wrote this post one year ago, it still holds true today. This post is one of my top articles on Medium.com, so I thought I would reblog it here again since many teachers are close to returning to school from Christmas break. Have a great second semester and know that many of your students are really looking forward to seeing you again.

ELA Brave and True: A Blog by Marilyn Yung

So are your students and some of them can’t wait to see you.

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Even though you love your job, when you think about the first day back at school after Christmas break, you sigh. Ugh, right? Who wants to think about that? The kids certainly don’t. Let me clarify that. Some of the kids don’t want to think about the return to school; however, some do.

Some kids can’t wait to go back to school. They love to see their friends. They love to see their teachers. They thrive on the community of school.

On the last day of the semester as my students and I were packing up to leave for Christmas break, one student told me that she dreads being away from school for so long. She misses her friends and the social environment of school. Another agreed.

Depend on these enthusiastic kids. Let…

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NCTE’s Promising Young Writer’s 2019 Contest Prompt has been released

A writing contest just for 8th-graders!

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Photo: Justin Luebke on Unsplash

The long-awaited 2019 prompt for NCTE’s Promising Young Writer’s contest has been released. This year, NCTE invites students to write about instances in their lives when they “made a conscious choice to welcome or show hospitality to an experience, feeling, or person.” Click this link for more information.

This contest’s purpose is to, in the words of NCTE’s contest description, “1) To stimulate and recognize the writing talents of eighth-grade students and 2) to emphasize the importance of writing skills among eighth-grade students.”

I am glad there’s a contest specifically for eighth-grade writers. It seems this grade, the final grade before high school, can often be overlooked in the grand scheme of a student’s schooling. It’s the final year of middle school, and while a student’s formative years are far in the past, their all-important high school career has yet to begin.

If you’re unfamiliar with this contest, click here for my entire blog post about it. Check out the comments for special insight from a fellow teacher who has experience with this contest. She offers some especially good tips and thoughts.

One comment she makes: “What I love most about this contest is that there is no set number of winners. Everyone who meets the criteria will receive an award, and even though that is usually a very select few, it’s still nice that it’s not really a ‘competition.’ Students are measured against the criteria, not against each other.”


Thanks for reading! I hope this post provides you the information you need about this contest so you can investigate it further for your students. While this is a new contest for my students, I do plan to assign it after the Christmas break. Have a great week!