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

I think I’m finally on to something

leaves-1245978_1920
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.

IMG_7689
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.

img_7976 (1)

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.

img_7702
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

IMG_7368
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.

img_7928
 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.

ariel-lustre-210431 Photo: Ariel Lustre on Unsplash

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…

View original post 210 more words

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

A writing contest just for 8th-graders!

justin-luebke-92162-unsplash (1)
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!

 

 

I’m still using and really, really liking Planbook

IMG_7627
This is my desk one morning in early November. As you can see, I am very paper-based.

Here’s my follow-up post about my online lesson planning

I’m still using Planbook! Every day, I can enter my lesson plans for the next day, the next week, the next month, and even the next year. If I like how I did something, I just copy it into the future and voila! it’s done. (Click here for my earlier post written the first day I started using Planbook.)

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.

NaNoWriMo, my students, and my historical nonfiction project thingy

You gotta start somewhere.

advice-advise-advisor-7096
Photo: Pexels

I’m finally doing NaNoWriMo with my students. Well, sort of.

All during November, about fifteen students ranging from fifth- through eighth-grade arrive in my room after school and write for forty-five minutes. I only know a little about what they’re writing. That’s because I’m busy working, too, on my own project… what I call my “historical memoir project thing.” Yes, you heard right. I’m doing NaNoWriMo and I’m not even writing a novel. Oh, well. You gotta start somewhere.

No, the NaNoWriMo in my classroom is not a full-blown NaNoWriMo experience. I don’t have the official posters, or the workbooks, or the full curriculum. But we’re still having a good time getting together after school and just writing.

From some conversations I’ve overheard around my classroom, I know some kids are writing fantasy stories. Some are writing sci-fi. One kid is writing about a worm. Regardless, each student is writing for themselves and that’s the key.

In case you’re unfamiliar with NaNoWriMo, it stands for National Novel Writing Month, when writers around the country write a first draft of a 50,000-word novel. There’s a youth version of this challenge, where students set personal goals to accomplish the first drafts of their own novels, and that’s what we are attempting in my classroom every day after school all November long.

I’ve thought about doing NaNoWriMo for a few years, and finally, last summer, I decided I would stop waiting to do it “right” and, in a nod to Nike, “just do it.” So, in June, I tested the idea with my students with a teaser post on my private class Instagram. Several were interested, including some recently graduated students who were disappointed that I hadn’t tried it when they were in middle school.

IMG_7667

Jump forward to last Monday, Nov. 5, the first day on my calendar that we could meet. At the end of the day, when I was tired and definitely ready to lay out my plans for Tuesday and head for home, I asked myself Why did I ever decide to do this?!

However, now with that first week behind me, I’m so glad I “just did it” because my lame version of NaNoWriMo is already illuminating two truths that are easy to forget:

  1. It’s amazing how dedicated kids can be when they’re personally motivated. The mood in my classroom during NaNoWriMo is quite different from my regular classroom, which always contains a few students with little desire to pursue writing. They distract others. They sharpen their pencils four times an hour. They need drinks and bathroom breaks. But after school during NaNoWriMo, it’s a different world. These kids are choosing to write, imagine, create, produce, and they go at it earnestly and with enthusiasm.
  2. Some kids have writing lives outside of school. It’s gratifying to know that there are several students who are writing on their own, at home in notebooks, and online. They “own” these works… no teacher has asked them to outline their ideas, no teacher has asked them to turn in a synopsis or a summary.

Plus, these kids are excited to get to work. I’m amazed that—after eight hours of classes, mind you— my NaNoWriMo kids willingly (with smiles on their faces!) walk into my room with their coats and binders, drop them into a chair, get a laptop from the computer cart, sit down, and write. And think. And quietly chat with others at their table.

It’s a social get-together, after all. I bring snacks of some kind on Mondays, but for the rest of the week, the kids bring their own if they need to. Some bring an orange, some a small bag of chips or crackers, but most don’t bring food.

What they do bring is their imaginations, their productivity, and their determination to get something down on paper. I’ve made sure to tell them that NANOWRIMO is the time to shut off their “inner editor” and just get words on the page. Revision can happen later.

IMG_7676

At the end of the hour, we fill out our word-count goal chart.  On this chart, we’ve each listed our names with our word-count goal for the month at the far right. If a student reaches their word-count goal for the day (the monthly goal divided by the number of days in the month), they put an X on the chart in that day’s column.

We’ve kept our goals reasonable. Next year, we may be more ambitious. This is not a real NaNoWriMo after all. However, it’s a start. We each have a word-count goal. We each have a project to work on and the dedicated time to work on it.

Who would have thought that I would have accomplished real progress on my “historical memoir project thing” in just forty-five minutes a day… at the end of a busy school day… with twelve to fifteen middle schoolers in the same room?


Thanks for reading! Have you ever tried NaNoWriMo? How was your experience? Did you participate with your students or was it just a personal challenge? Leave a comment to share and stay tuned for next week’s post.

My one and only complaint with the Missouri Learning Standards

They just seem a little vague.

adolescent-adult-beauty-459971
Photo: Pexels

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.

But hyperbole isn’t even mentioned today in the Missouri Learning Standards (MLS), the educational standards adopted by Missouri legislators in 2016 and modeled on the Common Core State Standards (CCSS).  Also not mentioned are these: simile, metaphor, alliteration, personification, onomatopoeia, and oxymoron.

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.

Click here for puzzle PDF: figurativelanguage_crossword_boat (1)

Click here for puzzle key PDF: figurativelanguage_crossword_boat_answers (1) (1)

IMG_7588
This figurative language crossword puzzle is perfect for students who are working toward more colorful and interesting writing assignments! Be sure to check out more reading and writing activities at Education.com!