I teach a bunch of rejects

Rejection proves that my students are indeed writers

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Here’s a picture of my students posing with their first rejection letters from a youth writing contest. They thought it was funny that I wanted their picture. I just wanted them to know that a rejection letter proves that they are indeed writers.

I teach a bunch of rejects.
I teach them it’s okay to fail and
That it’s good to receive a rejection letter because
That’s what writers do: They get rejected.

I teach a bunch of rejects.
I teach them to risk it all and
Write it down now because
That’s what writers do: they deal in danger.

I teach a bunch of rejects.
I teach them to give themselves permission
To write a junky, uninspired first draft because
That’s what writers do: they don’t wait for inspiration.

I teach a bunch of rejects.
I teach them their words must work hard,
That lazy words aren’t worth their time because
That’s what writers do: they crave precision.

I teach a bunch of rejects.
I teach them to write, to rewrite, try once more
Only to receive this message yet again:
“Best of luck in your creative endeavors.”

And then I photograph my rejects,
My fiery bunch of seventh-graders,
Clutching their “Best of luck” letters because
That’s what I do: I create writers.


Thanks for reading! I’m a big advocate of encouraging students to enter any and all writing contests I can get my hands on. Click here for my favorite contest of the year, the Daughters of the American Revolution American History Essay Contest. See my Student Writing Contests page for the entire list of contest I use.

Next year, I’ll be moving to a new school district where I’ll be teaching high school students. There are even more contests for older students than younger ones, so follow my blog to learn about those opportunities!

 

My top three movies for the last week of school that will let you keep your teaching integrity

Walter Mitty starring Ben Stiller

Rated PG; 114 minutes long; Reason to watch: To see a movie that advocates living life to the fullest; Bonus: Great for graduating students. In fact, I show this to my graduating 8th-graders as they transition to highs school.

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Sully: Miracle on the Hudson starring Tom Hanks

Rated PG-13 for stressful moments during plane landing; Length: 96 minutes; Reason to watch: To learn about a real-life hero who remains humble and respectful; Bonus: Discusses the “human factor” and how in a high-tech age, we must always respect the individual and his/her unique decision-making abilities.

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The Walk: The Triumphant True Story starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt

Rated PG; Length: 123 minutes; Reason to watch: To learn about the World Trade Centers and how important and integral they were to millions of Americans and people around the world; Bonus: Your kids will have a deeper appreciation of Sept. 11 terror attacks after watching this film. My 6th-graders absolutely love this movie!

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Thanks for reading! Follow my blog for more ELA teaching ideas. Happy summer!

My attempt at teaching kids how to add narration into their dialogue

Here’s a mini-lesson I created a few months ago

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Photo: Unsplash

Kids love to write dialogue, but it often ends up being just a series of spoken words… a lengthy showcase of spoken words followed by any one of the following: he said, she said, he replied, she stated.

This year, in my AOW and EOW assignments, I would occasionally ask students to start their responses with dialogue. I did this to encourage (or force, I guess, since it was required in the assignment) students to add narrative elements to their writing. Sure, it’s easy to just respond to a prompt with “The central idea of this article was…”. However, another level of complexity is added if one must start with dialogue. When one adds dialogue to the standard response, a story is automatically brought into the mix.

Once the students became accustomed to using dialogue in their responses (in effect, they’re blending genres, aren’t they?!), I noticed that the dialogue lacked narration… the additional information writers build into their dialogue to show setting, personality traits, reveal motivation, or other important details.

To show students what I was talking about when I asked them to add narration to their dialogue, I took two excerpts from two novels from my bookshelves, A River Runs Through It by Norman Maclean and A Separate Peace by John Knowles. For each novel, I found a short excerpt and typed it verbatim into a Word document as published. Then I took those same excerpts and removed the narration. Here’s a photo of the handout I made for this activity:

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The handout above (sorry about the quality of the picture, by the way), contains excerpts from the two novels. I chose dialogue that possessed descriptive narration. 

Here is a picture of the back side of the above sheet:

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This back side of the handout shows the two excerpts with the narration removed.

I read aloud each passage from the novels, starting with the excerpt WITHOUT narration, and then followed with reading the respective excerpt WITH the narration. Then I asked:

  • What do you notice?
  • What do we learn when we have the narration added to the dialogue?
  • What did the reader miss out on by not having the extra information that the narration provides?
  • What else does the narration accomplish?

We basically just discuss the narration’s effect on the text. It’s a good way for kids to readily experience the benefits of narration and how it can help their dialogue work harder for them.

At the beginning of class, I put the following quote on the Smartboard from WritersDigest.com to prep them for our mini-lesson. Here’s that quote, which they copy into cursive on a sheet of paper and then turn in for points.

Conversations should never take place in a vacuum. The narration needs to firmly ground your reader in time and space…Narration anchors the reader and creates the atmosphere of the setting and the specific circumstance of the scene.—Helga Schier, PhD., Writer’s Digest

Here’s how I would change this mini-lesson for next time:

The handout needs to have one novel’s excerpts on each side. As we went over the handout, the kids were flipping the paper back and forth from the excerpt without narration and then to the one with narration on the back. It would have been more effective to have the “without narration” excerpt for one of the novels on the top half of the page followed by the “with narration” excerpt below it. Seeing the before and after versions would have helped students more easily see the difference the narration makes.

I felt like the kids understood more about narration after this mini-lesson, but it’s a topic that definitely needs another go-over because I didn’t see many practice it in their assignments. No doubt this skill should be worked on with some in-class writing assignments so kids can apply it when I’m around to help or offer support.

A few kids (the stronger writers) did add some narration, but even some of those merely added lazy adjectives or adverbs to their dialogue, a la the following example:

“No, I don’t think you understand,” Mom stated urgently.

Not quite what I had in mind!

So obviously, narration in dialogue is a work in progress and like everything else that I teach, it takes repetition and practice.


Thanks for reading again this week!  Have a great June… what I call the Saturday night of the summer for teachers! Let me know your thoughts on this post and follow my blog for more middle and high school ELA teaching stories.

2019 Middle School Writing Conference…A Great Day!

I was finally able to take some students to this regional day of writing at MSU just for middle schoolers

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One student asked for feedback on her poem from another. Even over lunchtime, they took time out for writing!

Last Friday, May 10, I took eight students on a field trip to the Middle School Writing Conference at Missouri State University in Springfield, Mo. The conference was hosted by Missouri State University’s Center for Writing in College, Career and Community and the Ozarks Writing Project. It was a fast and fun day!

I wanted to take a group last year, but the date for last year’s conference coincided with a field trip. At one time this spring, it looked as if the conflict might occur again, so early on, I hyped up the conference and made sure the kids knew that a field trip to a local bowling alley might pale in comparison to spending a day on a college campus with other kids fired up about creative writing.

When I first mentioned the conference to my classes, more than twenty students expressed interest. I wanted to narrow the number down to five, the number of spaces that would receive scholarships from the Darr Family Foundation that would cover the $50 conference fee.

To do that, I asked all those interested to write a paragraph explaining why they wanted to attend the conference. Eight students submitted paragraphs to me. The paragraphs were honest and heartfelt, and I had a difficult time choosing only five. Fortunately, in the end, three additional spaces were opened up to our school, so I was able to take all eight students for a day at college.

I asked each of the eight students to choose their top five choices from a list of creative writing classes, knowing that the schedule would allow that they attend two of those five. The second flyer photo below shows the list of classes from which students could choose.

Here are photos of the flyers from the conference:

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This is the first page of the flyer for the conference.
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This is the list of sessions I gave to each student. They were to choose their top five sessions they were interested in attending. They would attend two sessions during the day. I signed up to teach two sessions on headline poetry.

The schedule for the day began at 8:45 a.m. with a session opened with welcomes from university officials followed by a keynote address given by Shaun Tomson, a South African World Surfing Champion and author of the best-selling “Surfer’s Code: 12 Simple Lessons for Riding Through Life.”

Tomson discussed the importance of young people writing “I Will” statements, “simple codes of commitment for success in life and business.” These “I Will” statements propose concrete, do-able ways for students to effect change and purpose in their personal lives. The ultimate goal? To create a wave of positive change in society and the world.

The kids responded enthusiastically to Tomson’s heavy South African-accented presentation. At the conclusion of the session, they even texted their own personal “I Will” statements to his app and/or read their statements onstage to the entire audience. I was so surprised to see how assertive and bold my students were. Every one of them approached the line at the stage to read their personal “I Will” statement!

Here’s a picture of Thomson’s presentation followed by a photo of students reading their statements onstage:

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Thomson was a three-time World Champion Surfer.
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Students readily accepted Thomson’s invitation to read their “I Will” statements onstage.

After Thomson’s presentation, the entire crowd of approximately 500 student attendees from approximately thirty area middle schools walked from MSU’s Plaster Student Union to Strong Hall where the writing sessions were to be held. Students attended their first session from 10:50 a.m. to noon. This was followed by a box lunch provided by the conference and another 75-minute session after lunch. After this second session, it was time to go! As I said, it was a fast and fun day!

We had a one-hour drive back to our school. We were home by 3:30 p.m. The kids really seemed to enjoy the entire day, and due to its fast pace, it ended up being a very convenient and easy way to offer a field trip focused on writing!

In addition, it was an appropriate way to end my time at Kirbyville Middle School in Kirbyville, Mo. I will be moving over the summer to Bolivar, Mo. and have secured a high school English position at Skyline High School (Hickory Co. R-I) in Urbana, Mo.

Perhaps next fall I will be able to take a group to the high school conference hosted by the same sponsors at MSU! (Maybe I’ll even present again.)

By the way, below is one especially intriguing headline poem created by an area student in one of my sessions. Headline poetry is a very unintimidating way for students to create powerful poems with incredible and unexpected word choice and imagery. Here’s a link to a previous post on headline poetry. It is truly one of my favorite writing activities.

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Headline poetry always surprises with its spontaneity!
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About 22 students attended each of my two sessions on headline poetry, a form of found poetry.


Thanks for reading again this week! Consider attending the Middle School Writing Conference at Missouri State University next year! Follow this link for more information. 

 

 

“Where I’m From” Poems

My All-Time Favorite Poetry Activity

 

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George Ella Lyon, American Writer and Teacher

Have you heard of George Ella Lyon? She’s an American writer and teacher from Kentucky who wrote a poem several years ago called “Where I’m From.” Here’s Lyons’ poem:

Where I’m From

I am from clothespins,
from Clorox and carbon-tetrachloride.
I am from the dirt under the back porch.
(Black, glistening,
it tasted like beets.)
I am from the forsythia bush
the Dutch elm
whose long-gone limbs I remember
as if they were my own.

I’m from fudge and eyeglasses,
from Imogene and Alafair.
I’m from the know-it-alls
and the pass-it-ons,
from Perk up! and Pipe down!
I’m from He restoreth my soul
with a cottonball lamb
and ten verses I can say myself.

I’m from Artemus and Billie’s Branch,
fried corn and strong coffee.
From the finger my grandfather lost
to the auger,
the eye my father shut to keep his sight.

Under my bed was a dress box
spilling old pictures,
a sift of lost faces
to drift beneath my dreams.
I am from those moments–
snapped before I budded —
leaf-fall from the family tree.

Lyons’ website is extensive and explains the inspiration for her writing the poem. Here’s an excerpt from her website:

“Where I’m From” grew out of my response to a poem from Stories I Ain’t Told Nobody Yet (Orchard Books, 1989; Theater Communications Group, 1991) by my friend, Tennessee writer Jo Carson. All of the People Pieces, as Jo calls them, are based on things folks actually said, and number 22 begins, “I want to know when you get to be from a place. ” Jo’s speaker, one of those people “that doesn’t have roots like trees, ” tells us “I am from Interstate 40” and “I am from the work my father did. ”

In the summer of 1993, I decided to see what would happen if I made my own where-I’m-from lists, which I did, in a black and white speckled composition book. I edited them into a poem — not my usual way of working — but even when that was done I kept on making the lists. The process was too rich and too much fun to give up after only one poem. Realizing this, I decided to try it as an exercise with other writers, and it immediately took off. The list form is simple and familiar, and the question of where you are from reaches deep.

Each spring, my sixth-grade students write their own “Where I’m From” poems. These poems never fail to produce highly personal, touching, and honest poems.

I always display the students’  work in the hallway or on a bulletin board so everyone can read them. Students are drawn to these simple little poems that can’t help but be packed with imagery and sensory language. In fact, just last week, one of my eighth-grade students mentioned that it was one of her favorite things she had written in my class.

To get started, I read aloud Lyons’ “Where I’m From” poem as a mentor text and then I follow that up with reading three or four poems from former students. Then I pass out a template to guide students through the poem’s organization and ideas. There are several versions of the poem template out there on the Internet and on Lyons’ website; this one works especially well: iamfrompoem

Students should use this template as a guide when brainstorming and writing their poems. I don’t require that every blank be filled out as printed on the template; students can modify it to fit their life story. It’s simply a guideline, a starting point.

These poems speak for themselves. Since that’s the case, I have simply posted below some of the more poignant ones from my current sixth-grade classes.

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I schedule our “Where I’m From” poems so they can be considered for publication in Creative Communication’s Spring Poetry Anthology. (By the way, check out this link for more on this publisher and its contests.) Each year, more than half of my sixth-graders see their “Where I’m From” poems published in a real hard-cover book. It’s very inspiring and is an awesome way to end the year!


Have you ever taught “Where I’m From” poems? Leave a comment with your thoughts and experiences. Thanks for reading! See you next week.

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.