NaNoWriMo, my students, and my historical nonfiction project thingy

You gotta start somewhere.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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)

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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!

His Google Doc will “disappear”

There’s a long list of middle school distractions to get through before Eric’s story will be finished.

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Photo: Asier Astorkiza on Unsplash

Don’t buy a house in Oklahoma.

That was the first line of an essay resting on the screen of a laptop checked out to Eric, a seventh-grader in my middle school language arts classes. It stopped me in my tracks.

I whispered, “Why shouldn’t I buy a house in Oklahoma?” He proceeded to tell me, but I stopped him. “No, you gotta write that down,” I said urgently. “It’s a great opening sentence. Go!”

But he didn’t. He gave me a blank look and just sat there. I walked to the next desk to give him a minute to think. I glanced back. He was making faces at Amanda in the next row over.

Time for my little black chair, I thought. So I retrieved the chair from my closet that fits ever so nicely between the rows of desks in my classroom. It allows me to maneuver right down into the trenches alongside my students. I sat down next to Eric.

“How can I help you get started?” As I sat down, I untangled my lanyard again from my chunky stone necklace.

“I dunno,” he mumbled through auburn bangs. I stood there, thinking of an approach to take with Eric, whom educators would call a “hesitant” or “struggling” writer. He tossed his head back, his long bangs surging like a wave and then falling again to conceal freckles dotting a fair complexion.

I stared at him while he searched his binder for a pencil he wouldn’t need. I know this kid has writing talent, I thought, or he wouldn’t have no naturally jotted out that first stunner of a lead sentence. If he only had confidence in his words.

I lifted Erick’s laptop from the desk, thinking I would type as he spoke his story. And, true, maybe I should have waited a bit before doing that, but I did it anyway. As a writer, I know how important it is to strike while the fire is hot and with a line like Don’t buy a house in Oklahoma, I knew Erick had to explore it. Pronto.

I adjusted the screen. “Tell me why I shouldn’t buy house in Oklahoma.” He began to talk, and I started to type.

And then the bell rang.

The following day, we picked up where we had left off. I sat back down with him and we continued. Eric dictated for about thirty minutes, telling me the story of the tornado and the havoc it had wrought: broken windows, lost belongings, damaged cars, angry parents, minor injuries. Eager to be finished, he rattled off a makeshift ending. “There. That’s all I got,” he reported, glancing up at the clock. “Time to pack up.”

“Not so fast,” I said. “Grab this off the printer, please.” I formatted the story and pressed print so he could see on paper just how much he had produced in less than one class period. He—or we, I guess—had completed a first draft. It was the most writing he had produced in my class all year.

Eric stared at the three pages of double-spaced twelve-point Times New Roman he had created, scanning the paragraphs to the end.

“You spelled Choctaw wrong,” he said.

I smiled. “Well, circle it, Mr. Man, and we’ll fix it tomorrow. By the way, that’s an awesome story.”

Over the next few days and weeks, his narrative went no further than that first draft. Thanks to standardized testing, some end-of-the-year field trips, and the arrival of summer break, his first draft of the essay or story or whatever it will be, was put on hold again.

But not for much longer.

In a couple of weeks, Eric and I will resurrect his draft from Google Docs and see if we can find a direction for it. (He has no idea I’ve been thinking about it now and then over the past several months.)  There will be time in our class schedule to develop, revise, and otherwise polish that first draft into a piece he can submit to a publisher or a contest, or at least post to his blog.

I have no illusions. It won’t be easy to get that tornado piece finished, but eventually, he’ll arrive at a final draft and turn it in. As his teacher, I absolutely must believe that he’ll feel a sense of accomplishment, whether he’ll admit it, or even recognize it as such. An added bonus: he should gain some confidence in his words as well.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. We have a long list of middle school distractions to get through before then. Eric will be bored. He’ll need a drink. His Google Doc will “disappear.” He’ll ask me thirty times, “Is it good yet?” And then, there’s Amanda.


*The names were changed for this essay.

Thanks for reading! Follow me for more essays focused on education, and specifically, teaching English Language Arts in middle school. Click like and follow my blog for more posts. As the school year continues, it’s getting more and more difficult to post weekly, but I’m trying!  Thanks for stopping by.

It never hurts to ask

…for  chocolate and caffeine.

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Here’s a photo of the summer to-do list that the maintenance staff at my school taped to my door over the summer. It contains a list of the chores that were scheduled to be completed over the two and half months that are quickly coming to a close.

One day over the break, I visited the school to check my in-box in the workroom. My students had entered a contest that last March and I knew that correspondence about the contest would arrive sometime over the summer. Read yesterday’s post for that exciting news!

After checking my inbox, I dashed down the hall to my room just to make sure it was there. If you’re a teacher, you know the feeling!

For the majority of the year, those rooms are our domains. As such, our classrooms are not so much our workspaces, as our homes, albeit our second ones. It’s nice to check in at least once during the summer to see where things have been moved since we left, or to pick up a book to read from our classroom shelves, or to find some papers we need for planning.

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Photo by Mike Marquez on Unsplash

I approached the door to my room and noticed the to-do list. I read through all the mundane, simple cleaning tasks that were to be completed. Most of them were finished, but I decided to add a couple just for fun. I added “chocolate fountain” and “espresso machine” to the bottom because, well… chocolate and caffeine (hello).

Last week, when I dropped back in, I noticed my two requests remained untouched. No line had been crossed through them on the list. Were my requests over budget? Deemed unnecessary? Recognized for the joke they were? Oh, well. Maybe next year.

As I always tell my students when they desire something: “It never hurts to ask.”


Thanks for reading! Follow my blog for more tales from my middle school ELA classroom. Leave a comment about your BTS thoughts. 

Every Teacher Needs a “Why I Teach” Binder

Reading notes from my current and former students is an instant pick-me-up

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Do you have special notes, drawings, letters or small trinkets that students have given to you over the years?

About two years ago, I finally decided to keep track of those treasures by putting them into a box. However, the box took up so much space in my closet (read this post) that I finally decided to recycle a three-ring binder that I no longer needed for the purpose of holding all these reminders of “why I teach.” I transferred all those loose notes and other gifts into plastic page protectors and then placed all of those into the binder.

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It’s a blessing when students take the time to write a note!

My “Why I Teach” binder is a better solution than that old box; it’s easy to find and doesn’t take up much space since it stores alongside all my other notebooks.

I absolutely love pulling that binder from the shelf every so often for the instant boost it gives me.

Reading the notes and cards and letters from former and current students is such a gift.

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Gifts such as this Christmas tree ornament store nicely in a page protector.

At the end of a particularly long day or week, flipping through my “Why I Teach” binder provides a brief moment of quiet reflection, where I can recall those students who are now in high school or beyond… those students whom I had the pleasure of knowing during their middle school years, which are arguably the toughest years of anyone’s life.

Reading my students’ ideas, their thoughtful gratitude, and their humor brightens my day.

It doesn’t just remind me why I teach, but proclaims it!

 

Understanding Laura Ingalls Wilder through historical context

There’s a standard for that, and students are mastering it.

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Students get it. They are learning to appreciate the historical and cultural contexts of literature. Photo by João Silas on Unsplash

There are two reading standards contained in the Missouri Learning Standards that address the historical and cultural contexts of the literature that students in grades 6-12 read during their education. One standard, coded RL3C, specifically requires students to be able to explain how a story’s plot and conflict reflect historical and/or cultural contexts. The other standard, coded RI3C, requires students to explain, more generally, how a nonfiction text reflects historical and/or cultural contexts.

Both standards reveal educators’ and legislators’ expectations that student readers recognize the era or timeframe in which a narrative or article is written. It could also be said that students are expected to take into account the prevailing attitudes of that era when evaluating, discussing, and even merely appreciating the work.

At an English education conference last week, I noticed how applicable these two standards are to the discussion regarding the removal in June of Laura Ingalls Wilder‘s name from a prestigious annual authors’ award given by the Association for Library Service to Children (ALSC), an arm of the American Library Association.

According to an ALA press release, “This award honors an author or illustrator whose books, published in the United States, have made, over a period of years, a significant and lasting contribution to children’s literature.” Formerly called the Laura Ingalls Wilder Award, the prize is now named the Children’s Literature Legacy Award.

In effect, the removal of Wilder’s name from the ALSC’s award ignores two things: 1) the values these standards support and 2) the work of teachers (in Missouri, at least) who are actively teaching their students to:

  • recognize and explain the historical contexts of the literature that they read.
  • consider how texts reflect the history of the era in which they were written.
  • appreciate a historical author’s work, including its prejudices and biases, without feeling it necessary to denigrate the author.
    • For example, students are prepared to read Little House on the Prairie and understand that Laura’s descriptions of the Osage Indians reflect her biases and prejudices.  Students can also do this with Huckleberry Finn, To Kill A Mockingbird or any other text they may read.

Let’s give students some credit, ALSC. Thanks to these two standards, students get it. They understand how a piece of literature can be biased, show prejudice, and perpetuate stereotypes, but at the same time, be considered an important record of a specific time in history.


Thanks for reading! Click like so others can more easily find this post. Follow my blog for more essays on education and, more specifically, middle school ELA.

When my class is your class’ punishment

Since when should writing be a form of punishment?

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Photo by Charles Deluvio 🇵🇭🇨🇦 on Unsplash

This happens every so often: I’ll be talking to other teachers about some discipline issue they experienced during the day where they had to dole out some kind of punishment. More times than I want to remember, they’ll say something like, “So I made him write an essay about…”

Then I’ll think to myself: Great. Here I am trying to teach kids in my middle school language arts class to love writing, to need writing, and to see its value in their lives, and this teacher is using it as a punishment.

And no, this doesn’t happen frequently, but it still happens often enough.

Thankfully, the National Council of Teachers of English took a formal position on the issue as long ago as 1984. Its “Resolution on Condemning the Use of Writing as Punishment” warns that the practice “defeats the purposes of instruction in this important life skill and causes students to dislike an activity necessary to their intellectual development and career success.”

In other words, punishing students with writing assignments—whether those assignments are paragraphs, full essays, or even merely copying sentences over and over a la Bart Simpson—creates students who associate writing with drudgery.

However, writing should not be a punishment.

Writing should be seen as a diversion where students can express themselves and their ideas in creative and unique ways.

Writing should be seen as the literary art that it is, no matter if students are writing an essay for class, a novel for Wattpad, a screenplay for a contest, or even an entry in their own journal.

Writing should be seen as an intensely personal endeavor that can serve them well as they continue through life.

So punishing a student with a writing assignment does not sit well with me. After all, does punishing a student with the task of writing an essay actually curb the unwanted behavior? Or does it just compound the notion that writing is something to avoid, something no one would ever want or need to do?

When should the act of writing—and, in a broader sense, the act of learning (since writing is one way we learn)—be a form of punishment?

Never.


Click like if you can relate. Also, leave a comment with your own experiences with “writing as punishment.” Follow my blog for more writing about ELA middle school teaching.