Because bored students care about commas… and little else

Here’s what I do to spark passion in my students for writing

part 1 of 4

 

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Photo by Jamie Street on Unsplash

 

And let’s get this straight right from the start: I am no expert. I repeat, I am no expert. I have a meager six years of teaching under my belt. However, I am more excited than ever to be doing this job at age 51. (gulp) That’s why I want to reflect on and share what works for me in my classroom… and what doesn’t. I truly hope you’ll follow my blog and start a conversation so we can learn from each other. It’s good for teachers to do that. And now, back to our regularly scheduled programming…

Writing means knowing a bunch of rules, right? Comma rules. Spelling rules. Fragment rules. Capitalization rules. All these rules are very important to middle school students who are bored with writing. In fact, some students think writing is only about “the rules.” And the sooner they can get “the rules” right in their crummy, boring assignment, the sooner they can turn it in and move on with life.

Students are bored when they don’t care about their writing topic. Conversely, when students care about their topic, they don’t mind struggling to get it right.

Picture this: one of your students turns in a cleanly edited, yet incredibly boring and lifeless story. It’s another story about their dog, for example. Not one comma is out of place, not one word is misspelled. Everything looks great, but it’s just so… dull. That same day, another student turns in a poorly edited, yet thought-provoking and fresh essay. It’s a piece about self-image and social media. Yes, there was a run-on here, a capitalization error there, but you stumbled through it because the ideas were compelling and intriguing.

Besides subject matter, there’s one big difference between the dog story and social media essay. The essay can be revised, edited, and polished and still be engaging and original; however, the story, even though it needs no editing, will still require a major overhaul to garner interest from a reader. The commas are all there, but the ideas aren’t. In other words, just because the editing rules have been followed does not mean the writing is interesting.

So why did the student turn in the boring story? Because she didn’t care about it. She didn’t like the topic, the character she had created, who knows. However, the social media essay captured the heart of its author. This student had found a way to connect to the topic and, more importantly, discovered he had an opinion that needed and deserved to be expressed.

In order to get the freshest, most original, most thoroughly developed writing from my students, I must figure out ways to spark passion in my students for their writing topics. It’s my job to make them care about what they’re writing. It’s on me to send boredom out the door and down the hall.

Here are three  things I do in my 6-8 ELA classes to help my students find topics they’re passionate about:

  1. I give them lots of choices. Like gobs of choices.
    • I use this list of 401 argument topics from The New York Times. So many ideas! In fact, I often narrow the list down to fifty or so. Sometimes too many options are overwhelming. I also like to skim through the list to make sure the prompts I give my kids are age-appropriate since some of the prompts are for high school students and older.
    • I also use this lists like this one of 365 writing prompts from thinkwritten.com.
    • I keep digging to find more and more prompts. Here’s another site. Again, if too many options are just too many, provide fewer.
  2. I assign slice-of-life essays about the mundane, yet worthwhile, quiet moments of living. For ideas and plans from Two Writing Teachers, click here.
  3. Sometimes I simply give students time to think. Often, kids just aren’t used to sitting quietly and thinking. With smartphones and other devices, there’s always something else to do besides think. Let students stare at the wall and allow ideas to surface.

 

This is the first installment in a series of six on this blog about helping kids find writing topics that they’ll feel passionate about. And if they’re passionate, they won’t be bored; instead, they will care. As a result, they’ll spend enough time on their writing so it’s fleshed-out, fully developed, fresh, provocative, and true.

The next steps I take with my students will be discussed in an upcoming post. I’ll be finishing that soon. Click the “like” button and share on social media if this has been helpful to you. Feel free to leave a comment and don’t forget to follow me to catch that post! Thanks for reading!

#Engagement: Instagram is for Writing

 

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Used with permission. Credit: Audrey

 

A few weeks ago, Audrey, one of my former middle school students who’ll be a senior next year, posted on Instagram a photo of an essay she had handwritten. The essay showed Audrey’s ideas about adolescence, the validity of teenage relationships, finding one’s soulmate. The essay expressed her thoughts, and exhibited the kind of “thinking on paper” that teachers encourage in their students. It was a heartfelt and personal record of Audrey’s beliefs.

In the endless feed of landscape shots, selfies, and artistic images that compose Instagram, Audrey’s photo of her handwriting on a sheet of notebook paper stood out to me. It seemed to convey much more than her ruminations on soulmates.

It revealed…

  • that Instagram is being used by young writers to create and develop an audience for their written work. It’s not just for beautiful photos anymore.
  • that students are finding ways to blend traditional media with the new.
  • an unexpected juxtaposition of digital imagery and handwritten expression.
  • a surprising use of social media to work through and analyze one’s personal perspective on a topic

In ongoing discussions about the appropriate use of social media to educate, it’s good to keep in mind that when a student uses social media, they are often demonstrating the skills they have learned in school. I don’t know about you, but seeing confident young writers using Instagram makes me optimistic about the potential for social media in my middle school language arts classroom.

Of course, social media accounts must be administrated responsibly, using a district’s privacy and safety protocols. (Click here for a link to resources regarding using social media in schools and at home.) However, with best practices in place, social media sites such as Instagram hold promise because they provide an audience and generate feedback. Engagement abounds.

I’m considering a private classroom Instagram account next year. What suggestions, observations, or tips can you share? Feel free to post a comment or follow this blog for more ideas.

 

In middle school research, pictures are winning

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In the game of middle school student research, pictures are winning and words are losing. I have noticed increasingly that students, when they are researching a topic for a writing assignment, spend a lot of time not reading articles. Many spend their time looking at pictures. Or watching videos. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve noticed students scrolling down full screens of thumbprint images. Here’s a typical conversation we would have as I walked around the room and noticed students doing their research with Google Images.

Me: “What are you doing?”

Student: “I’m doing my research.”

Me: “What are you trying to find out?”

Student: “What gray squirrels look like.”

Me: “So why don’t you Google gray squirrels?”

Student: “I did.”

Me: “But Google it in web search and find articles.”

Student: “But I Googled it here instead and now I’m just looking at the pictures to find out what gray squirrels look like.”

And that got me thinking because the student had a point. I think. It made me wonder whether perusing images could be more authentic research than reading. So I had a debate with my selves: my old school self and my new media self.

Old school self: No, reading is better.

New media self: But couldn’t the result of reading simply be ingesting and recording what someone else has written about what gray squirrels look like?

Old school self: Yes, true, but don’t forget that in looking at all these images, you are just looking at what someone else has decided for whatever reason is a gray squirrel.What if some of them you’re looking at aren’t actually gray squirrels? How do you know they’re gray squirrels?

New media self: Well, in an article, how do we know the author actually knew what he was writing about?

Old school self: That’s why we choose authoritative sources. “National Geographic,” for example, instead of answers.com. 

Authoritative sources. There’s really the issue. It seems kids don’t know how to locate authoritative sources. Looking at images is easier. And then they get stuck. Scrolling endlessly through mind-numbing screenfuls of tiny images.

True, an exhausting variety of visual information, whether it’s the printed word, the image, or the video, simply comes with the Internet territory. So why not use it all to benefit our research? Perhaps.

The thing is this: I’m just afraid middle school students will take the path of least resistance and over-rely on images for the bulk of their learning every time they need to do research.

Your thoughts? Am I over-reacting or noticing a troublesome trend?

A Facebook Status Can Be a Starting Point for Hesitant Writers

 

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Photo: Steinar Engeland

 

Originally published March 16, 2016 ©Edutopia | The George Lucas Educational Foundation

One of my students wrote a 150-word personal essay. It was heartfelt. It was raw. It was also a Facebook status.

So I’m a little confused. That’s because this student—let’s call her Lisa—often struggles to complete most of the writing I assign in seventh grade language arts. Regardless of the topic or the discourse of writing, Lisa fights to come up with the ideas, let alone the words, to complete the assignments. On several occasions this year, she has visited my classroom during study hall for one-on-one help with her assignments.

In fact, just two weeks ago, I asked my students to write the first draft of a personal narrative essay. For writing ideas, I included several prompts from which they could choose, and if they didn’t like any of the prompts, they could create their own. Lisa has yet to turn this assignment in, yet she did . . . on her own . . . unprompted . . . write this Facebook status, an extremely personal—albeit brief—essay that expresses her belief in the importance of friendship, her deep concerns about our society’s preoccupation with physical perfection, and the dangers of self-destructive behaviors.

Her status is actually a solid start to a keenly insightful personal essay or memoir. The status is clearly and succinctly written and grammatically clean. I sense the voice of the writer bubbling to the surface through her carefully chosen words.  It has an existential, reflective quality that we often discount, dismiss, or “test out of” our kids today.

So what happened? What possessed Lisa to write in her free time . . . over spring break, no less?! Answer: the “authenticity” of the experience. She knew she had an audience. She knew her work would be read and pondered, and that it would elicit “reactions.” She knew it might make a difference, it might matter.

Current writing pedagogy advocates that teachers provide authentic writing experiences to increase student engagement and motivation. As a fifth-year rookie teacher, I try to involve my students in similar experiences as much as I can, and I’m gradually getting better at providing more and more of these opportunities. For example, I post their writing in the room and hallway, and I’ve begun to post their writing in a blog on my classroom website.  One student will have an article published soon in a local newspaper. We enter contests. Now, Lisa’s status has shown me that social media can offer authenticity as well.

Yes, many (myself included) consider social media a diversion that primarily engages young people in abbreviated, often pointless, conversation. Much of what one sees while scrolling Facebook, especially among young people, is brief, inconsequential texting. But occasionally, you find a gem of a status like Lisa’s that surprises you. Cling to these authentic experiences, incorporate them into a lesson, or otherwise use them to show hesitant writers that their thinking on social media can be consequential and have greater purpose.

Lisa’s personal essay, as it reads now as her Facebook status, doesn’t contain a narrative, a story . . . yet. But it does contain the impetus, the spark necessary to ignite the story that is already there in her memory and is waiting to be told. When she weaves that story into her status, she’ll have a personal essay bonfire that will illuminate the writer she is becoming. And she’ll have one fewer missing assignment on the list.

Writing Contests Deliver Student Buy-in

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Photo: Alexis Brown

Originally published May 30, 2017 ©Edutopia | The George Lucas Educational Foundation

One day last February,  three of my seventh-grade students hustled into my classroom at the end of the day. “Isn’t today the deadline for the New York Times contest?” Jacob asked me. After I confirmed that it was, he asked, “Can we look at our essays one more time and submit them?”

These three students had just returned from an all-day math tournament. After arriving back at school, they remembered that they had missed the opportunity earlier that day in my class to submit their 350-word op-ed essay on a topic of their choice to the Times editorial board. “Yes! Go for it!” I shot back, elated at their mindfulness to meet the deadline. I thought to myself, This is why I love contests. 

During the 2016-17 school year, one of my goals was to incorporate essay contests into my sixth-, seventh-, and eighth-grade ELA curriculum at the small rural middle school in southwest Missouri where I teach.  I had experienced success with a couple of contests my students had participated in the previous two years and I wanted to build on that by having all three grades enter various writing competitions throughout the year.

I knew, based on the first contests we entered, that my students valued writing for a specific purpose and a specific audience. It helped if there was a specific monetary award involved, too. However, when that wasn’t the case, it gave me an opportunity to talk up the other rewards of winning, such as the satisfaction that their ideas are out there being read and heard. Another benefit: one more line on their summer job resumé or high school transcript. Another: receiving validation from an unbiased authority. One more: the prestige of being a winner. Winning a contest sets them apart, I told them, and shows the world that their work is worthy of recognition and publication. A monetary award is just “icing on the cake.”

Contests engage my students by allowing them to write for an authentic audience outside of the school building walls. Students know they aren’t writing for their teacher, but for a real-world editor, an author, a veteran, a historian, a publisher, or a TV news show host. In fact, when I introduced the New York Times contest the first time, one girl asked, “You mean it’s for The New York TimesThe New York Times?”  Once I nodded to confirm, a few stirred in their desks, grabbed their highlighters, and began marking key details in the FAQs. After all, it wasn’t just me requiring them to include three historical details or to use MLA format, it was the contest committee (y’know, real people!).

Contests offer all the skill-building, standard-meeting benefits of narrative, informational, and argumentative assignments. But they add something more: buy-in from your students. If you haven’t tried a contest before, experiment with one or two in 2017-18. I’ll fill you in on the competitions my students entered this past year in my upcoming blog posts.  I’ll also explain how I prepared for and presented the contests, as well as how my students responded. I even had some winners and several students are now published writers! Follow along to learn more.