Teaching transitions in writing, part 2

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Photo by Sam Carter on Unsplash

This student-written essay illustrates transition ideas

A few weeks ago, I wrote a post about how the nonfiction author James Swanson’ transitions from paragraph and from chapter to chapter in his nonfiction narrative Chasing Lincoln’s Killer. The post discussed transitions words (such as therefore, however, in contrast, nonetheless, and others) that we all know and love and teach. However, the post also discussed a more subtle form of transition… transition ideas. Read that post here. 

Below, I’ve shown a student-written example of  the same primary technique, repetition, that Swanson used to carry the reader from one paragraph of her text to the next.

This student’s term that she chose to guide the reader through her essay was “moving on.” In the photo below, I’ve underlined the five times that the writer repeated the words “moving on” or “move on.”

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In the photo above, I’ve underlined in red the repetition of key words a student used in her personal essay about how she learned resilience and perseverance amid negative circumstances. 

The student told me that she didn’t realize she was using repetition to create her transition ideas. Once I called her attention to it, however, she could see how using those words could help a reader navigate her argument’s reasoning and follow her ideas from one paragraph to the next.

We also discussed how repetition can backfire because it’s possible to overuse words and phrases in a piece of writing.

How to tell the difference?

It’s often a judgment call… a judgment call that requires lots of reading and re-reading (especially aloud!) to determine whether the repetition connects ideas and builds the argument, forming a continuous thread through the piece or merely distracts the reader, pulling them away from the argument.

It’s fun to see students making effective moves in their writing, especially when it comes to writing transitions and working hard to make their ideas carry through a piece smoothly, seamlessly, and unobtrusively.

I’ll have a few more examples to show you in a future post or two. Become a follower to catch that post!


Thanks for reading! How do you teach transitions? It’s one of the more challenging aspects of the craft. Feel free to leave a comment with your experiences and thoughts on the subject.

 

Words are things that are beautiful to picture, things that glow in the world.

Today’s post: Sixth-graders reflect on their writing

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Photo by Nong Vang on Unsplash

Today, I’m posting some responses from a reflection assignment I gave to my sixth-graders the last week of school. I asked them to write a 300-word reflection of the progress they made in my language arts class this year. Read more about the assignment and my seventh-grade reflections at this link.

I love this assignment.  And to think that I almost didn’t assign it due to the “busy-ness” of the last week and its field trips, assemblies, and other end-of-year activities. Through the words of my students, I’ve learned so much about what is important to them with regards to my classes, including those areas they know they need to grow in next year.

And, by the way, this was a first-draft assignment, which meant we would not be taking the time to revise; however, students know that I expect them to polish their first drafts, making any corrections or revisions needed before turning in.

Here are a few golden lines from some of my sixth-graders, transcribed here without corrections, along with my own reflections and thoughts.

“I am so much better at punctuation that I was last year. punctuation has always been hard for me, because I always seem to be using the wrong mark.”

  • It’s nice to know this student feels progress in this area.

“I used to just say, ‘I walked to the store.’  Now I add alot more detail and say, ‘I cassually walked to the small, brightly colored store.’  So because I add in more detail the reader gets a better picture, and I won’t need to answer as many questions.”

  • Sensory language and imagery are emphasized in class and it shows. With her funny final remark, I think this student is relating that her descriptions paint a picture so clear that the reader isn’t left with questions. That’s progress!

“I feel like I explain things in all my stories instead of making it an interesting story that people would actually read.”

  • This student is beginning to understand “show don’t tell.”

“Granted, there are spell check softwares, but computers can’t fix everything, like tense and homophones.”

  • Yes! A student who sees the limits of technology!

“I can tell what transitions are I used to get them mixed up. And the same with fanboys. But now I can actually remember most of them and when I can use them and how to use them.”

  • This student is becoming adept at some of the most often used tools that writers use to express their ideas smoothly… conjunctions and transitions.

“Writing is a way that I express myself. It helps me have less stress and helps me worry less.”

  • This is a milestone in itself. This student will go far if she has this mindset in sixth grade!

“I feel Mrs. Yung makes you do a lot of writing so you get compturible it’s rough at first but by a month or two you will be find you’ll write for fun also.”

  • This student struggles with many basics, but has shown improvement over the course of the school year. He also wants to improve, which is half the battle. Goals for next year: learning to reserve enough time to polish and revise the writing.

“Mrs. Yung put writing contest so if you you get a prize or even in a book. I think writing is the easiest thing to do case you write about when you think about and it takes skill too.”

  • I know this assignment was a challenge for this student. He didn’t reach the word requirement, but did get his thoughts onto the page. Goals for next year: syntax, simple sentence structure.

“We wrote from just writing a big blob of words to dividing into paragraphs.”

  • A primary objective of elementary writing instruction is mastering the paragraph. Writing a draft of multiple paragraphs is indeed new territory and one we will continue to observe in seventh grade. I still see too many one-paragraph essays.

“Words are things that are beautiful to picture, things that glow in the world.”

  • This student obviously values words and does it with a creative flair. Score!

“I really like poems now. Last year I always thought poems had to rhyme but when I went to 6th grade I learned that they didn’t have to rhyme.”

“I have also learned that there are many types of things to write. My where I’m from poem this is a good example of something I was proud of. I put basically everything I know about myself in there.”

  • Variety is the spice of life and that goes for writing, too! While it’s good to focus on the standards, argument writing, et al, it’s important to show students the more creative side of the craft.

“Another thing is that I can put more feeling and emotion into my stories and essays, by using descriptive words and I feel like I could throw my voice into it.”

  • It’s gratifying that this student feels free to express himself on the page.

“Language arts isn’t my favorite subject actually science is but Language arts is interesting and has a lot of rules. Sadly I don’t quite understand all of them, because they are tricky and English is one of the hardest languages to understand this makes it more difficult. Also, I’ve been practicing it sense I was a little child.”

  • It’s easy to forget that English is a difficult language to master. It’s full of rules and contradictions to those rules. This response reminds me how important it is for me to provide students the writing tools and techniques they will need as they mature to more developed writing.

Thanks for reading! If you see enjoy my blog, please follow! I’m trying to find ways to make my site more valuable… more than just a place for me to “show and tell” what happens in my classroom. If you have ideas for stories or have specific questions about something you read here or about teaching in general, please leave a comment so we can share our experiences. 

“I would write like a dog with hooves it was hard.”

When students reflect, three things happen.

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Photo: Pixabay

 

About a week before school ended in May, I asked my sixth- and seventh-grade students to write a 300-word reflection of the progress they made in my language arts class this past year. I find this assignment very valuable, both for me and my students because it provides three things:

  1. a snapshot of how they assess their progress in their own voice,
  2. a last-minute glimpse of their end-of-year writing skills, and
  3. an opportunity for me to reflect on my teaching.

Here are a few golden lines from some of my seventh graders, transcribed here without corrections. I bulleted my own thoughts and clarifications below each one.

“In eighth grade my goal is to have more of my writing published and to have a better comprehension in not only writing but in bigger and stronger vocabulary words.”

  • I love that this student wants to be published and knows that it’s a real possibility. It’s also gratifying when students acknowledge the value of a strong vocabulary.

“I have become a better writer honestly from writing more. It sounds dumb but it actually helps to write more.”

  • This should go on a plaque. I truly believe that “practice makes perfect.”  Now, of course, I don’t advocate quantity over quality, but, in my experience, there is something to be said for simply doing LOTS OF WRITING, which in turn earns LOTS OF FEEDBACK with which to improve. In addition, frequent writing has another plus: it builds up students’ stamina and their comfort level with writing.  When asked to type a two-page essay for their weekly homework assignment, my students don’t panic… they just start planning.

“Then I improved a lot on punctuation compared to last year because the more I learned about it and the more I practiced it, the more I used it and the better I got at it.”

  • Again, this reflection supports the benefits of writing frequently. The more we practice, the more comfortable we become with it. In my own blogging experience, writing and posting daily used to be a challenge, but the more I do it (practice it, essentially), the easier it is. I think it’s good to share in the struggles of writing with your students.

“Sentences were like idea changers.”

  • The student who wrote this really hates writing, so I was surprised to find this little nugget buried in his reflection. Interesting! It shows a recognition of the deeper thinking and re-thinking that occurs when we write and read. I do regret that I wasn’t able to turn this student “on” to writing this year.

“Then I started adding a little detail to thicken my stores adding more and more of the five senses, and now I think i’m right on the edge of terribly and decent.”

  • Love the honesty! Despite the errors, I feel that this student’s confidence is building ever so gradually. I’m looking forward to next year with this student. Maybe I’ll be able to show him that proof-reading will help his ideas come across better.

“I almost only thought i could only have one perspective of what you was writing about.”

  • This student is reflecting on a recently completed argument essay.  What I like about this comment is that this student has grasped the concept of “argument,”…that an argument is a discussion, a give-and-take conversation on a topic with multiple perspectives.  It bothers me that this student is still struggling with parts of speech, subject-verb agreement, and editing.

“When I start with an interesting lead that has recently been the last think that I do because before that I would spend time trying to figure one out an interesting lead and I wouldn’t leave myself anytime for actual writing.”

  • This is a little hard to understand, but based on some conversations I remember with this student during the school year, I’m fairly sure this student is trying to explain how, in the past, she would labor so long over an attention-getting lead that she would run out of steam (or time) to work on the main points of her essay. To prevent the “I can’t think of how to start” syndrome, I encourage kids to jump to the middle of their essays or to their conclusions or anywhere really, just to get words onto the page. The lead can always be developed later. This approach seems to work so far. My goal with this student for next year: write smoother sentences, read the sentences out loud, break long sentences into shorter ones.

“I would write like a dog with hooves it was hard.”

  • The first time I read this, I gasped. It’s raw and accurate. Priceless. This student struggles so much with syntax and sentence structure, punctuation, you-name-it; however, this student wants to learn and obviously has a gift for simile.  I love this sentence for its blunt honesty and voice. At the same time, I regret that after an entire school year of instruction, this student still struggles with run-ons.

“I do have good grammar most of the time (but not in first drafts).”

  • Bravo bravo! Here’s my take on this one: This student has moved on from the “one and done” mindset to the acknowledgment that revision and rewriting are just part of the process. However, I know this student really stressed over her reflection. To help, I told her she could just write down the answers to the questions in the “Clarity of Ideas” section of the rubric on the handout below.  I asked that she assemble her answers into paragraphs. It was a start, at least.
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This is a quick photo of the handout I made for my reflection assignment.

You can tell from the students’ responses that I have a wide range of abilities in my seventh graders. For example, some students need help with basic sentence structure, while a few can regularly craft beautiful and flowing complex sentences. These disparities can be challenging at times, but this reflection assignment helps me with meeting the various needs of my students.

The reflection essay also makes me wonder whether I should assign these more often. I’ll share some reflections from my sixth-graders tomorrow.


Thanks for reading! Do you have a “reflection” assignment you use in your language arts classes?  What’s your experience with it? Please click like and leave a comment to share your ideas.

 

Don’t ever delete anything again

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Photo by JESHOOTS.COM on Unsplash

Never ever ever.

So many times I have kids in my classroom who will delete sentences, whole paragraphs, or even more of their writing as they struggle through a first draft. When I find out they’ve deleted something, I turn on the drama. I gasp, cover my face with my hands, and plead with them to please don’t ever do that again.

Here’s what else I tell them when I find out they just pressed the delete key:

  • No! Don’t erase it now! You might be able to use it somewhere else later as you figure out where exactly this piece is going. 
  • Get it back! It might fit perfectly somewhere else later in the essay.
  • If there’s something you want to put aside for now, copy and paste it into a new doc. Or just space down to the bottom of your paper and separate it with a dotted line or something. But just don’t delete it!
  • You put way too much work into that to just delete it. Control  Z! Control Z!

I also tell them that I rarely get rid of anything I’ve written. When I’m writing on Medium, for example, if I have a paragraph to remove, I usually paste it into a new draft. I might later transform it into a new post. You just never know.

Encouraging kids to keep their work shows them their work and time are valuable. It shows them the messiness of writing is valid and necessary. It reveals how our ideas change as we write. It shows them that their thesis, gist, or premise can change and that’s okay.

And yes, I know that not everything they write is precious. They’re not writing the next great American novel, after all. Some things do need to be deleted. However, in general, my students need to slow down and think twice before pushing that delete key. Their words deserve more consideration.


Thanks for reading! Click like so other readers may more easily find this post. And feel free to leave a comment below and follow my blog for more!

Here’s what happened when I submitted a student’s writing to a hunting magazine

 

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Photo by Hunter Bryant on Unsplash

 

Last fall, one of my seventh-grade students wrote an “Expert Advice” article, one of ten assignments in our Writer’s Workshop project list. My students seemed to like this particular assignment. They chose a topic they were familiar with and then wrote a how-to article. “Jared” wrote an article called “Four Ways Novice Hunters Can Avoid Hunting Accidents.” He wrote a first draft, received feedback from another student, and then submitted a second draft to me.

Right away, I could tell it might be a piece I could submit on his behalf to a magazine, print or online. I knew Jared had a publishable story because of the way he tackled the assignment. First, he wrote his article in steps, which always makes for a reader-friendly piece. Second, Jared’s advice indicated that, as an avid hunter, he wrote from experience and possessed some natural expertise. In addition, his writing contained his own voice with tips such as, “Hunting on legal ground is also an important law to follow. By hunting on legal ground, or government property, you can avoid trespassing and a visit from the sheriff.” I knew that, with a few more rounds of revisions and edits, Jared would have an article ready to send out.

So the next morning during my plan time,  I googled “deer hunting magazines youth” to see what I could find. A few results popped up. I visited a couple and found one in particular that seemed promising. I read what kinds of articles they typically publish and found the name of the editor. I also discovered that the magazine had a distribution of 57,000 copies!

After talking to Jared’s mother for her approval, I dashed off a short email to the editor asking if he would be interested in reviewing the article after Jared finished it. Here’s my email:

Dear (Editor’s Name):

Good morning! I’m an English teacher in Missouri and I have a student who is working on a very good how-to article for novice or  first-time hunters. I told him I would inquire about any publishing opportunities he may wish to pursue.

Does your magazine ever publish student-written articles? Would this how-to type of article be a fit for your publication? If not, do you have any advice on where he might send his piece when it is finished?

Thanks for your time in thinking about this. I appreciate it.

Marilyn Yung, Teacher

Within three hours, the editor responded. (His quick response surprised me, by the way, because in my own writing experience, editors usually require from a few days to a week or two to respond.)

The editor’s reply: Yes, he would be interested in seeing the article when Jared had it ready. He explained that while the advice may not be useful to many of the magazine’s readers, the fact that the writer is a student may be the interesting part. He added that even if it didn’t work for the print publication, it could likely be used for the website. He ended with, “Either way, I’d like to take a look and see. We are trying to provide more how-to info for beginners, and we are also interested in encouraging young hunters and writers!”

So after two or three more revisions, we emailed the final draft just before the holiday break. I’ll let you know when I hear the final word from the editor about Jared’s article. Whether it is accepted for publication or not, it’s my hope Jared has learned he has solid potential as a writer for the world beyond the school walls.


Thanks for reading! If you found this post useful, click “like” so more teachers will find it. Follow this blog for more articles and stories about teaching middle school ELA. Check out my sister blog for other writing.

Reading about how to teach writing

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Photo by Gaelle Marcel on Unsplash

It has its ups and downs

I love reading books about the teaching of writing. It’s always so valuable to me to find ways to help kids love writing!

Right now, I’m re-reading Real Revision by Kate Messner, a text chock-full of innovative strategies that real-life published authors use when they revise their own writing. This book contains so many practical tips from Messner, who is also a seventh-grade English teacher. I have already used one of her revision strategies in my classroom this fall and I know this book will provide more ideas as I continue with it.

I’m also getting ready to write a short post on another book I recently read, Renew! Become a Better and More Authentic Writing Teacher by Shawna Coppola. This book also contains down-to-earth advice and examples from the classrooms where Coppola works as a literacy specialist. Another bonus from this book: Coppola gives me permission to literally rethink how I teach the writing process. As a result, I’ve put off posting my usual five-step writing process poster. Why? Well, I don’t really follow completely it in my own writing, so why should I force my students to?

There is one downside to all this reading, though… when I set these inspiring books aside for the moment, it’s a little disheartening because I realize that I could have taught a lesson so much better, explained a writing dilemma so much more effectively, or responded to a student in a much more powerful way than I did.

The upside, however, is that I do find concrete, implementable ways to improve my teaching, and that’s the ultimate goal, after all.

How about you? What are you reading about the teaching of writing? Any books I should check out?


Thanks for reading! Feel free to click “like” and leave a comment about any books you’re currently reading.

I’m a writer who teaches writing. Click here for my personal writing blog.

Dear English teachers: No offense, but your students shouldn’t be writing for you

 In fact, they should be writing for anyone but you. 

part 3 of 4

 

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Photo by Allef Vinicius on Unsplash

 

Let’s get real. If your students know their writing will be read by someone beyond the school building walls, they’ll sit up a little higher in their desks. They’ll be a little choosier with their words. They’ll be more careful with their punctuation, the flow of their ideas, the clarity of those ideas. I mean, we as teachers are important, but we’re not as important as people “out there in the real world.” This has been my experience anyway in my middle school ELA classroom.

So, in addition to giving my students lots of choices (read more here), and encouraging discussion of their topics (check out this post), I make sure my students know their writing will eventually be published or posted somewhere beyond my desk.  As a result, I’m constantly on the lookout for destinations out in “the real world” for my students’ writing.  Here’s a quick list I’ve come up with so far:

  • in their Kidblog portfolio (or another blog platform) which can be read by other students in our school and in other schools that we connect to. (Follow me so you don’t miss my future posts on student blogging. I’m still new to it, but I can always share my experiences.)
  • in a contest. Read my post about writing contests. I’ve covered five specific contests in my blog and will be adding several more. In addition to the occasional cash prize, students enjoy the validation of having their work recognized by unbiased readers.
  • in the hallway, on a bulletin board or my class website. The simplest way to post work can be as effective as entering a contest. Keep that corkboard covered!
  • on TeenInk.com. With parental permission, students may wish to publish online and receive comments back from other teen writers.
  • in a newspaper or other publication. Each month during the school year, I ask one student to write a short article featuring school news to our local newspaper.
  • in a local organization’s newsletter. Ask around in your community (check out historical societies, arts councils, libraries) to see if they have projects to which your students could contribute basic research, writing, or photography.

These are just a few ideas. As I think of more, I’ll post them. And yes, my students do learn how to write for an academic setting. After all, it’s important for them to get comfortable writing in that context. However, the academic discourse can’t be my primary focus if I want to create students who are exposed to the full spectrum of writing “the real world” has to offer.

This is the third of six posts about what works for me in my ELA classroom. I am by no means an expert in this endeavor, but want to share with and learn from other teachers about effective strategies for teaching writing.

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 (especially if you have authentic writing ideas!) and don’t forget to follow me to catch my next post. Thanks for reading!