Try this low-stakes writing activity called “Take a line for a walk”

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My juniors switch places around my room to “take a line for a walk.”

It’s a keeper.

A couple of weeks ago, I traveled to the 2020 Write-to-Learn Conference sponsored by the Missouri State Council of the Int’. Literacy Association, The Missouri Writing Projects Network, and the Missouri Council of Teachers of English. Even though I attended only one day of the three-day conference, I’m happy with the handful of tools and activities I received or learned about.

One of those activities is a low-stakes writing exercise called “Take a Line for a Walk.”  I used it in my junior and senior English classes last week. Here’s a link to the Google Doc I made for students to use for this activity.

Sort It! Map It! Exploring Critical Literacy

I received this handout during a session at the Write to Learn Conference called “Sort It! Map It! Exploring Critical Literacy, Pedagogy, & Writing Process.” The session was taught by Dr. Lara Dieckmann, a teacher at Harrisburg (Mo.) R-VIII School District and Dr. Christy Goldsmith, assistant director of the Campus Writing Program at the University of Missouri.

What makes this exercise a low-stakes exercise?

For one, students don’t edit themselves as they write. The writing is not revised later either. It’s not even graded. It’s simply an opportunity for students to put thoughts down on paper. Much of what students need is merely practice writing and low-stakes opportunities give students the practice they need.

According to this article on Edutopia.com, low-stakes writing:

  • Increases students’ comfort with expressing their ideas and empowers student voice
  • Creates more investment and ownership in student learning
  • Prepares students for high-stakes writing and testing
  • Is adaptable for any subject
  • Allows for differentiation

I like all these reasons for incorporating low-stakes writing into my teaching, and I do use a handful of activities such as the One-word Summary, Kelley Gallagher’s Ten Percent Summary, and First Impressions Free-Writes. Still, it never hurts to add to the repertoire. In addition to providing writing practice, “Take a Line for a Walk” provides an easy and effective way to help kids read a difficult text or establish prior knowledge about a particular subject.

For my senior English students, we used “Take a Line for a Walk” after an initial reading of the Anglo-Saxon poem, The Seafarer. For my junior English students, we used the activity to review and establish prior knowledge about World War I in preparation for our reading later this week of Ernest Hemingway’s short story “In Another Country.”

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One of my students responds to the writing already on the page in this low-stakes writing activity.

Here are the basic steps I used with my students to “Take a Line for a Walk”:

  1. Pass out copies of the text you will be reading, as well as the “Take a Line for a Walk” lined sheet.
  2. Have students read the text independently or read it aloud, whichever is customary for you.
  3. Once all are finished reading, ask students to find a line, sentence or two, or an idea from the text that stood out to them as they read and write it down word-for-word at the top of the sheet. For example, what line made them sit up and take notice? Which line or two jumped off the page as they read the text?
  4. Once all have recorded their “stand-out” sentence or two, ask students to respond to their passage on the lines below it. Write a sentence or two or three to reflect on: why the line stood out to them, what connections they made to the line, what the line made them think about or ask. This is very loose. All they need to do is respond in any way they see fit.
  5. Once everyone is finished, have students stand up, leave their own page at their desk, grab their pen, and move to another desk.
  6. Once everyone arrives at another desk, have all sit down, and continue the conversation that’s been started on the page at their new desk. Do they agree with the thoughts? Disagree? Have a connection to something that’s been written on the page? Does the writing remind them of another situation, text, or experience? Again, this is a loose activity. The point is to read, respond, connect, and write it down.
  7. Repeat step six two or three more times, depending on your class size and the length of time available.  I’ve used this strategy twice and I decided to have students move around the room three times on both occasions.
  8. Once you’ve finished, have students return to their original seats and skim through the writing that has been collected.
  9. Ask a few students to share their written conversations, including any especially interesting or insightful comments.

I liked using this activity because it added some variety to our normal reading and writing routine. It also got kids moving around the room, reading and writing informally, and then discussing the ideas as well. I definitely plan to continue to use it occasionally to add more low-stakes writing activities (and therefore, informal writing practice) to my classes. Like I said, it’s a keeper.


Thanks for reading again this week! Have you ever used “Take a Line for a Walk?”  Feel free to share your experience with this and any other low-stakes writing activities you’ve found effective in your literacy instruction. Become a follower and for more road-tested writing lesson ideas. In fact, here’s a link to a post titled “My Number One Most Effective Writing Assignment Ever: Gallagher’s AOW.”

Teaching students to write essays that answer the question: So what?!

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Image by Image by dragonkim29 from Pixabay

Asking “So what?” makes the difference

My juniors finished reading Ernest Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea. Instead of taking an objective culminating exam, they will show their learning by writing a literary analysis essay. However, each student will choose the content and the focus of their essays instead of selecting a topic from a list.

With this essay, I wanted to provide an assignment that would be individualized to reflect the lessons and insights they took personally from the novel.

To accomplish this in their essays, I asked students:

  • What do you want for us to see in the text that we might not have seen otherwise?
  • Even better, what does seeing such a thing DO to our reading and understanding of The Old Man and the Sea, or of Hemingway, or the time period, society at the time the books was published, society today, etc?

Based on their first drafts that they turned in a few days ago, I can tell that students have written on a variety of topics. Some have written about the theme of masculinity in the book, some have written about the correlation between Jesus Christ and Santiago, some have written about perseverance, and some have focused on the benefits of experience and wisdom.

But here’s another thing I can tell: most students haven’t explained the significance of those discussions. Another way to put it: they still need to explore their claims in the hopes of uncovering the greater significance of those claims.

In short, they need to ask themselves “So what?”

  • For example, it’s great that one student thinks that Hemingway wrote about a man with a fighting spirit and a firm determination to succeed,” as one student wrote. But so what? What was Hemingway trying to help readers understand by writing about that man with a fighting spirit and a firm determination to succeed?
  • It’s great to claim that Hemingway uses many examples of masculinity in the novella. But what was Hemingway’s point in doing that? So what? What does that DO to our understanding of the novel?
  • It’s great that you see a correlation between Jesus Christ and Santiago. But what’s the purpose? So what? What does seeing that symbolism do for our lives?

Read this explanation from the blog, Writing Power.net, which I think does a good job of explaining the importance of answering the So What question. For example…

“Three other ways to phrase the So What question are as follows:

  • What is significant about your claim?
  • How does this enrich my understanding?
  • What are the implications of your claim?

In each case, the reader is asking the writer to look beyond his or her own navel and connect the paper’s idea to a larger conversation in which both the writer and the reader are stakeholders…

The most compelling interpretations are the ones in which the reader feels that the writer’s claim is significant, that it matters.”

On my assignment sheet for the culminating essay, I included a rubric of sorts. It contains a list of needed items in the essay: three pages, MLA formatting, two sources, in-text parenthetical citations, two direct quotes, a counter-argument.

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Image by S K from Pixabay 

But really, I also have another purpose — a much greater purpose — to the assignment: I would like to challenge my students to answer the question, So what?

I want them to go further than writing a claim that shows they noticed something in the book. I want them to explain why it’s important to notice that thing in the book. How does noticing that thing affect our lives? What does it teach us? Basically, tell us why it matters. Answer the question, So what?!

And to be truthful, the meaning is more important than the rubric. If a student expounds on their claim, but is short a few paragraphs in length, that’s okay. It’s more important to answer the SO WHAT question than it is to cross off all the boxes.

My juniors will read and revise their first drafts during peer review groups later this week. Hopefully, reading and discussing their essays with their classmates will give them the opportunity to see the importance of  answering the So What? question.


Thanks for reading again this week! Meaning is more important than a rubric. That’s a really hard idea to teach. It’s always easier to focus on mechanics and grammar; it’s harder to help kids think on paper and then communicate their thinking clearly. Have you taught the So What question? If so, please leave a comment with your ideas and experiences.

Sometimes poetry can teach better than I can

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Take word choice, for example

Last December, when I read a student’s second draft of their Treasured Object poem and saw that it contained the word “get” four times, I thought Really? Get? Four times? 

It surprised me because I thought I had taught not only sentence variety, but word variety as well. It’s good to vary our words. Yes, a writer can repeat certain words in order to:

However, many times using the same word repeatedly —- especially a vague one like “get” — is simply a sign of lazy writing.

Here’s the second draft that a student turned in during our fall writer’s workshop:

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“Get” is a weak, vague verb as it is. And then to have four in the same short poem! Arghghgh!

In our writer’s workshop process, I simply make a few suggestions for revisions and edits on a student’s second draft. I address the most glaring issue that will help the writer improve for his or her third (and usually final) draft. In this case, the most glaring issue was the overuse of  “get.”

I circled the four “gets” and in the margins, I wrote “Replace weak verbs.” When I returned it to the student, we talked briefly. I suggested his poem would be stronger with a variety of powerful verbs mainly because the reader wouldn’t be distracted and pulled out of the poem by all the “gets.”

Here’s the student’s third and final draft:

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The poem is much stronger, don’t you think?

Sometimes it just takes a little more time to think of a better word. 

I also wondered to myself how this poem was the student’s second draft. How did the student who gave him feedback on his first draft not catch this obvious issue? Lazy editing?

Probably, I thought, acknowledging that enabling students to provide effective feedback is still one area in my high school writer’s workshop process that needs improvement.

This poem allowed a quick fix for a common problem. And it caused the unnecessary repetition to be readily recognized and quickly and effectively repaired. This is yet another reason I like teaching poetry. It truly does teach some concepts more efficiently than I can.


Thanks for reading again this week! How is your poetry practice? Do you encourage and/or assign students to write poems? Do tell. And by the way, my next post will focus on the “Treasured Object” poem. I love this easy-to-write poem that allows students to get personal and write about a belonging they wouldn’t part with for the world. Follow my blog to catch my next post!

 

 

 

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.


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