Words we’ve recently learned include the following:
Read this post to learn about the specific activities we use to explore each word.
At times over the past seven to eight weeks,
I’ve wondered whether my vocab activities are becoming a little
stale. A little repetitive. Yawn-inducing.
And then over the weekend, as I reviewed second drafts of writing projects that students had turned in during writer’s workshop last week, I noticed two students had used the word “inimitable.” Do you know (of course, you do!) how gratifying it was to see my students using words they had recently acquired as a result of my “repetitive” vocabulary lessons?
I guess repetition has its merits, after all.
It’s easy to doubt myself. I do it a lot. My self-doubt has, at times, caused me to alter my teaching when I’ve suspected it wasn’t working. My self-doubt has, at times, even caused me to discontinue a particular unit or strategy.
And to be honest, I had thought about pushing the pause button on these vocabulary lessons. However, when I read the word “inimitable” in my students’ drafts, I changed my mind.
Exposing kids to new words during a four-day week’s worth of bell-ringer activities seems to be taking hold. When kids acquire new words and then use them to express themselves in poetry or a personal essay, that’s all the confirmation I need to stick with my plan. These two students have given me enough incentive to stay with these vocab lessons and not alter or discontinue them just yet.
Are you like me in this regard? Do you question whether your vocab instruction is helping your students? Don’t assume it’s not working. Continue to expose your students to new words that will give them the precision they need to fully express their ideas in writing. Don’t give up on your vocabulary instruction. Keep with it. Persevere.
This vocabulary pep talk has been brought to you by me. Seriously, vocabulary gets short shrift; kids need to acquire an extensive vocabulary as they transition to high school and college or the workplace. What are your tried-and-true vocabulary lesson ideas? Feel free to share and then follow my blog for more reflection!
Now I know exactly what they each need to focus on
Last week, I gave each student a sticky note and asked each of my students to write their top one or two grammar or conventions issues they struggle with on a regular basis.
I suggested, “Y’know… those things that you always have to look up on Google or wherever… those things that you continue to stumble with.”
As for me, I struggle with the difference between lay and lie. It always makes me stop to Google up Grammar Girl or some other such website. For whatever reason, I just have to look it up every time. I also struggle sometimes with commas between certain coordinate adjectives.
Anyway, I wanted my students to tell me what they struggle with in particular. Knowing their problem areas will help me plan mini-lessons over the next few months.
Without further ado, here are the top grammar issues my students struggle with followed by the number of students who reported the particular item listed:
Run-on sentences (6)
Commas in dialogue (4)
Hyphenated words (4)
Commas inside or outside of quotation marks (3)
Commas in a series (The Oxford comma) (3)
Than vs. Then (2)
John and me versus John and I (Subject vs. object pronouns); (2)
Where vs. were (2)
When to use single quotation marks (1)
Capitalizing Dad vs. my dad (1)
Affect vs. effect (1)
Apostrophes in possessive case (1)
When to paragraph (1)
Semicolons vs. colons (1)
Commas before who or which (1)
Parenthetical citations in MLA style (1)
When I have only one student struggling with, say, run-on sentences, I’ll be able to help them individually during one-on-one conferencing time when we do Writer’s Workshop. For other issues that a few or several students mentioned, I can plan to address those in mini-lessons.
And here’s another thing: some students may not even know they are struggling with a particular issue. For example, I know that more than six students struggle with run-on sentences. I see this issue all the time in many students’ drafts. So, as useful as this list is, I also possess my own knowledge about my students’ problem areas… whether they know about those problem areas or not.
Still, I’m glad I have this list. My copy contains the problem area(s) next to each student’s name. I can reference it continually to recall who needs to work on what. To make sure I remember to teach each of these issues, I’ve decided to enter them into my plan for future class periods in my lesson plan calendar on Planbook.
Eventually, my idea is to know without a doubt that I’ve addressed each student’s particular grammar problems. That will be a good feeling.
Thanks for reading again this week! How do you keep track of exactly what each student needs special help with? Become a follower of this site to receive emails when I publish a new post. Also, feel free to share your comments and ELA teaching experiences.
Don’t teach just transition words… teach transition ideas as well.
I taught this book for eight years in my middle school ELA classes. It’s such a ride! Plus, when you read it as a writer, you notice key skills the author James Swanson utilized heavily when he wrote this little gem.
For me, teaching transitions is one of the most difficult concepts to teach in writing and one of the most needed. When you teach transitions, you are helping students learn how to write smoothly, to make their ideas flow from one paragraph to the next, even from one sentence to the next.
In short, we’re talking about the concept of cohesion in writing. As you know, cohesion happens when an idea is carried through from the introductory paragraph(s) to the supporting sections of the text and finally, to the summary or conclusion. There are two ways to accomplish cohesion: transition words and ideas as transitions.
I’ve done what many other teachers have done. We post anchor charts around our classrooms that divide transition words into groups based on their intended jobs within a piece of writing. It’s a fairly cut-and-dry skill to teach. Here are three examples of many:
Transitions that show sequence: first, second, third, etc.
Transitions that show cause and effect: as a result, consequently, etc.
Transitions that compare and contrast: on the other hand, in contrast, etc.
Yes, anchor charts do an adequate job of supplying these phrases for students as they write. In addition, I’ve also distributed handouts that list these same groups of words. And that’s all fine and good. Most students understand how transition words can help their writing flow smoothly so the reader can easily follow their ideas.
But there’s another kind of transition—transition ideas—that are just as important, if not more important, than all those transition words. It’s also more difficult to teach because you can’t point to a list of words and phrases for students to use. That’s why I was excited when I found several examples of transition ideas in a text that I routinely taught, Chasing Lincoln’s Killer by James Swanson.
Transition ideas rely on words used in the text by the author to connect the scenes in a story, the claim in an argument from one paragraph to the next, or important big ideas in an informative article.
Chasing Lincoln’s Killer contains several examples of transition ideas. And since it’s often easier for me to show this than it is to explain it, take a look at the photos below.
The first photo below is from Chapter IV in the book. I’ve underlined in red the transition ideas… places where the writer wanted to move the story from one scene to another on the night of April 14, 1865 when President Lincoln was assassinated. To continue his story from one location to another Swanson utilized key words to carry the reader from the home of Secretary of State William Seward to the scene of the Lincoln shooting, Ford’s Theater.
As you can see, Swanson intentionally repeated key words and phrases–“drenched in blood”– to help his reader make the leap in the story with him.
Here’s another example. Swanson’s narrative needed to transfer from the farm and home of Dr. Mudd back to Ford’s Theater. Swanson showed the Mudds sleeping and transitioned that idea to President Lincoln, who was also “sleeping” after being shot by the assassin John Wilkes Booth.
Below is yet another example where Swanson carries the reader, at the conclusion of Chapter VII, into the action of Chapter VIII. He uses transition ideas to switch the reader from the lowland river areas where Booth and conspirator David Herold prepared for camping to Washington, D.C., where Mary Surratt, another conspirator, also was wrapping up the busy day.
And below you can see how Swanson began Chapter VIII in a way that echoed the action at the end of Chapter VII.
If you’d like even more explanation of transition ideas, show your middle school and high school students this video by Shmoop. It’s quirky and a little weird, but that’s Shmoop. It gets the point across well, I think.
Transition words and transition ideas are super important. They help students write smoothly and cohesively. Both are the key to writing pieces that absorb the reader, causing them to focus intently on the message of the writing. Use these passages from Chasing Lincoln’s Killer and this Shmoop video the next time you prepare a mini-lesson on transitions.
Thanks for reading again this week! How do you teach transitions? Leave a comment to share your ideas and follow my blog for weekly posts about teaching ELA.
My resources, my reservations, and my main reason to teach this book again
Right now, at my new teaching position at a rural high school in Missouri, one of my junior/senior level electives classes is reading The Red Badge of Courage by Stephen Crane. If you’re unfamiliar with The Red Badge of Courage, it’a a Civil War novel first published in 1895 that explores the effects of war on a young man named Henry Fleming.
According to this Glencoe Literature Library Study Guide, “The Red Badge of Courage is a profile of an inexperienced young soldier undergoing his first experience of battle. ‘The youth’ in the novel, Henry Fleming, makes a journey of self-discovery. But what he learns, and whether he learns, from his experiences is a point that is still debated.” In other words, The Red Badge of Courage is a novel that focuses on the psychological effects of war as much as it focuses on warring itself.
Before I started the unit, I consulted a private teachers’ Facebook group to get some ideas. Instead, I learned that many teachers aren’t crazy about the book. At all. For example, the sentiments below are actual teacher opinions about Crane’s novel.
I need suggestions for an alternative text to Red Badge of Courage. I tried to read it/listen to it and it was AWFUL.
It is suggested to do Red Badge of Courage, but I tried to read it and listen to it on audio, and I just couldn’t. It is not interesting…
This is the only required reading that I did not complete in high school. I. Could. Not. Stand. It.
Red Badge of Courage. Gag me with a spoon.
“Ouch. Really? Is it that bad?” I thought when I read those comments.
Yes, it is dry and monotonous at times. Those chapters where Fleming waits for directions, waits for battle, waits for any indication of progress in the war, do get long. However, as we learn from Fleming, that’s part of the war experience. The Civil War experience, to be exact. And yes, the Civil War was a long time ago, so maybe the book’s monotonous chapters and the book’s antiquated language and style (it was first published in 1895, after all) turns off these teachers.
And those teachers can have their opinions, for sure. But this little book–there are 24 chapters each about five pages in length–has merit if you look for it.
After all, there’s a reason it’s never been out of print: the book is not merely an account of war, but an account of how untested people deal with self-doubt, confidence, fear, and ultimately, courage.
Since this is the first time I’ve taught the novel, I realize I’m just “feeling my way.” In other words, I don’t pretend to have this figured out. In fact, my first experience with teaching the novel leaves much to be desired. However, I thought I would still share the handful of resources I’m currently using or plan to use in the next couple of weeks or so. Plus, I’m secretly hoping that, if you’ve taught this novel before, you’ll share some tips and ideas in the comments below! (See what I did there?!) Here are the resources I’m using, listed in no particular order:
I currently use these writing prompts as bell work assignments. Journal prompts can become tiresome, though, so we don’t do these everyday. Students respond by writing a paragraph. We discuss them briefly as a warm-up to listening to the next two chapters of the book.
This unit plan is a fairly standard one and is aligned with Common Core State Standards. The focus is definitely on reading comprehension and vocabulary building. Writing exercises are scant and only require limited creative or analytical thinking. Although this unit plan is a full 67 pages long, I’ve only used about ten of those so far. I will, however, use its summative activities as part of a final assessment, to which I’ll add a reflective essay requirement.
Taking Fire is the definitive collection of modern war stories, told by the men and women who fought on the front lines of Afghanistan. Illustrated with real combat footage shot on helmet cameras and handy cams, this series plunges viewers into the heart of the action, giving a visceral experience not witnessed in news reports or traditional documentary portrayals of war.
Taking Fire follows the experiences of rookie recruits of the 101st Airborne division. Shot with helmet cams and other video cameras, viewers watch the daily activities—from mundane chores to real-life skirmishes—of these young men. It’s not difficult to see that these activities are similar to the experiences of Fleming, referred to as “the youth” in Crane’s book.
As we watch Taking Fire, it’s easy to appreciate a modern-day connection to The Red Badge of Courage. The soldiers in Afghanistan looking for land mines, waiting for action, and fighting boredom share the same concerns and emotions as Fleming does in the novel. They experience the same fears, the same guilt, the same self-doubts that Henry does. I love how Taking Fire has given The Red Badge of Courage a shove into current day concerns and emotions.
Stephen Crane’s characterization of Henry, the young recruit, rings as true today as it did during the Civil War —and we have Stephen Crane and the Discovery Channel, as well— to thank for that. Because it relates so naturally to The Red Badge of Courage, I have decided to watch twenty minutes of a Taking Fire episode about every other day in class…after we listen to our audiobook. (Let’s be real: saving the video for after the book is also partly a reward for digging into the book and its antiquated language and verbose descriptions.)
I also like the idea of comparing a TV series to a book… an important learning standard that requires students to access literature through various media. Noticing similarities and differences between the written page from more than a century ago to a contemporary high-tech televised war experience should lead to some rich discussions and critical thinking opportunities.
And yes, there is The Red Badge of Courage, the movie. It was made in 1951 and was filmed in black and white. I’m not planning on showing it because Taking Fire seems a better, more relevant fit.
Yes, I have occasionally read chapters aloud and have asked students to do a sort of reader’s theater activity while I read (where certain students read especially memorable lines). However, most of the class seems to enjoy the audiobook version more. Here’s the link to the audiobook on Youtube.
I hope to design an activity where students, at the completion of our reading the novel, explore the diary of an actual Civil War soldier. This will be a good opportunity for students to access and use primary sources, as well give them additional insights into the lives of young soldiers. Perhaps these diaries can be correlated to the experiences of Fleming as an additional part of a reflective summative assessment. There are numerous websites for this type of work. I plan to explore these other sites as well to find more diaries and journals:
I have a membership to LitCharts, and printed out the study guide to the novel at the beginning of the unit. The study guide includes a plot summary, detailed analysis, theme discussions, quotes, and character notes. Having this on my desk as we read, listen, and discuss helps me teach better and with more confidence. That’s because I occasionally struggle with comprehending as we listen, since I must also be continually surveying the room, making sure people are following along, staying off their phones, and participating. Having my LitCharts study guide handy is a good thing.
When you teach a novel for the first time
It’s always difficult to teach a novel for the first time, and as I wrote earlier, I don’t claim to be an expert on The Red Badge of Courage. In fact, for me, the most difficult aspect of teaching a novel for the first time is facilitating whole-class discussions. It takes me at least two to three teachings before I am able to spur meaningful discussions that blossom organically during a class period. This is my main deficiency with this particular text, at this point, and I’m aware of it. But I trust that better discussions will evolve with time. Next semester’s class will definitely have a better Red Badge of Courage experience.
To sum up this post, despite the fact that The Red Badge of Courage doesn’t receive much attention or respect from some teachers, and despite the fact that it’s my first time teaching it, I think I’ll stick with this book. It’s one I want to spend more time learning how to teach. I believe this book’s exploration of self-doubt, confidence, fears, and courage merit readers’ attention.
Thanks for reading again this week! I’ve taught Chasing Lincoln’s Killer in the past, so I’m game for Civil War-era books, but have you ever taught The Red Badge of Courage? Got any tips or ideas? I’m game for your thoughts. Follow my blog, like this post and leave a comment about your experiences with this novel.
Note: I published this post about a year ago when I first attempted an after-school NaNoWriMo program. This year, I have recently moved and am now teaching high school. I hope to eventually host a similar after-school NaNoWriMo program in my new district, but for now, I’ll just look back fondly on last year’s endeavor.
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.
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:
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.
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.
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?
I would love to try NaNoWriMo with my new high school students eventually, but first things first. This year definitely presents a learning curve for me with adjusting to older, more reserved older students.
I’m trying these four short vocabulary bell-work tasks to help kids better learn new words
I recently signed up to receive weekly email updates from the Sadlier School. As part of the email, I receive a free “Power Word of the Week” email from the Vocab Gal’s blog. I’ve been using these “slides” in my classes as a vocabulary bell-work activity. I’m trying four different activities with each new Power Word, so for each day of our week, we can spend a few more minutes to learn the word better. (Yes, you read that right. This year, our district has switched to a four-day week. I’ll let you know how that’s going in an upcoming post.)
The Power Word of the Week slide defines the word, uses it in a sentence, and then asks students to write their own sentence using the word.
Here’s an example of the slides:
We follow the slide exactly and students write a sentence using the new word. Sometimes, depending on the new word, I’ll ask a volunteer to think of a random word (popsicle? frog? hockey?) to throw into the sentence, so the sentences they write will contain both the new word and the random word. It adds more interest to the standard “write a sentence” activity.
The next day, I put the same slide back on the screen and ask students to review the definition and then use it in another sentence. However, this time they must use the word in a sentence about a topic covered in a recent Article of the Week assignment. We recently used the word “gossamer” in a sentence about California’s Fair Pay to Play Act; we also used the word “paragon” in a sentence about robotic bee engineering in the Netherlands.
Here are some student-written examples:
California’s reasons for paying athlete’s for endorsement deals were like gossamer in the eyes of the NCAA.
Scientists from Delft University are working to engineer robotic bees that, if forced to do the work of real bees, will be paragons of nature.
I’ve also asked students to write sentences using the Power Word plus a Power Word from a previous week. This keep the new words in our working vocabularies and increases the chances that these new words will be retained.
On this day, I ask students to make more connections. We take the Power Word and invent an app that is called the word. For example, imagine there’s an app called “Paragon,” then…
Write two to three sentences that describe the features of the app. What would an app called Paragon do?
Write a user review of the app that shows knowledge of the word.
If you have time, ask students to create a logo for the app. This is key if you do this add-on: ask students to make sure the logo illustrates in some way the word’s meaning.
Here are two examples of the Create-an-App activity completed as bell-work:
Two other student examples:
The Perpetuate App…This app helps you find out who your ancestors are. It does that so you can perpetuate their customs.
Use the app Perpetuate… to make any moment in life permanent or long-lasting. Make great life moments last forever.
On this day, I ask students to write a haiku poem. (Many students tell me they haven’t written a haiku since third or fourth grade!) I write one of my own as an example and post it on the board. Students then get started on their own. The requirements: 1) their haiku must be three lines long and contain five syllables in the first and last lines and seven in the second; 2) The poem must contain the Power Word; 3) The poem must be nature-related, in keeping with traditional haiku poetry.
Here’s an example I recently used in class with “fend” as the Power Word:
Soar above, pointing south to
Fend off winter’s wrath
I love words, but I’ve always been perplexed by the best way to increase students’ vocabularies. Rote memorization doesn’t work. Neither does working with a new word every day for that day only. On the other hand, spending five to ten minutes over the course of four days to explore a new word seems, so far anyway, to be a viable option… at least one worth testing out.
When we’ve covered ten or so new Power Words, I’ll assess students to see how well they’ve retained knowledge of the words. I’ll let you know how that goes.
Thanks for reading again this week! In my previous teaching position, my students practiced their cursive writing everyday for bell-work. Since my new students haven’t written in cursive in years, I decided to not fight the cursive battle, and have them learn some new vocabulary instead. So far, I think it’s working.
Stay tuned (in other words, follow my blog!) to receive the follow-up post where I’ll report on a summative assessment.
I have the Associated Press’ app on my phone and I frequently check it to stay up-to-date on current events. I often (and by often, I would estimate sixty percent of the time) notice one recurring problem: missing words. However, last night after reading a story about Facebook, I noticed another problem: sentence fragments.
And I get it. An intentional sentence fragment can add spark and sentence variety to a piece of writing, but the key is whether the fragment is written for its effect or… is it just an error?
I’ll let you be the judge, but I think these sentence fragments are errors on the part of the writer. I took the screenshot below and circled the two fragments in question.
The top fragment, actually a dependent clause, should be joined to the independent clause before it, by lower-casing the W on which, and changing the period after installed to a comma. Intentional fragments that start with which are tricky; they don’t offer the bluntness or the spark that other intentional fragments do.
In the bottom fragment, things are more tricky. Though and although are basically interchangeable (although is usually considered more formal), which means both words can be used to begin a dependent clause, which would then be attached to an independent clause. In this case, however, there is no independent clause, and an unintentional fragment is the result.
Of course, in this case, a writer could use some artistic license. For example, in this explanation from Stack Exchange, “A writer might take liberties and use though as… a subordinate clause separated from its main clause by a period… for effect, especially with a long main clause and an impactful subordinate clause.” And then Stack Exchange provides this example: Every morning from then on she would set out from her cabin at dawn to wander through the forest, enjoying the smell of pine and the sweet relief of solitude. Though she never completely forgot Ted.
As for impact, Though she never completely forgot Ted certainly is more compelling than Though media watchers remain skeptical that Facebook is really committed to helping sustain the news industry. Furthermore, I believe the impact derives from the shorter length of the clause. Simply put, six words provides more impact and rhythm and variety than sixteen.
So who cares?
Well, as an English teacher, many kids unknowingly write unintentional sentence fragments. All the time.
Who could blame them? When what they read out in the real world contains poor grammar, it plants the seeds of poor grammar in their own writing.
And yes, the 24/7 news cycle isn’t helping either. When stories are churned out every few hours or so, being timely — and not quality-oriented — receives the emphasis. So, it’s understandable what might be causing these writing issues.
Still, the Associated Press needs to improve its proofreading. When missing words and sentence fragments are allowed to creep into its stories, it causes me to doubt the credibility of its reporters’ sources, the quoted material they use, their claims to unbiased reporting, and other aspects of quality journalistic writing.
Thanks for reading again this week! I just noticed this confusion and thought I would try to make sense of it in the context of teaching grammar. I also suppose that this could be turned into a mini-lesson on fragments, specifically the confusion that exists in using although and though.
Feel free to leave a comment — especially if I’ve been unclear or am mistaken — and follow my blog for more posts about teaching high school ELA.