“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.

 

Here’s the Poem that Won a National Silver Key Award

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I’ve posted the poem below that one of my eighth-grade students wrote, which won Gold and Silver Key Awards, respectively, at the regional and national levels of the 2018 Scholastic Art and Writing Awards. Read yesterday’s post here to find out more about the contest, such as guidelines, tips, and how to enter. Hint: it’s more involved than other contests.

Colors by Brooke S.

“Claire, what’s your favorite color?”

“Pink.”

“Why?”

 

Because it reminds me of when I was little.

When I was happy.

“It’s just pretty.”

 

“What’s your least favorite color?”

 

The color of the containers prescription pills come in.

“Yellow-orange.”

 

“Why?”

 

Because it symbolizes dying and death.

Because it’s the color of weakness and vulnerability.

Because I see it all the time.

Because I never wanted him to need

Those

Stupid

Pills.

“I’m not sure.”

 

 

Contest #6 That Works for My Students: Scholastic Art & Writing Awards

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Brooke and I show our “heavy medals” in May. Certificates and medals won at the national level are awarded to both the student winner and their teacher. Nice!

One of my goals during the 2017-18 school year was to finally enter a student’s work in the Scholastic Art & Writing Awards. And right before Christmas break, two of my students entered poetry.

Brooke S. entered four poems, Ally W. entered two. Brooke earned a Gold Key Award at the regional level, sponsored by the Greater Kansas City Writing Project with her poem entitled “Colors,” which then advanced to the national level. In March, we learned that she had won a Silver Key Award at nationals. This was such a thrill!

Despite the fact that she had really wanted to earn a Gold Key at nationals (because then she would have attended the award ceremony at Carnegie Hall in New York City!); she was excited with her national prize.  After all, more than 350,000 entries were submitted nationally; only 3,259 were awarded national prizes! This places her poem in the top one percent (less than that, actually) of all entered!

By the way, Ally’s poetry did not qualify for a regional prize, but knowing that I believed her work to be of the quality needed for Scholastic hopefully awarded her with more confidence in her work.

The Scholastic Art & Writing Awards is arguably one of the most prestigious contests for young writers in the country. It’s definitely the longest-running contest of its caliber. I found out about this contest when I attended a regional writing conference during February 2016. I went to the regional awards ceremony during the conference and as student after student received awards, I thought, There is absolutely no reason I don’t have a student being recognized.

So during the next school year, I kept the contest in mind. However, it does have an early January entry deadline and because I didn’t begin the school year the previous August with the contest front and center in my mind, I lost track and simply didn’t get entries submitted. My bad.

So during the following year (this most recent, 2017-18), I picked up a promotional poster at a conference in the fall and began promoting the contest more with my students. I decided that our goal for entering would be before Christmas break. So, in December, I had Brooke enter her work, and then a week or two later, asked her to show Ally how to enter.

Who should enter:

  1. Students in grades 7-12.
  2. The student who especially finds joy or satisfaction or “release” in writing and even writes during their “off” time.
  3. The student who doesn’t recognize the value of their personal story and who writes those poems or stories that, even with grammar issues and revision needs, contain an idea or a story so arresting you are compelled you to sit down and just let the words wash over you.
  4. The student with the experiences that often go “untold.” Based on many of the winning entries I have read, Scholastic judges are seeking to promote writing from all students, not just the star writers. Judges want to promote stories about difficult circumstances, which often go untold.

How to be ready to enter:

  • Have students start saving work for entering in the contest as soon as school starts in August. Before school ended in May, I collected paper copies of some flash fiction my seventh-graders wrote during the last week of school. (The stories are also in their Google Drive accounts, but I kept hard copies… just in case.)
  • Don’t lose student writing! I have a file cabinet that students can use to keep hard copies of their work. If it’s important, it doesn’t leave the room, but stays in the cabinet (and therefore can’t “disappear” in the Google cloud).
  • Consider picking a category to focus on. Since there are several categories, it might be easier to manage and plan lessons (and for students to wrap their heads around) if there is a genre already selected. For example, I’ve already told my students that “flash fiction” will be our “focus category” for the 2018-19 contest.
    • Here are the categories:  Critical essay, dramatic script, flash fiction, humor, journalism, novel writing, personal essay and memoir, poetry, science fiction & fantasy, short story, plus a portfolio category for seniors only.
  • Know that any writing from 2018 may be entered into the 2018-19 contest.
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Brooke and I at the Write To Learn Conference in February, where she received her Gold Key Award from the Missouri Writing Region Awards. This qualified her for the national award level, where she won a Silver Key Award.

How to enter:

  • First, don’t put off entering. Go to www.artandwriting.org.  Click “How to Enter” in the upper left-hand corner. There is a process and it might look confusing at first sight. All the instructions are right there if you read carefully. Call or email your regional writing project chair, whose contact info will be provided, with questions.
  • To enter, students login, create an account, upload their work, pay fees, and include their teacher’s contact information, so you as their teacher, will be kept in the “loop” on their entries.
  • When your student enters, they will also be prompted to locate their regional writing project. This will include their work in the regional contest first.
  • About those fees… there is a $5 fee per entry uploaded. (Four poems can be entered for the $5 fee.) If your student receives free or reduced lunch, the fee is waived. You’ll just print out a form that verifies their status.
  • Students enter online, but must later mail in their fees or the fee waiver form.
  • For your first student who enters, consider having them enter on a computer in front of you so you can see what the process looks like. Teachers receive an email confirmation when an entry is received by Scholastic from one of their students.
  • Regional awards are announced in February after the January deadline. Teachers will receive an email if they have a winning student.
  • National awards are announced in March.
  • Here’s the link to the general entry guidelines.

Prizes:

At the regional level, students who won honorable mentions, silver, and gold keys are awarded pins and certificates. They also receive a journal and a copy of the Best of Teen Writing. At the national level, students receive a larger medal (it’s heavy!) and a certificate. Gold Key Award winners also receive an invitation to attend the award ceremony at Carnegie Hall in New York City.

Put Scholastic Art & Writing Awards on your list of contests to investigate for school next year. Promote it to your students as the “creme de la creme” contest that everyone has a shot at. Follow “artandwriting” on your class Instagram, (here’s a post about mine) so students see it often. Then, keep an eye out for those pieces of student writing that make you set down your cup of coffee and re-read. You know the ones.


I quickly wrote this post, so if I think of more details or notes to add, I’ll update it. Please follow this blog to be aware of those changes. If you know of any great contests to enter, please comment! Writing contests for students are quickly becoming my specialty and  I’m interested in learning all I can so I can share it with you.

Gold stars for everyone!

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Time to reflect on the first year of my 7th-grade PBL project

Year one is down! During the 2017-18 academic school year, my seventh-grade language arts classes started a project in partnership with the White River Valley Historical Society, a local organization in Forsyth, Mo., that preserves, promotes, and protects the cultural heritage of southern Missouri and northern Arkansas. Read other posts about this project here.

The project was to rejuvenate a children’s newsletter called Whippersnappers that the society had published previously for a few years, but later abandoned when its primary contributor, a volunteer student, grew older. Over the course of a few conversations last summer with the society’s director, it was decided that my seventh-grade students could contribute the content. Here’s the front page of our second issue:

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Somehow I got home for summer without the latest issue! I’ll add it to this post later.

To produce each issue, my classes thought up story ideas for the newsletter, wrote their stories, and shared in the writing process as they researched and revised their work for publication by the WRVHS. In October, our first issue was distributed. Just before Christmas break, our December/January issue was released. In March, the February/March issue came out, and the final issue of the year was released the day before school let out for the summer.

It was a whirlwind year, full of experimentation and unpredictability. I’ve listed below, in no particular order, some positives from the experience, but will probably think of more as the summer progresses. As I think of other positives, I’ll edit them into this post, so follow this blog to be aware of updates.

  1. Students were able to choose their own story topics; they had agency over the content. For the first couple of issues, we brainstormed ideas on the whiteboard. More than enough ideas were gained from these brainstorms that those first two brainstorming sessions created a topic list from which students could choose for the remaining two issues.
  2. Students had to consider their audience. The readers of the Whippersnappers newsletter are kids ages five to fourteen, which is quite a span. Writers had to decide exactly who, within that age range, their particular story appealed to, and keep those readers in mind with regard to word choice.
  3. Students were required to consider the criteria of the publisher. Stories had to contain a local or regional history angle. If that focus was missing from a story, students needed to figure out how to include them before their stories could be submitted to the publisher.
  4. It was satisfying for the students to see their name in print. (Due to privacy, students’ first names and last initial were used for their bylines.) In addition, seeing where in the issue their article was placed was important to them. They liked being on page one; however, when their story was placed last in the issue, we discussed the reasons publishers might have for doing this, such as space limitations.
  5. Students knew they had an authentic audience that would be reading their work; I was not the final audience. They knew that people in the community would be receiving these in their mail and that made their work more accountable.
  6. Field trips were fun! We took two, one to the WRVHS main office in Forsyth, Mo. and their newer museum in downtown Branson. This allowed them to see up close the work of the WRVHS and to hold some historical artifacts, as well as see the society’s archives and files.
  7. They learned by trial-and-error that sentence variety takes on new meaning with a publication. After our second issue was published, we held a “wrap-up” discussion and noticed that about half started with the question, “Did you know that…?” Seeing the over-reliance on this common introductory technique showed them the need to work harder at varying their leads. It also showed the importance of previewing the issue as a whole.

I’m glad there are only a few negatives to reflect upon. I would like to tackle these for the next 2018-19 school year:

  1. Research was limited. Students used an online database of the society’s quarterly magazine almost exclusively. This database, however, only had searchable issues through 1997, due to a grant partnership with a local library system. Students would reference information found in these magazines with standard attribution and speaker tags. The benefits of this was that students could safely and easily research their topic. However, using this one form of research was limiting. It would have been great to vary our research with interviews or in-person contact with researchers at the WRVHS, for example. Next year, I would like to address this issue. Another hurdle is that my students do not have email addresses, so that limits how they can contact sources. The WRVHS director suggested a private Facebook group where the students could post questions to anonymous research volunteers at the WRVHS. This might be an alternative.
  2. Classroom management was challenging. During those first few days of researching and writing, as students were grappling with their topics and how to begin, classroom management was difficult. Some students could work independently, which was a great help. Most students needed my help from time to time and if I was busy working with another student, they would just stop working and wait on me. Eventually, they would begin to distract others. And then a few students need constant help and/or redirection. It’s was very hard to find the balance needed to make progress. There were a few days when I thought, “Why did I ever think this would work?” Those were the days I wanted to break out our textbooks and do a simple read-and-response assignment.
  3. I need more defined deadlines. Kids need to see results. Quickly. Stories for our first issue were sent out and about a week later, the issue was published and delivered. The other issues did not follow such a tight schedule, and I wished they had. When kids don’t know when the issue will print, they lose interest and excitement ebbs. So for next year, I’d like to set up a schedule to see if we can have solid dates for 1) delivering the stories to the publisher’s offices, and 2) receiving published newsletters back at school. If the students know that on Friday, Sept. 2, for example, we are sending out finished stories with no exceptions for last-minute edits or revisions, perhaps we will later see more predictable publishing dates.

All in all, I think this first year was a success and I want to try it again next year. The students seemed to value the experience and see importance in it.

What curriculum did I have to alter or remove in order to fit Whippersnappers into my year-long plans? I moved a novel unit to spring and just planned more tightly so everything could get accomplished. Seventh-graders still entered all the contests they normally do and they still completed their Writers Workshop project list. They became accustomed to having several projects in-process simultaneously. After all, I told them, that’s how real writers work.


Thank you for reading! Feel free to comment away to share your own PBL ideas for your ELA middle schoolers! One more thing: I am totally open to suggestions for how to address any of my “negatives” above. If you’ve done anything like this before, please share your secrets for classroom management, student research, etc. Let’s learn from each other!

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!

Dear DailyMail.com: Tom Cruise has never won an Academy Award.

Your fact-checkers and my students should take note; teachers like me over 50 should take heart.

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Photo: Eva Rinaldi; ©2017; https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/legalcode

This post is based on a story I recently wrote and posted on Medium.com. When I read something that I know is false, I take notice of it. This DailyMail.com article shows kids that not everything they read is true and that fact-checking is an important part of the writing process.

According to this Feb. 10 article in the DailyMail.com, Tom Cruise is an Academy Award winner.

This is false.

Yes, he has been nominated three times: Best Supporting Actor for Magnolia (2000); Best Actor for Jerry Maguire (1997); and Best Actor for Born on the Fourth of July (1990). However, Cruise has actually never clinched an Oscar.

I don’t feel sorry for him. Oh, no. After all, he’s a Scientologist on the bridge to total freedom or something like that.

But Cruise’s as yet elusive Oscar does make me feel vindicated… as in I’m not the only adult over 50 who still has goals to achieve. Just as I still have that book to write, Cruise still has that golden statuette to grab. Go us.


Click “like” if you enjoyed this post and feel free to leave a comment. Read more of my stories on Medium.com, where some are related to teaching, but most aren’t.

Welcome to My World: Boil Order at a Middle School

Ten things that happen when the water main breaks

 

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Photo by Malvestida Magazine on Unsplash

 

  1. Over the weekend, the local water protection district issues a “boil order” and ships pallets of water bottle cases to be stacked next to the water fountains on Monday morning. In any place other than a middle school, this would be a good thing.
  2. Construction paper signs are taped to fountains and faucets warning students not to drink the water. Here… have a seemingly unlimited supply of water bottles instead.
  3. Students drink two to three times as much as they usually do simply because they have water bottles. Man, water is delicious!
  4. Students make two to three times as many trips to the bathroom as they usually do simply because they have water bottles. Yes, go, just go.
  5. The fun wears off, so ingenious students use pens to punch holes in the lids of full water bottles. Squirt guns! Broken pens! (Does this count as a STEM activity?)
  6. The request to leave class to get a drink no longer applies because you, dear student, have a seemingly unlimited supply of water bottles instead. Please stay in the room and drink two to three times what you normally would.
  7. Drops of water appear on desks, turning typed words into illegible gray clouds. Look! There on the desk. It’s an essay! It’s an art project!
  8. Armloads of water bottles are tossed into the trash. Many are mostly full. So much for going green.
  9. Teachers exhibit great patience when students empty those water bottles and then squeeze them repeatedly. Here’s the sound those bottles make: crinkle-crackle- crinkle-crackle-crinkle-crackle-crinkle-crackle-crinkle-crackle. If teachers calmly wait for the sound effect to end (because this has been happening all day), it just might… but usually it doesn’t. Throw it away. Now.
  10. Tuesday morning feels like it should be Friday afternoon… for the teachers, anyway. This is gonna be one L-O-N-G week.

    Thanks for reading! Click “like” if you enjoyed this post. Feel free to leave a comment about your own middle school mayhem. Follow my blog for more posts about teaching middle school ELA, including writing contests and the unique PBL project my seventh-graders are engaged in with a local historical society.