Ditch the Dictionary

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Photo by Skitterphoto from Pexels

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:

One way teachers can build a word-rich environment in the classroom is by spotlighting a weekly vocabulary word. Use my vocabulary Power Word of the Week to ensure vocabulary instruction occurs daily in your classroom!
This is one of the Power Word of the Week slides provided by the Vocab Gal at Sadlier.

Activity 1:

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.

Activity 2:

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.

Activity 3:

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.
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This is an example of the Create-an-App activity that explores the word “cantilever.” I show this students when we do it the first time. This example is more elaborate than what students create during these bell-work activities, since we have only five to ten minutes to complete the activity.

The Create-An-App idea is one I borrowed from retired writing teacher Corbett Harrison of Writing Fix and the Nevada Writing Project. Visit Harrison’s comprehensive website for a treasure trove of lessons and resources.

Here are two examples of the Create-an-App activity completed as bell-work:

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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.

Activity 4:

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:

Canadian geese

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.

 

When bad grammar creeps into the Associated Press

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Photo by Dmitry Ratushny on Unsplash

What’s an English teacher to do?

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.

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This screenshot of an Associated Press article contains two sentence fragments.

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.

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The lead of the story that contained the two unintentional sentence fragments.

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. 

 

 

New poetry contest: Chisholm Trail Heritage Center Cowboy Youth Poetry Contest

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Photo by Roland Kay-Smith on Unsplash

Plus: past winning poems to use as mentor texts

Do you have any students who live on farms or ranches, own livestock, or love rodeos? If so, bookmark this post about a new poetry contest designed to celebrate the spirit of ranching life and the American West: the Chisholm Trail Heritage Center’s Cowboy Youth Poetry Contest.

The Chisholm Trail Heritage Center in Duncan, Okla. is sponsoring this contest this fall for the second year. Click here for more information about the contest, but take note:

…the postmark deadline is approaching: Nov. 1, 2019.

The Chisholm Trail Heritage Center’s mission is “To celebrate and perpetuate the history, art and culture of the Chisholm Trail, the American Cowboy and the American West.” According to ChisholmTrail150.org, in 2017, the Chisholm Trail celebrated 150 years since the first cattle were herded to Abilene, Ks. from south Texas. The trail was originally needed to bring cattle from the south through the Indian territories of Oklahoma to Abilene.

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Photo: ChisholmTrail150.org

Last week, I contacted Toni Hopper, communications and exhibits director of the Chisholm Trail Heritage Center, to request the winning entries found at the end of this post.

In an email, Hopper told me that this year there are several more categories for students to enter. In 2018, the top five poems entered from all ages were awarded prizes. However, this year, there are five prizes per grade level. The levels are Pre-K to 2nd grade; 3rd-5th grades; 6th-8th grades; and 9th-12th grades. First place in each grade category wins $100; second place, $75; third place, $50; fourth place, $25; and fifth place, $10.

The following bulleted guidelines for the 2019 contest are found at this website. Please consult this site directly for more information. Also double-check for changes that may occur after the publishing of this post.

Students must write and submit a cowboy poem – it must be their own original work. Contest is open to all grade levels – Pre-K through 12th grade, and home-school students.

  • Poems must be about the cowboy way of life – ranch life, cowboys, cowgirls, livestock, rodeo, anything that is directly related. For example, a student may want to write about pets – the barn cat, the dog who herds the cattle, or the environment – riding a horse in the hot summer.
  • Poems must be a minimum of eight lines, and a maximum of two pages.
  • Poems can be handwritten or typed and must be the original work of the student.
  • Only one entry per student.
  • Poems written in a language other than English must have a translation attached.
  • Poems are judged on creativity, originality, language, appropriateness of content (theme).

According to the website, all entrants will receive a certificate of achievement from the Chisholm Trail Heritage Center. Winning entries, along with the student’s name and school, will be published on the Heritage Center’s website. A panel of experienced judges will determine the winners.

I have one student with a poem that is Old West-themed, which he is preparing to enter. Who knows how it will fare? However, the contest provides a little extra motivation to continue revising the poem.

Here are three past winning entries from the inaugural 2018 contest:

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Above is a winning entry from the 2018 contest. Here’s another one below:
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And finally, there’s one more below:
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For this post, I included poems that–as far as I could tell–were written by older students. 

Although the poems above are rather traditional in their presentation, know that younger students have accompanied their poems with drawings and creative handwriting. Consult this site for those guidelines.

The group also has a Facebook page at this link. You can stay more up-to-date by referring to it as the contest approaches.

Here’s a photo of the official entry form and rules:

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Make sure your students know that they have quite a bit of choice when they sit down to write their poems. As long as their poems address “Ranch life, cowboys, cowgirls, livestock, rodeo, anything that is directly related,” according to the contest guidelines, they’re good to saddle up and enter this contest!


Thanks for reading again this week! It’s been a while since I’ve posted a new contest. Contests can build more motivation for students in your classroom and can get their work out into the real world before a real audience. They are often hard to find… especially ones like this that are open to all grade levels. Let me know if you have any questions or need more info on this contest by leaving a comment. And, by all means, feel free to contact the organization directly for changes, updates, or clarifications that might be made without my knowledge. 

Mini-lesson idea: use this compelling lead sentence example as a mentor text

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A lead shouldn’t ask a question, but raise one instead

I discovered this awesome lead sentence in the July 8-21 issue of New York magazine. The article, “The Battle of Grace Church,” is written by Jessica Pressler, who opens her story with this doozy of a lead sentence.

This sentence shows precisely how engaging a lead can be when it begs a question from the reader.

Here’s the sentence: “When you buy a home in Brooklyn Heights, you aren’t just purchasing real estate.” This sentence begs the reader to ask…

If I’m not purchasing real estate, then exactly what am I buying?

Notice the writer did not ask a question; rather, she raised one… within the mind of the reader, that is. That’s an important distinction.

The “Ask a question” lead is a tired trope. After all, people are reading to get answers, not questions.

However, a lead that raises a question is a different matter entirely. And Pressler’s writing reveals this technique.

But how exactly does one raise a question?

First, I would suggest having students emulate the structure of Pressler’s sentence. Have students write a complex sentence that starts with  When you…. Of course, you may need to show them how to finish that dependent clause, and then follow it with a comma and an independent clause.

Showing this sentence to my students, discussing what we notice about it, and then imitating it will make for a quick and effective mini-lesson prior to writer’s studio time in my high school English classes.

The key take-away for my students:

Don’t ask a question in your lead… raise one instead.


Helping students find the best way to open an essay–whether it’s an argument, an informative, or even a narrative–is hard.  When I see something in print out there in the real world that may help provide you a mentor text for a mini-lesson, I’ll be posting it.

 

 

Headline poetry for high school students

Abi B., junior

Watch older students create stunning expressions from everyday language

This year, for the first three days of school, I again indulged in headline poetry with my students. It was a new activity for my new high school students and I was glad for that. (I’ve introduced headline poetry to middle schoolers in the past. Click here and here for two posts on that.)

To start the activity,  I simply held up and read aloud a few laminated poems created by former students. After reading, I asked, “What did you notice?” Students tended to mention the unusual word choices, strange phrasing, unexpected metaphors, and other observations. They also mentioned the poems’ originality and freshness.

I also read this excerpt of a poem written by award-winning poet Naomi Shihab Nye. The poem is called “A Valentine for Ernest Mann.” Here’s the excerpt:

So I’ll tell a secret instead:
poems hide. In the bottoms of our shoes,
they are sleeping. They are the shadows
drifting across our ceilings the moment 
before we wake up. What we have to do
is live in a way that lets us find them.

-excerpt from “Valentine for Ernest Mann” by Naomi Shihab Nye (1952)

Seth C., junior

I read this poem excerpt to illustrate how headline poetry (and found poetry in general) is built on the notion that poetry is hiding all around us in the language we find in our everyday lives. Signs, posters, bumper stickers, magazines, mail… these provide the words that can create powerful poems.

Headline poetry means kids are moving around, cutting, gluing, talking, and sometimes pausing to read an article or two here and there.
Ella  D., junior

Many students visited while they cut out words, and that was fine with me. On the other hand, many other students worked quietly… especially as they entered the arranging phase where they sorted words, and then positioned twenty to thirty of them into intriguing lines and phrases to create stunning experiments in language.

Since I asked students to make sure their poem was “about” something (it’s not just random words), many students spent a lot of time thinking about the words they had selected. I asked them to take it slow, and allow a theme to surface as they arranged and rearranged their cut-outs into a poem of at least ten lines.

Angelina C., junior

And then some students were impatient or just didn’t seem to think anything meaningful could come from this form of writing. However, as they continued to work, they usually discovered a theme emerging.

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Here are some signs I post around the room when we work on headline poetry.

Overall, it was again the perfect activity for reluctant writers and enthusiastic ones alike to kick off the year.

Here are the steps we took to create our back-to-school headline poems:

  1. Get an envelope and put your name on it. Keep your cuttings in it.
  2. Select some newspapers and magazines, leaf through them, and cut out interesting words and phrases from headlines. It is best to collect somewhere between 75 and 100 words and phrases from different sections of newspapers and magazines to gather a range of vocabulary, as well as selections of nouns, verbs, adjectives, and adverbs.
  3. Scatter the words and phrases on a table and look for themes, synonyms, rhyming words, etc.
  4. Arrange and rearrange the words and phrases on a page and read them aloud to check for fluency and impression. Because there is a visual quality to headline poetry, the placement of text can contribute to the presentation of ideas and meaning.
  5. Create a poem that consists of at least ten lines.
  6. Yes, you may create one word with individual letters, but remember: this is a form of found poetry.
  7. When the desired order and placement of text is achieved, glue the words onto a blank sheet of construction paper.
  8. Reflect. When you are totally finished with your poem, write a paragraph to explain the impetus for your poem. What ideas did you decide you were trying to convey with it? How did you choose this theme/subject matter/topic? Did you change your mind as you worked? What words or phrases especially helped you shape the meaning of your poem?
I asked students to choose their favorite poem in each class by putting  a check mark on a sticky note attached to the poems. The three poems with the most votes were posted in the hallway.

Try these bonus tips to get even more out of this activity:

  • Use as many different types of magazines as possible. Collect a wide selection that might include Vogue, Motor Trend, Better Homes and Gardens, Wired, Forbes, People, Elle, Architectural Digest, and Gourmet. A variety of subject matter will yield a better mix of words.
  • Provide 11- x 17-inch paper. Bigger paper allows more freedom with layout.
  • You will likely have a student ask if a line can be made with one word. Take the opportunity to talk with your student about why he thinks the word will be more powerful on its own. If allowing that word to stand on its own adds to the meaning of the poem, fine. If he’s just trying to race through the project, then nope.
Sam F., junior

Two more tips:

  • Encourage students to play with the layout. The examples here show poems that occupied the entire sheet of paper. I did have one student who arrange dtheir poem in one corner of the page. I found that one particularly striking. You can see it on the far right in the picture below.
  • Invariably, a student will ask if they can create a word out of individual letters. I allow kids to do that once; however, it does defeat the spontaneous nature of headline poetry, which is a form of found poetry. It’s not really found poetry if you can make any word you want, right?!

If you haven’t tried headline poetry yet, make a note on your calendar to try it soon. It’s a non-intimidating way to jump into writing, and for many students, that’s a definite necessity. Use this handout from NCTE for more guidance and resources.


Thanks for reading again this week! I meant to post this sooner (as in right after we created these poems), but the year took off and I’m only getting to it now. Leave a note or comment about your experiences with headline poetry. What could I be doing differently or better? Got any other ideas? Click like if you enjoyed this post and follow my blog to stay in touch. 

The stories the artifacts tell: my new 9/11 lesson plan

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Artifacts connect the 9/11 attacks to the loss of innocent human life

I believe in teaching students about the September 11th terrorist attacks. It seems that up until a few years ago, students had an intrinsic desire to understand it better. Still, it seems that their desire to learn about 9/11 is waning, especially among high school students.

My current juniors and seniors were born in 2001 and 2002, and they tell me they have “been taught” about Sept. 11 every year for as long as they can remember. As a result, they feel they know all they need to know about this world-changing event.

But they don’t.

Yes, they’ve watched movies and documentaries galore that show (yet again) the airplanes crashing into the towers. They’ve seen photographs of Ground Zero. They know about Afghanistan.

But they may not know about…

  • a pair of shoes found in the rubble
  • a charred jewelry box found buildings away in a bank vault
  • a crumpled wallet

Simply put, students haven’t heard the stories the artifacts tell.

In 2018, I discovered a few sources for photographs of artifacts from Ground Zero. One of these websites was the 9/11 Memorial & Museum. Click here to go to the museum’s Memo Blog where you can search for artifacts.

By the way, here’s an idea that sparked as I searched online to write this post. Another effective way to connect the tragedy to the loss of life might be to focus on the missing persons signs that family members and friends posted around the city in the days immediately following the attack. Here’s a source for missing persons posters from New York magazine.

Other sources included commemorative articles about the attacks in New York magazine and The New York Times. Last year, when I discovered these artifacts, I planned on using them in a new activity; however, that never transpired. I kept the artifacts photos, however, since I knew I could use them in the future whenever I figured out what I wanted to do with them in a learning unit. Besides that, color printing is so costly that I didn’t want to waste them.

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My first-hour juniors work in the lab on their poems and one-word summaries.

This year, I finally was able to incorporate the photos into a four-day unit on 9/11 that I hoped would teach students about the tragedy beyond dates, place names, and facts. I hoped to show students a more personal side of the tragedy. That is, after all, what makes the attacks so devastating. Beyond the ferocity and horror of the crashing towers —and the Pentagon and Flight 93— was the shocking comprehension of the violent loss of nearly 3,000 innocent lives.

I feel that young people fail to grasp the human factor in the attacks… through no fault of their own.

So with that in mind, I created this lesson plan and activity that’s intended to help students see 9/11 in a new light.

Here’s a rundown of my new 9/11 Artifact Project.

First, before I ever even said the word “artifact,”  I assigned a 9/11-themed Article of the Week assignment. AOWs are weekly assignments that my students receive every Tuesday; they’re due the following Tuesday. These assignments are considered homework and are fashioned after AOW assignments created by Kelly Gallagher.

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This 9/11 AOW featured a 2016 USA Today article entitled “Fifteen Years Later: The Questions that Remain in Our Minds…15 Years After 9/11.” Even though this article is three years old, it’s the best one I’ve found for containing a wealth of information in a concise length. In the assignment, students read the article and then annotate it with their own  thoughts and observations. Students then respond to the writing prompt that asks them to reflect on and explain what they learned from reading the article.

Based on our discussions after reading aloud the article, it seemed that most, if not all,  students learned from this AOW. Most students had no previous knowledge about the 1993 truck bombing attempt. Some were unaware of Flight 93, which was eventually crashed by the passengers into a field in Shanksville, Pa. None had heard of the bombings and attacks that preceded the World Trade Center attacks, such as the USS Cole attack in 2000, and the 1998 attacks on the U.S. Embassies in Kenya and Tanzania.

This AOW assignment was turned in the day we started the 9/11 Artifact Project, so students would have the article’s information in the back of their minds as they began to delve deeper into the project.

After turning in their AOW assignment, I asked students to pick up a photo of an artifact from a table where I had scattered 25 photos. The artifacts included keys, shoes, firefighter helmets, jewelry, mangled pieces of metal from one of the airplanes, and other objects. I didn’t tell students where the images were from, but they quickly deduced that since it was September 10, that the images must have something to do with the terror attacks that would be commemorated the next day.

After picking up their image, I asked students to simply write a paragraph to describe the object. They could describe the artifact, discuss who might have owned it, and what it might have symbolized to its owner. Here’s one of those paragraphs:

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A student’s paragraph describing the artifact, work gloves, they had chosen from the table.

After we wrote these low-stakes paragraphs, I passed out some reading material. I read aloud the Author’s Note to the incredible book 102 Minutes by Kevin Flynn and Mark Dwyer.

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This book contains the stories of 367 people who survived the destruction of the towers. It contains eye-witness accounts of exactly what unfolded during the 102 minutes that transpired between the strike and the collapse of the north tower.

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My own photo from a trip to NYC in 1997.

After reading the Author’s Note, I asked students to get into groups of four. In their groups, they read either the first half or the second half of the Prologue. They could read their pages however they wished: one student could read the entire excerpt, students could take turns… it was their choice how they could complete it. They each had their own copy of the text so they could annotate it as they read. I also passed out sticky notes and asked them to write down three to four new words from the reading (students are now using one of the words in a literary analysis assignment that began the next week).

What came next? A one-word summary of the excerpt. I asked students to choose one word to summarize their excerpt and then write a paragraph  defending their choice of that word.  The only requirement was that the summary include evidence from the text followed by a sentence or two of interpretation. Students wrote these summaries by hand on notebook paper in the classroom; they typed them on computers later in the week in the computer lab.

After students had finished their one-word summaries, we took a break from reading and writing and instead did a quick speaking and listening activity. I passed out to students slips of paper that contained descriptions of their respective artifacts. Some of the descriptions were lengthy; some were just a sentence or so.

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One by one, we went around the room and each student walked to the document camera, projected their artifact onto the screen, and then read their description to the class. Everything from office keys, to crumpled police car hoods, to shoes were shown.

Here are some of those artifacts along with descriptions:

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With this project, I thought it would be interesting to experiment with linking different genres, so I asked students to bear with me and try something new. Here’s what I asked them to do: take the word that they chose to summarize the 102 Minutes Prologue and use that word to create an acrostic poem about their 9/11 artifact. The poem would also include the quote or a phrase from the quote they used as evidence in their summary.

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Using a word from the text to dictate the direction of the poem would, I hoped, provide a clear link between the disaster and a specific person involved in the attacks in some way, whether they were a World Trade Center worker or an emergency responder.

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Since my goal was to link the atrocity to a single human life, I thought connecting the 102 Minutes text to a personal artifact would be a valuable task. 

It seemed somewhat strange to students at first to make their word from the text be the centerpiece of their poem, but once they had the idea firmly in their minds, they seemed to see the connection to being made.

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I also provided them my own example of a poem and a summary for them to reference, which I showed via the document camera. Here’s the instruction sheet I made and then my example poem and summary on the back side:

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In reflection, I think my first “go” at this activity was successful. When we finished, I assembled all the materials and put them into a three-ring binder for safe-keeping for next year. I placed each artifact photo and its description into its own plastic page protector so they wouldn’t get lost in the shuffle, as well as samples from students to use as mentor texts for next year.

Here are a few samples from students:

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As for receiving feedback from students regarding this project… I did give each student a three question half-sheet for them to fill out at the conclusion of the project.  I gained a few ideas for how to improve the project for next time, such as…

  • Allow more time for the project.
  • Do either the poem only or the one-word summary only. It became confusing for some.
  • Slow the speed of the lesson down. (And I’ll admit, on new activities, it seems I never allot enough time.)
  • Possibly add a video to the project. In my previous position, my eighth-graders watched the New York: The Documentary at the conclusion of a unit on the attacks. Because my students at my new school had told me they were studying 9/11 in their history and/or government classes, I opted not to watch one this year. Perhaps next.

In addition, most students responded that they now know more about 9/11 than they did previously. And sure, a few don’t think that they gained any new knowledge about the attacks.  Here are a few responses I received back from my half-sheet lesson evaluation.

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By the way, my students really put a lot of thought into these little evaluation half-sheets. I was so surprised that they didn’t just rush through them or put “idk”  in the blanks. They really took their time and I’m thankful for that.

To sum it up, I will definitely do this project again with my students next year. I think my first attempt at it was successful based on the connections my students made between the text, which resulted in a product that combined non-fiction summary writing with poetry.

Sure, there are some modifications to be made, but that’s a given with any lesson plan… new or tried-and-true.

Perhaps most importantly, I believe putting the human element into the story of 9/11 captures students’ attention. Viewing a crumpled and nearly destroyed employee i.d. card adds a visceral element to the sterile facts, dates, and statistics that can all too often dominate a textbook study of a historical event.

If, in the end, that’s all this lesson plan accomplished, I’m fine with that.

Standards Alignment
This four-day unit instructed in the following Missouri Learning Standards:
Reading Informational Text 1D: Explain two or more central/main ideas in a text, analyze their development throughout the text, and relate the central ideas to human nature and the world; provide an objective and concise summary of the text; 
Reading Informational Text 3D: Synthesize information from two or more texts about similar ideas/topics to articulate the complexity of the issue.
Writing 2A: Follow a writing process to produce clear and coherent writing in which the development, organization, style, and voice are appropriate to the task, purpose, and audience; self-select and blend (when appropriate) previously learned narrative, expository, and argumentative writing techniques. 
Writing 3A: c. Conventions of standard English and usage: Demonstrate a command of the conventions of standard English grammar and usage, including spelling and punctuation; d. Use a variety of appropriate transitions to clarify relationships, connect ideas and claims, and signal time shifts; e. Use technology, including the Internet, to produce, publish, and update individual or shared writing products in response to ongoing feedback, including new arguments or information.
Speaking and Listening 2A: Speak audibly and to the point, using conventions of language as appropriate to task, purpose, and audience when presenting including
fluent and clear articulation, strategically varying volume, pitch, and pace to consistently engage listeners.

Thanks for reading again this week! Since this is the first time I’ve done this activity with students, I know there are so many ways to improve on this lesson plan for next year. Between my notes in this post, my three-ring binder full of materials, and your feedback and ideas, I can no doubt improve upon it for next time. Feel free to leave and comment, and then follow my blog to keep in touch.

How to cure the “I don’t have anything to write about” blues

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Students having trouble choosing a memory for a memoir? Have them make a map.

A few weeks ago, my junior and senior students wrote memoirs… creative personal narratives about an important memory that taught them an important truth about life, growing up, or the world in general.

In the past I’ve always passed out an idea sheet to help students gather ideas for their memoirs. It contains about thirty questions that are intended to spur memories or at least interesting stories. That sheet is beneficial, but this year I wanted to try something new: map-making.

I read about map-making in Writing Life Stories, a book by author and writing coach Bill Roorbach. In his book, he recounts how he has his own students draw maps of special places in their childhoods: their house, a neighborhood, a farm, a grandparents’ house.

Roorbach suggested to his students to draw as detailed as a map as they could. He asked them to include the hiding places, the forbidden zones, and the favorite spots of their location. The point: to jog their memory about a forgotten incident… a long ago discarded recollection of a particularly scary game of tag, for example. Or maybe a memory with a grandparent they had nearly let go of.

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Drawing a location will naturally help one remember, says Roorbach. He suggests putting as much detail as possible into their maps. For example,

  • Don’t forget the propane tank behind the oak tree.
  • The dog bowl under the porch.
  • The soybean field.
  • The clothesline.
  • The garden gnome at the end of the iris patch that you tripped over one time.

My students took about one or two 56-minute class periods to draw their maps. Some finished much more quickly than others and once they landed on a memory, they could start writing. Here are some of the maps (or some detail shots) that my juniors and seniors drew:

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Here’s my own example map that I showed students before they started their own. This is my maternal grandparents’ farm in rural southwest Missouri.

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This is my maternal grandparents’ farm near Hume, Mo. I drew in as much as I could… even where I watched a possum play possum one afternoon from the “davenport” near the front of the kitchen. My map shows the grape arbors, a cherry tree, a peach tree, a fuel tank for the tractors, a propane tank. I put a question mark where I couldn’t quite remember the exact positioning of things.

 

My classes wrote first and second drafts of their memoirs. I gave each student full participation points if they reached the word-count minimum, which was 750 words for their second draft. (First drafts could be turned in with only 450 words, but their first drafts did need to be complete with a beginning, middle, and end, including the reflective “lesson learned” part of their memoir.

I still have the second drafts of everyone’s memoirs. In about a month, I’ll pass these back out for further revision. I hope we are able to look at them with “fresh eyes.” We may get into Protocol Peer Review Groups to collaborate on revision and editing.

It’s my hope that there will be a handful of memoirs that can be entered into the Scholastic Art and Writing Awards in December.

After students had turned in their second drafts, I asked them their thoughts on the map-making portion of the project. Was it beneficial? Did drawing a map help them recall memories they had forgotten?

I didn’t do a Google Form to survey them, but just asked for a show of hands at the end of class. Some acknowledged that yes, the maps were helpful. Most students, however, seemed indifferent (a common response to just about anything it seems!).  But then again, a few were emphatic that the map exercise brought forth the memory that they ended up writing about.

One student in particular agreed that the map helped him.  Drawing his farm allowed  him to recall a tree that he climbed when he was about twelve. That tree caught on fire when he was still in it due to some burning paper airplanes that a cousin, I believe, flew into the tree. Reading about his fiery hot, melting rubber shoe soles and his ensuing panic made for a stirring and shocking story. Fortunately, he wasn’t hurt and the main outcome of the fire was that a cousin had to pick up rocks on the farm for a good while afterward.

This story, “The Burning Tree,” has so much potential for the Scholastic Art and Writing contest. It’s my hope that further revisions and editing will allow us to enter it into the student’s contest account soon.

And to think it all started with making a map.


Thanks for reading again this week! Are you planning to enter some student work into the Scholastic Art and Writing Awards this year? Students could begin opening accounts on September 12. None of my students has opened their accounts yet. Those who submit work will likely upload their work in November or December. Leave a comment or question about the contest and I’ll see if I can help.

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