When you return to your classroom before you’re required to return to your classroom

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I drove the twenty minutes to my classroom today to . . . start. There’s always a day or two (or three) before the big day when we’re required to return to school for in-service training.  On days like today, when I’m often working alone, I just begin. Here’s what I did, with the help of my husband for the heavy lifting:

  • returned all the furniture that had been moved to one side of my classroom by maintenance staff to its approximate place in the room
  • untangled a giant wad of electrical and computer cords that had also been moved
  • connected my computer back to its dock
  • set up the sound system
  • tested the speakers; played Ed Sheeran for a sound check; yep… sounds good
  • tested my smartboard
  • connected the document camera
  • put the desks into loose rows that will probably change before it all begins
  • helped a new teacher across the hall begin to get settled
  • made a mental note to purchase an oil diffuser like the one used by the same new teacher
  • rearranged my small black bookshelves
  • put the carpet down
  • uncovered the big bookshelves
  • stared inside my closet.  (But that’s all I did because it’s packed too tightly. Once I start unpacking it, there will be no going back.)
  • put some new stickers in my sticker drawer. (Never underestimate the value of a sticker.)
  • resolved to buy a new poster or two for my big poster wall
  • looked at some boxes of supplies and books I requisitioned last spring
  • decided to leave those boxes for another day

Now, I’m off to start a draft about Contest #4 That Works for My Students. Look for it tomorrow! Here’s a post about Contest #3. I love using writing contests in my ELA teaching.

If you enjoyed this post, click like and leave a comment. Follow my blog to catch that Contest #4 post! Thanks for reading.

Heads up! Student poetry contest deadline August 18

 

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Photo: Pixabay

If you’re planning to incorporate contests into your ELA classes and/or writers workshops, you can get started as early as Friday, August 18! That’s the deadline for the summer poetry hardcover anthology to be printed and published by Creative Communication. The books will ship in December. Teachers who have five or more students accepted for publication receive one free copy. Click here to visit their website. Read my recent blog post that outlines how the contests work.

My school’s first day is Wednesday, August 16.  Hmmmm… not sure how we can make that deadline, but I’m gonna try! (And based on past experience with this publisher, deadlines are often extended by a week or two,  so I’m crossing my fingers that will happen again.)

If you need poetry ideas, the CC website offers poem templates that will get your students crafting verse in no time. I’ll probably try those templates to get up and running ASAP.

I can’t think of a better way to start the year than with jumping right into an authentic writing assignment. It will be so fun all fall to look forward to that moment in December when my students hold their anthologies in their hands and become published writers!

If this post has helped you, click the like button and follow my blog to keep up-to-date on more contests and writing ideas!

 

 

 

Dear English teachers who have stumbled upon Medium during your summer break,

Originally published here July 19, 2017 on Medium.com in From a Teacher.

 

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Photo: Tran Mau Tri Tam on Unsplash

 

Congratulations! You found Medium. You should stick around and see what this site offers English Language Arts teachers.

Wander aimlessly throughout this platform and its writers and publications. It won’t take long before you’ll unearth some very cool stories (btw, everything is called a story on Medium) about an unending supply of topics: from coding to human rights, from motivational thinking to tacos. Get lost in the good stuff on Medium and then plan to share this goldmine of writing with your students in the fall.

One way I share Medium with my middle school language arts students is by finding a story to use as a mentor text. If we’re writing, for example, how-to articles, I search in my Medium network for an age-appropriate one I think will intrigue my middle schoolers. Then I print, make copies and we read them in class.

Then we’ll do a straight-through “cold” read. Sometimes I read aloud; sometimes I have students do that on their own. After that first read, students are often surprised at the original, sometimes quirky, always engaging writer’s voices found on Medium. They can’t believe, for example, that someone actually wrote this. They also can’t believe the variety. Research-driven studies and silly listicles… it’s all here. Medium stories are a fresh change from the made-for-school reading they get so much of.

Then we pass around the highlighter bucket and we read the story again, marking it up and keeping track of the ideas it presents and the questions it poses. And then we talk. Here are the questions we throw around:

  • Do you like this story? Do you find it enlightening? Does it speak to you? How?
  • How does it begin? How does it end?
  • Where is the strongest moment in this story? Weakest?
  • What do we notice about how it’s built?
  • How many paragraphs? How many sentences in a paragraph?
  • What techniques does the author use? Repetition? Alliteration?
  • Does it have a topic sentence or a main idea? What is it?
  • How does the author develop and explore this idea?
  • Does the author use evidence? How is it presented? Is it effective?
  • If you had written this article, how would you have tagged it?
  • What techniques could you pull from this mentor text as you write your own how-to?

I know that looks like a lot of discussion questions. In fact, you may be thinking, Wow. Way to take a perfectly good story and ruin it with over-analysis.However, our discussions are casual and organic; we ask the questions that make sense for the story we happen to be reading. Everybody is free to contribute, of course, and they do because the stories on Medium are accessible, relevant and created by real, living and breathing, connected writers who blog about the world that exists beyond the concrete block walls of school.

So now that you’ve found Medium, delve deeper. Find a handful of stories that you’re enthusiastic about. Restock your highlighter bucket. Get lots of colors. Plan to read, talk about, and imitate some Medium stories with your students this fall.

Click like if: a) you liked this, or b) know some teachers who need to find Medium. Could that be you??? Follow this blog to stay in touch. I’ll be posting more Medium resources for teachers soon. Thanks for reading!

Because bored students care about commas… and little else

Here’s what I do to spark passion in my students for writing

part 1 of 6

 

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Photo by Jamie Street on Unsplash

 

And let’s get this straight right from the start: I am no expert. I repeat, I am no expert. I have a meager six years of teaching under my belt. However, I am more excited than ever to be doing this job at age 51. (gulp) That’s why I want to reflect on and share what works for me in my classroom… and what doesn’t. I truly hope you’ll follow my blog and start a conversation so we can learn from each other. It’s good for teachers to do that. And now, back to our regularly scheduled programming…

Writing means knowing a bunch of rules, right? Comma rules. Spelling rules. Fragment rules. Capitalization rules. All these rules are very important to middle school students who are bored with writing. In fact, some students think writing is only about “the rules.” And the sooner they can get “the rules” right in their crummy, boring assignment, the sooner they can turn it in and move on with life.

Students are bored when they don’t care about their writing topic. Conversely, when students care about their topic, they don’t mind struggling to get it right.

Picture this: one of your students turns in a cleanly edited, yet incredibly boring and lifeless story. It’s another story about their dog, for example. Not one comma is out of place, not one word is misspelled. Everything looks great, but it’s just so… dull. That same day, another student turns in a poorly edited, yet thought-provoking and fresh essay. It’s a piece about self-image and social media. Yes, there was a run-on here, a capitalization error there, but you stumbled through it because the ideas were compelling and intriguing.

Besides subject matter, there’s one big difference between the dog story and social media essay. The essay can be revised, edited, and polished and still be engaging and original; however, the story, even though it needs no editing, will still require a major overhaul to garner interest from a reader. The commas are all there, but the ideas aren’t. In other words, just because the editing rules have been followed does not mean the writing is interesting.

So why did the student turn in the boring story? Because she didn’t care about it. She didn’t like the topic, the character she had created, who knows. However, the social media essay captured the heart of its author. This student had found a way to connect to the topic and, more importantly, discovered he had an opinion that needed and deserved to be expressed.

In order to get the freshest, most original, most thoroughly developed writing from my students, I must figure out ways to spark passion in my students for their writing topics. It’s my job to make them care about what they’re writing. It’s on me to send boredom out the door and down the hall.

Here are three  things I do in my 6-8 ELA classes to help my students find topics they’re passionate about:

  1. I give them lots of choices. Like gobs of choices.
    • I use this list of 401 argument topics from The New York Times. So many ideas! In fact, I often narrow the list down to fifty or so. Sometimes too many options are overwhelming. I also like to skim through the list to make sure the prompts I give my kids are age-appropriate since some of the prompts are for high school students and older.
    • I also use this lists like this one of 365 writing prompts from thinkwritten.com.
    • I keep digging to find more and more prompts. Here’s another site. Again, if too many options are just too many, provide fewer.
  2. I assign slice-of-life essays about the mundane, yet worthwhile, quiet moments of living. For ideas and plans from Two Writing Teachers, click here.
  3. Sometimes I simply give students time to think. Often, kids just aren’t used to sitting quietly and thinking. With smartphones and other devices, there’s always something else to do besides think. Let students stare at the wall and allow ideas to surface.

 

This is the first installment in a series of six on this blog about helping kids find writing topics that they’ll feel passionate about. And if they’re passionate, they won’t be bored; instead, they will care. As a result, they’ll spend enough time on their writing so it’s fleshed-out, fully developed, fresh, provocative, and true.

The next steps I take with my students will be discussed in an upcoming post. I’ll be finishing that soon. Click the “like” button and share on social media if this has been helpful to you. Feel free to leave a comment and don’t forget to follow me to catch that post! Thanks for reading!

Contest #3 That Works for My Students: Creative Communication Poetry Anthologies

Originally published June 26, 2017 ©Edutopia | The George Lucas Educational Foundation


 

Three times a year, Creative Communication (CC) of Logan, Utah publishes hardcover anthologies full of K-9 poetry. I know what you’re thinking. Must be a pay-to-play anthology, right? The company judges the poems received and publishes the best ones, without regard to whether the student purchases a copy or not. Students upload their own poetry via the publisher’s website at poeticpower.com.  The website, which is extensive with links to teacher and student information, is easy to navigate and search. So far, more than thirty of my students saw their poetry published last year. Students loved seeing their poetry in print! Several parents ordered the anthologies, which are handled directly by the publisher. Here’s a link to my class website where I talk up the contests and winners: Kirbyville Middle School Language Arts website.

 

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Creative Communication publishes hardcover poetry anthologies, similar to this one, three times a year for different regions and age levels.

 

Topic or Prompt: Student choice reigns! The website has many poetry ideas and lesson plans with examples. For mentor texts, use previous winning poems found on the website. When introducing the contest, make sure to show your students Taylor Swift’s winning poem that she entered in the contest when she was in fifth grade. That always gets attention! Here’s a link to the poem. Just scroll down to her picture and click to open a page to read it.

Best Thing (To Me) About This Contest: I love how this contest is competitive, but not too competitive. Everyone has a real opportunity to see their name in print. According to the FAQs on the website, “We take pride in the fact that we are selective with our entries. We reject more entries than we accept to be published. Our objective is to make it an honor to be selected for the anthology.”  FYI: Each anthology is considered a contest since the top ten entries win prizes, but more on that below.

What About Privacy? First names only are published. School names are included. Students must receive permission from parents in order to be published. Teachers will receive a free copy when five students are published. You can also earn points for more books and school supplies with the rewards system. To read about the system, click here.

Skills Addressed:

  • Idea Development. Students must meet the criteria of the particular style of poem I assign or the style of poem they have chosen from the website.
  • Conventions. Students must submit their best poetry.

Length: Poems must be no longer than 20 lines.

Deadline: There is one deadline for each of the fall, spring, and summer contests to coincide with your poetry units.  See the website for exact dates.

Prizes: For each of the three grade levels (K-3; 4-6; 7-9), the top ten entries in the poetry contest will be given a $25 check, special recognition in the book, and a free anthology copy.

The Unexpected Bonus: Students rose to the occasion when they knew their work would be submitted for publication and possible top ten recognition.

For more information: See CC’s Facebook page or check out their blog.


Let me know if you have any questions about this contest by posting a comment. Have a contest success story? I would love to hear from you!

 

 

 

Don’t Let Spellcheck Ruin the Writing

 

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Photo: Oliver Thomas Klein at Unsplash

 

“Mrs. Yung, why is this wrong?” Emily asks me during class, staring at her laptop screen. A wavy green line floats below a phrase, again interrupting the first draft of her slice-of-life essay.

“We’ll figure it out later. Stay in the zone,” I respond, hoping she can quickly return to her mind’s creative bliss and continue drafting her essay. As a writer and teacher, I know how difficult it is to express my ideas exactly the way I need to. This zone, this creative bliss — whatever you want to call it — that I must reach to accurately express myself holds the true essence of meaningful writing.

However, it’s hard for students to reach that creative bliss during drafting when spelling, grammar, and mechanics — editing tasks that should occur near the end of the process — interrupt the early stages of writing.

That’s why I tell my students to ignore spelling while drafting and even during revision. I tell them to ignore the comma issues and the capitalization questions. And while they’re at it, ignore any other “helpful” suggestions that Google Docs or Microsoft Word offers them. Heck, disable these extensions if necessary.

I know, I know. How am I ignoring all those blatant errors? How am I allowing violations of the most basic of writing skills to remain on the page? Here’s how: because it’s more important to me that Emily expresses her idea, clarifies her position, defines her truth.

Honestly, what would you rather read: 1) a clean, properly edited piece that reveals little about the author or really anything at all, or 2) a clean, properly edited piece that succinctly expresses the author’s important ideas using her own singular voice? Obviously, the point of writing is not to showcase punctuation prowess, but to share the writer’s view of the world.

Because let’s face it, Emily will eventually get to the editing. 

When editing happens via peer response, conferring with me, or multiple proofreads, she’ll catch the missing comma, the misspelled word, the glaring run-on. She’ll choose the hyphen over the dash. In fact, those easy fixes will solidify her piece because she nailed down her ideas early on. They’re present, in full bloom, explained, and supported because Emily ignored the silly distraction over a comma in her first draft.

True, waiting until nearly the end to edit is difficult for my middle school students. They just want to get the assignment done. They figure that if they tackle the editing, they can call it good and hand it in. If you need some ideas for writing assignments that cause students to want to explore their ideas, check out this post from my website: Writing Contests Deliver Student Buy-In.

Spellcheck interrupts the deep thinking that occurs during those blissful “zone” moments when my students explore their thoughts, write them down, question them, tweak and retweak them, whisper them back to themselves, and then re-enter them the same way they were entered five minutes earlier, finally satisfied with the way their thoughts sound.

Those moments are when my students realize that writing isn’t about commas, spelling, and capitalization. It’s about themselves, their beliefs and hopes, their insecurities and pet peeves, their dreams. Don’t let spellcheck ruin that.

If you enjoyed this article, please click the “like” button and leave a comment. Thanks for reading! 

#Engagement: Instagram is for Writing

 

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Used with permission. Credit: Audrey

 

A few weeks ago, Audrey, one of my former middle school students who’ll be a senior next year, posted on Instagram a photo of an essay she had handwritten. The essay showed Audrey’s ideas about adolescence, the validity of teenage relationships, finding one’s soulmate. The essay expressed her thoughts, and exhibited the kind of “thinking on paper” that teachers encourage in their students. It was a heartfelt and personal record of Audrey’s beliefs.

In the endless feed of landscape shots, selfies, and artistic images that compose Instagram, Audrey’s photo of her handwriting on a sheet of notebook paper stood out to me. It seemed to convey much more than her ruminations on soulmates.

It revealed…

  • that Instagram is being used by young writers to create and develop an audience for their written work. It’s not just for beautiful photos anymore.
  • that students are finding ways to blend traditional media with the new.
  • an unexpected juxtaposition of digital imagery and handwritten expression.
  • a surprising use of social media to work through and analyze one’s personal perspective on a topic

In ongoing discussions about the appropriate use of social media to educate, it’s good to keep in mind that when a student uses social media, they are often demonstrating the skills they have learned in school. I don’t know about you, but seeing confident young writers using Instagram makes me optimistic about the potential for social media in my middle school language arts classroom.

Of course, social media accounts must be administrated responsibly, using a district’s privacy and safety protocols. (Click here for a link to resources regarding using social media in schools and at home.) However, with best practices in place, social media sites such as Instagram hold promise because they provide an audience and generate feedback. Engagement abounds.

I’m considering a private classroom Instagram account next year. What suggestions, observations, or tips can you share? Feel free to post a comment or follow this blog for more ideas.