It’s hard to teach middle schoolers this: grammar rules exist to bring readers on your journey

Part 4 of 5

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Photo by Alejandro Escamilla on Unsplash

 

In my classroom, I stress that writing is so much more than just knowing a bunch of grammar and punctuation rules.

Writing is really about expressing oneself, your dreams, your beliefs, your hopes, your imagination.  Writers don’t write to show off to readers that they know how to avoid vague pronouns; instead, writers use the rules to capture readers and take them on their journey through, as examples, the logic of their argument against homework, the plot of their sci-fi fantasy, or their description of the TRAPPIST-1 solar system.

When students understand that they have a vested interest in learning the rules — to keep the reader engaged — their desire to get the rules right increases.

So how does a teacher help middle schoolers understand that all these rules they hear in my class mini-lessons are there solely to help the reader stay on their journey?  I’ve tried my hand at  having small discussions that go something like this:

“When you forget about the rules and goof up — like if you misspell a word, leave out an important comma, write a run-on, or use a vague pronoun  —  you distract your reader.  If you spell a word wrong, they’ll lose their concentration and think stuff like That word looks funny. I think it’s wrong… or is it?  At this point, you know what? You’ve lost your reader. Now they’re thinking about that word you misspelled, and not about your ideas.”

“Or say you have a run-on sentence in your writing. Your reader stumbles through your sentence or paragraph and then they stop. They think, Wait. What?? That didn’t make sense. Then they re-read it, trying to figure out your sentence. At this point, guess what? You’ve lost ’em. Now they’re trying to piece together what you wrote to figure out what you really meant to write. Basically, your run-on sentence pulled your reader’s mind away from your once-riveting story, and now you just have to hope they have the patience to keep reading.”

Sometimes, I give them an example from the movies:

“Have you ever been absorbed in a really good movie and notice that an actor’s once-rumpled hair suddenly appears perfectly in place? Or you notice a glass perched on a tabletop that wasn’t there before? What happened when you noticed that glass? You were pulled out of the movie. You missed some dialogue. You got lost for a bit. You missed out on something, maybe something important.”

“If the editors had noticed and fixed that mistake, they wouldn’t have caused you to become distracted. It’s the same with writing. We have to keep our readers interested in our ideas, not distract them with our mistakes.”

“This is the reason we learn capitalization, how to use commas, how to spell, how to link our sentences correctly… to keep the reader thinking about your story or article, and not the silly comma you forgot to include.”

So that’s how the discussion goes when I help my middle schoolers learn that there are real reasons to understand grammar and conventions. Sometimes they get it; sometimes they don’t. Either way, we keep working on it when we conference. How do you help your students care about editing? Leave a comment. I really want to know.

 

 

 

Reading about how to teach writing

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Photo by Gaelle Marcel on Unsplash

It has its ups and downs

I love reading books about the teaching of writing. It’s always so valuable to me to find ways to help kids love writing!

Right now, I’m re-reading Real Revision by Kate Messner, a text chock-full of innovative strategies that real-life published authors use when they revise their own writing. This book contains so many practical tips from Messner, who is also a seventh-grade English teacher. I have already used one of her revision strategies in my classroom this fall and I know this book will provide more ideas as I continue with it.

I’m also getting ready to write a short post on another book I recently read, Renew! Become a Better and More Authentic Writing Teacher by Shawna Coppola. This book also contains down-to-earth advice and examples from the classrooms where Coppola works as a literacy specialist. Another bonus from this book: Coppola gives me permission to literally rethink how I teach the writing process. As a result, I’ve put off posting my usual five-step writing process poster. Why? Well, I don’t really follow completely it in my own writing, so why should I force my students to?

There is one downside to all this reading, though… when I set these inspiring books aside for the moment, it’s a little disheartening because I realize that I could have taught a lesson so much better, explained a writing dilemma so much more effectively, or responded to a student in a much more powerful way than I did.

The upside, however, is that I do find concrete, implementable ways to improve my teaching, and that’s the ultimate goal, after all.

How about you? What are you reading about the teaching of writing? Any books I should check out?


Thanks for reading! Feel free to click “like” and leave a comment about any books you’re currently reading.

I’m a writer who teaches writing. Click here for my personal writing blog.

Dear English teachers: No offense, but your students shouldn’t be writing for you

 In fact, they should be writing for anyone but you. 

part 3 of 5

 

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Photo by Allef Vinicius on Unsplash

 

Let’s get real. If your students know their writing will be read by someone beyond the school building walls, they’ll sit up a little higher in their desks. They’ll be a little choosier with their words. They’ll be more careful with their punctuation, the flow of their ideas, the clarity of those ideas. I mean, we as teachers are important, but we’re not as important as people “out there in the real world.” This has been my experience anyway in my middle school ELA classroom.

So, in addition to giving my students lots of choices (read more here), and encouraging discussion of their topics (check out this post), I make sure my students know their writing will eventually be published or posted somewhere beyond my desk.  As a result, I’m constantly on the lookout for destinations out in “the real world” for my students’ writing.  Here’s a quick list I’ve come up with so far:

  • in their Kidblog portfolio (or another blog platform) which can be read by other students in our school and in other schools that we connect to. (Follow me so you don’t miss my future posts on student blogging. I’m still new to it, but I can always share my experiences.)
  • in a contest. Read my post about writing contests. I’ve covered five specific contests in my blog and will be adding several more. In addition to the occasional cash prize, students enjoy the validation of having their work recognized by unbiased readers.
  • in the hallway, on a bulletin board or my class website. The simplest way to post work can be as effective as entering a contest. Keep that corkboard covered!
  • on TeenInk.com. With parental permission, students may wish to publish online and receive comments back from other teen writers.
  • in a newspaper or other publication. Each month during the school year, I ask one student to write a short article featuring school news to our local newspaper.
  • in a local organization’s newsletter. Ask around in your community (check out historical societies, arts councils, libraries) to see if they have projects to which your students could contribute basic research, writing, or photography.

These are just a few ideas. As I think of more, I’ll post them. And yes, my students do learn how to write for an academic setting. After all, it’s important for them to get comfortable writing in that context. However, the academic discourse can’t be my primary focus if I want to create students who are exposed to the full spectrum of writing “the real world” has to offer.

This is the third of six posts about what works for me in my ELA classroom. I am by no means an expert in this endeavor, but want to share with and learn from other teachers about effective strategies for teaching writing.

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 (especially if you have authentic writing ideas!) and don’t forget to follow me to catch my next post. Thanks for reading!

We are Off and Writing!

Three days in and students are revising submissions for a publisher. Read this for the details.

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Sixth-graders revise paragraphs into poems. We send to the publisher next week!

I decided not to discuss class rules on Wednesday, the first day of school, because who wants to hear class rules for eight different classes in one day?

Instead, we jumped right into a writing contest hosted by Creative Communication (CC). The contest (read about it here) is one aspect of CC’s summer poetry anthology, which will print and ship in December. The primary goal is to see my students published in the anthology; being designated as one of the top ten in the anthology would be a bonus.

Next week, sixth- and seventh-graders will continue revising our poems and since the deadline for CC’s summer poetry anthology was extended from August 23 to August 31, we’ll have even more opportunities to refine them before submission.

I call the poems the students are creating “Sometimes” poems. The concept is one I learned from middle grades author Kate Messner when I attended the Write to Learn Conference  in 2016.

Messner shared some teaching strategies from her book Real Revision. Her book outlines practical ways to encourage kids to revise their writing. The “one and done” mentality goes out the window when students see that revising can be how creative and fun. On top of that, these strategies have street cred because they show what professional authors like Messner do in their own writing routines. As a result, students begin to buy into the notion that “Real writing happens during rewriting.”

Students started this project by writing a few sentences about their favorite place or a place they enjoy. They described the place, the sounds of it, the fragrances, the textures. I showed them an example paragraph I had written about sitting in a swinging chair underneath a cedar tree in our yard. Then we read a poem that Messner wrote about one her favorite places: a mountain in April she had discovered while hiking one springtime day.

Students then revised their sentences into poems by adding recurring lines, stanzas, more sensory language, and imagery. At the end of class on Friday, they were still revising and working with partners, highlighting areas of strength and weakness.

It’s a fun project and results in beautiful little poems about places middle schoolers love… their bedrooms, around campfires, the woods, the beach, under Christmas trees.

 

I’ll be posting soon with more about our “Sometimes” poems. In the meantime, if you enjoyed this post, click like, leave a comment and share on social media! Follow my blog for more student writing contests and ELA teaching reflections. Thanks for reading!

 

 

 

 

Contest #5 That Works for My Students: Outdoor Writers Association’s Norm Strung Youth Writing Awards

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Here’s another writing contest for you to try with your students.

The Outdoor Writers Association, based in Missoula, Montana, is an organization of writers, editors, broadcasters, photographers, film makers, and other communicators who are, according to OWAA’s website, “dedicated to sharing the outdoor experience.”

The organization is involved in many outreach activities, including the Norm Strung Youth Writing Awards, a national contest for students who submit works in prose or poetry that is outdoor-oriented. Students may enter as many pieces as they wish, but only one will be chosen as a winner.

One of my eighth-graders won the second place prize in the prose junior division in the 2017 contest. Read about it here. You can read my student’s essay here: Natural Nostalgia.

Age Range: This contest is open to students in grades 6-12. There are two divisions: junior (grades 6-8) and senior (9-12).

Topic or Prompt: Students may write about kayaking, camping, hunting, ecology, fishing, boating, just walking outdoors… really any outdoor-themed topic.

Mentor Texts to Use: At the outset of the contest, we read previous winning poems and prose pieces for examples and ideas. While I do have some copies of previous winners that I used in class last year, I’ve been unable to find those online recently. Here’s a link from Outdoor News where I was able to locate a winner from the 2010 contest entitled, “My First Deer, My Dad’s Fifth.” Leave a comment on this post so I can help you find more mentor texts for this contest.

Best Thing To Me About This Contest: Student choice. The fact that students can write about any topic, as long as it’s outdoor-oriented is a big plus for this contest. My students wrote about hiking, taking their first deer, fishing, and just climbing a tree. Anyone can relate to this topic and has an outdoor memory they can reflect on. I also like that poetry is an option, although only one of my students entered a poem last year.

Skills Addressed:  This contest lends itself to narrative writing skills. Students must learn to sequence events logically, use appropriate transitions, and incorporate sensory language and imagery. However, there are other ways to approach the contest. For example, argument and opinion pieces may be entered. Again, choice is central to this contest. 

Length: No length requirement is listed on the contest’s guidelines.

Deadline: In 2017, the deadline was March 15. Make sure to adjust the deadline around spring break. Check back here to confirm the 2018 deadline date. Winners are announced in early August, which will seem like an eternity to your students! However, if one of them wins, it’s a great way to start the next school year!

Prizes: This year, Falcon Guides, a publisher of guidebooks for outdoor enthusiasts, provided prizes totaling $1,500. In addition, the OWAA eventually publishes all winning entries in its print magazine Outdoors Unlimited and on its website.  So far, however, I’ve had a hard time finding winning entries from recent years.

How to Enter: Entries may be submitted online via an email address. However, entries can also be mailed to OWAA’s Missoula office, which is what I chose to do last year, my first year to try this contest. I attached a slip of paper to each entry that noted the division (junior) and category (prose or poetry). This is a required step for all entries. Next year, I may try emailing the entries.

For more information:  Click here for complete rules.

Give this contest a try! I think your students will find engagement due to the wide variety of topics they can explore with this contest. Good luck!

 

 

If you learned something from this post, click like, leave a comment and share on social media! Follow my blog for more student writing contests and ELA teaching reflections. Thanks for reading!

We have a winner!

Student’s essay places second in national contest

Congratulations to Elijah D., whose essay placed second in the Outdoor Writers Association of America’s   Norm Strung Youth Writing Awards.

IMG_5056 (2)Eli’s essay entitled “Natural Nostalgia” placed second in the nation in the junior prose category. He also received a check for $100. Eli graduated from Kirbyville Middle School in May and will attend Branson High School this fall.

For more information about this contest, please follow my blog to see my next post, “Contest #6 that Works for My Students: Outdoor Writers Association Norm Strung Youth Writing Awards.”

Ten Questions for Kohl’s About This Back-to-School Shirt

Yeah, it’s just a $10 t-shirt (when you buy two of these charmers), but clothing has power.

 

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This is the cover of a back-to-school Kohl’s catalog I received in yesterday’s mail.
  1. Is this shirt supposed to be funny, Kohl’s? Because it’s really just mean. 
  2. Did you know that back-to-school should be a time of building students up, not tearing them down? “Nobody cares” has no place in an environment structured for emotional growth and learning.
  3. Do you realize the clothing you sell affects the social climate? Sure, maybe we don’t read and reflect on messages like the one on this shirt, but I think our minds do absorb its spirit.
  4. Do you know this shirt also says “You don’t matter”? It extends the “Whatever!” attitude with an added dose of disdain and egotism.  
  5. Do you know how a message like this can harm someone who’s having a bad day? I’m a middle school teacher. Messages like this are the last thing a middle schooler needs to see.
  6. Could you sell this shirt without the wording? Because it appears to have a nice fit and I like the longer length.
  7. You paid a designer to design some new back-to-school fashions, and this is what they came up with? And then you put it on the cover of your catalog?
  8. Do you know that the world doesn’t need this shirt? We’ll all get along better if we don’t cover our bodies in snarky comments.
  9. Do you realize that people actually do care about other people? In fact, I contend there is a greater capacity for compassion among humans than there is for scorn.
  10. Do you really want to associate your brand with such disrespect? I didn’t think so. You’re better than that, Kohl’s.

 

 

If this post made you think click the like button, leave a comment, and share on social media. Follow me to read more about my ELA classes. I’m a big fan of student writing contests, authentic writing, PBL and more. Thanks for reading!