Writing Contest #9: NCTE’s Promising Young Writers

An any-genre writing contest just for your 8th graders

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My 8th graders from the 2017-18 school year worked hard (most of the time, anyway), despite having my class at the end of the day!

Full disclosure: this is a contest I have NOT tried with my students… yet. I’m a member of NCTE (National Council of Teachers of English) and for some reason, I just found out about the group’s Promising Young Writers contest a few days ago while surfing their website.  You can join NCTE here, and then learn more about this contest here, but for now, here’s a consolidation of what this contest is all about, prompt, deadline, and other details.

Age Range: Eighth-graders only. That’s interesting, isn’t it?! I think if I market this contest to my students as a “rite of passage” contest, as in “Not every middle schooler gets to do this contest, just the older ones…” then it might add some caché to the competition. My eighth-graders know that their final year in my class is a doozy with our “human rights dissertation,” but that project ends in the spring. The fall semester could use a similar premium project just for eighth-graders, and this could be it.

Topic or Prompt:  The 2018 prompt was “Truth and Reconciliation.” The prompt for 2019 will be available October 1-15 (I emailed), so check back then. However, we can infer from the 2018 prompt about the nature and quality of the next. The prompt and its description is quite lengthy. Here’s how the prompt is introduced:

Archbishop Desmond Tutu (1997), former Chair of South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Committee, has proposed that the “future” of our planet depends on “forgiveness.” Writing is a powerful tool for bringing difficult truths to light and for helping people, in response to those truths, to reconcile with others, as well as with themselves. This year, we invite you to write about, and to write for, truth and reconciliation in your life.

Wow, right?! Sounds meaty to me… full of opportunities to think deeply. This intro was followed up with some ideas to develop the theme. Some of the questions it posed are:

  • Have I ever been forgiven and experienced reconciliation? How did that come about? Why was I forgiven? How did I learn from the experience?
  • What is a difficult truth that I (or my family, faith group, friends, community) have faced? How did I come to accept that truth? What was that process? What were the effects of accepting that truth?
  • Have I (or my family, faith group, friends, community) ever been healed by truth?
  • What aspects of my life need truth and reconciliation? How could this be achieved? What obstacles may need to be dealt with? What will the benefits be?

The prompt also provided a reference text for students to use. Desmond Tutu’s book, No Future Without Forgiveness.  In addition, the site’s Note for Teachers suggested that teachers use the literature and resources on the NCTE website.

Mentor Texts: The website does not currently provide winning entries, which is a bummer. However, I emailed NCTE to find out if that would be a possibility and yes, I was told that the committee will select a couple of winning entries and post them on the site. Yay! Knowing what the judges have awarded in the past really provides some extra scaffolding and differentiation for some students. Others, of course, don’t need the mentor texts; they just take off on their own.

Skills Addressed: This is interesting. According to these guidelines, any genre can be submitted. A student can submit a personal essay, graphic novel, podcast, scientific report, eulogy, sermon, letter to a politician, etc. I noticed that poetry was not listed; however, I also asked about that in my email, and was told that poetry can be used.

Judges grade the writing holistically. Your students need to pay special attention to:

  • content
  • purpose
  • audience
  • tone
  • word choice
  • organization
  • development
  • and my personal favorite, style

Start your workdays for this contest with mini-lessons on these key elements their writing will be judged on.

Another interesting note: at the bottom of the “Note to Teachers,” teachers are encouraged to allow their students to submit any appropriate writing done outside of school. I’m not sure if or how that could work. Again, I’ve not done this contest before with my students so this year will be experimental. I will know so much more in a year!

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Photo: pxhere

Length: Maximum four pages.

Deadline: In 2017, the final deadline was February 15, but submissions could be sent in electronically beginning December 15 by using the “Submit An Entry” button on this page. And, based on my experience, this should be the final deadline for my class. (With Christmas break followed by a brand new semester, no one is going to want to drag out something from the previous month and then finish and turn in during February. Not happening!)

A timeline for teacher planning purposes is provided. Last year, it suggested students begin their first drafts November 15.   I think this should be moved up to middle October, however, to allow enough time for revisions prior to the December 15 date.

I checked with NCTE about deadlines for next year, and I was told deadlines would mirror those from 2018. In fact, I was also told to check the site in early October for updates.

Also, the contest organizers request that teachers send in a limited number of entries. In other words, you can’t send everyone’s in. There’s a chart on the website that shows how many entries teachers are allowed to send. Me? I can send one since I have fewer than 100 students. If you have 100-199 students, you may send two. It scales up from there. Teachers with 500 or more can send in six entries.

This being the case, adjust your schedule accordingly! You may need more time to do your selections, especially when you find out that students (drumroll, please!) must send in ANOTHER piece of writing, the one they consider their best effort. It can also be in any genre, but must be in a different genre from the themed prompt entry. Both entries must be clearly marked, “Best” and “Themed.” The “Best” entry should be no longer than six pages. Gee… this contest has a lot of interesting rules and I’m ready to take it on; however, I may need a student to help me keep all the dates, requirements, and myriad details in order.

Prizes: Results are announced in May. Works that are judged “superior” receive a Certificate of Recognition and their name and your school’s name appears on the NCTE website.

Okay, I know I’m going to get a bunch of groans when I tell my students that there are no actual prizes, such as cash or publication. And, yes, it’s a pity that NCTE doesn’t provide more incentive. Still, this is a notable contest simply due to its sponsor. This is a contest a winning student should let their high school counselors know about so the award can be listed in their transcript file.

I love writing these posts when I find a new contest because they help me get my thoughts in line for entering my students’ work later. It’s totally possible I’ve left out some pertinent information, especially since this contest has such a unique procedure and process. If I discover any such omissions, I will include them in a future short post, and if you’re following me, you’ll get a handy notification of that when I do.


Thanks for reading! Click “Like” if you’re interested in this contest. Leave a comment to share your ideas or share this post to spread the word about this contest. 

If you’ve never offered writing contests to your students, read this post: Writing Contests Deliver Student Buy-In.

 

 

 

Top Resources that I Use to Teach 9/11

It’s never too early to plan to “never forget.”

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The new One World Trade Center stands tall in lower Manhattan. While remembering the tragedy and the memories of those lives lost, it’s also important to  focus on the resiliency of the United States and New York City, in particular. Photo by Dean Rose on Unsplash

I get it. The school year has just ended and the last thing you may want to think about right now is what you will be doing in September in your classes. However, discussing 9/11 effectively deserves forethought and preparation to match the motivation and curiosity that students bring to the table.

Despite this motivation, for many students  9/11 is as remote for them as Kennedy’s assassination was to me (I was born two years later JFK was killed).  Students may not be aware that 9/11 was an international event with numerous long-lasting effects: changes in security, warfare, immigration, architecture, travel. So it’s a given that 9/11 should be covered, but let’s be honest, the anniversary of the horrible event arrives so quickly after the school year starts that one really needs to have one’s plan in place to present and discuss the terror attacks adequately.

That being said, please know this: I am no expert on September 11 or how to present it to students. However, I thought I’d share with you a few resources I keep in my classroom.

Books:

Understanding September 11 by Mitch Frank, is arranged into chapters entitled with questions such as Who were the hijackers? and Why did we go after Afghanistan? understandingPublished in 2002, the book has become outdated in some ways; it was published before bin Laden was killed, for example. Its frank discussions about the most basic aspects of the attacks and terrorism in general are still important.

With Their Eyes: The View from a High School at Ground Zero edited by Annie Thoms, is a collection of monologues written by students who attended nearby Stuyvesant High School at the time of the tragedy. eyesNote: some poems contain profanity, so read accordingly.

A Place of Remembrance, The Official Book of the National September 11 Memorial by Allison Blais and Lynn Rasic, focuses on the memorial and museum complex built to commemorate the tragedy. placePublished by National Geographic, the book contains many photos of artifacts, profiles of those involved with the museum project, and information about the memorial plaza design as well. I only have two copies of the 2011 edition of the book in my room. It is mainly used individually by students who want to know more. Also: an updated 2015 edition is available, but I have not used it.

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The Building of Manhattan by Donald Mackay has a section about the World Trade Center’s history, including construction challenges, size, and its occupants. Mackay’s distinctive pen and ink illustrations give this book broad appeal

 

 

102 Minutes: The Unforgettable Story of the Fight to Survive Inside the Twin Towers by Jim Dwyer and Kevin Flynn.

102Choose carefully what you would like to read to your students as this book includes first-person accounts from survivors. Excerpts of this book reveal the terror of those who survived the tower attacks.

“Doomed to Re-Repeat History: The Triangle Fire, The World Trade Center Attack, and the Importance of Strong Building Codes.” This is actually a book review by Gregory Stein of two books, David Von Drehle’s Triangle: The Fire That Changed America, and 102 Minutes. The review discusses the two books individually, connects them with a discussion on “The Ebb and Flow of Building Codes,” and concludes with a discussion of safety and security and their costs and risks. “It is up to us to decide how much we are willing to pay to live in a sensibly safer world,” Stein writes. This book review prompts some meaty discussions with my students. By invoking the Triangle Fire, it brings up the idea of how the passage of time causes us to forget what we have learned from our previous mistakes.

To Engineer is Human by Henry Petroski: I’ve used bits and pieces of this book on numerous occasions and it ties in with my 9/11 unit because it contains excerpts from The Hammurabi Code, which is discussed in the above book review.

DVDs:

The Walk: The Triumphant True Story  directed by Robert Zemeckis, this feature film stars Joseph Gordon-Levitt and tells the story of Philippe Petit, the high wire artist who walked between the two towers in 1974. Just as Petit helped New Yorkers appreciate and grow to love the towers, this movie helps students connect to the towers and the tragedy that later happened.

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What I value about this film is that it enables students to experience and personally connect with the towers — and the people who lived and worked there — through shots of the exteriors, lobbies, offices, elevators, receiving areas, the North Tower observation deck, and Austin Tobin Plaza.

My kids LOVE this movie. I show it to my sixth-graders at the end of the year. It’s a good way to introduce students to the Twin Towers and city without the context of 9/11.  You cannot go wrong with showing this film. My students always ask to watch it again! The film is rated PG; there are three to four uses of profanity. Length: 123 minutes.

“The Center of the World,” Episode 8 of New York: The Documentary: Every year, we watch a 100-minute excerpt from “The Center of the World,” the last disc in the eight-DVD series “New York: The Documentary.” It’s directed by Ric Burns of Steeplechase Films. Burns is the brother of the famed documentarian Ken Burns.

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My eighth-graders are riveted to every minute of this important film. The documentary eloquently conveys the horror of the day, including the responses of New York City, the nation, and the world.  Even though it has a TV-PG rating (and therefore doesn’t require a permission slip, per my school’s policy), I send a permission slip home anyway for parents to sign. The movie has some disturbing scenes, including people jumping from the towers.

The film also recognizes that, although our collective soul was irrevocably altered in the span of a few hours, the United States of America will prevail. It’s my hope that this excellent film relates better than I can that September 11 is relevant and important, not merely “historical”… in the distant past of my students’ minds. Read this post from my sister blog for more on this idea.

There you have it. These are the various materials I use to engage my students in writing about 9/11. Even though I use these every year, I am always on the lookout for new resources. If and when I find any additional ideas, I’ll write another post to let you know.

With each passing year, I feel that the memories of this horrible day are fading more and more into the distant past. It’s important that we keep alive the memory of what was lost on that day.


Thanks for reading. If you have a minute, leave a comment to share your own ideas and resources.

 

 

Paperless classroom? No thanks.

I like “the little transaction.”

 

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Photo: Christa Dodoo from Unsplash

I don’t have a paperless classroom and it will always be this way. I like the transaction that occurs when students actually turn things in.

When students turn in assignments, they walk over to the three stacked baskets (one for each grade that I teach) that stand at the corner of my desk. At times, if I’m standing or sitting there, I’ll notice when they walk up and I’ll take their assignment, skim through it and then drop it in the basket for them.  It’s fun to see what they’ve been working on.

Sometimes they drop it in the basket before I get a chance to look at it. Then I’ll grab it right back out and take a look-see. Sometimes they say, “Here ya’ go!” Sometimes they say nothing. Sometimes, they’ll say:

  • I don’t know what you’ll think of this…
  • This isn’t very good, but…
  • I really like how this turned out, and…
  • This was hard…
  • This was fun…

This little transaction gives me an opportunity to chat. To comment. To smile. To roll my eyes, even, and hand it right back. (Yes, that happened once… from a talented writer who had knowingly done a lackluster job and said as much when she handed it to me.)

This little transaction gives me the opportunity to read their first few lines, see that fresh and unexpected word they chose, and acknowledge it with “Interesting choice!”  or “Wow. I can’t wait to read this later when I can concentrate better on it.”

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We use a lot of paper in my classroom. In fact, some kids tell me that they get tired of looking at screens.

However, when students submit assignments via Google Drive or in my Google Classroom account, I miss those little, yet significant interactions that are personal, encouraging, and necessary.

True, digital documents have their merits. It’s handy– at times, but only at times– to write comments in the margins of a student’s Google doc. That sometimes works. For example, in my seventh-graders’ PBL project, “Whippersnappers,” it’s useful when we’re on deadline because I can quickly type in my responses faster than when I handwrite them.

I can also type more comments on a Google doc than I can when I get carried away handwriting notes that tumble down the side margins and puddle at the bottom in a clump, where I draw a teeny little arrow directing them to the back for more.  (I can’t help it.)

Also, I’m learning about alternatives to handwriting comments in the margins of a Google doc. Supposedly, there are some app extensions out there that allow teachers to speak their responses directly into the student’s file. That sounds interesting and worth looking into further. That might restore “conversation” to the process.

So, while I  am open to technology in my writing classroom, I still value the transaction that occurs when kids actually hand papers in.


Thanks for reading! Leave a comment with how you feel on this topic. How “paperless” is your classroom? Is it working? Know of any new apps for spoken commenting? Please let me know.

A good thing: Weekly in-class awards

I enjoy recognizing students for their on-time, on-target writing

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Students like to check the board each week to see if their writing earned one of these awards. I recognize them in class and give them five “brave bucks,” an incentive used by our school to recognize students for being respectful, responsible and safe. They can spend these bucks on Fridays in the school store.

Last year, sometime during the second quarter, I decided to start awarding students for their hard work on their weekly written homework assignments. I came up with four awards to recognize students for being on-time and for doing a good job. The awards and the skills they address follow:

  • The Annotator Award for their annotating of the nonfiction article that was assigned
  • The Most Interesting Lead in the World for the lead they wrote to begin the response to the prompt of the assignment
  • The Voice Award for using their unique writer’s voice and not being afraid to take a risk by showing that voice
  • The Extra Award for their proficiency in some other area

Using memegenerator.net, I created some memes to put on a bulletin board in my classroom. The bulletin board is shown above.

This weekly recognition has had good results. Students like to check the board when they enter my classroom on Mondays to see who won the awards in the previous week’s assignment.

I post the student’s work next to their award’s sign, and make sure to write feedback and notes in the margins. Sometimes I highlight the “golden lines” that really stood out to me as I reviewed their writing.

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Weekly Class Awards!

I’ll write more about these particular weekly assignments in a separate post coming soon, but with today’s post, I wanted to relate the importance and positive outcomes of providing these weekly awards.

I figured that if students found motivation and agency when they completed their submissions for the various contests we entered, they would do the same if I treated these weekly assignments like mini-contests. That’s exactly what’s happened.

It’s been a good thing and one I plan to continue for the 2018-19 year.


Follow my blog for more ideas and notes about my experiences teaching middle school English Language Arts. Thanks for reading and click like if you found this useful or leave a comment. It’s good to know what kinds of posts are resonating with my readers.

Contest #8: Cursive is Cool

It’s a cursive handwriting contest!

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Photo: pxhere

I stumbled upon this cursive contest online a few days ago sponsored by Campaign for Cursive (C4C).  This organization is a committee of the American Handwriting Analysis Foundation (AHAF) and is an all-volunteer non-profit that began in 2012 in the Southern California chapter of the AHAF. Its goal is to “bring public recognition and awareness to the importance of teaching cursive writing to all kids, and even adults,” according to its website.

In the spring, C4C hosts a cursive writing contest called “Cursive is Cool” for students in grades 1-6. Visit this page to see the winning entries. The contest is offered in three versions: American English, Canadian English, and Canadian French.

To enter, students use this form and write five sentences that answer one of three questions:

  • Why is cursive cool?
  • Why do you like signing your name?
  • What do you think is fun about writing in cursive?

According to the PDF form, students’ cursive writing is judged on neatness, legibility, consistency, and creativity. The following awards are given: 1st, 2nd, and 3rd place awards in each grade, and one award for creativity in each grade.

In 2018, entries were due March 4; plan for the same timeframe for 2019. Make sure to download the PDF entry form for additional guidelines and requirements. Take note that students will need a parent’s signature on the entry form, so allow extra time for those entries to go home for a signature.

I hope you’ll consider having some of your students enter the Cursive is Cool 2019 Contest. I plan to try it out. I like that the contest will provide some extra motivation for my students to continue to learn and practice their cursive throughout the upcoming school year. It helps when a national contest places emphasis on a skill that I also encourage my students to hone.

To read my other posts about how I teach cursive writing in my classroom, as well as how I convey the importance of cursive writing to my students, check out these two posts: “Why do we have to write in cursive?” and “Five Reasons I Teach Cursive” and “How I Add Cursive Writing to My Class.” 


Thanks for reading! Leave a comment if you plan to try this contest in 2019 and make sure to share your thoughts and experiences with it later with other readers!

 

Countdown to novel writing

This November. Nanowrimo. Finally.

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Photo by Hannah Olinger on Unsplash

November is National Novel Writing Month and this fall, I’m writing a first draft of my first novel in thirty days! I have always wanted to take on Nanowrimo, but the idea of writing a novel has always scared me to death. This year, however, I think I’ll approach this behemoth with a group of my students who have expressed interest in going on this journey with me in Nanowrimo’s Young Writers Program.

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A screenshot of my post to my students on my private class Instagram account about Nanowrimo.

Yesterday, I posted about Nanowrimo’s student program on my private class Instagram account. I asked those students who were interested to let me know in the comments. Several did exactly that!

So this summer, I’ll be collecting resources and doing some research on how to approach the program with students. I do know we’ll be setting a daily word-count goal, which means that we’ll need to meet daily for thirty days (after school most likely) to crank out our novels.

Our point in meeting for thirty days after school is not to create perfect first drafts, but adequate first drafts. Some of the drafts will be shakily plotted and some of them might have less-than-stellar characterization, but that’s okay! The point is to create a first draft that’s ripe for revision. In short, the program is designed to get writers actually writing their novels, not just thinking about writing their novels. Amen to that! How many times have I told myself that “someday” I’m going to write a novel?! Nanowrimo provides the framework to defeat procrastination and just get a novel written.

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If you do a quick Google search of “Nanowrimo young writers program,” you’ll find a guide for educators. You can print out a PDF of a workbook for students. It explains how to build an online class profile with individual records of student progress. Students can create their own accounts that track their own word count progress. At the end of the thirty days, if they’ve met their goals, they win recognition and the capability to print out their novels.

Because the students will end with a first draft, we’ll probably print these out and consider them WIPs (Works in Progress), and then continue to revise them throughout the year. Perhaps by the end of the year, we’ll have a second draft!

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Here’s a printable poster you can download from educators’ resources at the Nanowrimo Young Writers Program.

But that’s a long way off and there’s much planning to be done. It’s good to know, however, in the meantime, that I have the first requirement taken care of: my students are enthusiastic to accomplish this goal with me.


Have you ever tried Nanowrimo? How did it go? Did you try it with your classes? I’m open to any information you have about Nanowrimo. Click “like” and leave a comment about your novel writing experiences!

Five Reasons I Teach Cursive

Beyond giving students a competitive edge, here are some other impossible-to-ignore reasons.

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Two days ago, my post focused on this reason to teach cursive: to make sure that kids in public school are competitive with kids in private schools and around the world, where cursive writing is taught and practiced regularly.

I discuss this very practical reason with my students and it seems to really sink in… that learning cursive isn’t just something I think they should do, or their parents feel nostalgic about, but that it’s something that their peers are learning, so why shouldn’t they have the same opportunity?

Today, I’ve gathered some other more commonly cited reasons to teach cursive. These reasons, while solid, are often-discussed in academic circles. It’s easy to find several articles online that tout and support these reasons. I’ve included a few of these well-known reasons below to build my case for teaching and practicing cursive writing in public schools. Even though cursive writing is no longer in the standards for Missouri, I believe it should still be part of our school day.

1. Cursive writing activates the brain. “Brain scans reveal neural circuitry lighting up when young children first print letters and then read them. The same effect is not apparent when the letters are typed or traced,” writes Tom Berger, executive editor at Edutopia.org. While addressing handwriting in general, this idea can transfer to cursive writing specifically. Berger writes that cursive, and other forms of handwriting, commands specific patterns in the way our brains work.

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Photo by Lesly Juarez on Unsplash

In addition, students take better notes when they write by hand. The benefits of manual note-taking are compounded when students use cursive, according to Cursive Logic, a provider of cursive curriculum, including some cool freebies you can download. Students who take notes by hand actually digest the content and reframe it in their own words—a process that increases both understanding and recall.

Here’s one last note from Campaign for Cursive, a volunteer organization that advocates cursive: “(Cursive writing) unlocks potential for abstract thinking, allows the human brain to compartmentalize, and expands memory capacity.” Obviously, cursive has a definite connection to critical thinking, which was my school district’s central focus last year.

2. I’ve noticed that kids definitely struggle when they work with their hands these days. If cutting with scissors is a challenge for some, imagine how they may feel when I ask them to write in cursive!  Practicing cursive writing improves hand-eye coordination, fine motor skills, and memory functions, writes Berger.  It’s more than just about writing a fancy script; writing in cursive will hone their fine motor skills outside the classroom.

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Photo: Pixabay

3. In my own opinion, cursive writing is a connection to our past. If kids expose themselves to cursive writing, they’ll be able to read letters and documents written long ago. True, cursive may not be a requirement for living in the 21st century, but it can still have important functions.  Read this post about how I have connected with my own ancestors through cursive correspondence.

4. I’ve heard numerous students comment that they enjoy seeing their cursive writing improve over the school year. It’s nice to hear them notice their own progress. When students see their cursive writing improve, they experience a pride of workmanship. Like with any skill, practice makes perfect.

5. As kids grow into young adults, cursive can help. Writing in cursive is considered an important rite of passage by many students. It’s a signal that one is maturing and growing in intellect. Removing cursive writing from the standards unfairly denies this gift to students. Why not allow kids this opportunity?


Thanks for reading! How do you feel about cursive writing? Do your students practice it? Is it required?  Feel free to leave a comment to share your experience and follow my blog to stay in touch.