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 5

 

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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.

 

Contest #2 That Works for My Students: DAR American History Essays

Originally published June 9, 2017 ©Edutopia | The George Lucas Educational Foundation


Tired of making all the rules? Let a contest committee do it for you. Your students will show more buy-in when citing their evidence, for example, when the judge — and not you — requires it. Here’s another contest to help you teach important writing skills.

 

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My seventh-grade student, Charlie, accepts his state and division level DAR American History Essay awards.

 

Every fall, the Daughters of the American Revolution conducts its American History Essay Contest for 5th-8th grade students. I assign this to all sixth-graders and make it optional for seventh- and eighth-graders. This is one of my favorite contests because it challenges the students to write from 600-1,000 words. Contact your local DAR chapter to get started. (Click here to find a local chapter.) After the school-level contest, each school’s winning essays move on for judging at the regional, state, and national levels.

Topic or Prompt: Each year the prompt is different but focuses on an important American historical event. In 2016, the National Park Service celebrated its 100-year anniversary. The prompt: “Pretend you are writing a journal while visiting one of the 58 national parks. Identify its location. Discuss why and when it was established as a
national park. What makes this park one of our national treasures?”

Use a previous winning essay as a mentor text.  Read the 2016 winning essay here. Last year, one of my seventh-grader’s essays won at the local, state and divisional level. Read his essay at this link.

Best Thing (To Me) About This Contest: I love how this contest asks students to blend narrative and informative genres. The most recent contest required a journal-style essay. Last year’s was a narrative about the effects of the Stamp Act on a colonial family. The previous year’s asked students to pretend to be an immigrant at the Ellis Island immigration center. They then had to write a letter home about the experience. All DAR essays must provide historical facts within an innovative structure. That’s a complicated skill and the kids love the creativity it naturally requires.

Skills Addressed:

  • Providing Evidence. Essays are judged on historical accuracy. All facts and details must be cited in a bibliography. This is new territory for my sixth-graders.
  • Development. Students must adhere to the topic. This can be difficult to do for sixth-graders within a narrative structure. Every essay must contain a beginning, middle, and end… all the while giving the reader the facts and details needed.
  • Creativity. This is where we discuss techniques to hook the reader: conflict in the first sentence, compelling dialogue, imagery, sensory language.
  • Conventions. Students must submit a “clean” essay. Judges look at spelling, grammar, punctuation, and neatness.

Length: 5th grade: 500 words; 6th-8th grades 600-1,000 words. This is a challenge for my sixth-graders at first, especially for those who have only mastered the paragraph. I tell them that I can’t submit their essay unless it has the required word count. (Again, blame it on the judge!) Of course, many students enjoy pushing their essays to 1,000 words. This leads to class discussions about the importance of every word doing its job. Authors can’t stuff with fluff.

Deadline: Near Thanksgiving break every year.

Prizes: The DAR offers awards at each local, state, division, and national level. Awards at lower levels vary. The national winner is announced at the annual Continental Congress in June and receives a monetary prize, certificate and gold pin.

The Unexpected Bonus: I introduce MLA style to sixth-graders with this essay. They love the final product: a professional-looking multi-page document with a contest-required cover page and bibliography.

For More Info: Click here for general information. Visit the DAR website in August for a 2018 guidelines sheet.

Questions or comments? Something you know about this contest that I don’t? Have a contest success story? I would love to hear from you!

 

In middle school research, pictures are winning

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In the game of middle school student research, pictures are winning and words are losing. I have noticed increasingly that students, when they are researching a topic for a writing assignment, spend a lot of time not reading articles. Many spend their time looking at pictures. Or watching videos. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve noticed students scrolling down full screens of thumbprint images. Here’s a typical conversation we would have as I walked around the room and noticed students doing their research with Google Images.

Me: “What are you doing?”

Student: “I’m doing my research.”

Me: “What are you trying to find out?”

Student: “What gray squirrels look like.”

Me: “So why don’t you Google gray squirrels?”

Student: “I did.”

Me: “But Google it in web search and find articles.”

Student: “But I Googled it here instead and now I’m just looking at the pictures to find out what gray squirrels look like.”

And that got me thinking because the student had a point. I think. It made me wonder whether perusing images could be more authentic research than reading. So I had a debate with my selves: my old school self and my new media self.

Old school self: No, reading is better.

New media self: But couldn’t the result of reading simply be ingesting and recording what someone else has written about what gray squirrels look like?

Old school self: Yes, true, but don’t forget that in looking at all these images, you are just looking at what someone else has decided for whatever reason is a gray squirrel.What if some of them you’re looking at aren’t actually gray squirrels? How do you know they’re gray squirrels?

New media self: Well, in an article, how do we know the author actually knew what he was writing about?

Old school self: That’s why we choose authoritative sources. “National Geographic,” for example, instead of answers.com. 

Authoritative sources. There’s really the issue. It seems kids don’t know how to locate authoritative sources. Looking at images is easier. And then they get stuck. Scrolling endlessly through mind-numbing screenfuls of tiny images.

True, an exhausting variety of visual information, whether it’s the printed word, the image, or the video, simply comes with the Internet territory. So why not use it all to benefit our research? Perhaps.

The thing is this: I’m just afraid middle school students will take the path of least resistance and over-rely on images for the bulk of their learning every time they need to do research.

Your thoughts? Am I over-reacting or noticing a troublesome trend?

A Facebook Status Can Be a Starting Point for Hesitant Writers

 

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Photo: Steinar Engeland

 

Originally published March 16, 2016 ©Edutopia | The George Lucas Educational Foundation

One of my students wrote a 150-word personal essay. It was heartfelt. It was raw. It was also a Facebook status.

So I’m a little confused. That’s because this student—let’s call her Lisa—often struggles to complete most of the writing I assign in seventh grade language arts. Regardless of the topic or the discourse of writing, Lisa fights to come up with the ideas, let alone the words, to complete the assignments. On several occasions this year, she has visited my classroom during study hall for one-on-one help with her assignments.

In fact, just two weeks ago, I asked my students to write the first draft of a personal narrative essay. For writing ideas, I included several prompts from which they could choose, and if they didn’t like any of the prompts, they could create their own. Lisa has yet to turn this assignment in, yet she did . . . on her own . . . unprompted . . . write this Facebook status, an extremely personal—albeit brief—essay that expresses her belief in the importance of friendship, her deep concerns about our society’s preoccupation with physical perfection, and the dangers of self-destructive behaviors.

Her status is actually a solid start to a keenly insightful personal essay or memoir. The status is clearly and succinctly written and grammatically clean. I sense the voice of the writer bubbling to the surface through her carefully chosen words.  It has an existential, reflective quality that we often discount, dismiss, or “test out of” our kids today.

So what happened? What possessed Lisa to write in her free time . . . over spring break, no less?! Answer: the “authenticity” of the experience. She knew she had an audience. She knew her work would be read and pondered, and that it would elicit “reactions.” She knew it might make a difference, it might matter.

Current writing pedagogy advocates that teachers provide authentic writing experiences to increase student engagement and motivation. As a fifth-year rookie teacher, I try to involve my students in similar experiences as much as I can, and I’m gradually getting better at providing more and more of these opportunities. For example, I post their writing in the room and hallway, and I’ve begun to post their writing in a blog on my classroom website.  One student will have an article published soon in a local newspaper. We enter contests. Now, Lisa’s status has shown me that social media can offer authenticity as well.

Yes, many (myself included) consider social media a diversion that primarily engages young people in abbreviated, often pointless, conversation. Much of what one sees while scrolling Facebook, especially among young people, is brief, inconsequential texting. But occasionally, you find a gem of a status like Lisa’s that surprises you. Cling to these authentic experiences, incorporate them into a lesson, or otherwise use them to show hesitant writers that their thinking on social media can be consequential and have greater purpose.

Lisa’s personal essay, as it reads now as her Facebook status, doesn’t contain a narrative, a story . . . yet. But it does contain the impetus, the spark necessary to ignite the story that is already there in her memory and is waiting to be told. When she weaves that story into her status, she’ll have a personal essay bonfire that will illuminate the writer she is becoming. And she’ll have one fewer missing assignment on the list.