2017 Branson Tech Institute: My Takeaways

IMG_5004 (2)
An added bonus to attending the Branson Tech Institute was meeting and getting to know three teachers who are new to Kirbyville Schools. From L to R: new KMS science teacher Andrea Hoskins; me; new KMS special services teacher Shelby Ross; and new music/band/honor choir teacher for both KMS and KES, Phyllis Brixey.

I attended Branson Tech Institute, an educational technology conference, July 17-18 at Branson High School. The Branson School District extended invitations to attend the conference to area schools, including my district, Kirbyville R-VI. (Thanks to my district for paying my registration fee!)

About a dozen different classes were offered during each of nine sessions. Classes were categorized into grade level and subject areas. The district also provided a single link on Google drive for the presentation materials, handouts and links from all the sessions. A gold mine! Here’s a list and brief description of the sessions I chose to attend.

Chromebook Cart Management: This was a refresher course presented by Branson faculty member Kim Good. It showed me ways to keep my own computer cart organized in my classroom. Good news! My school already does what she recommended!

Google Forms: Quizzes, Data Collection & More: Presenter and Branson teacher Courtney Brown taught the basics of Google Forms. Even though I have attended other classes on Forms, I still don’t use it regularly in my classroom. However, I feel that this will change this year. I will be having students complete one on the first or second day of school this year. I’ll use it to give me an update on students’ writing style and interests, and home Internet access.

Curating Great Resources for ELA: Presenter Melody Alms taught this course on internet resources specifically for teaching ELA. My biggest take-away: CommonLit.org, a fantastic site for fiction and nonfiction literacy resources. So much to discover!

Twitter for Beginners: Even though I have started to more actively use Twitter this summer, this session taught by Katie Kensinger taught me some basics that I just didn’t know. By the way, I only have one Twitter account (many teachers have both personal and professional accounts). My Twitter account includes shares from this blog and my personal writing blog; my profile includes links to both blogs. I only tweet about topics related to my writing and teaching.

Social Media in the Classroom: This course focused on the use of Instagram in the classroom. Branson teacher Sarah Yocum shared her private class Instagram account and procedures. Very interesting. I had toyed with this idea previously this summer based on an Instagram post made by a former student. Read about that here. As a result, I have started my own private account for my ELA classes at Kirbyville Middle School. You can see my first four posts in the sidebar of this blog. I envision posting photos for writing prompts, writing tips, class photos (with parent permission, of course).

Parents, students, and my Kirbyville colleagues may request to follow the account; however, I don’t follow anyone in return. Students must have a parental permission form signed before they can follow the account.

Because not all students have Instagram (especially in middle school), students won’t “have to have” access for assignments; the class Instagram will be supplemental. Posts that must be seen for an assignment will be on the smartboard in class or given on a handout. This will be just a new way to interact with students in a medium they are comfortable with.

EdPuzzle: This class taught about a free interactive site that allows the teacher to select a video and then edit it, thereby tailoring it to their instruction.  The program also contains analytical tools to evaluate student progress and mastery. While I found this very valuable, it seemed to require more time to learn than I am willing to invest at this time.

ESL — Modified and Meaningful Instructions with Technology: This class was focused for literacy coaches and provided a wealth of information and resources that I need occasionally as I interact and teach students for whom English is their second language. I wish I had learned this material about two years ago when a Spanish-speaking student who knew no English entered my classroom. Biggest takeaway: We must provide our ESL students with the common speech alternatives to academic terms, even going so far as providing them English vocab tip sheets for them to access when doing assignments and tests.  For example, there are many synonyms that are helpful to know when we talk about addition in math class. Some of these are how many altogether, sum, plus, add it up, and others.

GoFormative: This session discussed the use of this tool that evaluates learning of all students. Found at goformative.com, this site lets teachers create instant quizzes over videos and material you select to teach. I could possibly use this for reading comprehension checks and vocabulary lessons.

Green Screen and Stop Motion: Taught by Paula Bronn and Kari Houston, this class gave teachers the basics of incorporating dynamic and exciting presentation options for kids. I can see kids producing professional presentations from exotic locales (based on the images they find to project on the screen). The possibilities are really endless and it’s hard to wrap my mind around all that could be achieved with this tool. Added bonus of this session: I learned I don’t actually need a green screen. Green paper will suffice. The only hardware I would need would be an Ipad and a tripod. They even showed us how to make stop-motion videos with claymation and Lego figures. Here’s the main site I would check out first: Doink.

Poster Sessions: On Tuesday morning of the event, all sessions hosted a table in the commons area. Each attendee was given a card to have initialed by the presenter at each table. One goal of the poster sessions was to get the initials of 15 presenters to win a door prize (I won a drawstring backpack). However, the biggest goal of the poster sessions was simply to give attendees a chance to gather information on sessions that they didn’t actually take a class for, due to time constraints.  Smart idea and very beneficial!

To conclude, my greatest takeaway from the entire conference is to make sure that technology propels a student’s education forward.  Technology is an incredible gift, IF teachers use it intelligently, effectively and efficiently.

In other words, technology doesn’t always win against tried-and-true tools such as pen and paper, but being informed about technology’s benefits and potential uses does help me connect better with my students who have lived their entire lives surrounded by it.

I’m Imagining the Possibilities of Project-Based Learning

 

wrvhs book
The Spring 2017 issue of the WRVHS magazine

 

Yesterday I met for about an hour with Leslie Wyman, the managing director of the White River Valley Historical Society based in Forsyth, Missouri. I had contacted her last week by email to inquire whether there were any projects for which my students could provide basic research and/or writing.

I really didn’t know what I would find out, or even if there would be any opportunities for my students. In her reply email, however,  she told me that several ideas came to mind! Wow, I thought, this is exciting!

So we met and talked about one idea in particular, which sounds very promising. I’m pondering the idea a bit further and hope to meet with her again next week to ask her a few more questions so we can, together, design a “real world” project for my seventh-graders.

Contest #4 That Works for My Students: New York Times Editorial Contest

 

janko-ferlic-289675 (2)
Photo by Janko Ferlič on Unsplash

 

Since 2014, The New York Times has sponsored an opinion-editorial contest on its Learning Network site. Last spring, all of my seventh-graders submitted entries for their chance to win.  This contest engaged my students, especially because they knew they were writing for The New York Times.

Age Range: This contest is open to students aged 13-19.

Topic or Prompt: Students may write on any topic they wish. If they have trouble finding a topic, give them this list published by the Times. Consider narrowing it down first, since the size of the list can be overwhelming. Also, depending on the age of your students, skim through the list to eliminate any topics that aren’t age-appropriate. Some of the topics are too mature for my middle schoolers. Some sample topics from recent years include Is Social Media Making Us More Narcissistic? Another one: Do Teachers Assign Too Much Homework?

For a complete list of 2017 winners with links to the top ten, go here. Copy off a few of the winning essays to use as mentor texts.

Best Thing To Me About This Contest:

The clout of writing for the Times makes this contest special. My students hold this newspaper that’s been in publication for 162 years in high esteem and like knowing their writing may receive recognition from it.

Skills Addressed:  Students must state their argument and support it efficiently with background information, examples, evidence, and counter-arguments. As for evidence, at least two sources must be used; one of those must be from the Times.

Click here for a rubric that shows what the judges are looking for. We discussed the rubric in class and used it as a checklist during peer response.  I also used it during grading.

Share these tips from the editors with your students. Here’s one the editors offer: “Start strong. Grab our attention in the first few sentences, but don’t take too long to state your argument.”

Length: 450 words or less. This is about concision.  Students learn to make every word absolutely necessary to the argument.

Deadline: Early April. Check back here in early 2018 for next year’s date.

Prizes: This year, 128 winners were chosen out of nearly 8,000 entries. This includes 10 top winners, 15 runners-up, 45 honorable mentions, and 58 writers whose essays survived to the third round. Winning essays are published on the Learning Network site.

The Unexpected Bonus: Students enter their essays online themselves here. This makes it super easy to submit entries. Students also must enter their sources in the online form. Examples are given so students format citations correctly.

For more information:  Click here for complete rules.

 

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!

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

desk

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

 

girl-698777_1920 (2)
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.

 

tran-mau-tri-tam-66497-2
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 4

 

jamie-street-158820 (2).jpg
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!