Here’s the prompt for the 2018-19 VFW Patriot’s Pen Essay Contest

This contest is a winner for middle schoolers!

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Photo by Fernando @cferdo on Unsplash

The Patriot’s Pen essay contest for grades 6-8 is getting started for the 2018-19 school year. The first step: learning the theme. And (drumroll please!)…here it is: Why I Honor the American Flag.

This year’s theme will resonate with students as it recalls the national conversation about patriotism and specifically how we show patriotism toward our national flag during sports activities (think NFL kneelers) and other public events.  However, don’t limit your students to that angle. Your kids will get creative with the topic, so allow them that freedom to interpret the prompt how they see fit.

The deadline for this year’s contest is October 31 and while that sounds like a distant point in the future, once school starts, it rolls around pretty quickly.

Here’s my checklist for how I go about introducing the contest each year:

  • Announce the theme the first or second week of school just to let it brew in students’ minds.
  • Facilitate a class discussion where we discuss prior knowledge relating to the prompt.
  • Brainstorm some possible angles for the essay.  (If kids have a hard time coming up with ideas, that’s okay. We still have a month before we attack the contest in earnest, usually around the first of October.)
  • Set a day where the work will really begin. This is usually one month before the due date. This allows plenty of time for drafting, protocol peer review, revising, and editing. It also gives us plenty of time to send drafts home for parents to read objectively. Students often become so close to their material that they need someone totally new to the project with whom to share it. I have students attach a note that says “Fresh Eyes Needed” to explain the project to parents.

I also usually make a phone call to our local VFW chapter just to let them know that my students will be participating again and to confirm the due dates. The post commander usually comes in person to pick up the entries, so the phone call helps to solidify that pick-up date.

I assign this essay as an activity that only my seventh graders do to increase the students’ incentive to win.  And since our local VFW recognizes three of them with cash awards, their chances of winning are high!

First through third place winners receive $100, $75, and $50 each, respectively, as well as a nice medallion and certificate. Our local chapter is so generous and I appreciate their sponsorship of the contest. Check with your local chapter to learn how they are able to support your students.

The three winning entries from my class then advance to the next level for judging. Unfortunately, my first-place winner last year missed progressing to the next level by only one point! Nationwide, 132,000 students entered last year’s contest where the grand prize national winner receives $5,000.

So there you have it. The 2018-19 VFW Patriot’s Pen Essay Contest theme and a few details. For much more about this contest, including information about mentor texts and what the judges look for,  click here. If you haven’t had your students compete in many contests before, click here for my post about how motivating writing contests can really be.

I’m a believer in writing contests and I’m always on the lookout for new ones. In fact, tomorrow I’ll be posting about a Holocaust-related contest you might be interested in. I hope you’ll click follow to learn about it.


Thanks for reading! Click like if this contest is one you’d like to try. For high schoolers, click here to learn about the Voice of Democracy essay competition, where next year’s theme is Why My Vote Matters.

If you have a question or need more information, please respond below and I’ll get right to you with an answer. 

Where have all the “thank you” notes gone?

Here’s what happened the first time I taught the “thank you” note

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Okay, where are the thank you notes? Who said they were no longer necessary? Someone must have, because I often don’t receive one anymore. And it’s not as if I’m expecting one, but I would like to at least know that the gift I shipped was received. Unfortunately, sometimes I never find that out.

So, to counter this trend, last year I added thank you notes to our project list for writer’s workshop.

Here’s the background on how I have done writer’s workshop in my class for the past two years:

I have only done this structured form of writer’s workshop during the first and second quarters of the school year. I gave students a list of 8-10 projects from which they could choose to work on during dedicated workshop time. They were required to choose six projects from this list and complete the projects in any order they chose. There was a writing process to follow for each project. The process included:

  • writing a first draft
  • collaborating through peer response to the first draft
  • revising, editing, and then generating a second draft
  • receiving my feedback on their second draft
  • making final revisions and edits, and then generating a final draft.

At the end of the workshop period, usually the end of the quarter, students turned in all projects andaccompanying paperwork (prewriting, previous drafts, etc.) inside a two-pocket folder. Writing projects included poetry, how-to and/or listicle blog posts, academic essays, contest essays, arguments, short stories, and thank you notes. 

At the beginning of the school year, I bought a few boxes of thank you notes students could use for their notes. They were to write a short (one- to two-paragraphs) note to someone they knew, thanking them for a gift, their friendship, or their help. I asked them to draft out what they planned to write on a sheet of notebook paper, and for this project only, submit that to me as their first draft.

Unfortunately, the thank you note project didn’t go as well as I wanted. Here’s why:

  • Kids tended to rush through this project because they knew it was one they could complete more quickly than the others.
  • Nearly all of my kids didn’t have any idea where to put “Dear Mom,” or “Yours truly,” on the card. I should have spent an entire class period practicing filling out a note card. See the photo below as an example of how kids simply didn’t know how to fill out a note card.

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  • Some of the writing was very personal. Some were so personal, in fact, that I didn’t feel comfortable reading them. Once this happened a few times, I simply asked students to show me their drafts on notebook paper. Then, due to the personal nature of some of the writing, I would skim the notes for mechanical errors instead of reading them carefully for content. Then I would initial their drafts and they could then write their note on a note card. Many of the notes probably contained unclear thinking and I hope they didn’t cause confusion for the readers. My approach seemed like a very lame way to handle the project; however, I just didn’t feel comfortable critiquing such personal messages.

So for the school year that starts in August, I’m undecided about how to teach students to write a thank you note. I think it’s a valuable skill, but I clearly need to take a different approach to it based on my experiences last year. Here are a few things that may help:

  • Perhaps dedicating an entire class period to the basic format or layout of a note card would be sufficient.
  • Also, maybe it would help if, instead of having students write their drafts on notebook paper, I provided a template cut to size so they could practice writing it on the space provided. Transferring their note from a full sheet of paper to the dimensions of a standard-size note card proved difficult for them last year. In fact, from my own experience, I know that figuring out where the words will be placed and where I’ll put any hyphens and such helps me create a more attractive, well-written note. It just makes the note look more planned out, more intentional.
  • Encouraging students to slow down with this project. Just because it’s only a paragraph of writing doesn’t mean it should be done carelessly.
  • For next year, I may also require them to write their thank you notes in cursive. They need to know that many readers will keep their notes as keepsakes and will want to read them again. Writing in cursive will make their note more formal and meaningful.

I’m interested in your ideas. Do you teach traditional letter writing or thank you notes? Do you think this is an important skill or one that may as well be done on a laptop? Leave a comment and let me know!


Thanks for reading! Follow my blog for more ELA teaching posts! If you have any ideas or resources you’d like to share, feel free to contact me using the menu at the top of the page or leaving a comment below. 

New mini-lesson resource: 100 Ways to Improve Your Writing

This “new to me” book will be fun to try this fall

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A year or two ago, I found an effective paragraph that explained sentence variety perfectly. Read the post about it here.  I dug a little deeper about the author and eventually made my way to this book, 100 Ways to Improve Your Writing, by Gary Provost.  Gary Provost was an author and writing instructor who died in 1995 right in the middle of his career.  In addition to his own books and articles, he produced a series of how-to writing books and seminars.

I ordered 100 Ways from Amazon last week and, after skimming through it, know I’ll be able to use several chapters in my language arts classes next year. I hope these short readings and the discussions they spark will make great mini-lessons to kick off a writing work day.

The book is divided into eleven chapters. Here are a few of them followed by one or two points discussed within each:

  • Five Ways to Write a Strong Beginning (Find a Slant, Set a Tone and Maintain It)
  • Twelve Ways to Give Your Words Power (Use Active Verbs, Be Specific, Use Statistics)
  • Ten Ways to Avoid Grammatical Errors (Do Not Change Tenses, Avoid Dangling Modifiers)
  • Six Ways to Avoid Punctuation Errors (How to Use Colons, Semicolons, Quotation Marks)
  • Twelve Ways to Avoid Making Your Reader Hate You (Avoid Clichés, Avoid Parentheses)
  • Seven Ways to Edit Yourself (Read Your Work Out Loud, Use Common Sense)
  • Nine Ways to Save Time and Energy (Use Transitions, Avoid Wordiness)

While the 158-page book deals with more technical topics, such as punctuation and grammar, the author also discusses the finer, more esoteric qualities of good writing. For example, in “Stop Writing When You Get to the End,” Provost writes,

When you have done what you came to do, stop. Do not linger at the door saying good-bye sixteen times.

How do you know when you have finished? Look at the last sentence and ask yourself, “What does the reader lose if I cross it out?” If the answer is “nothing” or “I don’t know,” then cross it out. Do the same thing with the next to last sentence, and so forth. When you get to the sentence  that you  must have, read it out loud. Is it a good closing sentence? Does it sound final? Is it pleasant to the ear? Does it leave the reader in the mood you intended? If so, you are done. If not, rewrite it so that it does. Then stop writing.

I like the tone of Provost’s writing. Concise. Clear. Practical. Warm. It’s an easy, friendly read, and has its share of funny writing snippets.

In addition, many chapters contain side-by-side examples of ineffective and effective writing. For instance, in the chapter entitled “Be Specific,” several examples of general and vague writing appear on the left-hand side across from their more specific counterpart on the right-hand side. Here’s one: The general “Various ethnic groups have settled in Worcester,” is shown alongside its more specific “Greeks, Italians, and Puerto Ricans have settled in Worcester.”

The book has a copyright date of 1972, so some of the examples used are outdated. I’ll just explain this to the kids, or pause while we read to explain obsolete terms. One I noticed was “word processing.” That term just isn’t used much anymore.

Some of the chapters overlap with existing lessons I already use; however, it never hurts to review the same concepts in different ways. This book will enable me to do that.

Check out this book by buying a single copy. I purchased a used copy on Amazon for about five dollars. That’s an inexpensive price for a potentially valuable new resource. Maybe a class set will be in my future.


Thanks for reading! Click like to help other readers find this post. Follow me for more similar articles on teaching middle school language arts.

 

 

Here’s the 7th Grade Missouri State Winner in the 2018 DAR American History Essay Contest

Plus: How I used this contest to teach blended-genre writing

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I put World War I posters around my classroom during October and November to help students understand the era.  [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Every fall, my sixth-, seventh-, and eighth-graders enter an essay in the Daughters of the American Revolution’s   American History Essay Contest. Last fall was the fourth year my students entered the local contest, which is sponsored by the Taneycomo Chapter of the DAR, Forsyth, Mo. I’m proud to say that I’ve had students win at the local level for three of those four years and at the state level for two consecutive years!

Read this past article for information about the contest, guidelines, standards addressed, extra bonus, prizes, deadlines, and anything else I could think of that would be helpful to you.

Without any preview, other than the 2018 prompt, I’ve included below the 1000-word essay written by one of my seventh-grade students, Sara C. This essay was awarded first place among about forty entries submitted to our local county chapter. From there, it progressed to the state level, and placed first among all seventh-grade entries.

Here’s the prompt from the 2018 contest: The end of World War I was the beginning of a new age. This year marks the 100th anniversary of the end of the Great War. Imagine you are living in 1918. State where you are living and how the end of the war will impact your daily life. Discuss the pros and cons of the changes this War introduced to society and how you imagine those changes will impact the United States in the years to come.

And here’s the essay that won “Best in the State of Missouri” by a seventh-grader: 

World War I: Remembering the War to End All Wars

We’re in the midst of the Great War. Women have assumed the jobs men had to abandon to fight with Allies. Ma and I work in the factory making uniforms for men at war. I want to take control for more than just work. I want to vote and be involved in the politics, the decisions, and the future of our country.

            My little brother, Henry, is fighting in the war. He is stationed in the fields of Flanders in Belgium. Little Henry… He should be here, but he’s a man. After he saw all the propaganda posters he decided he needed to help. He enlisted in the United States Army.

These posters were all over town, saying things like, “There is still a place in line for you. Will you fit in?” Or “Will you fight now or wait for this?” Then there was an image of destruction.

Ma and I were at a loss of words when told of his enlistment. It was hard on us. Now I don’t know if he’s safe. I may only hope for him to be okay. Not to starve, suffer a bullet wound, or get raided. I only have hope.

            Some of the other women have been getting angry. They want rights, as I do. Most only want equal pay. We get paid less for the same jobs, you see, and it isn’t fair. I’ve tried to explain the amount of our pay isn’t as important as the way we are treated, but few listen to me. They don’t want to face the truth in other’s eyes, women are just for taking care of children. We are lesser in our brains, or so men think.

            While I was walking home today I saw my friend Mildred. She was once so beautiful and lively. Now she’s very tired and her skin is stained yellow, she has become a canary after working in the munitions factory.

            “It’s just awful!” Mildred  exclaimed. “Remember Ruth? The little redhead?” she asked. I nodded. “Well, she dropped dead today. Out of the blue too,” she explained shaking her head.

            “What of?” I asked. “Was the toxins of the munition, or the Spanish Influenza?” Both have caused many deaths.

The flu was worst. It filled the lungs with fluids so people drowned. Sometimes it turned skin blue, too. It was a terrible thing for someone as small and fragile as a child or a large-built man to die of something beyond their control.

            “We don’t know yet. They say it was most likely from the flu. I think they’re trying to cover up,” she confides. “I believe it was the toxin we are exposed to. It’s not healthy.” Her face turns red with anger.

            In the field next to us kids are singing, skipping rope, and laughing. We heard them loudly chanting,  “I had a little bird, its name was Enza, I opened the window and in-flu-enza!” A woman scolds the kids as a group before grabbing a young girl by the wrist and pulling her inside their small house.

            “Mildred? I think I want to go to war,” I said.

            She looked ahead then laughed, tossing her head back. “Girls can’t be soldiers!” she wailed. “You’re too funny, Ruby. Way to lighten the mood!” she laughed again.

            “No, I’m serious. I may not be a soldier but I can go fix the soldiers up. They always need nurses,” I reasoned. “We could go help.”

            “Don’t be silly,” Mildred bursted. “What would your Ma do without you?” she exclaimed. “She’s already worried sick about Henry.” She looked at me waiting for an answer.

            “I suppose you’re right,” I sighed. “Someone needs to take care of Ma. And besides,” I said,  “I can’t very well fight for women’s rights on the battlefield.” Mildred rolled her eyes, said goodnight and entered her small house.

            I walk home and say hello to Ma.

            “Please don’t go today,” she begs as I step through the door. “The other girls can handle it,” she says.

            “Ma, please. Come with me,” I say.  I grab my jacket and bag.

            “No, no. I will not go,” she says crossing her arms. “When I was a girl of your age I was married and happy. Why in the world would you want to go and change things? You want to work?  No thank you, I’ll be sitting right here when you get back,” she says sternly.

            “Okay, suit yourself,” I say. “But I’m going to change America.” With that I left.

            I get mad when people tell me I’m wasting my time on something that’s meaningful and important to me. If I want equal rights I will get them. Look at all the work we women are putting in. Shouldn’t that be enough to show we are just as good, qualified, and patriotic as men?

I enter the meeting with my head held high.

            On November 11, 1918 the Great War, now known as WWI ended. We celebrate it as Veterans Day. We have parades and parties; many celebrations and the importance of why we celebrate should be heard; to honor all those who lost their lives for our freedom and safety, for all who suffered what we couldn’t begin to imagine.

            Women won the battle for suffrage. On August 18, 1920 women gained the right to vote. It was the opening of a door to all the rights women now have earned in the decades to come. The right to equal opportunities in work and society, the right that women can do anything a man can do. As Elizabeth Cady Stanton once said, “We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men and women are created equal.”

  As a young lady, I’m proud. I’m proud girls can do anything men can do. As an American, I’m proud we have so many brave souls to give us the freedom we so desperately want. I would love nothing more than to thank each and every veteran individually.

Bibliography

American Experience Influenza 1918. Directed by Robert Kenner. WGBH Educational Foundation. Public Broadcasting Service. 1998.

“Spanish Influenza in North America 1918-1919” Contagion: Historical Views of Diseases and Epidemics. Harvard University Library Open Collections. Accessed 17, Oct. 2017.

Grant R. G. World War I. The Definitive Flawed History. DK Publishing. 2014. Print.

“In the Aftermath of World War I, Nations Were Forever Changed.” ThoughtCo.com. Newsela.com. 2017. Accessed 4 Nov. 2017.

Keene, Jennifer. “World War I” GilbertLehrman.org. Gilbert Lehrman Institute of American History. 2017. Accessed 17 Oct. 2017

“Outbreak of World War I” History.com. Newsela.com. 2017. Accessed 14 August. 2017.

Sara’s essay is not perfect. It switches points-of-view; there are some grammar issues. However, it does contain lots of period detail and a thorough knowledge of the myriad social changes brought on by the war. Sara paid direct attention to the prompt and made sure her essay addressed all criteria.

How I used this contest to teach blended-genre writing

I decided to use this essay contest to teach my students how to blend genres in their writing. To start, I did that by writing my own first draft of a story that shifted from narrative to expository about halfway through.

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Penelope Willard of the Taneycomo Chapter of the DAR and me at the essay awards ceremony, the 2018 George Washington Tea. The flowers were to recognize that my students have placed first in Missouri for two consecutive years.

I read my first draft aloud while students followed along on their own copy. I read it straight-through first and then we picked it apart, paying special attention to where exactly I “stepped out of” my story and began my informational writing.

You’ll see that this first draft is incomplete and shaky… some of my character’s names weren’t even decided yet and some of the plot’s action was abbreviated or even missing at this stage. Also, the point of view changed to third-person near the end, which I would need to fix.

With this mentor text, I told my students, I merely wanted them to see how to write narratively and then how to “step out of” the narrative and into informational writing. The bolded text at the top was just my note to students.

This is a start at my attempt at a blended genre essay… this is BOTH narrative and INFORMATIONAL….

How does it work in your opinion???

World War I: Remembering the War to End All Wars

“Well, don’t you think that since I worked alongside men and other women and other… well, Americans… that I ought to at least be able to cast a vote?” I tossed my head to the side. A strawberry blonde curl fell across my eyes.

I could tell my face was red and I hate it when my face turns red, but I was so sick and tired of having to explain this to people, most of all Mary, my closest friend, or who I thought was my closest friend.  I straightened my wool skirt. I pulled the curl away from my eyes and tucked it behind an ear.  I felt an argument sparking between us.

Mary turned to me, “But, Fiona, if they let women vote, then we’ll have to  …”, she hesitated.

“Be responsible? Intelligent? Up-to-date on what’s going on in the world?” I interrupted. I was flabbergasted. To think that we had both worked in the munitions factory, and had even moved to Chicago because there were so many jobs what with the war raging in Europe. To think that our jobs were contributing to the cause to fight the German Empire filled my heart with patriotism and duty.

===

Here’s where I step out of my story and start writing informationally:

The Great War ended on Armistice Day, Nov. 11, 1918. It was the dawn of a new era for the world and for American women like Fiona who had felt the rumblings of progress when they filed one by one into the factories and offices while their men fought overseas. Knowing that they were keeping the country producing weaponry, food, and  the other supplies for the homefront and for our allies caused them to feel the burdens that had been borne primarily by the men of the country. With this knowledge, it only seemed obvious that now they had earned the right to vote alongside the men they had filled in for during the war. Suffrage was justified.

===

Here’s where I step back into my story and resume writing narratively:

This conversation was the exact same one I had been engaged in with various people… friends, other women at the factory, my parents. It seems that no one takes it as seriously as I do, and I don’t understand why. We owe it to our men – the ones who’ve fought in and survived those horrible trenches– to be responsible. Why should they carry all the load? It’s not fair to them, I have tried to explain so many times.

It seems the only people who understand me or agree with me are the suffragists, the women who have been wanting much longer than I have to see that women get the right to vote. I’ve been to a few of their meetings… loud, raucous events that you would think would have more of an impact  than they do.

“Well, Fiona, I know you’re convinced this is the next step for women, but I guess I’m not so sure,” Mary ended the conversation. She picked up her bag, turned and walked away from me. We had arrived at the factory that morning early, done our jobs, and now we were returning to our homes. Separately. I wasn’t sure this would dispute we were in would end amicably. I wasn’t so sure she was truly my closest friend anymore.

The next evening, I attended a suffragette meeting downtown. Alone. Mary wouldn’t go with me.

“I know it’s probably a good thing, but I’ll let those women decide how to get the vote,” she had told me earlier when I inquired whether she wanted to go.

“Well, I’m not going to let others decide what I’m going to do and when. It’s the year 1918. The war is over. And I can’t vote. It’s ridiculous,” I told her.

“Well, ridiculous or  not, I’m not going to that meeting. You’ll have to go alone,” she had said. And so I went alone.

The meeting began at 8:00 p.m. The meeting hall was full but not crowded. Mostly women and girls were there, huddling in groups at the beginning. Around 8:15, a woman took the stage. “Ladies, we are here tonight to once again discuss the Suffragist movement. WE must remain strong. We must convince other women that their opinions, their attitudes matter. The victorious Allied forces owe American women a debt. Because we worked, the Allies won. Through working, we fought in our own way. Because we worked, our men are back home and our country is on the move. The future of the United States of America and its women is bright!” Those in attendance clapped, filling the meeting room with thunderous enthusiasm.

As I watched the activitiy on stage, I noticed the speaker motion to a young man who was standing to the right of the stage. He was in uniform, and  well… there’s just something about a man in uniform. The man walked forward to Stanton, removed his cap, and bowed his head to the audience. Who was he, I asked myself?

Ladies and gentlemen, I would like to introduce _______, who has just returned from the battlefield of ______________.  I asked Mr. ____ if he would tell us of his experiences in the Great War and also relate to us his thoughts – and the thoughts of his fellow soldiers — about suffrage. I believe you will be encouraged by his words as we continue to fight for the vote.”

Sgt. ______’s speech goes here:

I couldn’t contain my enthusiasm for the suffrage meeting I had attended. When I spoke with Mary at the factory the next morning, there was a frostiness in the air between us. She listened, but barely. I couldn’t understand why she wasn’t supportive. How anyone could continue to keep the voice of women out of politics and economic matters baffled me. When I mentioned my short conversation with Sgt. _____, she listened with curiosity at first, and then with disdain at the mention of Sgt. _________.

“Well, of course, your advocacy for suffrage only builds when there’s suddenly a handsome soldier involved!” She deposited her handbag into her locker, turned the key, and stomped off to her sewing machine. I stared after her, then headed for my own station.

Could I let this friendship go? Was I ready to take that step? Women usually work together, stick by each other, and  support one another.

I arrived early at the next meeting of the suffrage society, …. Was placed on a committee of young women to plan events to ensure that suffrage will pass. My committee was tasked with setting goals for the members as we work together to ensure passage of the 19th amendment.

First on the list: women should be allowed to vote alongside men, and to eventually hold office alongside men, whether it’s the office of head garbage collector, mayor, or even President of the United States!” I chimed in, amazed at my own bravery and high-minded idealism. This movement, born out of necessity from the horrors of the Great War, was changing me!

Has another conversation with Sgt. __________… it goes well and holds promise for the future for her personal life.

She decides to give up the friendship with Mary. It’s a tough decision, but having a say in elections is more important to Fiona than a friendship full of constant disagreement. Once she makes this decision, she knows she has made the right one. She feels that suffrage is more than just an idea, it’s a movement, a tidal wave, progress. It’s one of the few good things that came out of World War 1 and it will positively impact the future of the Uniteid States.

And it’s only a matter of time.

( 1,018 words)

Using my self-written mentor text was key to helping students see how they could write a story that they could, while in the same paper, “step out of” in order to explain facts, details and other information about the war.

Nearly all my students understood how to take the blended-genre approach to their entry and most used that approach. None of my IEP kids took the blended-genre route, which was fine. I knew they recognized when the genre shifted from narrative to informative; however, writing that on their own (with help) was difficult, and they tried. At least they were exposed to the technique… maybe next year!

This is the main reason I love the DAR American History Essay Contest: It has always allowed kids to write narratively, but the prompt can also be elevated to show kids how to blend genres. That’s an advanced skill, and one that isn’t addressed in the Missouri Learning Standards until ninth grade. It’s nice to know that my students have a “heads up” on this advanced writing move.


Thanks for reading! If you learned something with this post, click “like” and then leave a comment to let me know exactly what resonated with you, or if you have a question… ask away!

Also, follow this blog for a future post where I’ll share how I’ll prepare my students for the 2019 DAR contest. The theme? The Passage of the 19th Amendment, Women’s Right to Vote.

I’ll share about finding helpful videos, texts, and other resources, plus how I make homework assignments that build prior knowledge and lead up to the contest.  I also have students focus on precise details that can infuse their essays with realism. 

So far, these methods have worked for me and have helped my students win and build their writing confidence— my ultimate goal.

How to forget the Holocaust

Remove it from the curriculum

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Concentration camps, including Auschwitz, posted these words: Work sets you free. | Photo: Pixabay

Are we forgetting the Holocaust?

I asked myself this question recently as I perused an English Language Arts curriculum map for grades 6-8 and found that out of dozens of texts the curriculum uses over the three years, only one text addressed or had any connection to World War II:  Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand. However, this book, while an excellent and necessary text, does not focus on the Holocaust; instead, it depicts Japan’s brutal treatment of American POWs during wartime.

The curriculum map I browsed through recently is commonly known to teachers as Engage New York. It is more accurately called EL Education, formerly known as Expeditionary Learning, an open educational resource that can be accessed at no cost online.  It is a rigorous Common Core curriculum that “supports teachers in making the transition to Common Core instruction,” according to this informational brochure.

I’m afraid the omission of Holocaust literature from this curriculum means we are forgetting one of history’s most horrific sins.

In March, research firm Schoen Consulting revealed the results of a “Holocaust Knowledge and Awareness Study” commissioned by The Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany, New York, NY. Major findings of the survey revealed:

  • Seven out of ten Americans say fewer people seem to care about the Holocaust than they used to
  • Nearly 31 percent of all Americans and 41 percent of Millennials believe that substantially fewer than six million Jews were killed (two million or fewer) during the Holocaust
  • 45 percent of all Americans and 49 percent of Millennials cannot name a single concentration camp or ghetto of the 40,000 that existed

In fairness, the Engage New York middle school ELA curriculum does list other grievous events in world history. The curriculum contains a diverse range of texts. For example, A Long Walk to Water by Linda Sue Park chronicles the life of Salva Dut, a “lost boy” refugee fleeing the war in South Sudan. Inside Out & Back Again by Thanhha Lai tells the story of Ha, a ten-year-old girl Vietnamese girl forced to flee the violence of her home country to find refuge in the United States. Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass recounts the hardships and dehumanization of the slavery system of the American South.

And yes, perhaps placing emphasis on these other events adds greater relevancy to classroom discussions of oppression. Students can, after all, livestream discussions with  Salva  Dut. Also, some middle schoolers have grandparents and great-grandparents who may have fought in Vietnam. The effects of American slavery are still reverberating in our current racial divisions and controversies. In contrast, very few Holocaust survivors are alive today. I’m sure that in the minds of many kids, the Holocaust is ancient history.

However, studying the Holocaust is necessary. And I’m glad there is at least one Holocaust-oriented text in Engage New York’s ELA & Literacy Curriculum for grades 9-12: Wiesel’s Nobel lecture, “Hope, Despair and Memory.”

Without doubt, the inhumane intention, shocking magnitude, and cold machinations of Nazi Germany reveal humanity’s darkest side. We must learn from the Holocaust to prevent its reoccurrence. As Wiesel wrote in his lecture, “Remembering is a noble and necessary act. The call of memory, the call to memory, reaches us from the very dawn of history…It is incumbent upon us to remember the good we have received, and the evil we have suffered.”

Here’s another major finding from the “Holocaust Knowledge and Awareness Study”: a majority (58 percent) believe something like the Holocaust could happen again. I fear that if students don’t read about the Holocaust, it will be forgotten, and could likely reoccur.


And, in case you’re wondering why an English teacher is teaching history, it’s really a very common approach educators take to teach literacy skills. It’s necessary to provide a context within which language arts skills—reading, writing, speaking and listening— can be taught. Comma worksheets don’t engage students; real-world events do.

Thanks for reading! If this post made you think, please click “like.”  Feel free to leave a comment with your thoughts about the need for Holocaust literature in our schools. Which Holocaust texts have you read or taught in your classes?

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.