Contest #6 That Works for My Students: Scholastic Art & Writing Awards

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Brooke and I show our “heavy medals” in May. Certificates and medals won at the national level are awarded to both the student winner and their teacher. Nice!

One of my goals during the 2017-18 school year was to finally enter a student’s work in the Scholastic Art & Writing Awards. And right before Christmas break, two of my students entered poetry.

Brooke S. entered four poems, Ally W. entered two. Brooke earned a Gold Key Award at the regional level, sponsored by the Greater Kansas City Writing Project with her poem entitled “Colors,” which then advanced to the national level. In March, we learned that she had won a Silver Key Award at nationals. This was such a thrill!

Despite the fact that she had really wanted to earn a Gold Key at nationals (because then she would have attended the award ceremony at Carnegie Hall in New York City!); she was excited with her national prize.  After all, more than 350,000 entries were submitted nationally; only 3,259 were awarded national prizes! This places her poem in the top one percent (less than that, actually) of all entered!

By the way, Ally’s poetry did not qualify for a regional prize, but knowing that I believed her work to be of the quality needed for Scholastic hopefully awarded her with more confidence in her work.

The Scholastic Art & Writing Awards is arguably one of the most prestigious contests for young writers in the country. It’s definitely the longest-running contest of its caliber. I found out about this contest when I attended a regional writing conference during February 2016. I went to the regional awards ceremony during the conference and as student after student received awards, I thought, There is absolutely no reason I don’t have a student being recognized.

So during the next school year, I kept the contest in mind. However, it does have an early January entry deadline and because I didn’t begin the school year the previous August with the contest front and center in my mind, I lost track and simply didn’t get entries submitted. My bad.

So during the following year (this most recent, 2017-18), I picked up a promotional poster at a conference in the fall and began promoting the contest more with my students. I decided that our goal for entering would be before Christmas break. So, in December, I had Brooke enter her work, and then a week or two later, asked her to show Ally how to enter.

Who should enter:

  1. Students in grades 7-12.
  2. The student who especially finds joy or satisfaction or “release” in writing and even writes during their “off” time.
  3. The student who doesn’t recognize the value of their personal story and who writes those poems or stories that, even with grammar issues and revision needs, contain an idea or a story so arresting you are compelled you to sit down and just let the words wash over you.
  4. The student with the experiences that often go “untold.” Based on many of the winning entries I have read, Scholastic judges are seeking to promote writing from all students, not just the star writers. Judges want to promote stories about difficult circumstances, which often go untold.

How to be ready to enter:

  • Have students start saving work for entering in the contest as soon as school starts in August. Before school ended in May, I collected paper copies of some flash fiction my seventh-graders wrote during the last week of school. (The stories are also in their Google Drive accounts, but I kept hard copies… just in case.)
  • Don’t lose student writing! I have a file cabinet that students can use to keep hard copies of their work. If it’s important, it doesn’t leave the room, but stays in the cabinet (and therefore can’t “disappear” in the Google cloud).
  • Consider picking a category to focus on. Since there are several categories, it might be easier to manage and plan lessons (and for students to wrap their heads around) if there is a genre already selected. For example, I’ve already told my students that “flash fiction” will be our “focus category” for the 2018-19 contest.
    • Here are the categories:  Critical essay, dramatic script, flash fiction, humor, journalism, novel writing, personal essay and memoir, poetry, science fiction & fantasy, short story, plus a portfolio category for seniors only.
  • Know that any writing from 2018 may be entered into the 2018-19 contest.
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Brooke and I at the Write To Learn Conference in February, where she received her Gold Key Award from the Missouri Writing Region Awards. This qualified her for the national award level, where she won a Silver Key Award.

How to enter:

  • First, don’t put off entering. Go to www.artandwriting.org.  Click “How to Enter” in the upper left-hand corner. There is a process and it might look confusing at first sight. All the instructions are right there if you read carefully. Call or email your regional writing project chair, whose contact info will be provided, with questions.
  • To enter, students login, create an account, upload their work, pay fees, and include their teacher’s contact information, so you as their teacher, will be kept in the “loop” on their entries.
  • When your student enters, they will also be prompted to locate their regional writing project. This will include their work in the regional contest first.
  • About those fees… there is a $5 fee per entry uploaded. (Four poems can be entered for the $5 fee.) If your student receives free or reduced lunch, the fee is waived. You’ll just print out a form that verifies their status.
  • Students enter online, but must later mail in their fees or the fee waiver form.
  • For your first student who enters, consider having them enter on a computer in front of you so you can see what the process looks like. Teachers receive an email confirmation when an entry is received by Scholastic from one of their students.
  • Regional awards are announced in February after the January deadline. Teachers will receive an email if they have a winning student.
  • National awards are announced in March.
  • Here’s the link to the general entry guidelines.

Prizes:

At the regional level, students who won honorable mentions, silver, and gold keys are awarded pins and certificates. They also receive a journal and a copy of the Best of Teen Writing. At the national level, students receive a larger medal (it’s heavy!) and a certificate. Gold Key Award winners also receive an invitation to attend the award ceremony at Carnegie Hall in New York City.

Put Scholastic Art & Writing Awards on your list of contests to investigate for school next year. Promote it to your students as the “creme de la creme” contest that everyone has a shot at. Follow “artandwriting” on your class Instagram, (here’s a post about mine) so students see it often. Then, keep an eye out for those pieces of student writing that make you set down your cup of coffee and re-read. You know the ones.


I quickly wrote this post, so if I think of more details or notes to add, I’ll update it. Please follow this blog to be aware of those changes. If you know of any great contests to enter, please comment! Writing contests for students are quickly becoming my specialty and  I’m interested in learning all I can so I can share it with you.

Gold stars for everyone!

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Time to reflect on the first year of my 7th-grade PBL project

Year one is down! During the 2017-18 academic school year, my seventh-grade language arts classes started a project in partnership with the White River Valley Historical Society, a local organization in Forsyth, Mo., that preserves, promotes, and protects the cultural heritage of southern Missouri and northern Arkansas. Read other posts about this project here.

The project was to rejuvenate a children’s newsletter called Whippersnappers that the society had published previously for a few years, but later abandoned when its primary contributor, a volunteer student, grew older. Over the course of a few conversations last summer with the society’s director, it was decided that my seventh-grade students could contribute the content. Here’s the front page of our second issue:

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Somehow I got home for summer without the latest issue! I’ll add it to this post later.

To produce each issue, my classes thought up story ideas for the newsletter, wrote their stories, and shared in the writing process as they researched and revised their work for publication by the WRVHS. In October, our first issue was distributed. Just before Christmas break, our December/January issue was released. In March, the February/March issue came out, and the final issue of the year was released the day before school let out for the summer.

It was a whirlwind year, full of experimentation and unpredictability. I’ve listed below, in no particular order, some positives from the experience, but will probably think of more as the summer progresses. As I think of other positives, I’ll edit them into this post, so follow this blog to be aware of updates.

  1. Students were able to choose their own story topics; they had agency over the content. For the first couple of issues, we brainstormed ideas on the whiteboard. More than enough ideas were gained from these brainstorms that those first two brainstorming sessions created a topic list from which students could choose for the remaining two issues.
  2. Students had to consider their audience. The readers of the Whippersnappers newsletter are kids ages five to fourteen, which is quite a span. Writers had to decide exactly who, within that age range, their particular story appealed to, and keep those readers in mind with regard to word choice.
  3. Students were required to consider the criteria of the publisher. Stories had to contain a local or regional history angle. If that focus was missing from a story, students needed to figure out how to include them before their stories could be submitted to the publisher.
  4. It was satisfying for the students to see their name in print. (Due to privacy, students’ first names and last initial were used for their bylines.) In addition, seeing where in the issue their article was placed was important to them. They liked being on page one; however, when their story was placed last in the issue, we discussed the reasons publishers might have for doing this, such as space limitations.
  5. Students knew they had an authentic audience that would be reading their work; I was not the final audience. They knew that people in the community would be receiving these in their mail and that made their work more accountable.
  6. Field trips were fun! We took two, one to the WRVHS main office in Forsyth, Mo. and their newer museum in downtown Branson. This allowed them to see up close the work of the WRVHS and to hold some historical artifacts, as well as see the society’s archives and files.
  7. They learned by trial-and-error that sentence variety takes on new meaning with a publication. After our second issue was published, we held a “wrap-up” discussion and noticed that about half started with the question, “Did you know that…?” Seeing the over-reliance on this common introductory technique showed them the need to work harder at varying their leads. It also showed the importance of previewing the issue as a whole.

I’m glad there are only a few negatives to reflect upon. I would like to tackle these for the next 2018-19 school year:

  1. Research was limited. Students used an online database of the society’s quarterly magazine almost exclusively. This database, however, only had searchable issues through 1997, due to a grant partnership with a local library system. Students would reference information found in these magazines with standard attribution and speaker tags. The benefits of this was that students could safely and easily research their topic. However, using this one form of research was limiting. It would have been great to vary our research with interviews or in-person contact with researchers at the WRVHS, for example. Next year, I would like to address this issue. Another hurdle is that my students do not have email addresses, so that limits how they can contact sources. The WRVHS director suggested a private Facebook group where the students could post questions to anonymous research volunteers at the WRVHS. This might be an alternative.
  2. Classroom management was challenging. During those first few days of researching and writing, as students were grappling with their topics and how to begin, classroom management was difficult. Some students could work independently, which was a great help. Most students needed my help from time to time and if I was busy working with another student, they would just stop working and wait on me. Eventually, they would begin to distract others. And then a few students need constant help and/or redirection. It’s was very hard to find the balance needed to make progress. There were a few days when I thought, “Why did I ever think this would work?” Those were the days I wanted to break out our textbooks and do a simple read-and-response assignment.
  3. I need more defined deadlines. Kids need to see results. Quickly. Stories for our first issue were sent out and about a week later, the issue was published and delivered. The other issues did not follow such a tight schedule, and I wished they had. When kids don’t know when the issue will print, they lose interest and excitement ebbs. So for next year, I’d like to set up a schedule to see if we can have solid dates for 1) delivering the stories to the publisher’s offices, and 2) receiving published newsletters back at school. If the students know that on Friday, Sept. 2, for example, we are sending out finished stories with no exceptions for last-minute edits or revisions, perhaps we will later see more predictable publishing dates.

All in all, I think this first year was a success and I want to try it again next year. The students seemed to value the experience and see importance in it.

What curriculum did I have to alter or remove in order to fit Whippersnappers into my year-long plans? I moved a novel unit to spring and just planned more tightly so everything could get accomplished. Seventh-graders still entered all the contests they normally do and they still completed their Writers Workshop project list. They became accustomed to having several projects in-process simultaneously. After all, I told them, that’s how real writers work.


Thank you for reading! Feel free to comment away to share your own PBL ideas for your ELA middle schoolers! One more thing: I am totally open to suggestions for how to address any of my “negatives” above. If you’ve done anything like this before, please share your secrets for classroom management, student research, etc. Let’s learn from each other!

Don’t ever delete anything again

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Photo by JESHOOTS.COM on Unsplash

Never ever ever.

So many times I have kids in my classroom who will delete sentences, whole paragraphs, or even more of their writing as they struggle through a first draft. When I find out they’ve deleted something, I turn on the drama. I gasp, cover my face with my hands, and plead with them to please don’t ever do that again.

Here’s what else I tell them when I find out they just pressed the delete key:

  • No! Don’t erase it now! You might be able to use it somewhere else later as you figure out where exactly this piece is going. 
  • Get it back! It might fit perfectly somewhere else later in the essay.
  • If there’s something you want to put aside for now, copy and paste it into a new doc. Or just space down to the bottom of your paper and separate it with a dotted line or something. But just don’t delete it!
  • You put way too much work into that to just delete it. Control  Z! Control Z!

I also tell them that I rarely get rid of anything I’ve written. When I’m writing on Medium, for example, if I have a paragraph to remove, I usually paste it into a new draft. I might later transform it into a new post. You just never know.

Encouraging kids to keep their work shows them their work and time are valuable. It shows them the messiness of writing is valid and necessary. It reveals how our ideas change as we write. It shows them that their thesis, gist, or premise can change and that’s okay.

And yes, I know that not everything they write is precious. They’re not writing the next great American novel, after all. Some things do need to be deleted. However, in general, my students need to slow down and think twice before pushing that delete key. Their words deserve more consideration.


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Dear DailyMail.com: Tom Cruise has never won an Academy Award.

Your fact-checkers and my students should take note; teachers like me over 50 should take heart.

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Photo: Eva Rinaldi; ©2017; https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/legalcode

This post is based on a story I recently wrote and posted on Medium.com. When I read something that I know is false, I take notice of it. This DailyMail.com article shows kids that not everything they read is true and that fact-checking is an important part of the writing process.

According to this Feb. 10 article in the DailyMail.com, Tom Cruise is an Academy Award winner.

This is false.

Yes, he has been nominated three times: Best Supporting Actor for Magnolia (2000); Best Actor for Jerry Maguire (1997); and Best Actor for Born on the Fourth of July (1990). However, Cruise has actually never clinched an Oscar.

I don’t feel sorry for him. Oh, no. After all, he’s a Scientologist on the bridge to total freedom or something like that.

But Cruise’s as yet elusive Oscar does make me feel vindicated… as in I’m not the only adult over 50 who still has goals to achieve. Just as I still have that book to write, Cruise still has that golden statuette to grab. Go us.


Click “like” if you enjoyed this post and feel free to leave a comment. Read more of my stories on Medium.com, where some are related to teaching, but most aren’t.

Welcome to My World: Boil Order at a Middle School

Ten things that happen when the water main breaks

 

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Photo by Malvestida Magazine on Unsplash

 

  1. Over the weekend, the local water protection district issues a “boil order” and ships pallets of water bottle cases to be stacked next to the water fountains on Monday morning. In any place other than a middle school, this would be a good thing.
  2. Construction paper signs are taped to fountains and faucets warning students not to drink the water. Here… have a seemingly unlimited supply of water bottles instead.
  3. Students drink two to three times as much as they usually do simply because they have water bottles. Man, water is delicious!
  4. Students make two to three times as many trips to the bathroom as they usually do simply because they have water bottles. Yes, go, just go.
  5. The fun wears off, so ingenious students use pens to punch holes in the lids of full water bottles. Squirt guns! Broken pens! (Does this count as a STEM activity?)
  6. The request to leave class to get a drink no longer applies because you, dear student, have a seemingly unlimited supply of water bottles instead. Please stay in the room and drink two to three times what you normally would.
  7. Drops of water appear on desks, turning typed words into illegible gray clouds. Look! There on the desk. It’s an essay! It’s an art project!
  8. Armloads of water bottles are tossed into the trash. Many are mostly full. So much for going green.
  9. Teachers exhibit great patience when students empty those water bottles and then squeeze them repeatedly. Here’s the sound those bottles make: crinkle-crackle- crinkle-crackle-crinkle-crackle-crinkle-crackle-crinkle-crackle. If teachers calmly wait for the sound effect to end (because this has been happening all day), it just might… but usually it doesn’t. Throw it away. Now.
  10. Tuesday morning feels like it should be Friday afternoon… for the teachers, anyway. This is gonna be one L-O-N-G week.

    Thanks for reading! Click “like” if you enjoyed this post. Feel free to leave a comment about your own middle school mayhem. Follow my blog for more posts about teaching middle school ELA, including writing contests and the unique PBL project my seventh-graders are engaged in with a local historical society. 

Dear Teachers: Avoid these so-called “educator’s kits” from the Church of Scientology

Try these human rights resources instead.

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Photo: By Pictorial Evidence (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons
I recently wrote a post on Medium and my sister blog called “Dear Parents: Scientology Wants to Get Inside Your Child’s Classroom” about how an organization known as Youth for Human Rights International (YHRI) offers a human rights educator’s kit for teachers to use in their classrooms. Not realizing that the YHRI was a front organization for the Church of Scientology, I had previously and inadvertently ordered and used these materials in my English Language Arts middle school classroom where my students connect the literature they read to specific human rights as listed in the United Nations’ 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights. However, the Church of Scientology has no business extolling the virtues of human rights and here’s why. I ended my recent post by promising to provide some alternative human rights teaching materials. If your child’s teacher discusses or teachers about human rights, suggest they check out the materials from these organizations instead:

  1. The United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights offers a Human Rights Education Series. First, download the PDF called “Teaching Human Rights: Practical Activities for Primary and Secondary Schools.”

 

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Photo: United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights

 

While teachers are at the UN website, they may also peruse a publication called “Human Rights Education in the School Systems of Europe, Central Asia, and North America: A Compendium of Good Practice.” This is a directory of human rights education practices around the world. Educators may browse the listings and description to find an idea that might work for their classes and then contact the organization that produces the resources for more information. They may also download this color poster of the UDHR to hang in their classroom.

  1. The Advocates for Human Rights (AHR) offers a comprehensive range of teaching materials. Located in Minneapolis, AHR’s mission, according to its publications, is “to implement international human rights standards to promote civil society and reinforce the rule of law.”

On the home page, click on Our Work and then Educators. Here teachers will find a useful Human Rights Toolkit that surpasses the YHRI’s booklet for its breadth of information and critical thinking content. In fact, the AHR’s toolkit specifically addresses several questions that my students have asked but not found answers to within the pages of the YHRI materials. Some of these questions include How can human rights be enforced? How does the United States Bill of Rights fit with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights? Which document addresses human rights for kids?

 

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Photo: The Advocates for Human Rights

 

I’m thinking about downloading the PDF, copying, and binding a class set of these toolkits for my students to use. The toolkit includes chapters entitled Human Rights Primer (basic definitions and vocabulary terms), Human Rights System (UN legal bodies, regional and international groups such as the International Criminal Court), Human Rights and the U.S. ( a timeline of human rights in this country, analysis of the U.S. Constitution and human rights).

Some of the information provided by the AHR is not without political bias, especially in discussions of the death penalty, health care, and post-9/11 anti-terrorism policies, among others. Teachers should review this material before discussing with students, so the information is used to assist students in developing their own opinions on human rights policy.

  1. Human Rights Education Associates (HREA) is a non-governmental nonprofit registered as a charity in the Netherlands. HREA supports human rights education through materials that focus on children’s rights, gender equality, women’s empowerment, human rights teaching, global advocacy, and e-learning courses. Watch this HREA video about the right to education.

HREA’s Path to Dignity human rights film surpasses the ten-minute film from YHRI in quality and content. It contains accounts of human rights activity and education in India, Australia, and Turkey. Teachers can view the entire 28-minute film or the portions that best meet their curriculum needs.

 

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Photo: Human Rights Education Associates

 

So there you have it. Three alternative resources to consult regarding human rights instead of those offered by the Church of Scientology and its front organizations, Youth for Human Rights International and United for Human Rights.

And by the way, the materials from these sources are superior in content to those by the cult. While the Scientology materials are colorful and well-produced, the information contained inside is shallow. The publishers have merely reworded the UDHR, restating each of the thirty human rights into shorter sound bites. The booklet and DVD contain some brief historical information on the evolution of human rights, but little else.

There is no mention, for example, of the International Bill of Human Rights, which provides a framework through international treaties and covenants that allows the force of law to be applied when violations occur. There is also no mention of the many human rights treaty bodies around the world and the obligations governments assume when its leaders sign a treaty or covenant.

Like all those website photos of Scientology’s sterile, empty church facilities and imposing high-rise towers, YHRI’s educator’s kids are slick but superficial. Teacher of human rights can do much better. They should avoid the Church of Scientology, Youth for Human Rights International, and United for Human Rights and try these alternative resources instead.


Thanks for reading. Click “like” if you found this informative. If you want to be even more awesome, leave a comment! Follow this blog for more articles about teaching middle school English or check out my sister blog.

Memoir Mentor Text: Something I Wrote that I Now Use as a Mentor Text

It’s hard to find mentor texts sometimes, and occasionally I just write one myself when the need arises, or I scroll through my sister blog to find stories I’ve already written.

For my students, I define “memoir” as a personal narrative that contains a beginning, middle, and end, plus a lesson learned from the situation. That lesson learned can also be simply a realization or understanding of the writer’s place in the world, or how the world, (or more generally, life) works. For younger or struggling writers, the lessons learned can be overtly stated in the concluding paragraphs, as in “From this experience, I learned…” However, for more skilled writers, the lessons learned can be implied and woven into the piece in a more unexpected or creative way.  Here’s my memoir. Feel free to use for educational purposes.

Exactly Why You Should Be Aware of Your Surroundings

 

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Photo by Jiafeng Wang on Unsplash

During my growing-up years, I had always been taught by good parents to be aware of my surroundings — whether at home or out on my own. And while I heeded that advice, I needed my parents to complete the thought. I needed to hear why: because bad things really do happen to unsuspecting women and if you don’t pay attention to your surroundings, someone might take you away from us.

I finally figured that out after college when I was living on my own and running daily near my apartment in Topeka, Kansas and had a “close call” with a stranger in a car. My route, which I ran alone and required about thirty minutes to complete, took me through a recreational complex across the street that contained what was known then as The Gage Park Zoo and a well-landscaped public park.

My route then continued on into an adjacent neighborhood clustered with middle-class homes, and finally back to my apartment community. Every day without fail, I would get up at 6 a.m., walk through the zoo and park, run through the neighborhood, have some breakfast, shower and get ready for my 8-to-5 job at the Kansas Press Association, which was a short five-minute drive away.

One fresh, quiet morning as I entered the park, I noticed a car in a parking space near the front edge of the zoo. As I walked by, I saw that a man was sitting inside the car. Strange, I thought, for six in the morning. Suspicious. It was light out, but barely. A humid haze hovered over the park grounds and the only sounds you could hear were the whir of traffic on the distant freeway, the chirps from a few songbirds, and the drowsy mumblings  of teenagers catching up on the previous night’s news at the park’s swimming pool.

I continued to make my round-about way through the park: past the central square lawn, right at the rose garden, then another right back down the other side of the square lawn. When I rounded this last corner, I noticed the car again. It was backing out of its space. Good, I thought. It’s leaving.

But then, instead of turning toward the way out, the car turned into the park, and made a right onto the lower edge of the square lawn. Our paths would intersect, I knew,  if he made a left at the corner of the square lawn. Which he did.  Now it was inevitable: we would meet. He was up to something. Was he going to stare at me? Was he going to kidnap me? Would this be an abduction?

Keep in mind that this was in 1989. Before cell phones. Before pagers. If there was trouble, there was no way to contact someone. These were the days of the pay phone, but I was unaware of any pay phones in the  park.

With the car approaching, I glanced over at the pool and knew I could cut across the lawn and find refuge there. But my independence didn’t allow that.  I stayed on the paved road and continued heading straight toward the car, which was now approaching me. I eyed the car. I told myself to make eye contact with the man. Make good, solid eye contact when he gets here, I thought. Even though I was terribly afraid, I was not going to appear to be that way. So I would maintain my stride, look him in the eye, and keep walking. I would walk strongly, confidently, quickly. This is what I do every day of my life, mister, and you aren’t going to stop me, I grumbled under my breath.

Soon, the car was upon me. Driving slowly. Five miles per hour, if that. The muffler on the older, metallic, olive green sedan hummed and coughed. All too quickly, he was upon me. We made eye contact. I looked at him clearly, intently, and held my stare. He was white, unshaven, sun-tanned, with hazel eyes. His gaze met mine for a long, tense moment, all the while driving slowly, window rolled down, his left arm lazily resting along the top of the door. He drove on by. I had previously decided that I would not turn and watch him continue through the park. Didn’t want to provoke him. Didn’t want to make him suspicious of what I might do. So I kept walking and heard the car gradually accelerate behind me. And he was gone.

I never saw the man again, but I did change my routine. I started running in the evenings around six o’clock when there were more people out and about. Before the incident, I had known that keeping to a set workout routine (same route, same time every day) was ill-advised for a woman, but I obviously didn’t take that advice seriously enough either. At least not seriously enough to change my all-too-predictable behavior.  Again, perhaps I wasn’t told exactly why I should vary my schedule. After all, it’s hard to do, and in my opinion, an unreasonable expectation for women.

Wasn’t it enough to just be aware of my surroundings? Apparently not. Because even though my parents had already taught me that, my Gage Park “close call” taught me the point of that advice: because bad things really do happen to unsuspecting women and if you don’t pay attention to your surroundings, someone might take you away from us.


Follow this blog for writing contests, more mentor texts, reflections and other observations about teaching middle school ELA. I plan to post more mentor texts soon, and if you follow this blog, you’ll receive an email when those are added. Check out my sister blog for more writing.  Thanks for reading!