White Teacher Question: Are these race and social justice books enough?

Send me your contemporary social justice book suggestions

I ordered these books for fall 2020 because I’m focusing on the power of literature to effect social change. Of course, recent events in response to the killing of Minneapolis resident George Floyd make me wonder if there are more topical books I should have ordered instead of or in addition to these.

In other words, what about newer lit?

As educator Kelly Gallagher suggested, I should consider how and to what extent my ELA teaching incorporates Black Lives Matter at Schools.

All my students know I love Frederick Douglass’ powerful narrative and think he is the greatest unsung American hero, but the book was written in 1845.

In addition, according to legend, President Lincoln said that Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe started the Civil War.

But again, that was 1861.

I support the enduring power of historical literature, but what about newer lit? Leave a comment with your thoughts and book suggestions.

Thank you.

Three printable templates for Where I’m From poems

Photo by Santi Vedrí on Unsplash

Plus photos and links to help you plan

Where I’m From poems from the author and poet George Ella Lyons… you just can’t write enough good things about them. That’s why this week I’ve decided to post twice about these poems that were a mainstay in my middle school ELA classes a few years ago. (Click here for Tuesday’s post that featured links to student-written mentor texts.)

And even though I now teach juniors and seniors in high school, I still look back on Where I’m From poems with fond memories. These poems were always one of my students’ favorite activities because of the personalized portrait they would paint of each student.

Parents loved them, too!

In fact, several parents told me the poems would be a treasured keepsake. (At my current school, freshmen students write Where I’m From poems to kick off the school year; my juniors explore headline poetry, a found poetry technique.)

Even so, below you’ll find three templates (plus the links!) that you may want to use with your classes whenever you decide to give Where I’m From poems a try. The templates will guide your students through selecting memories, family sayings, names, and all the other imagery-inducing details that make these poems so personal and enlightening.

All of these templates have merit; however, after experimenting with these, the first one has worked best for me.

And here’s the big caveat:

Any of these templates work best with lots of one-to-one conferencing. You may need to help students recall memories or name things. For example, a student may not know the “clicking thing” on Grandma’s piano is called a “metronome.”

Get in the trenches with your kids and help them unlock the magic of where they’re from.

Template and Link No. 1:

Freeology.com offers this template. Get it by clicking here. Sometimes I must edit or make a few changes to ready-made templates and handouts to make them work for my teaching. After all, why reinvent the wheel, right?

However, with this template, I made no changes. After reading several examples (Lyons’ poem, one that I demo for them on the fly, and a few student-written mentors), students can take this template and run with it.

The only detail some kids have trouble with on the template is the “natural item.” To solve that, we just brainstorm what a natural item could be if it wasn’t a plant or tree, as suggested on the same line.

Also, some students don’t have many religious phrases or memories. And that’s okay. I just suggest focusing on another regular activity they remember… a family reunion or Christmas morning, for example.

Template and Link No. 2:

Try this template from Scholastic if you think it might work for your students. Get it by clicking here.

As for me, I found that this Scholastic template wasn’t specific enough. Simply listing sensory experiences didn’t spur a sufficient number of specific memories and ideas to craft the poem. My students needed more direct prompting and a structure that more directly mirrored Lyons’ original poem. Template no. 1 did the trick.

Template and Link No. 3:

This template, which I found in a Google search late at night during a mad rush of lesson planning (LOL!), combines the poem with a visual project.

While I’ve never asked students to create an accompanying visual to complement their poems, it might make an interesting project for your back-to-school open house, a Mother’s Day gift, or merely an extension activity.

As for the actual poem template, I like how it calls out specific parts of speech. This format is also very specific with regard to the words students are to write into the blanks. In my experience, middle schoolers will find the line in the template below that reads “It tasted / sounded / looked / felt – choose one)_________” too stifling and possibly confusing.

I do, however, like that this poem is part of a larger project that allows kids to draw, gather mementos, and show some added creativity.

There. Those three templates should get you started.

If you haven’t tried Where I’m From poems, consider adding them to your lesson planning for fall. Support your young writers with some student-written mentor texts (click here for those links), George Ella Lyons’ original poem, and your own Where I’m From verse and I’m sure you’ll love it just as much as I and many other ELA teachers do!

Thanks for reading! If you’ve tried George Ella Lyons’ Where I’m From poems, let me know your thoughts and experiences. Click like, share a comment, and become a follower for more ELA posts like this one! Here’s a link to another recent post on acrostic poems and distance learning.

“Where I’m From” Poems: download these mentor texts written by students

Photo by Liam Anderson from Pexels

Share these examples with students to help them create their poetic personal histories

Where I’m From poems are one of my favorite poetry assignments, and one of the best ways to get kids invested in writing their own is to show them some examples written by other students.

In case you’re unfamiliar with Where I’m From poems, check out this post I wrote a year ago.

George Ella Lyon

In short, Where I’m From poems allow kids to use specific details from their lives, including their families, likes, and dislikes, to create a highly personal free verse poem.

After introducing kids to George Ella Lyon, the author, poet and creator of the original Where I’m From poem, we discuss and share the concrete details (clothespins, a, cottonball lamb, dirt that tastes like beets) from her poem that especially struck chords within us as we read and listened. Click here for a PDF from Scholastic of Lyon’s original poem.

I then show students four examples written by other middle school schoolers so they can get an idea of how to adapt the structure of Lyon’s poem to their own personal history. By the way, Lyon has written this memoir/how-to book about the Where I’m From poem that might spur some ideas for teaching this poem in your class. I haven’t read the book, but the information provided on Amazon about it pique my interest.

Here’s one of the student-written mentor texts:

Where  I’m From

I am from a Hello Kitty toy box,

From a yellow-trimmed blanket with Winnie the Pooh.

I am from a hot driveway that burns your feet

And a red brick mailbox at the end of the driveway.

I am from horses and a green garden,

Where I look out onto a pasture.

I am from glittery lip gloss and fairy wings,

From Dunn and Matson.

I am from brown hair and eyes,

And from “Always be a lady,”

From tea parties with extra sugar.

I am from egg salad after church.

I am from Jim and Dee,

From Kraft mac and cheese and no-bake cookies,

From asking questions about the grandmother I never knew

And from spending nights with the one I did know.

I am from swinging on green willow trees with my brothers.

I am from those moments of sitting with everyone,

Contemplating what the future will be like.

Melanie D., Grade 7

And here’s the link to the Google Doc:

To receive this poem plus three more written by sixth- and seventh-grade boys and girls, click here for a Google Doc to download.

These poems were a favorite activity for my middle school students in my previous teaching position. At my new high school position (where I teach juniors and seniors), students create these poems as freshmen.

It’s always interesting to read their poems in the hallway after the activity is over, but I do miss having students write them in my classes.

Thanks for reading again this week! Mentor texts are a huge help when presenting writing assignments. When I realized I hadn’t included any in my original Where I’m From poem post, I knew I had to share those with you today. Feel free to click like, leave a comment, and become a follower for more posts like this one.

Corona virus acrostic poems perk up distance learning

Students create acrostic poems to document the pandemic

My students learned from home since March 17 until yesterday when the school year officially ended. As part of their distance learning, I asked students to write a couple of paragraphs every other day or so for a “Life in the Time of Corona” journal.

This journal, which we will finish in the fall, will document their personal experience during the global pandemic.

I got the idea for students to create these journals thanks to a tweet from Kelly Gallagher in March. Here’s the assignment sheet I created to guide students through the journal assignment.

To add variety to their journals, I suggested that students illustrate life during the pandemic by creating an acrostic poem… a poem where certain letters in each line spell out a word or phrase. In this case, students used terms such as corona virus, COVID-19, or pandemic, and so on.

As you can see, the acrostic poems below exhibit varying levels of quality. That seems to be a common by-product of distance learning. Several factors affect the amounts of effort students spend on a distance learning assignment.

These factors include:

  • Internet access (especially having strong, reliable service)
  • Support from parents (who may have to continue to work jobs outside the home)
  • Jobs (part-time or other that a student works)
  • Family responsibilities (such as students having to care for younger siblings during the day)

Regardless, I’m glad some students chose to make an acrostic poem to add some variety to their journals. It’s interesting to see how word choice and ideas reveal the concerns and individual personalities of my students. Enjoy!

Thanks for reading! As of yesterday, school is now officially out for the summer. I made it through my first year teaching high school with new curriculum, new students, new co-workers, and new experiences dealing with COVID-19 and distance learning. I plan to continue to post during the summer. Feel free to leave a like, share a comment or become a follower!

Use Article of the Week assignments to build relevant mini-lessons

Photo by Javier Sierra on Unsplash

The AOW can help you design targeted instruction in specific problem areas of writing

Don’t you love it when a classroom activity teaches something not only to your students, but to you as well? That’s the case with my most effective writing assignment, the Article of the Week (AOW). Not only do Article of the Week assignments teach my students to produce informed, structured writing in response to texts on current events, but these babies also teach me what specific problem areas of writing my students need targeted instruction in.

The AOW is a win for students and a win for me.

Here’s my Google Slides presentation. It’s nothing fancy, but gets the job done.

Modeled after the assignment developed by author and English educator Kelly Gallagher, AOWs can also be used to teach and reinforce lessons in grammar, usage, and mechanics… if I approach them as learning tools for me about the writing skills of my students.

Stay attuned to the ten percent

With my AOWs, I’ve learned that I must make a conscious effort to do more than just mark each paper when I grade them. When I’m reading students’ essays, I consciously stay attuned to the “ten percent,” the errors that I see ten percent of my students making.

Approximately 45 students were on the rosters in my junior classes this past school year. When, for example, I noticed the same error or style problem in the writing of four or five students, it was a signal that I needed to discuss that error in a mini-lesson.

This slide shows passages from two students’ essays. Even though they began their interpretations with the transition, “In other words,” several students had trouble actually putting those quotes into other words. In class, we also discussed how the second passage doesn’t contain enough of the direct quote to make sense for the reader. Honestly, I was surprised how difficult this was for students to grasp.

Knowing that I can address errors in future mini-lessons gives greater purpose to my grading. Beyond assigning points to student writing, I search for common areas of confusion that exist among the highest and lowest skilled students. For example, it surprised me this past winter when one of my strongest writers, who could pass a college-level class with flying colors right now, told me he struggled with the difference between then and than.

During this past school year, I gave these mini-lessons on Tuesdays right after I passed back essays from the previous week and before passing out the next one.

Again, this slide shows how important it is that when writers begin a sentence with “In other words,…,” they actually put the quote into other words, and not bring up new information.

When I notice a recurring grammar, usage, or mechanical error, I quickly mark the error on the student’s paper (I have students hand in assignments on paper, in general), and write a quick comment nearby in the margin. For example, I might draw a star and write, “use different words than those in the quote.”

Then I make a Google Slides presentation that addresses the error. I retype the sentence or paragraph that contains the writing error the student made either from their handwritten or printed paper onto a slide. As the year progresses, I add a slide to the presentation each time I feel the need to present a mini-lesson.

When I project the presentation, which I titled “AOW Noticings,” I make a point to ensure that students know they are looking at the writing of their peers. They seem to pay better attention when they know they are looking at writing from class, as opposed to an unrelated text.

Elaborative sentences that start with phrase such as “For example,…” must actually provide information that is an example of the information that came before.

And of course, the writer’s name isn’t identified, but I know students recognize their work. When they do, some readily raise their hands and say, “Yep, that’s mine!” Rest assured, I make sure they know I’m not in any way putting them on the spot. In fact, I mention to the entire class to check their papers for my comments in the margins to see if they also made the error.

In other words, we’re all learning.

Then we spend a few minutes discussing the error, figuring out revisions and edits, and otherwise clearing up any confusion that exists in the writing.

Whether we’re talking about…

  • accuracy in paraphrasing,
  • punctuation,
  • the use of transitions,
  • or really any writing topic…

…the goal is to notice and repair areas of confusion within the writing.

Many kids don’t know how to handle someone’s name in an article, so I made this slide to address that. Many students want to refer to well-known people by their first name.

When we’re finished, I encourage students to revise and/or edit their AOW writing to earn a higher grade. True, only a handful will make those corrections, but it’s still worthwhile to make the extra effort.

And now it’s confession time.

Don’t tell anyone, but I’m not always faithful to adding to my AOW Noticings slides. At times during the school year — and especially when things get really busy — I do little more than mark up the essays, enter the grades, and move on. Yes, it’s always good when I do provide that targeted feedback (including accolades for the many things they do right!), but it can’t always be done. In other words, #endteacherguilt.

In closing, for all those times when I do manage to keep all the balls in the air, it’s nice to know that I can learn as much about my students and their writing — and then apply that to a relevant mini-lesson — as my students do from my AOW assignments.

Thanks for reading again this week! AOWs are a mainstay in my high school (junior and seniors) English classes. They definitely provide the most bang for the learning buck. Do you use AOWs in your teaching practice? What tips do you have for me? Leave a like, make a comment, and become a follower for more posts like this one.

Mini-lesson idea: Avoiding first-person point of view in academic essays

Photo by Christina Morillo from Pexels

For the most part, it’s an easy fix.

It’s nice when a common issue you know your students have with writing can be easily remedied. This is one of them: avoiding unintentional and unnecessary first-person point of view in academic writing.

For the most part, the first-person words can simply be removed with… wait for it… NO ADDITIONAL CHANGES.


In the “before” photo below (from a literary analysis of The Old Man and the Sea), I’ve underlined the first-person verbiage that needs to be removed for three reasons: 1) it doesn’t accomplish anything, 2) it’s not intentional (meaning it’s not used for any desired effect), and 3) it has no purpose.

Project these examples in a mini-lesson to show a student-written mentor text:

In the “after” photo below, the student had to merely remove those first- person references to infuse his writing with more authority and credibility.

Here are those changes again, but now removed from their context:

  • “…and I think they are right;…”
  • “Instead, I believe the religious aspect doesn’t change…”
  • “We have one story in which…” changes to “There is one story in which…”

But to back up a bit… why is first-person point of view so objectionable in the first place?

I usually take the traditional view that using unintentional and inappropriate first-person point of view in academic writing lends an air of opinion to the writing… and therefore, some bias… and therefore, some weakness to the argument. When the first-person references are removed, the message is more direct and convincing.

At the same time, first-person point of view does have its place, even in academic writing. Above all, first-person point of view should be used with a sense of purpose, especially with regard to the intended audience of the piece.

And that’s the problem. With the example in the photos above, this student didn’t foresee the effect of using the first-person.

She just plopped those words into the text without thought or intention.

Purpose and intention are key. As this handout from Duke University advises:

Finally, academic writers should consider their audience and message when employing the first person and/or the personal voice.

What is an appropriate tone to take with regard to a certain topic? What is one’s own relationship to the subject at hand? For example, if one is writing about the Holocaust or a natural disaster, it may not be appropriate to cite personal material unless it is directly relevant and can be included in a respectful manner. On the other hand, when writing about topics such as race or gender, one’s own experience(s) of living in a racialized/gendered society may be not only appropriate but even necessary to include. Academic writers must decide whether, when, and where first-person references and the personal voice are appropriate to their message and their audience.

“The First Person in Academic Writing”; Thompson Writing Program at Duke University

In other words, writers must be intentional and weigh their options with point of view, try out different perspectives, revise, and make the needed changes… often only to go back to the original version after all.

Basically, choosing point of view in any written piece is a judgment call.

And that’s why teaching writing is so hard. It’s full of judgment calls,…

and it takes time to make them… more time than kids want to invest, unless they genuinely care about the assignment. (Learning how to create assignments that kids genuinely care about is another blog post entirely.)

Then and only then will students be willing to take the time to get the perspective intentionally and purposefully right.

Until that time, though, know that removing first person POV — when it’s unintentional and unnecessary — can be as easy as deleting a few words and leaving the rest as is.

Ahhhh. Like I said, easy-peasy.

Thanks for reading! Do you grapple with this common, hard-to-explain issue with your students? Tell me your approach by leaving a comment. While this post shows my best effort to help kids with this, I’m open to your suggestions, as always. Check out this recent post and become a follower for more.

Corona virus journals foster creativity

A student’s journal entitled “The Lost Journal of a Miss Savannah B.”

A reminder that students can still thrive in uncertain times

Don’t underestimate your students when it comes to distance learning. Some of them might surprise you and take your assignment to new heights, as my senior student Savannah B. did with her journal (shown in photos).

Savannah took my Life in the Time of Corona journal assignment and made it her own. She ditched the laptop and wrote it on brown kraft paper, burned the edges to give it an antique look, and added stains to age it some more. She even glued a swatch of toilet paper to the cover!

In short, it’s unexpected, innovative and has an anachronistic time-travel vibe.

I was intrigued with Savannah’s motivation and process, so I asked her a few questions (via the Remind app) about her journaling experience:

Q: What prompted you to get so creative with your journal?

A: I had started doing it on a Google doc and to be completely honest, that was very boring to me. Who would want to read that? I had a hard time concentrating on it and actually wanting to do it and I remembered I had created something similar for an assignment at my old school and so I took that idea and created something new with it. I wanted to hook people in.

Q: Why did you decide to give it a historical tone?

A: I was definitely going for the ancient effect. I figured it would give it more character.

Q: Your journal almost sounds imaginary due to its historical look and the word choices you made. Was any part of it made up?

A: Everything, or almost everything, in it was true. For example, I really did have a family member that got tested for COVID-19 and it was scary. Thankfully, the tests were negative though.

I am convinced that someday Savannah’s journal will be a treasured record of her life during this historic global event. It will also be an expression of her creative mind and aspirations as she heads off to college in the fall.

I’m sure you have students like Savannah. Y’know, those students who enjoy what you teach (for the most part, right?!) and thrive with projects that get them away from the notebook or keyboard for a while. Savannah is one of those students who saw the potential in doing some extra time with this project.

Here’s what the assignment initially asked students to do:

Over the next week, keep a journal of your activities, thoughts, and experiences in the midst of the coronavirus outbreak.  Here are some ideas:

  • Write about what you do know about the virus.
  • Write about what you don’t know.
  • Is it business as usual? (Describe business as usual… your normal routine.)
  • Are you going out? Where?
  • What have you cancelled?
  • How has COVID-19 affected your life so far?
  • Have you tried to shop for supplies in case of a lockdown? How did that go?
  • Do you know what to do if we are restricted?
  • Write about the contradictions or confusion that exists in the media.
  • Reflect on the memes that seem to be multiplying faster than the virus itself.
  • What news stories have you heard, read, or watched?
  • Has anything or anyone inspired you in the midst of the coronavirus?
  • In short, write about whatever you want to write about as it relates to the pandemic.”

For a link to this assignment sheet that you can adjust to fit your needs, click here.

It’s important for kids to be writing about their lives right now. Years into the future, we will need to hear their stories and it’s always more valuable when those stories are written down as they are happening… and not in retrospect.

On one of my favorite blogs, Two Writing Teachers, children’s author Laurel Snyder advises students that…

“…for much of history, kids got left out of most storytelling. Which means that what we know about the children of the past are mostly the recollections of adults, trying to reach back in time, or to guess about the thoughts and feelings of the children around them.  But of course, most grownups see the world differently from kids, and that is why it’s so important that you record your voice. Tell your story. So that in ten or twenty or a hundred or a thousand years, people will be able to look back and know what it was like in the Pandemic of 2020, for someone like you.  What it was really like.

Beyond that, write about the things this moment is decidedly NOT. Write about the places it takes you in your dreams at night, your imaginary games, your flights of fancy. Build worlds of your own, invent people to talk to. Reach beyond your current moment, and down deep into what you have always carried inside yourself. The physical limitations of this pandemic have no power over your imagination, where you can wander anywhere you like.

Laurel Snyder, Author Spotlight, Two Writing Teachers

And didn’t Savannah do exactly what Snyder suggests? She built a world of her own and invented people to talk to. Yes, she reached beyond the current moment. With her journal, Savannah indeed exemplifies Snyder’s notion that the corona virus has no power over her imagination.

Receiving this jewel of a journal in my homework inbox last week was a real day brightener, and I just wanted to share it with you. It’s a reminder that our students can still thrive in these uncertain times.

Thanks for reading again this week! Have your students ever just totally surprised you with their inventiveness? Have they ever taken one of your assignments and took it to new levels you hadn’t dreamed of? Feel free to share your experiences below to let us know about it. Also, leave a like and become a follower for more posts like this one.