Don’t dis formulaic writing prompts

Use structure to develop ideas and writer’s voice

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I’m pretty proud of the written response in the picture above. It’s written by a seventh-grade student who, while being a strong writer, struggles with turning in work, whether assigned as homework or completed during class.

He is not doing well in my class “grade-wise”; however, this paragraph shows the higher level of thinking he is able to record in writing.  (Yes, there are problems with this response, such as misspelled words and run-ons, but this student’s idea development is strong and that’s more important to me. We can always fix the editing later.)

Some of the paragraph may be hard to discern, so I’ve transcribed it below without corrections:

“In the book, Chasing Lincoln’s Killer, we learn/learned more than most people would normally know. Most people just know Lincoln was shot watching a play but there is more. I learned for the first time their was a twelve-day manhunt. Acorrding to the novel James Swanson authorther of Chasing Lincoln’s Killer, “There was a plan.” In other words, Booth had it all figured out. Close to the end after Booth was shot, and paralized he asked someone to hold up his hands whe they did he spoke useless, useless. I think when Booth says this he is saying that all his efforts, his plans, and evan his completed task was useless cause he felled to live on, he felled to tell his story, he felled to fight on for the south.”

This paragraph was written in response to the prompt below. Here’s what I love about this response:

  • it builds up to and introduces the evidence in a satisfying way
  • it interprets the evidence with two sentences, including that final golden one
  • it uses repetition effectively (and I made sure to tell him that when I spoke with him about it)
  • the writer put his own “spin” on the material… it feels original and fresh

Here’s that prompt:

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I realize that there are quite a few “requirements” in this prompt. Sometimes I feel that I’m overly prescriptive with my prompts.

And then I receive a response back like this that reminds me that many kids thrive with the guidelines. They’re able to combine the guidelines with their own ideas and voice to create accurate, effective communication that also possesses a distinct style.


Thanks for reading! I use similar prompts like this throughout the year. Sometimes I’ll add other items for kids to use such as sentences that begin “For example, …”. What do your writing prompts look like? Feel free to leave a comment!

When students don’t “follow along” in the book

“Following along” may not work for every student

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Yeah, there are a few misspelled words. Oh, well. He was paying attention and that’s a big deal. 

I’ve been reading Chasing Lincoln’s Killer by James Swanson to my seventh-graders and we just finished it on Friday.

About every two chapters or so, they’ve written a response to a question I’ve posed to help them comprehend the text as well as think critically about some of the questions and topics it raises.

Because our students have plenty of independent reading time in their Humanities class, I have chosen to read-aloud this book. I also think it’s important to model reading, so from cover to cover, the students follow along while I read. Well, nearly all of them.

About a week ago, I noticed that whenever I glanced up from reading to check the class, one boy who sits at the back of the room was quietly looking back at me as I read.  Apparently, he was listening. He was also making connections. The next day his father gave him permission to bring some actual Confederate States of America bills to school. Arranging the money on my desk for the photo below, there was no doubt that he had been paying attention even though he wasn’t “following along.”

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This is the Confederate money a student brought. He wasn’t following along in the traditional sense, but he was paying attention!

Another student—I’ll call him Joe– was drawing on a sheet of copy paper as I read during the course of three or four class periods. Early on, I asked him to follow along once or twice, and finally decided that I wouldn’t ask again, especially when I looked at the drawing that Joe dropped into the seventh-grade basket at the end of class each day.

He was working on a portrait of John Wilkes Booth from a photo in the book. He surrounded the portrait with words posed as questions. It was interesting and thought-provoking and showed that he was indeed paying attention during the reading. He may not have been  “following along,” but he was definitely engaged.

So just because a student isn’t following along, don’t assume they aren’t paying attention and learning. In fact, Joe and his drawing has caused me to consider how other kids may better show their understanding (and misunderstanding, too–let’s be real) through drawing or sketching. Recording their thoughts and thinking must not always equate to producing a written response, after all. 


Thanks for reading! Our next step in the unit is to watch a movie called The Conspirator, which focuses on the trial of Booth’s conspirators, including Mary Surratt, the owner of the boarding house where the assassination was purportedly planned. The end result?  An essay that argues Surratt’s innocence or guilt. Follow my blog for more posts about middle school ELA.

 

My number one most effective writing assignment: Gallagher’s AOW

Nothing works better to build writing stamina.

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Here’s a screenshot of the handout for a recent AOW I created for my classes. I found the article on Motherwell.com.

If there’s one assignment I would never give up it would be the AOW, the Article of the Week. Gotta have it. Gotta do it. I can’t imagine teaching without it.

You may have heard of AOWs. They’re pretty well-known among English teachers. They were developed by Kelly Gallagher, a high school language arts teacher in Anaheim, Calif. He’s written books such as Teaching Adolescent Writers, Write Like This, and Readicide.

Gallagher developed the Article of the Week assignment to help students gain more background knowledge about politics, history, current events… in short, the world around them.

When I took Gallagher’s cue and began assigning AOWs in my own classroom, I chose to do so because I agree that kids need to expand their background knowledge. Many can’t relate to the literature we teach because they don’t possess the personal prior knowledge to connect to that literature.

I also like the idea of kids writing to reflect or give their take on a particular topic. Plus, reading and responding to nonfiction texts takes a different set of skills than reading literature: identifying central ideas, finding evidence to support those central ideas, noticing patterns and sequences in the content of the articles, and more. AOWs would surely help my students develop or at least practice those skills.

Gallagher’s AOWs are concise. His handout consists of a reprinted article, with a box at the top of the page that asks students to do three things: 1) mark their confusion, 2) show evidence of a close reading, and 3) write a 1+ page reflection.

How I tweaked Gallagher’s AOW to make it work for me

However, the steps outlined by Gallagher are too open-ended for my middle school students. The expectations for their writing are not focused in a way that my students (most of them anyway) would appreciate. Instructions so brief would only lead to confusion for many of them.

For that reason, I’ve provided more specific instructions and I’ve used each assignment to teach two specific skills I am focusing on this year that actually go hand-in-hand: interpretation and idea development.

Here’s a photo of the rubric for the AOW shown in the photo at the top of this post:

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Here’s a recent AOW. The “Needed Items” may change occasionally; however, a direct quotation is always required. This year, I’ve begun requiring students to follow up those direct quotes with a sentence that begins “In other words, …” to help them develop the habit of interpreting every time they quote an author. In addition, the rubrics often help students practice using a specific kind of punctuation. This rubric asks students to use a semi-colon; another recent AOW required students to use an em dash.

Another important aspect that I feel makes these assignments essential is their frequency. I assign these once a week. (The AOWs are in addition to in-class writing activities, such as writing prompts and essays.) Every Monday morning, students are given a new AOW that is due the following Monday. Writing a thorough response on a weekly basis outside of class gets my students in the habit of writing regularly.

I assign these responses weekly to help students develop writing stamina and to help them learn to write on demand.  My own daughter was required in her eighth-grade classes (at another district) to write weekly and I know it was invaluable in helping her develop the confidence to write consistently.

Kids need narrative practice, too

One change I have made over the past year, however, is to alternate AOWs with what I call EOWs (Essays of the Week).  EOWs focus on narrative writing skills and include a list of twenty or so prompts around a certain theme. Recent themes included style and health, politics and power, and food.  I decided to create EOWs after I determined that kids needed more practice writing in a narrative style. These essays allow kids to inject more of their personal voice into their writing.

Kids tell me they enjoy writing the EOWs much more than they do the AOWs; they like the increased creativity involved. Another difference: the rubric obviously doesn’t require annotating, but may require that students open their essay with dialogue, for example. The EOWs also have a longer length requirement: they must be two pages typed instead of the usual one page for AOWs.

I pull my prompt topics from a list of 650 writing prompts published by the New York Times.  One good thing about these EOWs: they can be reused from year to year.  However, make sure you don’t just “cut and paste” a swath of topics from the list, since some are definitely geared to older students.

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Here’s a recent EOW I assigned.

One downside

One downside to using AOWs is that for them to be topical, I must spend time every other week to find an article to use. I have used several from Newsela.com, modifying them for a printed handout. I have also found many elsewhere. I keep my eyes and ears open for the current week’s news so I can provide a really up-to-the-minute assignment.

Introducing an AOW usually takes the better part of our 53-minute class periods. After I pass out the handout, we briefly talk about the article’s subject, then we’ll look at the prompt and the rubric to see what they require. Following this introduction, I’ll often read aloud the article,  using a document camera while I read, all the while demonstrating annotation.

This is how we do it

After we finish reading the article, I’ll show the kids a related video from Youtube or a similar video source. For example, for one AOW on football head injuries, we watched one to three short clips of players who suffer from concussion injuries.

The EOWs don’t require as much time to introduce. We just skim through the list, discuss a few that look especially interesting to some students, and move on. They know what to do beyond that, which is to put their things away so we can carry on with whatever else I have planned for the day. AOWs and EOWs are homework assignments.

I put a lot of thought and time into creating these weekly assignments, which I consider my number one most effective writing assignment. However, I know these assignments help my students conquer their fear and hesitation with writing. Writing on a regular basis is a great skill that I know will benefit them immensely in high school and beyond.


Thanks for reading again this week! Let me know how you’ve tweaked Gallagher’s AOW concept for your students. 

 

 

Contest #13: Carl Sandburg Student Poetry Contest

Try this contest for grades 3-12. Entries are due Feb. 25.

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Photo by Anastasiya Gepp on Pexels.com

I’ve stumbled upon another student writing contest that middle schoolers may enter:  the Carl Sandburg Student Poetry Contest. 

The sponsors invite students to submit a poem to the Carl Sandburg Home National Historic Site’s annual Student Poetry Contest. The contest encourages youth to explore writing their own poetry, and is open to students nationwide!” reads the contest’s website.

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See page for author [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Sponsors intend the contest to honor and extend the legacy that Carl Sandburg made on the American literary canon with his poetry and journalism. Sandburg published an anthology of poetry in 1916 titled “Chicago Poems” that earned him a spot among the literary elite.

Each year’s contest has a different theme. This year’s theme is “Joy.” Students are encouraged to write poems that speak of joy in momentous occasions or small moments.

The judges evaluate how well a student’s entry communicates the theme, so make sure your students are clear with the theme; however, students can relate and celebrate joy however they wish in their poetry entries.

Download this submission guidelines PDF here.

The 2018 theme was “Dreams.” Here’s the first place 6th-8th grade poem appears below. Use it as a mentor text. Other winning entries are found here.

First Place
dear moth wings  by Kiran Narula

he tore you from your body, stripped you

to a thin sheet like papyrus. you are paper
from a book without its spine,
words in disarray, meaning turned meaningless.
his fingers were warning signs,
holding your delicacy between his thumb
and forefinger. he left you in dirt, i don’t know
if you held onto something else that could
move you, caught onto the threads of a shoelace
from the kids who ran in the field
or mended yourself to a flower’s center,
broke the pattern of pink petals with your beige,
blended with something that you could become.
you are only what is left, the shell of a body,
pulled away from what rooted you.
i wonder what it’s like to be ripped at the seams,
fall apart like loosened thread, nothing to stitch
yourself to. you used to beat like timpani, now you are
fragments of scales and chitin and veins,
a lampshade without a light.
do you have purpose if you are
separated from your stem –
are you still wings if you cannot fly?
i guess skin is still skin without bones.

For the 2019 contest, find guidelines here and download this submission form

The guidelines do limit teachers to sending in three poems per classroom. (I wanted to clarify the limit, but at the time of this post, the Carl Sandburg National Historic Site was closed due to the federal government shutdown. I will attempt to email them after the shutdown to find out more.)

Poems must be mailed, faxed (what?!) or hand-delivered by February 25, 2019; that date is slightly less than a month away, so you still have time for your students to put some ideas together and enter.

In addition, there are some specific requirements to follow, so double-check the guidelines before mailing. For example, no staples may be used to fasten their materials, and the submission form must be signed by the student, a parent, plus the teacher. 

This is a new contest for me. I’ve never had students enter it before; however, I may just have my sixth-graders give it a try next month. Seventh- and eighth-graders will be deep in other projects next month, but sixth-graders should be ready to dive into “Joy.”



Thanks for reading! Check out this contest’s guidelines as soon as possible so your students have time to generate at least two to three drafts before submitting their entries. I’ll add a link to this contest on my Student Writing Contest page, so it’s easier to find next time you need to access it.

Breakthrough moment: How to teach what “be specific” means

I think I’m finally on to something

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Photo: Pixabay

Be specific!

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve written that on my students’ essays, poems, and narratives. They know the importance of adding relevant details and crystal clear descriptions to their writing. We talk about it all the time, after all. In fact, “add more detail” and “be more descriptive” are the top two comments I hear them saying to each other during peer review groups. However, for some reason, kids still often neglect to be specific.

Maybe they don’t recognize “vagueness” in their own writing. Maybe they’re in a rush and don’t see the value in taking the extra time that being specific takes. Maybe it’s late the night before their essay is due and, as a result, they’ve lowered their standards. The loosey-goosey thoughts that make it into their first drafts—however general and lackluster— are good enough to turn in at the last minute. Whatever.

Last fall, I came upon a chapter in Bill Roorbach’s Writing Life Stories and discovered a helpful section on the merits of being specific in writing. By “being specific” Roorbach means putting a name to the objects, things and people in our writing.

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This is an awesome book that I’ve found helpful (like REALLY helpful) in my classroom.

For example, if one mentions a tree, Roorbach suggests being exact. Is it an oak? maple? pine? If possible, he suggests going further. Is it a chinquapin oak? silver-leaf maple? lodgepole pine? If one mentions Dad’s car, Roorbach suggests identifying the exact car: Dad’s brown 1995 Subaru Forester or his sleek, brand-new silver Prius.

Roorbach stresses that “naming is knowing.” Putting a clear and precise label to the objects in our writing lends credibility and a subtle authenticism to our writing. (He also discusses how determining the exact name of something—a particular flower, for example—may help writers discover unexpected revelations about their pasts. Seriously, check out this book!)

I notice that in my own writing I will often add the specific labels to things on the later drafts of a piece. I often do this work intentionally, taking care to notice generalities as I read and re-read, and re-read again. It’s amazing how much richer and concrete and visible my writing is when I follow Roorbach’s advice and specifically name things in my writing.

So with Roorbach’s book in hand, I created a mini-lesson for class. Maybe this time, I thought, with the help of Roorbach’s down-to-earth and eloquent text, students will understand what I mean when I write “Be specific” in the margins of their papers.

For the mini-lesson, I decided to read aloud from Roorbach’s “Naming is Knowing” exercise. Everyone agreed that the specific examples given in the text were effective revisions of the more general originals. I asked the kids to keep this in mind as they wrote that day… “Don’t just say that you put on your clothes; be specific. Name the clothes. Say you put on your bright white NASA hoodie and a faded pair of jeans. ”

About two days later, a student named Jacob dropped a poem into my second drafts box during writer’s workshop. I read it, noticing that it was about a trip to Florida he took last summer with his family. The poem mentioned finding “a coin,” “finding “a food,” and visiting “the museum” and finding “something” there.

Here we go again, I thought. More vague writing.

I asked Jacob, “Remember when we talked a couple of days ago about how it makes sense to be as specific as possible and put a name to things when we write so readers can visualize our stories better?” He nodded. I inquired what kind of coin he found; he replied “a Spanish medallion.” I asked him what exactly he found at the museum; he said “a Honus Wagner baseball card.” I asked him about the food mentioned in the poem; he replied “chicken Alfredo.”

Try naming those things in your poem, I suggested. He returned several minutes later with another draft, this one much more specific, much more visual, and much more effective.

“Yes! You did it!” I told him after reading his revision. “This is what we were talking about!”

I asked him if I could use his drafts in class the next day to show everyone how much more visual his second draft was. He agreed and printed copies of his poem’s “before and after” versions.

I placed them side by side on a sheet of paper and ran off copies for everyone. The following day we revisited our “naming” lesson and with Jacob’s poems in front of them, everyone readily was able to see the difference between vague writing and specific writing: it all has to do with naming things.

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The next day, I asked Jacob to read both poems aloud. After that, we all discussed how effective the changes were and the consensus was that the “after” version was definitely the draft we all preferred. Why? Because we could visualize the Spanish medallion (someone said it was probably all crusty and gross) much more clearly than we could visualize a coin. We could taste the chicken Alfredo. And of course, we all knew that a Lamborghini is the ultimate fancy car.

Of course, being seventh-graders, the added details spurred conversations about coins that kids had found or lost. Practically every kid in the room said they loved chicken Alfredo. I guess all that conversation proves that specific writing resonates. Being specific helps readers connect better with the writing and, in the end, that’s what it’s all about.

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I made this slide on my Smartboard using a quote from the exercise on “Naming is Knowing” in Bill Roorbach’s book, Writing Life Stories.

One student asked,  “What if the extra detail seems distracting?” I acknowledged her smart observation and advised her to play around with being specific. Yes, it’s entirely possible to have misplaced detail, I told her. If that’s the case, she as the writer then has a decision to make. For example, if it seems distracting and irrelevant to know that you wore a bright white NASA hoodie, then leave it out and go general. But try naming and being specific first, I told her because you never know until you try. Plus, you can always change it back later, I added.

I feel as if I’ve finally hit on something when it comes to teaching kids to write specifically: it’s about naming things. Since teaching this “Naming is Knowing” mini-lesson—with the help of Roorbach and Jacob’s examples— my students better understand how to add relevant, visual details and names to the people and objects in their writing. It’s nice to know that they finally understand what “Be specific” really means.


Thanks for reading again this week! Click “like” if you learned something with this post and feel free to follow my blog for more news from my classroom. How do you teach your students to be specific in their writing?

Use this totally free source for movie and TV transcripts

Every so often, this website comes in really handy.

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Photo by Denise Jans on Unsplash

Ever need to know exactly what a character said in a movie? Ever want to show your students how dialogue is done for film?

I recently found a free —I repeat, FREE—source for any and every movie transcript. At the time, my class had just finished watching The Conspirator, a 2010 movie directed by Robert Redford about the trial of Mary Surratt, the first woman executed by the U.S. government for her involvement in the assassination of Abraham Lincoln.  I was helping a student find the lines spoken by a Civil War general during Surratt’s trial.

Here’s a link to this incredible websiteSpringfield! Springfield!

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This is a screenshot from the movie, The Conspirator, which shows how the scripts are provided: just line by line, without character names, directions, or setting details.

This website gives you the entire script for a movie from start to finish. While the site doesn’t show which character speaks which line, it does contain the entire spoken dialogue for films. You’ll need to scroll through the script for the particular scene you may need; therefore, you’ll need to already be familiar with the movie.

That being said, this site is invaluable.

In addition to thousands of movie scripts, the site also offers scripts for thousands of TV episodes for current and past series. The movie database contains scripts ranging from current releases to the oldies. Go here now to surf around and see what you may find or bookmark the site for later. Your students will thank you when they’re needing to cite  a movie for a paper or for research.

***


Thanks for reading! Check out last week’s post about how not to feel guilty for showing videos or movies before a holiday break.

How not to feel guilty about showing videos before a break

Plus: the movies we watched the final two days before Christmas break

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Here’s what it looks like when kids watch movies in my room. Here, they’re watching The Conspirator, a movie starring Robin Wright and James McEvoy. We watch it as part of our Chasing Lincoln’s Killer unit.

Every teacher knows the feeling. You’re in the final week of school before Christmas break. There’s no point in starting something new, and often, you’re finishing up a project or unit and you need a couple of extra days for the late work to pour in, so you have time to grade and update the school’s system before submitting them for the end of quarter. Those couple of extra days you need require some type of activity to keep the kids busy. And for many of us, that means a movie.

If you’re like me, you feel a wave of guilt when you even think about showing a movie when there’s no real point to showing it other than as a time-filler.

But here’s the thing: as long as a movie has educational value for your students, meaning that it teaches them something they don’t already know, you should feel good about showing it.

I keep my eyes open for valuable movies with at least one of these two characteristics:

1) a strong, life-affirming theme

  • I’m not going to show movies that don’t end on a positive note. There must be a “moral to the story” that’s worth knowing.  Kids are exposed to so many negative

2) a wealth of information about a historical or news-worthy event or an important person on the world stage.

  • Kids need background knowledge about national and global affairs i order to progress through school. How will they connect with Chasing Lincoln’s Killer if they don’t have adequate prior knowledge about the Civil War, for example?

Of course, the movies must also be rated G, PG, or PG-13. For PG-13 movies, my district requires a signed parent permission slip, so if I plan to show one of those, I must have the permission slip ready to go home about a week before I plan to show the movie.

So, what videos did we watch two days before Christmas break? 

In seventh grade, we watched the History Channel drama miniseries America: The Story of Us episodes 4 and half of episode 5, which focus on the years leading up to the Civil War and also the Civil War itself. Watching these helped us prep for our reading in January of James Swanson’s Chasing Lincoln’s Killer, one of my favorite seventh-grade units.

I was unfamiliar with the series when I found it on YouTube (it’s also available on History Channel’s website). I consulted Common Sense Media, and it rated the series suitable for kids ages twelve and up. One caution: episode 5 gets grisly with scenes of battlefield medical care. It’s bloody and graphic, but doesn’t show actual surgeries; it leaves much to the imagination. If your kids have watched Grey’s Anatomy, (which by the way, Common Sense rates for ages 15+), they’ve seen worse.

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On Tuesday, Jan. 8, we’ll finish episode 5 and review what we learned about the Civil War by watching these two videos.

What I like about these documentaries is that they contain live-action scenes with the quality of a feature film that kids might see at a theater. The episodes also contain “talking heads” commentary by historians and authors, but also by popular celebrities many of the kids recognize: Sean Combs, Michael Strahan, Tom Brokaw, and others.

The scenes are interspersed with arresting images such as an extreme slow-motion of a minie ball bullet spiraling down the barrel of a rifle and then hurtling through the air. The boys really paid attention to that. In fact, episode 5 opens by introducing the minie ball and asserts that the minie ball —and the bloodshed it caused— is just one example of how the Civil War contributed to and was a reflection of the rise of industrial technology, especially in warfare.

The series contains twelve episodes. Look through the episodes and find those that may provide your kids with the background that will help them connect better to your literature units.

In eighth grade, we watched Sully, starring Tom Hanks and Aaron Eckhart. It’s “The story of Chesley Sullenberger, an American pilot who became a hero (in 2009) after landing his damaged plane on the Hudson River in order to save the flight’s passengers and crew,” according to IMDb. We watched this movie because it riffs on what defines humanity and therefore ties in with our human rights dissertations we are currently building.

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Near the end of film, Sully says to his critics at a hearing of the cockpit voice recordings, “You still have not taken into account the human factor. You’ve allowed no time for analysis or decision making. In these simulations, you’re taking all of the humanity out of the cockpit.” We’ll discuss the crucial point Sullenberger was making when we return from break. In fact, students will copy this quote from the movie into cursive on Monday, Jan. 7 and then we’ll discuss how Sully’s point may find a place in our human rights dissertations that we’re building throughout the year.

We didn’t discuss Sully in depth after we watched it. Frankly, we ran out of time and few students were in the mood to analyze it in-depth since it was the last time eight-graders would be in my class before break. That’s okay. At least they’ve gained some background knowledge about an important national event. Plus, we’ll get to have an interesting discussion about what this movie says about humanity, the human spirit, and the essence of being human.

So to conclude, choose the right movies to show your students and avoid the teacher-guilt. Focus on worthwhile movies with rich, life-affirming themes that are full of historical and cultural knowledge. Movies shouldn’t be used to merely fill up time!


I’ll be posting near the end of the year about my favorite end-of-year movies to show. I typically show Walter Mitty to my departing eighth-graders and The Walk to sixth-graders. Seventh-graders watch New York: The Documentary to build background knowledge they’ll need the following fall. Follow my blog to catch that post!