Contest #11 That Works for My Students: Stossel in the Classroom Argument Contest

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Photo: Pixabay

Each year for the past three years, I have assigned an argument essay contest to my eighth-graders. The contest is sponsored by Stossel in the Classroom (SITC), an educational website hosted by John Stossel, former consumer reporter and correspondent for ABC’s 20/20, and current Fox News contributor. According to the SITC website’s About page, the “program is sponsored by the Center for Independent Thought, an IRS 501(c)3 tax-exempt non-profit educational foundation, funded entirely by private donations.”

SITC offers teachers several teaching resources, including free DVDs featuring Stossel’s news segments with accompanying lesson plans and teacher guides, as well as its annual essay contest and its new video contest. The themes of many of the lessons and DVDs “challenge conventional wisdom” about many current issues, according to this explanation on the Center for Independent Thought’s website.

Here are some details about the essay contest.

Age Range for the Contest: Ages 12-18.

Odds of Winning: For the 2018 contest, 87 essays were awarded a prize out of 2,200 submitted. That’s about a one-in-25 chance. That’s not bad, I tell my kids. A couple of years ago, I remember the odds being about one in forty.

Topic or Prompt: Each year features a different prompt. The 2018 contest, which has concluded, was:

Natural disasters often bring people together, as they undertake rescue operations and work to rebuild their communities. People outside the affected communities usually offer additional support. But what about those that see a disaster as a way to make money? Watch John Stossel’s video about “price gouging” and write a 500-1000 word essay, arguing for or against laws that prohibit price “gouging” during an emergency. How do such laws affect disaster victims? How do they change the incentives of potential suppliers?

The video mentioned in the prompt appears on the website and is easily accessible by students. I usually show students the video up to two or three times so we can discuss it thoroughly. Our discussions usually require that we listen to the video again so we can catch exactly what was said and/or what was not said.  My students are usually engaged with the prompts, which always have a current events theme, which can often veer into the political. Regardless, the topics always give students something new and complex to think about.

This past spring, my students couldn’t believe the controversy surrounding price gouging. They had never considered the nuances present during times of a disaster when people are in desperate need of crucial supplies.

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John Stossel

Best Thing (to me) About This Contest: I would say that the best aspect of this contest is the multi-media approach that it provides. There are not many times during the school year when students must watch and listen to videos in order to develop a viewpoint, write a corresponding thesis, and then complete an argument.

Skills Addressed:

  1. In the Missouri Learning Standards, students are required to utilize technology, including the Internet, to write and publish their work. The SITC essay contest, because of its reliance on the Stossel videos, heavily involve technology. Students may also research on their own to gain the information needed for their essays; I also provide related articles and copies of Stossel’s book No, They Can’t: Why Government  Fails–But Individuals Succeed. I have ten copies of this book in my room. One year, the contest rules stated that students were required to quote the book at least once, so I ordered a handful from Amazon.
  2. Students must also provide a Works Cited page that lists their sources. The DAR American History Essay Contest also requires this. I also require it on several of our class assignments; I think it’s a good thing for students to get into the habit of providing their sources in a consistent format. It gets them ready for high school.

Length: 500-1,000 words. I like that the contest has a minimum as well as a maximum word count, since some of my students will want to write as little as possible if there is no minimum provided.

Deadline: Mid-February of each year. Check the rules page for exact dates for 2019. to submit these essays, teachers are encouraged to electronically submit their students’ essay en masse. This is a little cumbersome, but I know in the past, I have found time to do this at home.

Prizes: A total of $9,500 in cash prizes are awarded. First place receives $1,500 plus an expenses-paid summer trip with a teacher and/or guardian to New York City and lunch with Stossel; second $1,000. There are ten finalists who win $200 each; 25 semi-finals who win $100 each; and fifty honorable mention winners who receive $50 each.

Unexpected Bonus: Easily found mentor texts! Winning entries for the most recent contest and previous years’ contests are easily found on the website. These are super helpful to show students the level of quality this contest requires.

For More Info: Browse the SITC website, which has all the information you need to have your students enter the contest. I like how students can direct their ideas however they choose to make their argument. While there is a specific prompt, students are free to approach it as they desire.

My students have never placed in this contest. I believe we have entered it for the past three or four years. We spend about two weeks of class time working on it. Apparently, we should spend more!

Happening during the spring right before we begin preparing for state testing, this essay contest provides a good review of the most difficult type of expository writing: the argument.


Thanks for reading! Leave a comment with your thoughts or, if you’ve tried this contest in the past, let me know how your students fared.  Follow my blog for more contest information.

Save time. Always be planning.

I started this Triangle Fire bulletin board in May. I’m not usually that organized.

 

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I finished this bulletin board today. I started planning it before school released in May. 

At the end of the school year last May, my seventh-graders started our Triangle Fire unit, a study of the 1911 tragedy in New York City that killed 146 young, mostly female immigrants. The fire had unknown origins, but rickety fire escapes, locked doors, and empty water buckets resulted in the worst workplace disaster by fire in our nation’s history until 9/11.  The owners of the factory were eventually exonerated.

 

The positive of this horrible tragedy? The New York Factory Investigating Committee, which was established to enforce regulations throughout the metropolis.

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 Here’s a full straight-on shot of the bulletin board. I wrote the students’ summary words on pink sticky notes and placed them randomly among the photos and pictures.

We study this unit at the beginning of my students’ eighth-grade year and then transition into a study of 9/11… its own workplace fire tragedy. Even though the catalyst for 9/11 was terrorism, it’s arguable that some lives that were lost could have been saved if Triangle Fire-era building codes had not been relaxed during the planning stages and design of the towers.

Last spring, my seventh-graders (now my incoming eighth-graders) watched portions of New York: The Documentary that dealt with the era of first wave immigration, the early 1900s. Watching this doc set the stage for the study we will continue in a couple of weeks.

As we watched the documentary in May, I asked the students to choose one word to summarize the excerpt we viewed. While we discussed their words, and as students defended their word choices, it occurred to me that I should keep track of these words for fall. I quickly started jotting the words down on a sheet of notebook paper.

Hallelujah! For once, I had my act together!

In addition, I knew I had some previously printed photos of New York immigrants, which were primarily of Eastern and Southern European descent.  I had printed and saved these photos from the DAR American History essay contest of 2015.

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I photocopied our textbook’s cover and decided the black-and-white copies made more sense for this bulletin board than if I had printed them in color.

I also knew I had a packet of postcards that my daughter had purchased for me when she toured Ellis Island a few years ago with a group from college.

I compiled the list of words, the printed photos, and the postcards and placed them in a folder and left it on top of the pile of binders and books in my closet over the summer. I wanted to leave it someplace where I would easily find it this week, which I did (score!).

I also had made a mental note in May to order some kind of New York City street map poster. I found this subway map that looks vintage, but actually shows the current layout of today. This poster was purchased for around $6 on Amazon. I love it!

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I stapled some of the pictures and posters so they extended beyond the edges. I like how the twinkle lights, which are actually behind the NYC poster, make it glow!

So over the past few days, I assembled all these pieces together and designed the board as I went, adding in some black paper positioned diagonally as a background. Just this morning, I decided to photocopy the front and back covers of two texts that we use during the unit, as well as an article, and a poster of pre-9/11 NYC that I already owned. I arranged all the pieces together and then encircled the board with white lights.

I think it turned out pretty good. It’s a lot to look at, a lot to take in. That’s probably my only concern, but overall, I think it tells a story AND builds on my students’ knowledge from May.

I also like using the very last days of the school year to build prior knowledge for fall. It sends the message to students that even though school’s almost out for the summer, they’re still going to learn and I’m still going to “always be planning.”

It saves so much time during the hectic days before school begins to know how I’ll decorate the first thing students see when they enter my classroom.


Thanks for reading! Follow my blog for more articles about teaching middle school ELA.

Three Points I Pull from “They Say I Say” in My 7th & 8th Grade ELA Classes

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They Say I Say (Third Edition, 2015)

 

I came across this book, They Say I Say (Third Edition, 2015), when my son’s college English composition instructor required it for his freshman-level course. I thumbed through it, read a few chapters, and found some very concise passages written to help students solve probably the number one problem that I see in their academic writing: a lack of idea development.

While this is a college-level text, I use three points from it with my middle school students because of how easily accessible the explanations are. I’ll be honest. It’s hard for me to explain how to interpret a quote, how to elaborate, etc. It’s really a skill learned with practice. Still, kids need an introduction to it before they can practice.

This text puts into words these difficult concepts and how to master them. I usually use a combination where I read-aloud from copies of the text and then all-class discussion during and after reading.

Here are the three areas that I have pulled from this book and use with my seventh- and eighth-graders to teach them 1) how to quote sources, 2) how to write a counter-argument, and 3) how to make their writing flow. Here are the parts of the book that help me teach these three things:

  • The Art of Quoting (Chapter 3) gives great advice for how to adequately introduce evidence into expository writing. For example, writers should:
    • quote only relevant passages
    • frame or introduce every quotation with a little background that builds up to the quote and provides context
    • don’t be a hit-and-run quoter… after presenting the quotation, writers should stay “on the scene” and explain how the quote supports the point being made
    • try the templates in the chapter that can be used for both introducing quotations and explaining quotations
    • blend the author’s points with the writer’s
  • Putting a Naysayer in Your Text (Chapter 6) offers students good ideas for adding counter-arguments and rebuttals to their arguments. For example, writers should:
    • anticipate objections. Here’s a passage I read aloud and then we discuss as a class:

“But wait, you say. Isn’t the advice to incorporate critical views a recipe for destroying your credibility and undermining your argument? Here you are, trying to say something that will hold up, and we want you to tell readers all the negative things someone might try against you? Exactly. We are urging you to tell readers what others might say against you, but our point is that doing so will actually enhance your credibility, not undermine it. As we argue throughout this book, writing well does not mean piling up uncontroversial truths in a vacuum; it means engaging others in a dialogue or debate– not only by opening your text with a summary of what others have said,… but also by imagining what others might say against your argument as it unfolds. Once you see writing as an act of entering a conversation, you should also see how opposing arguments can work for you rather than against you.”

    • use the provided templates for entertaining objections
      • Example: Of course, many will probably disagree because…
    • use the templates for informally introducing objections
      • Here’s one: However, does the evidence I’ve cited prove that…
    • use the templates for making concessions while still standing their ground
      1. Here’s one: On the one hand, I agree with X that _____. But on the other hand, I still insist that___.
  • Connecting the Parts (Chapter 8) is actually the first of the three areas I use from the book with my students.  Outside of argument writing, showing students how to connect their sentences, how to make their ideas flow from the beginning of their essay to the very end, is something that students struggly with greatly. Templates provide a concrete way to learn a skill, and while there are no templates for connecting the parts, there are transitions and a few key moves that writers make to create writing that flows.
    • The book provides a variety of transitions for elaboration, example giving, contrasting, conceding, and others.
    • It suggests using pointing words, but carefully. These are words such as this, those, and other demonstrative pronouns. (For me personally, I don’t spend much time on this tip because I also know that students struggle with vague pronoun references. Skilled writers only would be able to distinguish”and skillfully use pointing words without inadvertently creating vague pronoun references.)
    • It suggests using key terms and phrases. I use this a lot in my own writing. Repeating a specific word here and there can uphold the ideas I’m writing about.
    • It also suggests “repeating yourself, but with a difference.” In other words, writers should always figure out different ways to express the same idea in order to flesh out or develop them. That builds clarity. I require students often to begin sentences with “In other words,…” where appropriate. “In other words,” is hugely important and helpful. I’ve had one high school student come back to my classroom who told me that using that one simple phrase helped them greatly with developing  their essays.

Another bonus: They Say I Say includes “readings” in each chapter, mentor texts that show the methods being explained in the chapter. These are super valuable, even though some are too advanced. Choose carefully.

Check out Amazon.com and see if you can find a used copy of They Say I Say. It has some real teaching gems that have helped me in conveying clearly some very important methods that students can employ to better develop their writing. And again, I don’t use the whole book, but just the three chapters above (and only excerpts of those chapters, actually).

Idea development, including elaboration and interpretation, is probably the most difficult concept to teach and this book, although a college-level text, has really helped me in my teaching.


Thanks for reading! Click like and leave a comment if you have a question or have any other resources for teaching elaboration and interpretation in academic writing.  Follow my blog for more about middle school ELA teaching.

It never hurts to ask

…for  chocolate and caffeine.

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Here’s a photo of the summer to-do list that the maintenance staff at my school taped to my door over the summer. It contains a list of the chores that were scheduled to be completed over the two and half months that are quickly coming to a close.

One day over the break, I visited the school to check my in-box in the workroom. My students had entered a contest that last March and I knew that correspondence about the contest would arrive sometime over the summer. Read yesterday’s post for that exciting news!

After checking my inbox, I dashed down the hall to my room just to make sure it was there. If you’re a teacher, you know the feeling!

For the majority of the year, those rooms are our domains. As such, our classrooms are not so much our workspaces, as our homes, albeit our second ones. It’s nice to check in at least once during the summer to see where things have been moved since we left, or to pick up a book to read from our classroom shelves, or to find some papers we need for planning.

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Photo by Mike Marquez on Unsplash

I approached the door to my room and noticed the to-do list. I read through all the mundane, simple cleaning tasks that were to be completed. Most of them were finished, but I decided to add a couple just for fun. I added “chocolate fountain” and “espresso machine” to the bottom because, well… chocolate and caffeine (hello).

Last week, when I dropped back in, I noticed my two requests remained untouched. No line had been crossed through them on the list. Were my requests over budget? Deemed unnecessary? Recognized for the joke they were? Oh, well. Maybe next year.

As I always tell my students when they desire something: “It never hurts to ask.”


Thanks for reading! Follow my blog for more tales from my middle school ELA classroom. Leave a comment about your BTS thoughts. 

My students “swept” a national poetry writing contest!

I’m so excited about the recent contest that my students won! Here’s a news release that I sent to a local newspaper about it.

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Kirbyville Middle School students swept the junior (grades 6-8) poetry division of the 2018 Norm Strung Youth Writing Awards, a national contest hosted by the Outdoor Writers Association of America, Missoula, Mt. Read about the contest in this post.

Joel R., a former eighth-grader who graduated from KMS in May, placed first with his poem “The Lucky Snag”; Allyson W., also a former eighth-grader who graduated from KMS in May, placed second with her poem “Breathe.” Zach B., who will be an eighth-grader this fall, placed third with his poem “A Deer’s Morning Graze.”

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First- and second-place winners, Joel R. and Ally W.

The students each received cash prizes of $200, $100, and $50, respectively. Cash awards were sponsored by Majesty Outdoors, a nonprofit “focused on bringing awareness to the fatherless epidemic in our society,” according to the foundation’s website.

Winning entries will be printed in the December/January issue of Outdoors Unlimited, OWAA’s magazine.

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Third-place winner Zach Burton and me.

This is the second year KMS students have participated in the contest. In 2017, Elijah D. placed second in the junior prose division.

“I am so proud of KMS students. With this contest in particular, every student is able to find an outdoor-related topic to write about and then they stick with their poems or essays and work so hard on them, revising them until they are sent to Montana,” said Marilyn Yung, language arts teacher at KMS.

I’ll post the winning poems in a post later this week. Follow me to get those.

If you ever decide to have your students enter this contest, use these winning entries as mentor texts. That’s exactly what I did to prepare my kids for writing their entries.

In addition to sending out the news release, I also made a big deal out of the news on my private class Instagram account.

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I posted this meme on my class’ private Instagram account a few days before I announced it with a video.

I posted an Anchorman meme that there would be a “big announcement” coming soon. I also posted a video announcing the award.  (I should have embedded the video into this post, but I failed. Sorry about that!)

On another note… Don’t forget to let others know about your activities in the classroom. Get to know your local newspapers and other media so you can notify them when good things happen.

The editor to whom I sent the above release usually runs what I email to him in one of the two newspapers he publishes locally. Do a little research, find the names and email addresses of the local editor at your local media offices, and start communicating with them.

Get some publicity for your school and the part you play in your profession.


Thanks for reading! Click like if you found this valuable. Follow my blog for more writing contest news, and other posts about teaching middle school ELA. 

Every Teacher Needs a “Why I Teach” Binder

Reading notes from my current and former students is an instant pick-me-up

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Do you have special notes, drawings, letters or small trinkets that students have given to you over the years?

About two years ago, I finally decided to keep track of those treasures by putting them into a box. However, the box took up so much space in my closet (read this post) that I finally decided to recycle a three-ring binder that I no longer needed for the purpose of holding all these reminders of “why I teach.” I transferred all those loose notes and other gifts into plastic page protectors and then placed all of those into the binder.

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It’s a blessing when students take the time to write a note!

My “Why I Teach” binder is a better solution than that old box; it’s easy to find and doesn’t take up much space since it stores alongside all my other notebooks.

I absolutely love pulling that binder from the shelf every so often for the instant boost it gives me.

Reading the notes and cards and letters from former and current students is such a gift.

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Gifts such as this Christmas tree ornament store nicely in a page protector.

At the end of a particularly long day or week, flipping through my “Why I Teach” binder provides a brief moment of quiet reflection, where I can recall those students who are now in high school or beyond… those students whom I had the pleasure of knowing during their middle school years, which are arguably the toughest years of anyone’s life.

Reading my students’ ideas, their thoughtful gratitude, and their humor brightens my day.

It doesn’t just remind me why I teach, but proclaims it!

 

The Triangle Fire and Human Rights

Triangle Fire forms the first literature unit for my 8th-graders’ human rights dissertations

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Here’s the chart that shows the progress each student has made during the school year. This goes up on my wall in early September and remains up until the project is finished in March.

This week I’ve been writing about the unit on the Triangle Waist Co. fire that my 8th-graders start the year with. For them, the last few weeks of seventh grade was an introduction, a sort of “paving the way” for the more in-depth reading and studying that we will begin in just two short weeks. Check out my Monday post on the Triangle Fire resources that I use and some of the activities that we do. Check out my post from yesterday that discussed how I connect Triangle Fire to another horrific disaster, the 9/11 attacks.

Today, I’m going to write about how the Triangle Fire study forms the first section of a project that I call the 8th-grade human rights dissertation. Human rights education is vitally important in my view.

If students don’t know what human rights are, how will they know when those rights are being violated?

There are many materials available to use in teaching human rights. Since I began this project, I used materials produced by an organization known as Youth for Human Rights International. However, since I learned last year that YHRI is a front organization for the Church of Scientology International, I have decided not to use them anymore.

Read my post, Dear Parents: The Church of Scientology Wants to Get Inside Your Child’s Classroom, about that topic. This year, I will be developing new curriculum based on materials from other organizations.

Read my other post, Dear Teachers: Avoid These So-Called Educator’s Kits from the Church of Scientology for alternative human rights education materials I’ve located.

The human rights dissertation is a project that I have done with my 8th-graders for three years now. The first year was a complete trial-by-fire and I hesitate to even let it count since we literally ran out of time toward the end of the project. The second year was a success. Students completed the dissertations in the way I foresaw the project culminating. This past school year was again a successful year, and I would say an even more successful year than the first because I modified and/or improved the project in several ways, which I will discuss later.

The human rights dissertation is actually an expanded five-paragraph essay. Throughout the year, as we read and study these texts, students determine three human rights that each text supports or are revealed in the text that need protection or upholding.

It’s really up to the student to determine how they wish to discuss the rights; as the year progresses I am aware of the direction that they are taking with respect to the human rights and the literature we read. The founding document that we study even before we write the Triangle Fire section of the dissertation is the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the 1948 document drafted by a United Nations committee led by First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, in response to the atrocities of World War II.

There are six sections to this project:

  • an introduction
    • Students write this usually after all their second drafts have been finalized, usually in mid-February. This introduces the entire scope of the paper. We spend a lot of time honing these sections and massaging them into being revelatory personal statements.
  • an explanation of  human rights
    • -Students usually write their first draft for this section in September.
  • a section that connects the Triangle Fire to three human rights
    • -Students usually write their first draft for this section in October.
  • a section that connects “Inside Out and Back Again to three human rights
    • -Students usually write their first draft for this section in November.
  • a section that connects Frederick Douglass’ Narrative to three human rights
    • -Students usually write their first draft for this section in late January/early February.
  • a conclusion
    • Students usually write their first draft for this section in February

First drafts and second drafts are assigned as homework. I have very detailed take-home packets that provide students what they need to know for their drafts. First drafts can be any length, but second drafts will have a two- to three-page length requirement.

Second drafts for each portion are written throughout the year, i.e. they are not written immediately after their first drafts. I believe in taking a break from a piece of writing so the second draft will be a homework assignment a month or two after the first draft is written.  This also gives students time to get that first draft written if they failed to do it on time initially.

Students keep paper copies of their first drafts, which have my notes and revision suggestions, in the file cabinet in the classroom.  They also have digital copies in Google Drive.

As students turn in their drafts, I put a sticker on a large chart on the wall. At any moment, students and I can see their progress.

After we write our second drafts, students must pay special attention to connecting their “essays within the essay.” They complete several rounds of revision as they attempt to make their individual sections blend from one to the next. This gets interesting and students know by this time that this is a needed task.

I’ve even had students, before we get to this point of the project, ask me in class, “Mrs. Yung, how are we gonna make this flow? It can’t just sound like individual papers.” And then to myself, I think, “Hallelujah! They figured it out on their own!”

It’s so wonderful to know that they have learned how important it is to make our ideas connect smoothly in our writing.

This paper gives me the opportunity to reinforce the concept of what I call “interpretation,” the explanation that is needed when quoting from a source or text. This is a skill we practice all year, but the human rights dissertation is the project where this skill really shines. I require at a minimum that each quote from each text be followed by four to six sentences of explanatory exposition that reveals how the quote supports the point they are making.

My go-to piece of advice for students is to make their first or second sentence after a quote begins with “In other words,…”

Last minute additions to the paper include a comprehensive Works Cited page and a title page. The details for these items are included on a final to-do list that students use as they go through the project. The title for these papers is “Humanity Revealed: Understanding Human Rights Through Literature;” however, students may use another title if they wish.

This sheet also has several editing and revision requirements listed, as well as an approximate timeline. We devote about three to four weeks to revising and finalizing these papers in class. Lastly, I provide them with a heavy-duty Avery Flexi-View report cover.

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It’s such a good feeling when students start turning in their dissertations– for them and me!

The human rights dissertation is really my “piece de resistance” of my language arts classes. By the time students finish theirs, they’ve been my students for three years, and I’ve learned so much about their abilities, their interests, their personalities, and their goals for the future.

I truly enjoy watching students wrap up their dissertations and they are always excited to see their accomplishment. Many of them will end up with a paper that is fifteen or more pages long. Some even really go “all out” and see just how much they can write. It’s always a discussion to see who has the longest paper! (And yes, I make a point to tell them that more doesn’t mean better, but for middle schoolers to be excited about writing “just one more page,” who am I to shut that down?!)

As this project kicks off in the fall, I will be posting about it and providing news and photos about any changes that I decide to make this year.  One change I may make is to allow students the choice to add a World War II text to their paper. This change is discussed in this post I recently wrote called “How to Forget the Holocaust.” I plan to eventually add the handouts, timelines, and editing checklists to my future TpT store.


Thanks for reading! Follow my blog to find out more about this project and to receive updates about changes I make to it this year! Do you do a similar project with your students or do you have any suggestions for me? Feel free to leave a comment!