Rejection proves that my students are indeed writers
I teach a bunch of rejects.
I teach them it’s okay to fail and
That it’s good to receive a rejection letter because
That’s what writers do: They get rejected.
I teach a bunch of rejects.
I teach them to risk it all and
Write it down now because
That’s what writers do: they deal in danger.
I teach a bunch of rejects.
I teach them to give themselves permission
To write a junky, uninspired first draft because
That’s what writers do: they don’t wait for inspiration.
I teach a bunch of rejects.
I teach them their words must work hard,
That lazy words aren’t worth their time because
That’s what writers do: they crave precision.
I teach a bunch of rejects.
I teach them to write, to rewrite, try once more
Only to receive this message yet again: “Best of luck in your creative endeavors.”
And then I photograph my rejects,
My fiery bunch of seventh-graders,
Clutching their “Best of luck” letters because
That’s what I do: I create writers.
Thanks for reading! I’m a big advocate of encouraging students to enter any and all writing contests I can get my hands on. Click here for my favorite contest of the year, the Daughters of the American Revolution American History Essay Contest. See my Student Writing Contests page for the entire list of contest I use.
Next year, I’ll be moving to a new school district where I’ll be teaching high school students. There are even more contests for older students than younger ones, so follow my blog to learn about those opportunities!
Kids love to write dialogue, but it often ends up being just a series of spoken words… a lengthy showcase of spoken words followed by any one of the following: he said, she said, he replied, she stated.
This year, in my AOW and EOW assignments, I would occasionally ask students to start their responses with dialogue. I did this to encourage (or force, I guess, since it was required in the assignment) students to add narrative elements to their writing. Sure, it’s easy to just respond to a prompt with “The central idea of this article was…”. However, another level of complexity is added if one must start with dialogue. When one adds dialogue to the standard response, a story is automatically brought into the mix.
Once the students became accustomed to using dialogue in their responses (in effect, they’re blending genres, aren’t they?!), I noticed that the dialogue lacked narration… the additional information writers build into their dialogue to show setting, personality traits, reveal motivation, or other important details.
To show students what I was talking about when I asked them to add narration to their dialogue, I took two excerpts from two novels from my bookshelves, A River Runs Through It by Norman Maclean and A Separate Peace by John Knowles. For each novel, I found a short excerpt and typed it verbatim into a Word document as published. Then I took those same excerpts and removed the narration. Here’s a photo of the handout I made for this activity:
Here is a picture of the back side of the above sheet:
I read aloud each passage from the novels, starting with the excerpt WITHOUT narration, and then followed with reading the respective excerpt WITH the narration. Then I asked:
What do you notice?
What do we learn when we have the narration added to the dialogue?
What did the reader miss out on by not having the extra information that the narration provides?
What else does the narration accomplish?
We basically just discuss the narration’s effect on the text. It’s a good way for kids to readily experience the benefits of narration and how it can help their dialogue work harder for them.
Conversations should never take place in a vacuum. The narration needs to firmly ground your reader in time and space…Narration anchors the reader and creates the atmosphere of the setting and the specific circumstance of the scene.—Helga Schier, PhD., Writer’s Digest
Here’s how I would change this mini-lesson for next time:
The handout needs to have one novel’s excerpts on each side. As we went over the handout, the kids were flipping the paper back and forth from the excerpt without narration and then to the one with narration on the back. It would have been more effective to have the “without narration” excerpt for one of the novels on the top half of the page followed by the “with narration” excerpt below it. Seeing the before and after versions would have helped students more easily see the difference the narration makes.
I felt like the kids understood more about narration after this mini-lesson, but it’s a topic that definitely needs another go-over because I didn’t see many practice it in their assignments. No doubt this skill should be worked on with some in-class writing assignments so kids can apply it when I’m around to help or offer support.
A few kids (the stronger writers) did add some narration, but even some of those merely added lazy adjectives or adverbs to their dialogue, a la the following example:
“No, I don’t think you understand,” Mom stated urgently.
Not quite what I had in mind!
So obviously, narration in dialogue is a work in progress and like everything else that I teach, it takes repetition and practice.
Thanks for reading again this week! Have a great June… what I call the Saturday night of the summer for teachers! Let me know your thoughts on this post and follow my blog for more middle and high school ELA teaching stories.
This project was a long time in the making… brewing, I mean
This week, I’m posting several photos from a lesson and activity that’s been in the works for a few months, if not for a year. About a year ago, I found an article online on MentalFloss called “9 Facts about Coffee Lids You Didn’t Know You Needed.” The article featured a new book called Coffee Lids by architects Louise Harpman and Scott Specht. The book is a showcase and discussion on the design and evolution of the coffee cup lid. The book includes photographs of more than 150 coffee cup lids and includes commentary on the history of this ubiquitous example of how “form follows function” even in the most mundane of objects.
Last year, I created an AOW (Article of the Week) assignment based on the “9 Facts” article to introduce the coffee cup lid from a engineering and design standpoint.
It never worked out to assign the AOW last year, but I kept it in mind for this year and finally, with only two weeks to go until school’s out, I finally assigned the AOW assignment plus an additional activity where students could hone their descriptive writing skills.
The first requirement for this project was to collect as many different styles of coffee lids as I could find. I ended up with about 28 different styles. (Most of them were included in the book, by the way.) A handful of students and parents contributed some of the lids. I collected the rest from coffee shops, restaurants, gas stations, and from friends. I started collecting in January and by mid-April, I had enough to do the activity.
About two weeks ago, 8th-graders read and responded to the AOW. This assignment basically formed the introduction to the activity that they completed last week. That activity? To write a descriptive paragraph(s) about one of the lids, which would be written so descriptively that a reader could match the text to the lid without either being labeled.
I took my two classes of my 8th-graders to the gym and to the safe room to write their descriptions last Thursday. They spent about half of the 50-minute class period handwriting their descriptions on notebook paper, and then the other half back in my classroom typing up their descriptions and printing them out.
Leaving my classroom to write their descriptions was beneficial because the gym and safe room are big enough that kids could space out and open their brown bag that contained their coffee lid. (The gym actually worked best, since kids could REALLY space out from each other.) The lid had a sticker on the bottom that students would use to match up to the cup’s descriptive paragraph.
Overall, the activity didn’t work as well as I hoped it would. On Friday, when kids matched up the lids to the descriptions, there was just too much matching to be done. The descriptions were simply not detailed or precise enough so the lid descriptions could be distinguished from each other. As a result, students gave up after matching up about six lids to their descriptions. Maybe next time, I should create a sheet that they fill out instead of having them write lid numbers on Post-It notes attached to each description.
Oh, well. At least I have two ways to improve this activity for next time: 1) provide more detailed descriptions by requiring students to add precise measurements to their descriptions, and 2) have students match up fewer lids to their descriptions. I have 24 total eighth-graders and it was just too difficult and time-consuming to match up all 24 lids to their descriptions. Next time, I’ll have each class of twelve match up only their lids.
Here’s a photo of the AOW that was assigned first:
Here’s the handout I created for the descriptive paragraph activity:
I definitely liked this activity for its STEM focus. It encouraged my students to think more deeply about the design and engineering of a common object that they’ve never given serious consideration to. Concepts such as froth accommodation, olfactory satisfaction, and slosh reduction, which were first introduced in the AOW, revealed to them how much design and innovation goes into throw-away items, while also providing some unusual domain-specific Tier 3 words to talk about!
It was fun to see them studying closely all the different kinds of coffee lids, really noticing the minuscule details of each and then transferring those details into their writing. For this first attempt at this project, maybe that’s enough.
Thanks for reading! I wrote this post quickly. If something is confusing, please let me know. Also… I realize some of the photos didn’t transfer well. Please let me know if you have questions and I’ll be happy to help. Also, feel free to comment with your thoughts or ideas on this activity. I like to try to incorporate STEM topics into Language Arts. What have been your experiences with STEM activities?
I asked them to get out a sheet of paper and something to write with.
I asked them to think of someone they knew well that they could write a good description of because we were going to write a cumulative sentence.
At this point, someone usually asked, “What’s a cumulative sentence?” To this, I answered, “It’s a sentence that accumulates details about a person or whatever we’re writing about.” It seemed they could usually associate the word “accumulate” with “cumulative” and then we were good to go. There’s no need to get more technical than that.
I wrote a sentence starter on the whiteboard, which would form the basis for my own cumulative sentence. I wrote “I thought of Aaron,” on the board. I pointed out that their sentence starter, “which is actually a complete sentence—and is otherwise known as an independent clause, right?”—needed to end with a comma since our sentence was just getting started.
Then I told them we were going to watch a short video of my niece’s husband—the Aaron in my sentence starter—so we can describe him well.
After watching the video (which really impressed the kids, by the way), I added a verb cluster that began with a participial verb (an -ing verb). I added this to my sentence: “extending his legs,”
Then I asked the kids to write a similar phrase that began with an -ing verb. I reminded them to end the phrase with a comma.
Next, I added this to my sentence: “sprawling across the wall-to-wall mat,”
The kids added another descriptive phrase to their sentence. I again reminded them to start it with an -ing verb and end with a comma.
Finally, we added one more. I added “shifting his weight gracefully throughout his routine.” Notice that I ended this final verb cluster with a period since the sentence was now completed. The kids did the same.
We went around the room and everyone shared their sentence (if they wanted).
I encouraged them to try this sentence structure in their writing that day. Seventh-graders were starting a final month of Writer’s Workshop and were able to work on any number of writing projects, including memoirs and narratives. I made sure to stress to them that cumulative sentences would instantly elevate the quality of their writing because it would help them vary the length of their sentences.
In fact, I said, the average 7th-grader’s sentence contains ten words. (This statistic was included in Swain’s materials I received at the workshop.)
Then I asked them, just for fun, to count the words in their sentences. Everyone had more than ten. Several had more than twenty words. One had 28!
The next day I put three sentence starters on the whiteboard and asked them to choose one and write a cumulative sentence just like we did the day before. These were the sentence starters I wrote on the board:
I watched the baby sloth,
The firefighter worked courageously,
The photographer roamed the crowd,
Here are two questions that I received from various students throughout the day (I taught this same mini-lesson to 6th-, 7th-, and 8th-graders; all grades did well with it):
Question 1: Do we always have to start the verb clusters with -ing verbs?
My answer: No, you don’t, but for today, let’s do, since we’re learning something new.
Question 2: Can we use “and” in between the verb clusters?
My answer: Yes, you can, but try it without and see if you like the way it sounds. I like to make sure that kids realize writing is also about rhythm and sound and that writers make their own creative choices. A few kids added “and” to their sentences and then took them back out. Some kids explained that using “and” made the sentences sound more like a list, causing the sentences to sound less “in the moment” and more formal. I agreed and was impressed that kids picked up on the nuance of the cumulative sentence.
Tomorrow, I’ve got a short mini-lesson planned for when kids enter the room. On the Smartboard, I’ll have a Powerpoint slide that has a cumulative sentence that uses absolute phrases in the description. Here’s a screenshot of the slide I’ll use:
The sentence in the photo above generated some interesting conversations with my 8th-graders. We noticed that when -ing verb clusters are used instead of absolute phrases, the reader can actually see (as in a “mind movie”) the action in the descriptors. The sentence is much more visual.
In contrast, when absolute phrases are used, that may not always be the case. Students preferred using -ing verb clusters for the imagery they provided to the sentence. Our preferences also veered toward using a mix of absolutes and -ing verb clusters. While a string of absolutes may feature repetition, the writer may not provide the “mind movie” effect as strongly.
And mind you, these discussions were short and not as technical as it might sound. We are starting end-of-year testing tomorrow, and the kids were definitely NOT in the mood for this, but since I’ve never formally taught the cumulative sentence before, it ended up being a good day to experiment with words and phrases. Just talking about how words and sentences sound always leaves the impression that “This is what writers do,”… i.e. they experiment, try styles on for size, and otherwise get creative with their writing. As I always say, “It’s language arts, not language science.”
One last note about the day: I did some quick online research (as in “I googled it”) on the cumulative sentence to make sure I was understanding the various forms it can take. In doing so, I learned about periodic sentences. Periodic sentences have their independent clauses (the sentence portion or the independent chunk) at the end, similar to a period. I think I’ll introduce this to my students next. Stay tuned!
Thanks for reading! Grammar has always been my weakness when it comes to teaching ELA; however, I do like Sherry Swain’s way of teaching the cumulative sentence. It seems to be a practical thing for students to know. Follow my blog for more articles.
Lately, I’ve noticed a pattern in my students’ writing. The pattern I’m noticing may reveal some confusion that my students have regarding the words “although” and “however.” It seems that some students will use “although” correctly in a guided writing prompt, but then in other situations, often in the same essay, use it again incorrectly when they should instead use the word “however.”
Grammatically speaking, they’ll use “although” correctly as a subordinate conjunction, but then also use it incorrectly in place of the conjunctive adverb, “however.” They’ll use “although” when “however” actually would be the appropriate choice.
In effect, students are interchanging these words Perhaps they don’t realize these words have different meanings in sentences.
I’ve been aware of this issue for a while now, but only recently have I also observed that most of my students don’t naturally use the word “however.” In fact, it’s almost as if the word “however” doesn’t exist in their writing vocabularies. (It’s hard to see your students not do something or not use a word, y’know?!)
Here are some examples of how my students correctly and incorrectly recently used the word “although.” These are paragraphs written in response to the question, “What is the theme of The Song of the Trees by Mildred Taylor?”
As part of the assignment for this response, I asked my students to start one sentence of their eight sentences in the response with the word “Although.” I add requirements like this one to prompts to encourage students to write richer, fuller complex sentences.
This is an example from “Stephanie” that shows some word usage confusion. “However,” would be the correct choice here instead of “Although,” since the independent clause as written (“he did not need to die that day.”) is not complex. Getting her to use “however” will be the trick, since it seems to be a word she rarely uses. It is interesting to note that Stephanie has inserted a comma after “Although,” which is exactly where the comma would be needed had she used “However.”
So what do I do with this “Although” vs. “However” observation? How do I solve this problem my students are having?
Should I collect a small group of student writing that includes both correct and incorrect usage? (This will take time and organization, but it seems kids respond better to class discussions when we are looking at their own or a classmate’s work.)
Should I have kids compare the two constructions and discuss how effective (or ineffective) it is to use Stephanie’s construction?
Should I discuss the logic of both constructions? It would be good to have students see for themselves how Stephanie’s construction is inaccurate, a little confusing, and therefore an unclear use of the word “although.”
Do I need to break down the sentences students write and swap out the two words to show students how they differ in meaning?
Do I need to discuss subordinate conjunctions (such as “although”) again?
Do I need to discuss conjunctive adverbs (such as “however”)? Surely, that’s not necessary in seventh grade!
There are just so many directions I could go with this, aren’t there?!
Usually, I conference one-on-one with the students to discuss issues like these. I also jot notes on drafts to this effect where I cross out the incorrect use of “Although,” and then try to explain somehow in the margins that “However” would be the best choice. However, now that I am starting to see this as a trend among my students, perhaps I should approach it with a whole-class mini-lesson.
And I think the whole-class approach will happen eventually. However, before it does, I’ll need to start collecting examples that show “although” and “however” being used correctly and incorrectly. Some of these examples will come from student writing, and articles and books from my own reading. Once I have those examples, I could create a handout or Powerpoint or some other visual to teach the difference between these two words.
Thanks for reading about the thought process that goes into teaching. Another thing I think about: ways to be more hands-on or interactive when I teach. Could I go beyond creating a paper handout or a Powerpoint to teach the differences between “although” and “however?” Feel free to leave a comment and follow my blog for more articles about teaching middle school ELA.
I’m pretty proud of the student’s written response in the photo above. It’s written by a seventh-grader 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:
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!
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.
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.
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.
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?