Now that the new year has started, I thought I would write a short post about the units I’m starting with my juniors and seniors next week.
My junior classes will begin Ernest Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea on Wednesday and my senior classes will start Beowulfon the same day. (In addition, my Composition class will begin brainstorming ideas for their I-Search papers on the same day, while my Novels classes begin their independent reading books.)
These lit units are the first ones of the school year for both grades. Last fall, we wrote memoirs, poetry, short story analysis essays, and a variety of pieces for Writer’s Workshop. We also wrote poetry and entered writing contests, such as the Scholastic Art and Writing Awards.
Of course, we also read. Between nonfiction articles for Article of the Week assignments and various books we “tasted” on First Chapter Fridays, we did expose ourselves to new reading. Still, in-depth and extended study of selected literature was not on the menu.
I’m excited to experience these literature studies with my students. I’ve read The Old Man and the Sea before, but not Beowulf. And to be honest, I’m a little embarrassed that I haven’t read this foundational text before. In fact, I’m not sure how I missed reading it until now.
I’m fairly well prepared to get started with these new units, but at the same time, I know that teaching them will be challenging and probably dominate my planning time.
It’s quite a handful to create daily lessons for two new texts. Compound that with the fact that at my small rural high school, I’m the only English teacher for juniors and seniors. That has its positives (I have autonomy and choice when planning), but it also has its negatives. For example, while I do have a general curriculum to follow, I do not have unit specific materials beyond the textbooks and novels.
As such, I’ll be creating and designing lessons as I go. Thank goodness for ready-made unit plans, which provide me a basic framework that I can tweak and adjust for the future.
I’ll update you on how these new units progress in some future posts.
Thanks for reading again this week! What are you gearing up for now that the holidays are over? Feel free to leave a comment and follow my blog to catch those follow-up posts.
This student-written essay illustrates transition ideas
A few weeks ago, I wrote a post about how the nonfiction author James Swanson’ transitions from paragraph and from chapter to chapter in his nonfiction narrative Chasing Lincoln’s Killer. The post discussed transitions words (such as therefore, however, in contrast, nonetheless, and others) that we all know and love and teach. However, the post also discussed a more subtle form of transition… transition ideas. Read that post here.
Below, I’ve shown a student-written example of the same primary technique, repetition, that Swanson used to carry the reader from one paragraph of her text to the next.
This student’s term that she chose to guide the reader through her essay was “moving on.” In the photo below, I’ve underlined the five times that the writer repeated the words “moving on” or “move on.”
The student told me that she didn’t realize she was using repetition to create her transition ideas. Once I called her attention to it, however, she could see how using those words could help a reader navigate her argument’s reasoning and follow her ideas from one paragraph to the next.
We also discussed how repetition can backfire because it’s possible to overuse words and phrases in a piece of writing.
How to tell the difference?
It’s often a judgment call… a judgment call that requires lots of reading and re-reading (especially aloud!) to determine whether the repetition connects ideas and builds the argument, forming a continuous thread through the piece or merely distracts the reader, pulling them away from the argument.
It’s fun to see students making effective moves in their writing, especially when it comes to writing transitions and working hard to make their ideas carry through a piece smoothly, seamlessly, and unobtrusively.
I’ll have a few more examples to show you in a future post or two. Become a follower to catch that post!
Thanks for reading! How do you teach transitions? It’s one of the more challenging aspects of the craft. Feel free to leave a comment with your experiences and thoughts on the subject.
I still use this assignment on a weekly basis, but I’ve added narrative writing to the mix by assigning what I call Essays of the Week (EOWs) every other week. These narrative assignments use prompts provided by The New York Times Learning Network. I select a grouping of prompts from the list and let students choose one to respond to.
Here are some photos of the rubric portions of my AOWs and EOWs. Feel free to comment, ask a question, or share this post.
I usually assign a new AOW or EOW on the first day of the week with a hard copy due one week later. AOWs usually take a little more time to go over. For example, after a bell-ringer activity and a mini-lesson that addresses a specific skill required in the rubric (such as using semicolons), these take the better part of the class period when we complete these steps:
introducing the assignment
going over the rubric and its specific requirements
discussing the writing prompt
reading the article aloud
watching any related video on the news story
EOWs don’t take as much class time, since there’s no article to read. We might go through each prompt choice, however, and do some discussion to help students come up with writing ideas.
Let me know how these rubrics work for you.
My adaptation of Kelly Gallagher’s AOW is a mainstay in my teaching. The AOWs build nonfiction reading skills, improve writing stamina, and increase students’ prior knowledge of the world around them. My EOW simply adds variety to our routine while giving them opportunities to write narratives.
Thanks for reading again this week! I appreciate any and all comments. In fact, this post was created in response to a comment posted just last week about this article.
Don’t teach just transition words… teach transition ideas as well.
I taught this book for eight years in my middle school ELA classes. It’s such a ride! Plus, when you read it as a writer, you notice key skills the author James Swanson utilized heavily when he wrote this little gem.
For me, teaching transitions is one of the most difficult concepts to teach in writing and one of the most needed. When you teach transitions, you are helping students learn how to write smoothly, to make their ideas flow from one paragraph to the next, even from one sentence to the next.
In short, we’re talking about the concept of cohesion in writing. As you know, cohesion happens when an idea is carried through from the introductory paragraph(s) to the supporting sections of the text and finally, to the summary or conclusion. There are two ways to accomplish cohesion: transition words and ideas as transitions.
I’ve done what many other teachers have done. We post anchor charts around our classrooms that divide transition words into groups based on their intended jobs within a piece of writing. It’s a fairly cut-and-dry skill to teach. Here are three examples of many:
Transitions that show sequence: first, second, third, etc.
Transitions that show cause and effect: as a result, consequently, etc.
Transitions that compare and contrast: on the other hand, in contrast, etc.
Yes, anchor charts do an adequate job of supplying these phrases for students as they write. In addition, I’ve also distributed handouts that list these same groups of words. And that’s all fine and good. Most students understand how transition words can help their writing flow smoothly so the reader can easily follow their ideas.
But there’s another kind of transition—transition ideas—that are just as important, if not more important, than all those transition words. It’s also more difficult to teach because you can’t point to a list of words and phrases for students to use. That’s why I was excited when I found several examples of transition ideas in a text that I routinely taught, Chasing Lincoln’s Killer by James Swanson.
Transition ideas rely on words used in the text by the author to connect the scenes in a story, the claim in an argument from one paragraph to the next, or important big ideas in an informative article.
Chasing Lincoln’s Killer contains several examples of transition ideas. And since it’s often easier for me to show this than it is to explain it, take a look at the photos below.
The first photo below is from Chapter IV in the book. I’ve underlined in red the transition ideas… places where the writer wanted to move the story from one scene to another on the night of April 14, 1865 when President Lincoln was assassinated. To continue his story from one location to another Swanson utilized key words to carry the reader from the home of Secretary of State William Seward to the scene of the Lincoln shooting, Ford’s Theater.
As you can see, Swanson intentionally repeated key words and phrases–“drenched in blood”– to help his reader make the leap in the story with him.
Here’s another example. Swanson’s narrative needed to transfer from the farm and home of Dr. Mudd back to Ford’s Theater. Swanson showed the Mudds sleeping and transitioned that idea to President Lincoln, who was also “sleeping” after being shot by the assassin John Wilkes Booth.
Below is yet another example where Swanson carries the reader, at the conclusion of Chapter VII, into the action of Chapter VIII. He uses transition ideas to switch the reader from the lowland river areas where Booth and conspirator David Herold prepared for camping to Washington, D.C., where Mary Surratt, another conspirator, also was wrapping up the busy day.
And below you can see how Swanson began Chapter VIII in a way that echoed the action at the end of Chapter VII.
If you’d like even more explanation of transition ideas, show your middle school and high school students this video by Shmoop. It’s quirky and a little weird, but that’s Shmoop. It gets the point across well, I think.
Transition words and transition ideas are super important. They help students write smoothly and cohesively. Both are the key to writing pieces that absorb the reader, causing them to focus intently on the message of the writing. Use these passages from Chasing Lincoln’s Killer and this Shmoop video the next time you prepare a mini-lesson on transitions.
Thanks for reading again this week! How do you teach transitions? Leave a comment to share your ideas and follow my blog for weekly posts about teaching ELA.
My resources, my reservations, and my main reason to teach this book again
Right now, at my new teaching position at a rural high school in Missouri, one of my junior/senior level electives classes is reading The Red Badge of Courage by Stephen Crane. If you’re unfamiliar with The Red Badge of Courage, it’a a Civil War novel first published in 1895 that explores the effects of war on a young man named Henry Fleming.
According to this Glencoe Literature Library Study Guide, “The Red Badge of Courage is a profile of an inexperienced young soldier undergoing his first experience of battle. ‘The youth’ in the novel, Henry Fleming, makes a journey of self-discovery. But what he learns, and whether he learns, from his experiences is a point that is still debated.” In other words, The Red Badge of Courage is a novel that focuses on the psychological effects of war as much as it focuses on warring itself.
Before I started the unit, I consulted a private teachers’ Facebook group to get some ideas. Instead, I learned that many teachers aren’t crazy about the book. At all. For example, the sentiments below are actual teacher opinions about Crane’s novel.
I need suggestions for an alternative text to Red Badge of Courage. I tried to read it/listen to it and it was AWFUL.
It is suggested to do Red Badge of Courage, but I tried to read it and listen to it on audio, and I just couldn’t. It is not interesting…
This is the only required reading that I did not complete in high school. I. Could. Not. Stand. It.
Red Badge of Courage. Gag me with a spoon.
“Ouch. Really? Is it that bad?” I thought when I read those comments.
Yes, it is dry and monotonous at times. Those chapters where Fleming waits for directions, waits for battle, waits for any indication of progress in the war, do get long. However, as we learn from Fleming, that’s part of the war experience. The Civil War experience, to be exact. And yes, the Civil War was a long time ago, so maybe the book’s monotonous chapters and the book’s antiquated language and style (it was first published in 1895, after all) turns off these teachers.
And those teachers can have their opinions, for sure. But this little book–there are 24 chapters each about five pages in length–has merit if you look for it.
After all, there’s a reason it’s never been out of print: the book is not merely an account of war, but an account of how untested people deal with self-doubt, confidence, fear, and ultimately, courage.
Since this is the first time I’ve taught the novel, I realize I’m just “feeling my way.” In other words, I don’t pretend to have this figured out. In fact, my first experience with teaching the novel leaves much to be desired. However, I thought I would still share the handful of resources I’m currently using or plan to use in the next couple of weeks or so. Plus, I’m secretly hoping that, if you’ve taught this novel before, you’ll share some tips and ideas in the comments below! (See what I did there?!) Here are the resources I’m using, listed in no particular order:
I currently use these writing prompts as bell work assignments. Journal prompts can become tiresome, though, so we don’t do these everyday. Students respond by writing a paragraph. We discuss them briefly as a warm-up to listening to the next two chapters of the book.
This unit plan is a fairly standard one and is aligned with Common Core State Standards. The focus is definitely on reading comprehension and vocabulary building. Writing exercises are scant and only require limited creative or analytical thinking. Although this unit plan is a full 67 pages long, I’ve only used about ten of those so far. I will, however, use its summative activities as part of a final assessment, to which I’ll add a reflective essay requirement.
Taking Fire is the definitive collection of modern war stories, told by the men and women who fought on the front lines of Afghanistan. Illustrated with real combat footage shot on helmet cameras and handy cams, this series plunges viewers into the heart of the action, giving a visceral experience not witnessed in news reports or traditional documentary portrayals of war.
Taking Fire follows the experiences of rookie recruits of the 101st Airborne division. Shot with helmet cams and other video cameras, viewers watch the daily activities—from mundane chores to real-life skirmishes—of these young men. It’s not difficult to see that these activities are similar to the experiences of Fleming, referred to as “the youth” in Crane’s book.
As we watch Taking Fire, it’s easy to appreciate a modern-day connection to The Red Badge of Courage. The soldiers in Afghanistan looking for land mines, waiting for action, and fighting boredom share the same concerns and emotions as Fleming does in the novel. They experience the same fears, the same guilt, the same self-doubts that Henry does. I love how Taking Fire has given The Red Badge of Courage a shove into current day concerns and emotions.
Stephen Crane’s characterization of Henry, the young recruit, rings as true today as it did during the Civil War —and we have Stephen Crane and the Discovery Channel, as well— to thank for that. Because it relates so naturally to The Red Badge of Courage, I have decided to watch twenty minutes of a Taking Fire episode about every other day in class…after we listen to our audiobook. (Let’s be real: saving the video for after the book is also partly a reward for digging into the book and its antiquated language and verbose descriptions.)
I also like the idea of comparing a TV series to a book… an important learning standard that requires students to access literature through various media. Noticing similarities and differences between the written page from more than a century ago to a contemporary high-tech televised war experience should lead to some rich discussions and critical thinking opportunities.
And yes, there is The Red Badge of Courage, the movie. It was made in 1951 and was filmed in black and white. I’m not planning on showing it because Taking Fire seems a better, more relevant fit.
Yes, I have occasionally read chapters aloud and have asked students to do a sort of reader’s theater activity while I read (where certain students read especially memorable lines). However, most of the class seems to enjoy the audiobook version more. Here’s the link to the audiobook on Youtube.
I hope to design an activity where students, at the completion of our reading the novel, explore the diary of an actual Civil War soldier. This will be a good opportunity for students to access and use primary sources, as well give them additional insights into the lives of young soldiers. Perhaps these diaries can be correlated to the experiences of Fleming as an additional part of a reflective summative assessment. There are numerous websites for this type of work. I plan to explore these other sites as well to find more diaries and journals:
I have a membership to LitCharts, and printed out the study guide to the novel at the beginning of the unit. The study guide includes a plot summary, detailed analysis, theme discussions, quotes, and character notes. Having this on my desk as we read, listen, and discuss helps me teach better and with more confidence. That’s because I occasionally struggle with comprehending as we listen, since I must also be continually surveying the room, making sure people are following along, staying off their phones, and participating. Having my LitCharts study guide handy is a good thing.
When you teach a novel for the first time
It’s always difficult to teach a novel for the first time, and as I wrote earlier, I don’t claim to be an expert on The Red Badge of Courage. In fact, for me, the most difficult aspect of teaching a novel for the first time is facilitating whole-class discussions. It takes me at least two to three teachings before I am able to spur meaningful discussions that blossom organically during a class period. This is my main deficiency with this particular text, at this point, and I’m aware of it. But I trust that better discussions will evolve with time. Next semester’s class will definitely have a better Red Badge of Courage experience.
To sum up this post, despite the fact that The Red Badge of Courage doesn’t receive much attention or respect from some teachers, and despite the fact that it’s my first time teaching it, I think I’ll stick with this book. It’s one I want to spend more time learning how to teach. I believe this book’s exploration of self-doubt, confidence, fears, and courage merit readers’ attention.
Thanks for reading again this week! I’ve taught Chasing Lincoln’s Killer in the past, so I’m game for Civil War-era books, but have you ever taught The Red Badge of Courage? Got any tips or ideas? I’m game for your thoughts. Follow my blog, like this post and leave a comment about your experiences with this novel.
Note: I published this post about a year ago when I first attempted an after-school NaNoWriMo program. This year, I have recently moved and am now teaching high school. I hope to eventually host a similar after-school NaNoWriMo program in my new district, but for now, I’ll just look back fondly on last year’s endeavor.
I’m finally doing NaNoWriMo with my students. Well, sort of.
All during November, about fifteen students ranging from fifth- through eighth-grade arrive in my room after school and write for forty-five minutes. I only know a little about what they’re writing. That’s because I’m busy working, too, on my own project… what I call my “historical memoir project thing.” Yes, you heard right. I’m doing NaNoWriMo and I’m not even writing a novel. Oh, well. You gotta start somewhere.
No, the NaNoWriMo in my classroom is not a full-blown NaNoWriMo experience. I don’t have the official posters, or the workbooks, or the full curriculum. But we’re still having a good time getting together after school and just writing.
From some conversations I’ve overheard around my classroom, I know some kids are writing fantasy stories. Some are writing sci-fi. One kid is writing about a worm. Regardless, each student is writing for themselves and that’s the key.
In case you’re unfamiliar with NaNoWriMo, it stands for National Novel Writing Month, when writers around the country write a first draft of a 50,000-word novel. There’s a youth version of this challenge, where students set personal goals to accomplish the first drafts of their own novels, and that’s what we are attempting in my classroom every day after school all November long.
I’ve thought about doing NaNoWriMo for a few years, and finally, last summer, I decided I would stop waiting to do it “right” and, in a nod to Nike, “just do it.” So, in June, I tested the idea with my students with a teaser post on my private class Instagram. Several were interested, including some recently graduated students who were disappointed that I hadn’t tried it when they were in middle school.
Jump forward to last Monday, Nov. 5, the first day on my calendar that we could meet. At the end of the day, when I was tired and definitely ready to lay out my plans for Tuesday and head for home, I asked myself Why did I ever decide to do this?!
However, now with that first week behind me, I’m so glad I “just did it” because my lame version of NaNoWriMo is already illuminating two truths that are easy to forget:
It’s amazing how dedicated kids can be when they’re personally motivated. The mood in my classroom during NaNoWriMo is quite different from my regular classroom, which always contains a few students with little desire to pursue writing. They distract others. They sharpen their pencils four times an hour. They need drinks and bathroom breaks. But after school during NaNoWriMo, it’s a different world. These kids are choosing to write, imagine, create, produce, and they go at it earnestly and with enthusiasm.
Some kids have writing lives outside of school. It’s gratifying to know that there are several students who are writing on their own, at home in notebooks, and online. They “own” these works… no teacher has asked them to outline their ideas, no teacher has asked them to turn in a synopsis or a summary.
Plus, these kids are excited to get to work. I’m amazed that—after eight hours of classes, mind you— my NaNoWriMo kids willingly (with smiles on their faces!) walk into my room with their coats and binders, drop them into a chair, get a laptop from the computer cart, sit down, and write. And think. And quietly chat with others at their table.
It’s a social get-together, after all. I bring snacks of some kind on Mondays, but for the rest of the week, the kids bring their own if they need to. Some bring an orange, some a small bag of chips or crackers, but most don’t bring food.
What they do bring is their imaginations, their productivity, and their determination to get something down on paper. I’ve made sure to tell them that NANOWRIMO is the time to shut off their “inner editor” and just get words on the page. Revision can happen later.
At the end of the hour, we fill out our word-count goal chart. On this chart, we’ve each listed our names with our word-count goal for the month at the far right. If a student reaches their word-count goal for the day (the monthly goal divided by the number of days in the month), they put an X on the chart in that day’s column.
We’ve kept our goals reasonable. Next year, we may be more ambitious. This is not a real NaNoWriMo after all. However, it’s a start. We each have a word-count goal. We each have a project to work on and the dedicated time to work on it.
Who would have thought that I would have accomplished real progress on my “historical memoir project thing” in just forty-five minutes a day… at the end of a busy school day… with twelve to fifteen middle schoolers in the same room?
Thanks for reading! Have you ever tried NaNoWriMo? How was your experience? Did you participate with your students or was it just a personal challenge?
I would love to try NaNoWriMo with my new high school students eventually, but first things first. This year definitely presents a learning curve for me with adjusting to older, more reserved older students.
I’m trying these four short vocabulary bell-work tasks to help kids better learn new words
I recently signed up to receive weekly email updates from the Sadlier School. As part of the email, I receive a free “Power Word of the Week” email from the Vocab Gal’s blog. I’ve been using these “slides” in my classes as a vocabulary bell-work activity. I’m trying four different activities with each new Power Word, so for each day of our week, we can spend a few more minutes to learn the word better. (Yes, you read that right. This year, our district has switched to a four-day week. I’ll let you know how that’s going in an upcoming post.)
The Power Word of the Week slide defines the word, uses it in a sentence, and then asks students to write their own sentence using the word.
Here’s an example of the slides:
We follow the slide exactly and students write a sentence using the new word. Sometimes, depending on the new word, I’ll ask a volunteer to think of a random word (popsicle? frog? hockey?) to throw into the sentence, so the sentences they write will contain both the new word and the random word. It adds more interest to the standard “write a sentence” activity.
The next day, I put the same slide back on the screen and ask students to review the definition and then use it in another sentence. However, this time they must use the word in a sentence about a topic covered in a recent Article of the Week assignment. We recently used the word “gossamer” in a sentence about California’s Fair Pay to Play Act; we also used the word “paragon” in a sentence about robotic bee engineering in the Netherlands.
Here are some student-written examples:
California’s reasons for paying athlete’s for endorsement deals were like gossamer in the eyes of the NCAA.
Scientists from Delft University are working to engineer robotic bees that, if forced to do the work of real bees, will be paragons of nature.
I’ve also asked students to write sentences using the Power Word plus a Power Word from a previous week. This keep the new words in our working vocabularies and increases the chances that these new words will be retained.
On this day, I ask students to make more connections. We take the Power Word and invent an app that is called the word. For example, imagine there’s an app called “Paragon,” then…
Write two to three sentences that describe the features of the app. What would an app called Paragon do?
Write a user review of the app that shows knowledge of the word.
If you have time, ask students to create a logo for the app. This is key if you do this add-on: ask students to make sure the logo illustrates in some way the word’s meaning.
Here are two examples of the Create-an-App activity completed as bell-work:
Two other student examples:
The Perpetuate App…This app helps you find out who your ancestors are. It does that so you can perpetuate their customs.
Use the app Perpetuate… to make any moment in life permanent or long-lasting. Make great life moments last forever.
On this day, I ask students to write a haiku poem. (Many students tell me they haven’t written a haiku since third or fourth grade!) I write one of my own as an example and post it on the board. Students then get started on their own. The requirements: 1) their haiku must be three lines long and contain five syllables in the first and last lines and seven in the second; 2) The poem must contain the Power Word; 3) The poem must be nature-related, in keeping with traditional haiku poetry.
Here’s an example I recently used in class with “fend” as the Power Word:
Soar above, pointing south to
Fend off winter’s wrath
I love words, but I’ve always been perplexed by the best way to increase students’ vocabularies. Rote memorization doesn’t work. Neither does working with a new word every day for that day only. On the other hand, spending five to ten minutes over the course of four days to explore a new word seems, so far anyway, to be a viable option… at least one worth testing out.
When we’ve covered ten or so new Power Words, I’ll assess students to see how well they’ve retained knowledge of the words. I’ll let you know how that goes.
Thanks for reading again this week! In my previous teaching position, my students practiced their cursive writing everyday for bell-work. Since my new students haven’t written in cursive in years, I decided to not fight the cursive battle, and have them learn some new vocabulary instead. So far, I think it’s working.
Stay tuned (in other words, follow my blog!) to receive the follow-up post where I’ll report on a summative assessment.