Six Things I’ve Learned So Far from Using Instagram in My ELA Classes

#workinprogress #experiment  #askmeagaininMay

grumpy

I attended an ed-tech conference over the summer. One of the sessions, Social Media in the Classroom, was taught by a middle school teacher from another district in my area who admins a private Instagram account for her ELA classes.

The idea intrigued me. I already knew Instagram was fun, based on my experience with my own personal account. For me, Instagram is an expressive way to curate a portfolio of imagery and writing that represents and records my personality and experiences. In addition, Instagram reveals the power of the visual… something my students are immersed in daily.  So I decided to jump in and create one private account for the two periods each of sixth-, seventh-, and eighth-graders that I see throughout the day.

Since then, I’ve posted thirty-six times about every three days or so. I thought my enthusiasm might wane as the school year settled in, but it’s been the opposite. I find more and more reasons to post on the account and bring class activities into the social media lives of my students. I plan to continue my Instagram experiment through May to get a clear, definitive impression of the role Instagram can potentially play in my classroom.

In the meantime, here’s what I’ve figured out so far about using Instagram:

  1. Having an Instagram account is merely another way to connect with some of my students and parents. I have thirty-four followers right now out of nearly one-hundred students total. (Yes, it’s a really small district.) Right now, only a handful of parents follow the account.
  2. Having an Instagram account lets parents see what’s really happening in my classroom. My class page on the district website has grip-and-grin shots of essay contest winners, short articles about students who’ve been published, and other public announcements. However, on my class Instagram, things are more spontaneous. Most of the pictures I take are snapped quickly with very little posing. When kids are reading, working quietly, collaborating with others, or discussing things… that’s when I grab my phone.
  3. Having an Instagram account is beneficial for the parents of the new kids at school. One new sixth-grader’s mother commented how nice it was to see a photo of her child having fun, fitting in, and getting accustomed to the new surroundings.
  4. Having an Instagram account gives me a fun way to reinforce the basics, such as grammar and spelling, that I teach in the classroom. Grumpy Cat memes go a long way.  Read this Edutopia post to see how another teacher uses Instagram to augment classroom lessons.
  5. Having an Instagram account adds accountability to class work and simultaneously boosts the confidence of my students. I like to post photos of a well-turned phrase, an especially astute essay, or some beautiful cursive handwriting. It’s fun to showcase student work in this way.
  6. Having an Instagram account adds another level of purpose to my students’ writing because they know their work may appear in a post to our small audience of followers

True, hosting the account means that some kids take part and some don’t. Most of my students have Smartphones and internet access, but not all do. And some parents just don’t want their kids to participate for whatever reason, and I understand. Therefore, I make sure students know that following the account won’t benefit their grade. And honestly, the account doesn’t come up in class discussions very often.  It’s an extra avenue, another way to connect, another type of conversation to have with my students.

Yes, hosting the class Instagram also means more time that I spend at my job. Without fail, I tend to post from home. I don’t mind, though. When you enjoy your job and find purpose in it on a daily basis, working when you’re not “at work” doesn’t matter.

To sum it all up, my class Instagram account has added another dimension to my teaching. This “work-in-progress” allows me to share with students their learning, their writing successes, and — assuming they remain a follower after they’ve moved on to high school — some treasured middle school memories.

Thanks for reading! If you learned something from this post, click like and share it on social media. Most importantly, leave a comment so I can know your thoughts on the subject. Also, follow my blog for more ELA teaching reflections and information about writing contests for students.

Worth the wait… fifteen students are now published writers!

 

IMG_5281 (2)
Several of my students’ writing appears in this anthology.
Last spring, many of my students entered their “Where I’m From” poems in Creative Communication‘s Spring 2017 Poetry Contest. Fifteen are now published writers with the printing of the anthology shown in the photo. I am so proud of them! I’ve also shared these photos and posted them on my class Instagram page… I am that excited!

They wrote, revised, and rewrote their poems before submitting them online last spring. Eighteen were approved to be published and all but three gained permission from parents to be published. Those who didn’t receive parental permission failed to take the approval form home, I guess, and unfortunately, regret not making that extra effort to see their name in print.

In addition, our school, Kirbyville Middle School, is listed in the front of the anthology as a “Poetic Distinction Honor School” since more than fifteen students were published in this volume.  Bonus!

IMG_5273 (2)

If you haven’t tried this contest with your students, read more about it here.

In the past, Creative Communication also held essay contests and published anthologies for those. Unfortunately, as of last spring, they have ceased holding the essay contests. That’s a shame, in my opinion. My students submitted “Slice of Life” essays last fall, and grew to appreciate the genre and many looked forward to writing them. Oh, well. I guess I’ll have to keep hunting for more essay contests.  I’ll keep you posted as I find more.

In the meantime, stay tuned for a post about an argument essay contest my eighth-graders enter every February.

Thanks for reading! If you learned something from this post, click “like,” leave a comment, and follow my blog to read more about what I’m figuring out as I teach middle school language arts.

 

 

It’s hard to teach middle schoolers this: grammar rules exist to bring readers on your journey

Part 4 of 5

alejandro-escamilla-7
Photo by Alejandro Escamilla on Unsplash

 

In my classroom, I stress that writing is so much more than just knowing a bunch of grammar and punctuation rules.

Writing is really about expressing oneself, your dreams, your beliefs, your hopes, your imagination.  Writers don’t write to show off to readers that they know how to avoid vague pronouns; instead, writers use the rules to capture readers and take them on their journey through, as examples, the logic of their argument against homework, the plot of their sci-fi fantasy, or their description of the TRAPPIST-1 solar system.

When students understand that they have a vested interest in learning the rules — to keep the reader engaged — their desire to get the rules right increases.

So how does a teacher help middle schoolers understand that all these rules they hear in my class mini-lessons are there solely to help the reader stay on their journey?  I’ve tried my hand at  having small discussions that go something like this:

“When you forget about the rules and goof up — like if you misspell a word, leave out an important comma, write a run-on, or use a vague pronoun  —  you distract your reader.  If you spell a word wrong, they’ll lose their concentration and think stuff like That word looks funny. I think it’s wrong… or is it?  At this point, you know what? You’ve lost your reader. Now they’re thinking about that word you misspelled, and not about your ideas.”

“Or say you have a run-on sentence in your writing. Your reader stumbles through your sentence or paragraph and then they stop. They think, Wait. What?? That didn’t make sense. Then they re-read it, trying to figure out your sentence. At this point, guess what? You’ve lost ’em. Now they’re trying to piece together what you wrote to figure out what you really meant to write. Basically, your run-on sentence pulled your reader’s mind away from your once-riveting story, and now you just have to hope they have the patience to keep reading.”

Sometimes, I give them an example from the movies:

“Have you ever been absorbed in a really good movie and notice that an actor’s once-rumpled hair suddenly appears perfectly in place? Or you notice a glass perched on a tabletop that wasn’t there before? What happened when you noticed that glass? You were pulled out of the movie. You missed some dialogue. You got lost for a bit. You missed out on something, maybe something important.”

“If the editors had noticed and fixed that mistake, they wouldn’t have caused you to become distracted. It’s the same with writing. We have to keep our readers interested in our ideas, not distract them with our mistakes.”

“This is the reason we learn capitalization, how to use commas, how to spell, how to link our sentences correctly… to keep the reader thinking about your story or article, and not the silly comma you forgot to include.”

So that’s how the discussion goes when I help my middle schoolers learn that there are real reasons to understand grammar and conventions. Sometimes they get it; sometimes they don’t. Either way, we keep working on it when we conference. How do you help your students care about editing? Leave a comment. I really want to know.

 

 

 

Contest #5 That Works for My Students: Outdoor Writers Association’s Norm Strung Youth Writing Awards

logo

Here’s another writing contest for you to try with your students.

The Outdoor Writers Association, based in Missoula, Montana, is an organization of writers, editors, broadcasters, photographers, film makers, and other communicators who are, according to OWAA’s website, “dedicated to sharing the outdoor experience.”

The organization is involved in many outreach activities, including the Norm Strung Youth Writing Awards, a national contest for students who submit works in prose or poetry that is outdoor-oriented. Students may enter as many pieces as they wish, but only one will be chosen as a winner.

One of my eighth-graders won the second place prize in the prose junior division in the 2017 contest. Read about it here. You can read my student’s essay here: Natural Nostalgia.

Age Range: This contest is open to students in grades 6-12. There are two divisions: junior (grades 6-8) and senior (9-12).

Topic or Prompt: Students may write about kayaking, camping, hunting, ecology, fishing, boating, just walking outdoors… really any outdoor-themed topic.

Mentor Texts to Use: At the outset of the contest, we read previous winning poems and prose pieces for examples and ideas. While I do have some copies of previous winners that I used in class last year, I’ve been unable to find those online recently. Here’s a link from Outdoor News where I was able to locate a winner from the 2010 contest entitled, “My First Deer, My Dad’s Fifth.” Leave a comment on this post so I can help you find more mentor texts for this contest.

Best Thing To Me About This Contest: Student choice. The fact that students can write about any topic, as long as it’s outdoor-oriented is a big plus for this contest. My students wrote about hiking, taking their first deer, fishing, and just climbing a tree. Anyone can relate to this topic and has an outdoor memory they can reflect on. I also like that poetry is an option, although only one of my students entered a poem last year.

Skills Addressed:  This contest lends itself to narrative writing skills. Students must learn to sequence events logically, use appropriate transitions, and incorporate sensory language and imagery. However, there are other ways to approach the contest. For example, argument and opinion pieces may be entered. Again, choice is central to this contest. 

Length: No length requirement is listed on the contest’s guidelines.

Deadline: In 2017, the deadline was March 15. Make sure to adjust the deadline around spring break. Check back here to confirm the 2018 deadline date. Winners are announced in early August, which will seem like an eternity to your students! However, if one of them wins, it’s a great way to start the next school year!

Prizes: This year, Falcon Guides, a publisher of guidebooks for outdoor enthusiasts, provided prizes totaling $1,500. In addition, the OWAA eventually publishes all winning entries in its print magazine Outdoors Unlimited and on its website.  So far, however, I’ve had a hard time finding winning entries from recent years.

How to Enter: Entries may be submitted online via an email address. However, entries can also be mailed to OWAA’s Missoula office, which is what I chose to do last year, my first year to try this contest. I attached a slip of paper to each entry that noted the division (junior) and category (prose or poetry). This is a required step for all entries. Next year, I may try emailing the entries.

For more information:  Click here for complete rules.

Give this contest a try! I think your students will find engagement due to the wide variety of topics they can explore with this contest. Good luck!

 

 

If you learned something from this post, click like, leave a comment and share on social media! Follow my blog for more student writing contests and ELA teaching reflections. Thanks for reading!

We have a winner!

Student’s essay places second in national contest

Congratulations to Elijah D., whose essay placed second in the Outdoor Writers Association of America’s   Norm Strung Youth Writing Awards.

IMG_5056 (2)Eli’s essay entitled “Natural Nostalgia” placed second in the nation in the junior prose category. He also received a check for $100. Eli graduated from Kirbyville Middle School in May and will attend Branson High School this fall.

For more information about this contest, please follow my blog to see my next post, “Contest #6 that Works for My Students: Outdoor Writers Association Norm Strung Youth Writing Awards.”

Let Students Talk, Think, and Think Some More

Here’s what else I do to help students find writing topics they care about and then start writing

part 2 of 5

anton-darius-sollers-306023 (2)
Photo by Anton Darius | Sollers on Unsplash

I know from teaching middle school (6-8) ELA for a few years that, in order for students to be passionate about their writing, they must first have a topic that they care about. When they care, they won’t mind taking the time to struggle to get their ideas expressed effectively. They’ll  persevere through the thinking and writing (and rethinking and rewriting) that inevitably happens when they are truly engaged and committed to their ideas. In a previous post, I listed three ways I help my students find topics they care about. Here they are:

1) I give them lots of choices. If they don’t like any of the fifty or more prompts I offer, they can write about their own idea.

2) I regularly assign slice-of-life essays about the ordinary moments of life that, while small, reveal our humanity and common experiences.

3) I simply give students time to think.

The fourth thing I do to help students find a good topic is this: I let them talk.

Nothing builds enthusiasm as much as inviting students to share their ideas, connections, and memories. Writing ideas bubble up around the room as others share their experiences. I carry a dry erase marker on me at all times so I can rush over to the whiteboard and jot down a random idea like “snowboard life lesson thing” for Gwen or “spaghetti disaster” for Casey.

Usually, after they’ve talked for a while (about 15-25 minutes), I’ll notice students here and there pulling out pen and paper to start writing. I use that as my guide. I make a quick announcement that it’s time to start writing. I invite them to grab a clipboard and find a spot on the floor around the room or at a table where they can be productive. Many choose to stay at their desks. If they sit with a buddy, they must still be productive.

Then I turn off the fluorescent lights and flip on the white Christmas lights hanging from the ceiling. It creates an inviting glow that signals it’s time to settle in for writing.

Those kids who pulled out their paper first to write will usually be my star students. Because I know those kids can easily dive right into writing, I make sure to keep an eye on those who may need help getting started. I let everyone know it’s okay if nothing gets written down that day, but the goal for the next is to have a semblance of an idea at the beginning of class. And then I let those strugglers stare at the wall some more. I pour out the patience.

One of the most introspective pieces ever composed in my classes was written by a student who stared at the wall for most of the class period. At first, I thought Joe was just biding his time, but when I checked with him, he told me he just couldn’t think of anything. So I let him stare.

The next day, he rushed into class with a sheet of notebook paper covered on both sides with some wonderful personal thinking about being young, making choices, and about how it can actually feel bewildering to have so many options in life. A truly interesting piece with ideas I never expected this student to harbor. In fact, I still keep a copy in my “Why I Teach” binder. Rereading it reminds me that I should be patient when discussion doesn’t ignite everyone’s imagination right away.  Some kids just need more time to think.

The next steps I take with my students will be discussed in an upcoming post. I’ll be finishing that soon. Click the “like” button and share on social media if this has been helpful to you. Feel free to leave a comment and don’t forget to follow me to catch that post! Thanks for reading!

 

Contest #4 That Works for My Students: New York Times Editorial Contest

 

janko-ferlic-289675 (2)
Photo by Janko Ferlič on Unsplash

 

Since 2014, The New York Times has sponsored an opinion-editorial contest on its Learning Network site. Last spring, all of my seventh-graders submitted entries for their chance to win.  This contest engaged my students, especially because they knew they were writing for The New York Times.

Age Range: This contest is open to students aged 13-19.

Topic or Prompt: Students may write on any topic they wish. If they have trouble finding a topic, give them this list published by the Times. Consider narrowing it down first, since the size of the list can be overwhelming. Also, depending on the age of your students, skim through the list to eliminate any topics that aren’t age-appropriate. Some of the topics are too mature for my middle schoolers. Some sample topics from recent years include Is Social Media Making Us More Narcissistic? Another one: Do Teachers Assign Too Much Homework?

For a complete list of 2017 winners with links to the top ten, go here. Copy off a few of the winning essays to use as mentor texts.

Best Thing To Me About This Contest:

The clout of writing for the Times makes this contest special. My students hold this newspaper that’s been in publication for 162 years in high esteem and like knowing their writing may receive recognition from it.

Skills Addressed:  Students must state their argument and support it efficiently with background information, examples, evidence, and counter-arguments. As for evidence, at least two sources must be used; one of those must be from the Times.

Click here for a rubric that shows what the judges are looking for. We discussed the rubric in class and used it as a checklist during peer response.  I also used it during grading.

Share these tips from the editors with your students. Here’s one the editors offer: “Start strong. Grab our attention in the first few sentences, but don’t take too long to state your argument.”

Length: 450 words or less. This is about concision.  Students learn to make every word absolutely necessary to the argument.

Deadline: Early April. Check back here in early 2018 for next year’s date.

Prizes: This year, 128 winners were chosen out of nearly 8,000 entries. This includes 10 top winners, 15 runners-up, 45 honorable mentions, and 58 writers whose essays survived to the third round. Winning essays are published on the Learning Network site.

The Unexpected Bonus: Students enter their essays online themselves here. This makes it super easy to submit entries. Students also must enter their sources in the online form. Examples are given so students format citations correctly.

For more information:  Click here for complete rules.

 

If you learned something from this post, click like, leave a comment and share on social media! Follow my blog for more student writing contests and ELA teaching reflections. Thanks for reading!