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 4

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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

 

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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!

Heads up! Student poetry contest deadline August 18

 

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Photo: Pixabay

If you’re planning to incorporate contests into your ELA classes and/or writers workshops, you can get started as early as Friday, August 18! That’s the deadline for the summer poetry hardcover anthology to be printed and published by Creative Communication. The books will ship in December. Teachers who have five or more students accepted for publication receive one free copy. Click here to visit their website. Read my recent blog post that outlines how the contests work.

My school’s first day is Wednesday, August 16.  Hmmmm… not sure how we can make that deadline, but I’m gonna try! (And based on past experience with this publisher, deadlines are often extended by a week or two,  so I’m crossing my fingers that will happen again.)

If you need poetry ideas, the CC website offers poem templates that will get your students crafting verse in no time. I’ll probably try those templates to get up and running ASAP.

I can’t think of a better way to start the year than with jumping right into an authentic writing assignment. It will be so fun all fall to look forward to that moment in December when my students hold their anthologies in their hands and become published writers!

If this post has helped you, click the like button and follow my blog to keep up-to-date on more contests and writing ideas!

 

 

 

Dear English teachers who have stumbled upon Medium during your summer break,

Originally published here July 19, 2017 on Medium.com in From a Teacher.

 

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Photo: Tran Mau Tri Tam on Unsplash

 

Congratulations! You found Medium. You should stick around and see what this site offers English Language Arts teachers.

Wander aimlessly throughout this platform and its writers and publications. It won’t take long before you’ll unearth some very cool stories (btw, everything is called a story on Medium) about an unending supply of topics: from coding to human rights, from motivational thinking to tacos. Get lost in the good stuff on Medium and then plan to share this goldmine of writing with your students in the fall.

One way I share Medium with my middle school language arts students is by finding a story to use as a mentor text. If we’re writing, for example, how-to articles, I search in my Medium network for an age-appropriate one I think will intrigue my middle schoolers. Then I print, make copies and we read them in class.

Then we’ll do a straight-through “cold” read. Sometimes I read aloud; sometimes I have students do that on their own. After that first read, students are often surprised at the original, sometimes quirky, always engaging writer’s voices found on Medium. They can’t believe, for example, that someone actually wrote this. They also can’t believe the variety. Research-driven studies and silly listicles… it’s all here. Medium stories are a fresh change from the made-for-school reading they get so much of.

Then we pass around the highlighter bucket and we read the story again, marking it up and keeping track of the ideas it presents and the questions it poses. And then we talk. Here are the questions we throw around:

  • Do you like this story? Do you find it enlightening? Does it speak to you? How?
  • How does it begin? How does it end?
  • Where is the strongest moment in this story? Weakest?
  • What do we notice about how it’s built?
  • How many paragraphs? How many sentences in a paragraph?
  • What techniques does the author use? Repetition? Alliteration?
  • Does it have a topic sentence or a main idea? What is it?
  • How does the author develop and explore this idea?
  • Does the author use evidence? How is it presented? Is it effective?
  • If you had written this article, how would you have tagged it?
  • What techniques could you pull from this mentor text as you write your own how-to?

I know that looks like a lot of discussion questions. In fact, you may be thinking, Wow. Way to take a perfectly good story and ruin it with over-analysis.However, our discussions are casual and organic; we ask the questions that make sense for the story we happen to be reading. Everybody is free to contribute, of course, and they do because the stories on Medium are accessible, relevant and created by real, living and breathing, connected writers who blog about the world that exists beyond the concrete block walls of school.

So now that you’ve found Medium, delve deeper. Find a handful of stories that you’re enthusiastic about. Restock your highlighter bucket. Get lots of colors. Plan to read, talk about, and imitate some Medium stories with your students this fall.

Click like if: a) you liked this, or b) know some teachers who need to find Medium. Could that be you??? Follow this blog to stay in touch. I’ll be posting more Medium resources for teachers soon. Thanks for reading!

Contest #3: Creative Communication Poetry Anthologies

Originally published June 26, 2017 ©Edutopia | The George Lucas Educational Foundation


Three times a year, Creative Communication (CC) of Logan, Utah publishes hardcover anthologies full of K-9 poetry. I know what you’re thinking. Must be a pay-to-play anthology, right? The company judges the poems received and publishes the best ones, without regard to whether the student purchases a copy or not. Students upload their own poetry via the publisher’s website at poeticpower.com.  The website, which is extensive with links to teacher and student information, is easy to navigate and search. So far, more than thirty of my students saw their poetry published last year. Students loved seeing their poetry in print! Several parents ordered the anthologies, which are handled directly by the publisher. Here’s a link to my class website where I talk up the contests and winners: Kirbyville Middle School Language Arts website.

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Creative Communication publishes hardcover poetry anthologies, similar to this one, three times a year for different regions and age levels.

Topic or Prompt: Student choice reigns! The website has many poetry ideas and lesson plans with examples. For mentor texts, use previous winning poems found on the website. When introducing the contest, make sure to show your students Taylor Swift’s winning poem that she entered in the contest when she was in fifth grade. That always gets attention! Here’s a link to the poem. Just scroll down to her picture and click to open a page to read it.

Best Thing (To Me) About This Contest: I love how this contest is competitive, but not too competitive. Everyone has a real opportunity to see their name in print. According to the FAQs on the website, “We take pride in the fact that we are selective with our entries. We reject more entries than we accept to be published. Our objective is to make it an honor to be selected for the anthology.”  FYI: Each anthology is considered a contest since the top ten entries win prizes, but more on that below.

What About Privacy? First names only are published. School names are included. Students must receive permission from parents in order to be published. Teachers will receive a free copy when five students are published. You can also earn points for more books and school supplies with the rewards system. To read about the system, click here.

Skills Addressed:

  • Idea Development. Students must meet the criteria of the particular style of poem I assign or the style of poem they have chosen from the website.
  • Conventions. Students must submit their best poetry.

Length: Poems must be no longer than 20 lines.

Deadline: There is one deadline for each of the fall, spring, and summer contests to coincide with your poetry units.  See the website for exact dates.

Prizes: For each of the three grade levels (K-3; 4-6; 7-9), the top ten entries in the poetry contest will be given a $25 check, special recognition in the book, and a free anthology copy.

The Unexpected Bonus: Students rose to the occasion when they knew their work would be submitted for publication and possible top ten recognition.

For more information: See CC’s Facebook page or check out their blog.


Let me know if you have any questions about this contest by posting a comment. Have a contest success story? I would love to hear from you!

Don’t Let Spellcheck Ruin the Writing

 

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Photo: Oliver Thomas Klein at Unsplash

 

“Mrs. Yung, why is this wrong?” Emily asks me during class, staring at her laptop screen. A wavy green line floats below a phrase, again interrupting the first draft of her slice-of-life essay.

“We’ll figure it out later. Stay in the zone,” I respond, hoping she can quickly return to her mind’s creative bliss and continue drafting her essay. As a writer and teacher, I know how difficult it is to express my ideas exactly the way I need to. This zone, this creative bliss — whatever you want to call it — that I must reach to accurately express myself holds the true essence of meaningful writing.

However, it’s hard for students to reach that creative bliss during drafting when spelling, grammar, and mechanics — editing tasks that should occur near the end of the process — interrupt the early stages of writing.

That’s why I tell my students to ignore spelling while drafting and even during revision. I tell them to ignore the comma issues and the capitalization questions. And while they’re at it, ignore any other “helpful” suggestions that Google Docs or Microsoft Word offers them. Heck, disable these extensions if necessary.

I know, I know. How am I ignoring all those blatant errors? How am I allowing violations of the most basic of writing skills to remain on the page? Here’s how: because it’s more important to me that Emily expresses her idea, clarifies her position, defines her truth.

Honestly, what would you rather read: 1) a clean, properly edited piece that reveals little about the author or really anything at all, or 2) a clean, properly edited piece that succinctly expresses the author’s important ideas using her own singular voice? Obviously, the point of writing is not to showcase punctuation prowess, but to share the writer’s view of the world.

Because let’s face it, Emily will eventually get to the editing. 

When editing happens via peer response, conferring with me, or multiple proofreads, she’ll catch the missing comma, the misspelled word, the glaring run-on. She’ll choose the hyphen over the dash. In fact, those easy fixes will solidify her piece because she nailed down her ideas early on. They’re present, in full bloom, explained, and supported because Emily ignored the silly distraction over a comma in her first draft.

True, waiting until nearly the end to edit is difficult for my middle school students. They just want to get the assignment done. They figure that if they tackle the editing, they can call it good and hand it in. If you need some ideas for writing assignments that cause students to want to explore their ideas, check out this post from my website: Writing Contests Deliver Student Buy-In.

Spellcheck interrupts the deep thinking that occurs during those blissful “zone” moments when my students explore their thoughts, write them down, question them, tweak and retweak them, whisper them back to themselves, and then re-enter them the same way they were entered five minutes earlier, finally satisfied with the way their thoughts sound.

Those moments are when my students realize that writing isn’t about commas, spelling, and capitalization. It’s about themselves, their beliefs and hopes, their insecurities and pet peeves, their dreams. Don’t let spellcheck ruin that.

If you enjoyed this article, please click the “like” button and leave a comment. Thanks for reading! 

#Engagement: Instagram is for Writing

 

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Used with permission. Credit: Audrey

 

A few weeks ago, Audrey, one of my former middle school students who’ll be a senior next year, posted on Instagram a photo of an essay she had handwritten. The essay showed Audrey’s ideas about adolescence, the validity of teenage relationships, finding one’s soulmate. The essay expressed her thoughts, and exhibited the kind of “thinking on paper” that teachers encourage in their students. It was a heartfelt and personal record of Audrey’s beliefs.

In the endless feed of landscape shots, selfies, and artistic images that compose Instagram, Audrey’s photo of her handwriting on a sheet of notebook paper stood out to me. It seemed to convey much more than her ruminations on soulmates.

It revealed…

  • that Instagram is being used by young writers to create and develop an audience for their written work. It’s not just for beautiful photos anymore.
  • that students are finding ways to blend traditional media with the new.
  • an unexpected juxtaposition of digital imagery and handwritten expression.
  • a surprising use of social media to work through and analyze one’s personal perspective on a topic

In ongoing discussions about the appropriate use of social media to educate, it’s good to keep in mind that when a student uses social media, they are often demonstrating the skills they have learned in school. I don’t know about you, but seeing confident young writers using Instagram makes me optimistic about the potential for social media in my middle school language arts classroom.

Of course, social media accounts must be administrated responsibly, using a district’s privacy and safety protocols. (Click here for a link to resources regarding using social media in schools and at home.) However, with best practices in place, social media sites such as Instagram hold promise because they provide an audience and generate feedback. Engagement abounds.

I’m considering a private classroom Instagram account next year. What suggestions, observations, or tips can you share? Feel free to post a comment or follow this blog for more ideas.