How I actually accomplished something in my classes the week before Christmas break

Students presented their writing contest entries for an end-of-semester critique

 

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Students listen to a classmate read her personal narrative essay during one of the last classes of the semester. Students took these presentations seriously and provided relevant and helpful feedback. It was so productive!

The last week before Christmas break was super productive. Oh, don’t get me wrong… we still watched videos late in the week, but we ACCOMPLISHED SO MUCH early in the week with our contest entry presentations that my self-inflicted and totally undeserved teacher guilt over watching videos instantly evaporated when I pressed the play button.

By the way, teachers shouldn’t feel guilty about showing videos right before Christmas IF they find movies that have real value that they can connect to their curriculum. Also, avoid Elf, Remember the Titans, or any other movie that kids have already seen at least six times. (You’ll find out what we watched in my classes in a post later this week.)

And now, back to my regularly scheduled article:

We had a goal; more specifically, we had a writing contest deadline. On Friday, December 21, the last half-day of school before Christmas break, I planned to mail in the submission forms for ten students, a mix of both seventh- and eighth-graders, who had written entries to the Scholastic Writing Awards.

On the Monday and Tuesday before that Friday, I had asked students to choose their favorite pieces of writing from their Writer’s Workshop portfolios to present to the class. For the ten students who were submitting contest entries to Scholastic, I specifically asked them to read those entries. We could use the presentations as a final check before sending them off.

Reading the pieces aloud to students might reveal any areas of confusion and editing issues that remained.  True, the pieces had been through at least three drafts, some four or more; however, there’s nothing like reading your writing aloud to someone who’s never heard it before to find areas for improvement.

We started with the students with Scholastic entries.  I had given each student a rubric form to fill out as they listened to the Scholastic entries aloud. This form was based on the rubric students use when they listen to their classmates present their One-Word Summaries. This version was less involved, however, since it mainly was asking students to listen for confusion. In other words, if something didn’t make sense, it needed to be addressed.

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I took a photo of the rubric sheet on my laptop screen. This sheet helped students organize their thoughts and notice any confusing parts of their classmates’ writing. Filling out these sheets also made students accountable for their listening. (By the way, I collected these sheets, but did not take a grade on them since it was just a few days before semester’s end.)

Let me say this: I was so impressed with how seriously the students took this activity. Despite it being the last few days before Christmas break, and despite having turned in the final project of the semester (their Writer’s Workshop Portfolios), students approached this last “Speaking & Listening” activity in a constructive, critical, and professional manner.

Their discussions were focused, direct, and helpful. The rubric contained a blank for them to circle “Yes” or “No,” in response to the question: “At all times, I was able to follow the writing without becoming confused.” This part of the rubric was crucial and helped spur effective conversations. I prompted students to raise their hands if they noticed any confusing areas from the writing to discuss. For example, one student’s poem contained a line that caused confusion.  It was a line that defined happiness as the feeling one has when you throw your playing cards down in anger after losing a game.

Some students expressed confusion with how anger could be used to define happiness. These students asked the writer to repeat the poem, including the confusing line. These students listened carefully. They offered these questions:

Would frustration be a more accurate word than anger?

Does using frustration really solve the issue, though?

Would adding the word “playful” before anger or frustration provide the tone needed and eliminate the confusion?

Consensus decided that using “playful” would indeed help. At the conclusion of that student’s turn, before she sat down, I made sure to let her know that it was strictly her decision whether or not to use the word “playful.” It was her poem, after all. The main point for her to remember, I reminded her, was that the line caused confusion in the mind of the reader. When readers are confused, they lose interest, unless the material is something they intrinsically need to understand.

It’s the writer’s job to make the reading experience as smooth as possible, so the reader doesn’t become confused, and therefore, lose interest.

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Photo: Unsplash

Word choice was a significant part of our discussions during these end-of-semester presentations. It was fun watching students suggest better, stronger, more precise words in a group setting. Some students even left their desks to offer help, making notes on or looking at the copy of the writer’s essay or poem.

Another important change was suggested with another student’s (let’s call her Susan) essay. This suggestion was made after several students expressed confusion over the main character in Susan’s short story. Students didn’t understand if the main character was, in fact, a bird or a human. Susan relayed to us that the character was indeed a bird, a creature of reverence to Crow Tribal members.

To help clear up the cryptic nature of Susan’s writing, I asked students, “Without Susan there to answer questions, how will the Scholastic judges understand the story?” Students came up with their own idea for Susan: provide a prologue, a paragraph or two of background at the beginning of the essay that explains the connection to the Crow. It was an excellent and practical idea and one students arrived at on their own.

These are just two examples of how my students took the writing critique seriously. Even more, one boy who is usually very disinterested in group work made the comment that he wished we had done these presentations earlier in the Writer’s Workshop process. I told him that I agreed and made a mental note that we definitely should conduct these critiques sometime during the Writer’s Workshop, when it has more relevance.

Since there was still time for the Scholastic Award entrants to make changes to their entries, the activity was indeed relevant. For those other students, who were actually reading completed final drafts with no additional opportunity to make further changes (since I had already entered grades due to our schedule), there wasn’t much point to suggesting changes.

However, some of the writing will be worked on next semester for upcoming contests. In March, students who chose to enter the Outdoor Writers of America Norm Strung Youth Writing Awards, will revise their poems from their portfolios and submit those. (I plan to have students present their entries for that contest in March.)

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Check out this contest for your students! Read this post first.

Finally, it’s good to discover another new activity that proves effective for my classes. (And to think we did this valuable activity in the final days of the semester amazes me!)

In addition, I’m always looking for easy ways to provide opportunities that address the Missouri Learning Standards’ “Speaking and Listening” components. Having kids present their work at semester’s end was perfect for that task. Plus, it allowed those Scholastic Writing Award writers another opportunity to further revise and check their work. It was a positive and beneficial way to end the semester!

 

 


Thanks for reading! Click “like” if you found this article helpful and then leave a quick comment about the ideas you found most beneficial. Don’t forget: follow this blog to catch my next post on how not to feel guilty about showing videos right before a break.

It’s a Wrap! Three Take-Aways from Writer’s Workshop

Students turned in their final portfolios on Friday, and just like that, the semester is nearly over.

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A 7th-grader assembles his final Writer’s Workshop portfolio.

On Friday, my seventh- and eighth-graders turned in their final Writer’s Workshop portfolios. In early November, students began choosing eight writing projects from a list of twelve. The list offered a range of projects ranging from poetry to arguments to narratives to informational works. The focus of WW was the writing process. The procedure required that they complete three drafts and share their work with their peers and me for feedback and revision suggestions.

Click here to read my post from three weeks ago that outlines how WW works in my classroom.

By the way, I didn’t include a list of the various writing projects in that earlier post. Here are two photos of the final portfolio rubric I used this year, which lists the projects students could choose from.

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7th-Grade Final Portfolio Rubric | Instructions and word count requirements for each project were provided on a separate sheet.
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8th-grade Final Portfolio Rubric | Instructions and word count requirements for each project were provided on a separate sheet.

It might appear that the grading was intensive and time-consuming. However, since I had already seen the students’ second drafts and provided feedback on those, my main task in assessment was confirming that students followed the writing process for each project. Students turned in a two-pocket folder with their eight projects enclosed. For each project,  I looked for their first draft, their first draft responder sheet, their second draft (the draft I provided feedback on), and finally on top of the stack, their third and final draft. I did make sure that significant changes were made at each stage of revision. Points were deducted if they didn’t make any changes from draft to draft. In addition, I gave a “quality of writing  & presentation” grade and then also circled a holistic rating for their work (see arrow on the final portfolio rubric in the photo below).

In case you’re wondering, yes, we do use a lot of paper (and ink) in my classroom. Students composed mostly on their Chromebooks, but then I also required that every project is printed. I know many students share their Google Docs with each other for revision and editing purposes, but I still require that students turn in hard copies of all drafts. Here’s my post that explains my loyalty to having students submit paper copies, rather than just dropping a file into Google Classroom.

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One student’s final portfolio

Overall, WW was a great experience this year. As I graded rubrics this weekend, I came upon three main take-aways. Here they are:

  1. Require that students choose an equal number of each genre. While the variety offered in the project list usually guarantees that students will write across genres, I did notice that some students were heavy on poetry, which makes sense. Free-verse poetry (which I encourage over rhyme) seems to have (to students, anyway) fewer rules and punctuation usage can be looser. However, I would prefer that students get more practice in essay writing. Next year, I’ll make sure to enforce “genre equality!”
  2. Schedule a progress grade mid-way through the workshop schedule. I did this informally by checking with students during conferencing to ensure they were on-task throughout the six weeks, but assigning a formal grade that required the completion of four projects at the three-week point may have helped some of the students with budgeting their time.
  3. Continue the responder sheet grade. This year, I added a responder sheet grade. I asked each student to show me a responder sheet that they filled out for another student. If they followed the directions on the responder sheet, which were to choose four to six questions and answer them in writing on the back of the sheet, they would receive full points. If they answered only two questions, then half points. If they only made a few editing marks on the draft, or provided minimal answers (as in “I think it’s great!” with no suggestions for improvement), they would earn fewer points. Including this grade in the workshop this year made students more accountable for providing constructive feedback. I need to make sure I continue with this practice.

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It’s been a good semester and I’m looking forward to January. After Christmas break, seventh-graders will begin reading Chasing Lincoln’s Killer followed by an analysis of the film, The Conspirator; eighth-graders will continue work on their human rights dissertation and also begin reading Frederick Douglass’ narrative. My sixth-graders? They’ll be continuing their mastery of the beloved five-paragraph essay, the champion of academic writing. More on that in a later post!


Thanks for reading! Feel free to click like and leave a comment with your own Writer’s Workshop experiences. 

 

Outlines have a time and place; a personal essay isn’t one of them.

One of my students is learning that “Discovery is the thing.”

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This book contains nuggets of writing wisdom that make great mini-lessons in my Writer’s Workshop sessions. Another one to be discussed in another post: the importance of being specific.

Last week, I wrote about Writer’s Workshop and how I am really enjoying it this fall in my middle school language arts classes. I have a few books that I pull ideas from to use for mini-lessons before the kids transition to working on their writing projects.

One of those books is Bill Roorbach’s Writing Life Stories. It’s a book I ordered a year or so ago for ideas on memoir and biographical writing. I have found several eye-opening sections in the book that I have shared with my students. One of these points we’ve discussed is the value of digression in writing. To digress, Roorbach recommends writing without a plan, of allowing your writing to reveal your thinking on a topic.

In class, we read this excerpt:

“Part of what’s in your head is going to be stories, and when you start telling stories from your life, your life itself becomes evidence. The personal essayist examines the evidence until it’s plain to both reader and writer just what’s evident. Abandon the outline, all ye who enter here! Discovery is the thing. Too firm a plan, and you miss the digression that takes you where you didn’t know you wanted to go.”

Writing Life Stories by Bill Roorbach with Kristen Keckler, PhD; Ch. 1

Kids usually breathe a sigh of relief when they find out they don’t have to use an outline. And when we read this in class, I clarify that there are indeed times when an outline will help them. For example, outlines are useful when their writing is an assemblage of pertinent facts and details that need organizing or when they’re having trouble getting started.

However, for some types of writing, outlines may actually hinder the thought process that writing spurs. That’s what Roorbach is getting at. Following an outline may constrain a writer’s thinking and inadvertently cause her to shut down her analysis of a life situation or recollection of a life event.

One of the projects on our Writer’s Workshop assignment list is a memoir or personal narrative essay. I have one student in particular (I’ll call her Camille) who I can tell is learning how the act of writing is helping her to define and refine her thinking and stance on a very controversial topic.

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To observe Camille intentionally and willingly struggle through her draft means she is growing as a writer, thinker, and learner.

She’s been working on her essay for a few days now, and I can tell as she works alone at a table in the back of the room, she is muddling through her ideas. She is starting and stopping, backing up again, and then restarting a sputtering paragraph to finally blaze through it as she clarifies and discovers how she feels on her topic.

She told me on Friday at the end of class, “It’s so hard to write about this because I have to think about every possible perspective and there are so many ways to look at it.” It’s obvious that Camille is learning that “writing is thinking.”

For me, this is one of the most difficult things about writing: giving myself the time to discover my own thinking. Most of the time, I want to get the piece done. I don’t want to spend the time lost in thought and unsure of how I feel. I want to say what I know and move on.

Those hours of mental wandering used to feel like torture to me (and still do, at times), but I’m learning to accept that this is writing. I must allow myself to not know where a piece is going and to just write, knowing that clarity in some measure will result… eventually.

Seeing Camille learn this writing truth and find that “discovery is the thing” is a huge personal accomplishment for me as a writing teacher. To observe Camille intentionally and willingly struggle through her draft means she is growing as a writer, thinker, and learner. Understanding that “writing is thinking” will serve her well as she continues into high school and beyond.


Thanks for reading! There are other similar viewpoints to Roorbach’s on outlines and other forms of prewriting. I’ll discuss another teacher/author’s ideas on this topic in an upcoming post. Click like if you found this interesting and follow me to get that upcoming post. 

Contest #6 That Works for My Students: Scholastic Art & Writing Awards

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Brooke and I show our “heavy medals” in May. Certificates and medals won at the national level are awarded to both the student winner and their teacher. Nice!

One of my goals during the 2017-18 school year was to finally enter a student’s work in the Scholastic Art & Writing Awards. And right before Christmas break, two of my students entered poetry.

Brooke S. entered four poems, Ally W. entered two. Brooke earned a Gold Key Award at the regional level, sponsored by the Greater Kansas City Writing Project with her poem entitled “Colors,” which then advanced to the national level. In March, we learned that she had won a Silver Key Award at nationals. This was such a thrill!

Despite the fact that she had really wanted to earn a Gold Key at nationals (because then she would have attended the award ceremony at Carnegie Hall in New York City!); she was excited with her national prize.  After all, more than 350,000 entries were submitted nationally; only 3,259 were awarded national prizes! This places her poem in the top one percent (less than that, actually) of all entered!

By the way, Ally’s poetry did not qualify for a regional prize, but knowing that I believed her work to be of the quality needed for Scholastic hopefully awarded her with more confidence in her work.

The Scholastic Art & Writing Awards is arguably one of the most prestigious contests for young writers in the country. It’s definitely the longest-running contest of its caliber. I found out about this contest when I attended a regional writing conference during February 2016. I went to the regional awards ceremony during the conference and as student after student received awards, I thought, There is absolutely no reason I don’t have a student being recognized.

So during the next school year, I kept the contest in mind. However, it does have an early January entry deadline and because I didn’t begin the school year the previous August with the contest front and center in my mind, I lost track and simply didn’t get entries submitted. My bad.

So during the following year (this most recent, 2017-18), I picked up a promotional poster at a conference in the fall and began promoting the contest more with my students. I decided that our goal for entering would be before Christmas break. So, in December, I had Brooke enter her work, and then a week or two later, asked her to show Ally how to enter.

Who should enter:

  1. Students in grades 7-12.
  2. The student who especially finds joy or satisfaction or “release” in writing and even writes during their “off” time.
  3. The student who doesn’t recognize the value of their personal story and who writes those poems or stories that, even with grammar issues and revision needs, contain an idea or a story so arresting you are compelled you to sit down and just let the words wash over you.
  4. The student with the experiences that often go “untold.” Based on many of the winning entries I have read, Scholastic judges are seeking to promote writing from all students, not just the star writers. Judges want to promote stories about difficult circumstances, which often go untold.

How to be ready to enter:

  • Have students start saving work for entering in the contest as soon as school starts in August. Before school ended in May, I collected paper copies of some flash fiction my seventh-graders wrote during the last week of school. (The stories are also in their Google Drive accounts, but I kept hard copies… just in case.)
  • Don’t lose student writing! I have a file cabinet that students can use to keep hard copies of their work. If it’s important, it doesn’t leave the room, but stays in the cabinet (and therefore can’t “disappear” in the Google cloud).
  • Consider picking a category to focus on. Since there are several categories, it might be easier to manage and plan lessons (and for students to wrap their heads around) if there is a genre already selected. For example, I’ve already told my students that “flash fiction” will be our “focus category” for the 2018-19 contest.
    • Here are the categories:  Critical essay, dramatic script, flash fiction, humor, journalism, novel writing, personal essay and memoir, poetry, science fiction & fantasy, short story, plus a portfolio category for seniors only.
  • Know that any writing from 2018 may be entered into the 2018-19 contest.
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Brooke and I at the Write To Learn Conference in February, where she received her Gold Key Award from the Missouri Writing Region Awards. This qualified her for the national award level, where she won a Silver Key Award.

How to enter:

  • First, don’t put off entering. Go to www.artandwriting.org.  Click “How to Enter” in the upper left-hand corner. There is a process and it might look confusing at first sight. All the instructions are right there if you read carefully. Call or email your regional writing project chair, whose contact info will be provided, with questions.
  • To enter, students login, create an account, upload their work, pay fees, and include their teacher’s contact information, so you as their teacher, will be kept in the “loop” on their entries.
  • When your student enters, they will also be prompted to locate their regional writing project. This will include their work in the regional contest first.
  • About those fees… there is a $5 fee per entry uploaded. (Four poems can be entered for the $5 fee.) If your student receives free or reduced lunch, the fee is waived. You’ll just print out a form that verifies their status.
  • Students enter online, but must later mail in their fees or the fee waiver form.
  • For your first student who enters, consider having them enter on a computer in front of you so you can see what the process looks like. Teachers receive an email confirmation when an entry is received by Scholastic from one of their students.
  • Regional awards are announced in February after the January deadline. Teachers will receive an email if they have a winning student.
  • National awards are announced in March.
  • Here’s the link to the general entry guidelines.

Prizes:

At the regional level, students who won honorable mentions, silver, and gold keys are awarded pins and certificates. They also receive a journal and a copy of the Best of Teen Writing. At the national level, students receive a larger medal (it’s heavy!) and a certificate. Gold Key Award winners also receive an invitation to attend the award ceremony at Carnegie Hall in New York City.

Put Scholastic Art & Writing Awards on your list of contests to investigate for school next year. Promote it to your students as the “creme de la creme” contest that everyone has a shot at. Follow “artandwriting” on your class Instagram, (here’s a post about mine) so students see it often. Then, keep an eye out for those pieces of student writing that make you set down your cup of coffee and re-read. You know the ones.


I quickly wrote this post, so if I think of more details or notes to add, I’ll update it. Please follow this blog to be aware of those changes. If you know of any great contests to enter, please comment! Writing contests for students are quickly becoming my specialty and  I’m interested in learning all I can so I can share it with you.