Here’s what Writer’s Workshop looks like in my middle school classroom

I’m so glad I didn’t give up on what is now one of my favorite activities

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Since I began teaching seven years ago, I’ve learned that sometimes it may be necessary to try a new technique, a new curriculum unit, or simply a new idea more than once in order to fairly assess its effectiveness.

Usually, the first time I try anything, it fizzles. At the conclusion of the semester, when students were turning in their final drafts of their projects, I was glad Writer’s Workshop (WW) was finally over. I didn’t like the unstructured nature of class time that the workshop encouraged. Perhaps my classroom management skills weren’t up to par, or perhaps I’ve just relaxed a little. Perhaps it’s a bit of both, but the less structured nature doesn’t concern me like it used to because…

I’m sold on Writer’s Workshop now.

Besides, my WW is fairly structured in its procedure to begin with. That built-in structure requires that kids stay on task. If I had decided to give up on WW after my first attempt, or even the second, I would have missed out on an activity that some students say is their favorite. Many students seem to like coming into class, having a short lesson, and then being able to work at their own pace on the projects of their choosing.

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Zoom in to see the Writer’s Workshop project list for 7th graders. Students choose eight projects from the list of twelve. The procedure for each assignment is on the back.  This entire procedure is based on one by K-12 teacher Corbett Harrison.

Writer’s Workshop puts these two things front and center: student choice and the writing process. Here’s what it looks like in my classroom: Every student gets a project sheet that lists about twelve possible writing projects. The list includes a mix of discourses: narrative, informational, argument, and poetry.  I usually don’t specify how many of each discourse they must do, since there’s enough of a mix to guarantee they’ll write a variety.  Kids must complete eight projects of their choice in a given time period. This fall, we started Writer’s Workshop on November 1, and their final portfolios are due Dec. 14. Here’s the rest of the basic procedure:

  • On day one of WW, as a class, we discuss the entire project list. Some of the assignments are new and don’t require that we go over them, but I introduce a few new projects each time, so we make sure to briefly discuss those. I pass out an assignment sheet to each student and we talk through each assignment, brainstorm some ideas, and talk about other details such as that assignment’s word count requirement.
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These two racks hold all the paperwork for Writer’s Workshop. On the left are the 7th and 8th grade project lists and responder sheets. On the right are the folders that contain the individual assignment sheets for each project, as well as mentor texts, and contest guidelines, if applicable.
  • After discussing each assignment, I gather up the project sheets and put them in a manila folder labelled with the project name in a rack on a book shelf at the front of the classroom for kids to reference later when they need them. (By the way, the procedures for WW are listed on the back of each project assignment sheet.)
  • Writers choose a project, read through the project’s assignment sheet, and then brainstorm, and write a first draft. The first drafts can be handwritten or typed at this point; eventually, they’ll need to be typed.
  • After completing a first draft, writers must find a classmate to be their reviewer, who will provide feedback and suggestions for revisions. This is done by attaching a narrative, informative, argument, or poetry responder sheet to the first draft. (The responder sheets are also kept in labeled manila folders in a rack next to the assignment project sheets at the front of the room.)
  • The reviewer then must answer in writing four questions listed on the responder sheet. The reviewer writes their answers on the back of the responder sheet on the lines provided. One thing I learned after my first WW attempt: If I don’t provide lines on the back of the page, students won’t write their answers down. They’ll simply jot a few very brief notes, or just tell the writer, “It was great. You don’t need to change anything. The lines on the back of the responder sheet holds students accountable to be more thorough with their feedback. I check these first draft sheets and talk with students who aren’t doing their fair share of feedback.
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Zoom in to read this responder sheet for an argument assignment. There is one of these sheets for poetry, informative, and narrative assignments, as well. Students must answer at least four questions about a classmate’s first draft on the backs of these sheets. Writers make changes to their first draft based on the answers their reviewer provides. After making their changes, writers staple their first draft and the responder sheet to their second draft and place it in my WW box for my feedback.
  • After providing their feedback, the reviewer gives the first draft and responder sheet back to the writer, who makes revisions, edits, and any other changes suggested. This creates a second draft, which the writer then places (with the first draft and responder sheet) in my second draft box. I do set a deadline for students to turn in their second drafts. At this point, that second draft deadline is one week before final portfolios are due. (I may need to reset that deadline to an earlier date.)
  • I read the second draft and fill out my own responder sheet, which has my suggestions and notes for the student. I ask that students give me a few days to return their second drafts to them.
  • After I return the second draft to the writer, they generate a third and final draft, referring to my ideas, revisions and edits that I suggest. While I don’t have time to mark every issue I notice on a paper, I do make sure that students understand what I do mark. I’ll usually talk with students when I hand their second draft back to them. This is always a good time to get in some one-on-one conferencing with each student, which, by the way, I am doing now on my phone with the help of Google Forms.  (I’ll explain this new experiment from Two Writing Teachers in a future post after I become more accustomed to it.)
  • After completing their final draft, students compile all three drafts, responder sheets, and any prewriting or brainstorming and staple their “latest greatest” final draft on top. They then keep these finished projects in a two-pocket folder in a file cabinet in my room. On December 14, these folders will be turned in. And yes, I get it, that’s a lot of work being turned in at once; however, I’ve already seen every assignment in the folders (if students put their second drafts in the box). It’s basically a matter of verifying that students used the writing process to complete the assignments.
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You’ll need to zoom in to see what’s inside my memoir assignment folder. This folder contains the instructions for the memoir, three student-written mentor texts, and two handouts with memoir topic ideas. Students use any or all of these as they need them. 

only aspect of WW I’d like to change for next time would be a more direct way for students to publish their work. Right now, I plan to post articles and stories and poetry in the hallway or in my room. Next semester, if all goes well, I will be having students choose which of their projects they would like to publish online in their Kidblog portfolio. (Again, that’s another future post.) Having an audience and a readership is crucial for motivating kids to write; I know this from my own writing experience on this blog and on Medium.com.

Here’s where I give credit where credit is due:

My Writer’s Workshop format is based on one designed and used by Corbett Harrison, a K-16 teacher with an EXTREMELY comprehensive website I located on the internet. Search his site (and its associated Northern Nevada Writing Project and WritingFix websites) for all kinds of ELA materials and ideas. (In fact, block out an hour or two if you intend to look at his site. It’s chock full of ideas and resources.)  In the past, I’ve also had success with his creative approach to vocabulary instruction that provides as much choice and accountability as his WW.

Harrison offers a free 18-page PDF that explains how he facilitates WW in his middle school classroom. This PDF also includes the responder sheets and my second draft responder sheet.  I can’t recommend Harrison’s plans enough. If you haven’t tried WW in your classes, his would be a good place to start. The plans have definitely worked for me by providing me a template to tweak here and there over the past couple of years. I’m so glad I didn’t give up on this solid, necessary, tried-and-true activity in my middle school ELA classroom.


Thanks for stopping by! Click like and follow this blog for more posts about middle school ELA. Also, feel free to leave a comment about how you approach Writer’s Workshop in your classroom. 

Contest #12: Fleet Reserve Association’s Americanism Essay Contest

Here’s a new contest you may want to check out.

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A former student told me about this contest, which I don’t have any experience with. It’s one I’m totally new to, but thought I would add it to my blog’s contest list anyway. It might be something I can invite or encourage a few students to try this year. I’ll let you know if that happens.

Fleet Reserve Association is “first and foremost a community of the Sea Services; U.S. Navy, Marines, and Coast Guard personnel,” according to their website.

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Photo: Christin Hume on Unsplash

Topic/Prompt: What Americanism Means to Me… It’s a fairly open-ended prompt with lots of room for interpretation by a young writer. Students can read the winning entry from last year here. 

Skills Addressed:  This essay would be a good way for students to hone their expository or argument writing skills. Depending on, however, how they approach it, there may be opportunities for your students to add narrative elements, such as dialogue or a few sequenced events. Make sure your students know they can try different techniques.

Length: 350 words

Deadline: Dec. 1, 2018. Students must submit their essay through a sponsor, which could include an FRA member, a member of the Ladies Auxiliary or an FRA member-at-large. Click here for a link to their website and a tool that will show sponsors in your area.

Prizes: The grand national winner receives $5,000. The top three essays in each grade category win the following: $2,500 for first place; $1,500 for second place; and $1,000 for third place.  There are also plaques and certificates of recognition. Local and regional levels may also have award their own prizes, but I don’t have information on that.

For More Info: Locate an FRA sponsor here for more information here. The FRA website also has more information.


Thanks for reading this week! I’ll be back next week with a rubric I am using with my eighth-graders to create “One Word Summaries,” a favorite activity that I use at least once a quarter during each school year. The activity is one I learned about from my favorite English teacher-guru Kelly Gallagher. I’ve added a few tweaks to it this year and I’ll be sharing that information with you next week!

The Candy Memoir: A Sweet Assignment

This candy-themed essay is a great intro to the genre of memoir

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I made this image using Canva.com and included it on my Instagram account, @elabraveandtrue.

My second writing project with sixth-graders (after the Sometimes Poem) is memoir writing. We dip our toes into memoir writing by documenting memories that involve candy. If kids can’t think of anything or don’t really like candy, they can write about a favorite food instead.

Memoir is usually a new genre for sixth-graders, so we first learn what a memoir is. To do that, I start with what they know… a story about something that’s happened to them. It can be a happy time or a sad time, but it just has to be a true story. This is called the personal narrative, and this year, when I asked who could tell me what a personal narrative is, several hands shot up. That’s an awesome sign! I so appreciate the teachers these kids had in their elementary years. They have established such a firm foundation to build on!

After discussing the features of a personal narrative, I passed out a memoir to everyone. This one was called “Whatchmacallits and Me” and had been written by Hunter, a former student who is now in high school. Several of the kids knew this student and were curious to see his writing.

I turned on my document camera, and asked kids to draw a line on their copy of the memoir. This line was just above the last paragraph, which contained a reflection or observation written by the student about the memory. I then asked the kids to crease the paper on the line, folding the last paragraph under the sheet of paper. I made a point to call the part they were now looking at a personal narrative.

I read aloud the narrative from the beginning to the line that we had drawn. As I finished reading, I told them, “That was the personal narrative.” Then we briefly discussed the strongest moment in the narrative, the weakest moment, and other things we noticed.

Then I asked the kids to unfold their paper After everyone had unfolded their paper, I announced, “Presto! Abracadabra! Just like magic, Hunter’s narrative has turned into a memoir!” By folding down the final paragraph, which contained the reflection, we revealed the memoir. I explained it this way so they could see that a memoir contains everything that a narrative does, but that it also includes a moment of reflection.

I also show a Powerpoint slide that shows the differences between the personal narrative and the memoir. I leave this up on the Smartboard for the duration of class. See below for these lists:

Here are the features of a personal narrative, as listed in my Powerpoint:

  • A story based on a memory or experience
  • Uses 1st-person point-of-view (I, me, we, us, our…)
  • Has an interesting lead that “hooks” the reader
  • Has a beginning, middle, and end
  • Uses sensory language (sights, sounds, smells, tastes, texture)

Here are the features of a memoir, as listed in my Powerpoint:

  • A story based on a memory or experience
  • Uses 1st-person point-of-view (I, me, we, us, our…)
  • Has an interesting lead that “hooks” the reader
  • Has a beginning, middle and end
  • Uses sensory language (sights, sounds, smells, tastes, texture)
  • BUT ALSO: Has a reflection… a “lesson learned”, a realization, or an explanation of why the memory is important to you
  • BUT ALSO: May contain exaggeration, and made-up details, if necessary.

We repeated this same procedure for another former student’s memoir about chocolate-covered graham crackers. For good measure, we did this one more time with an essay titled “Ice Cream” from the book, Candy and Me: A Love Story by Hilary Liftin. I searched on Amazon.com for it and its current edition’s title is Candy and Me: A Girl’s Tale of Life, Love, and Sugar.

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Liftin’s book contains several (around 30-40) memoir essays about specific candies. I especially like the chapters on Bottle Caps, Ice Cream, Tootsie Rolls, the Bubble Burger, Sugar, Candy Corn, and Conversation Hearts. (There are a few essays with passages not suitable for middle school, so plan ahead for that.) However, this book provides enough texts to share with students to help them get ideas for their own.

Following all of these read-alouds, we did quite a bit of sharing. We talked about our favorite candy, why we like it so much, and then we tried to narrow our ideas to a specific memory with that candy.

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Memories with our favorite candy don’t have to be life-changing to make a good memoir; if sitting around the campfire eating s’mores just reminds one of being happy, then that’s a special enough memory for the assignment. It’s okay for the reflection to simply acknowledge that a s’more reminds you of good times.

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This is the table of contents from the Liftin book, Candy and Me. It’s full of fun chapters.

At this point,  I had students get out a sheet of notebook paper and asked them to do some free-writing about their favorite candy. Getting thoughts down about their candy was the main objective. They could start by simply describing their candy… flavors, texture, appearance, or what the

Many started bringing me short paragraphs about how great their candy was and that was okay. However, at this time, I asked them to record a memory with the candy. It could be as basic as just riding home from the grocery story in the back seat of the car, slowly peeling back the wrapper and inhaling the white chocolate aroma of a Zero bar. This usually prompted students to get a little more down on paper.

Sixth-graders love to write a few lines and then come up to you and ask, “Is this good?” They really want to do well.

As a usual practice, I like for kids to do their initial writing by hand on paper. When they have filled up the front of a sheet of paper, I allow them to get out a laptop and type it up, making any changes they need to as they go. One page of writing is a lot to a sixth-grader, so I offer to give them ideas if they get stuck and can’t fill up the page.

Probably the best thing about these candy memoirs is they allow me to talk with each student individually and get to know them a little better. It’s fun to find out that we like the same candy, for example. Sometimes we find out that someone’s favorite is someone else’s least favorite.

It is difficult for some kids to add reflective moments into their narratives. Many will simply not add them until I prompt them with a phrase such as, “Looking back on it now, …” or “Eating Skittles showed me that…”

The candy memoir is an entry point into the genre of memoir. In fact, we follow up this sweet assignment by writing a memoir that isn’t based on candy, but on a memory of a special moment from their young lives. As we get into this part of the unit, I’ll fill you in on those details.


Thanks for reading! Check back with me next week for a continuation of this post. I’ll write about the next step… venturing out into writing a memoir about a special or memorable moment. 

 

Contest #11 That Works for My Students: Stossel in the Classroom Argument Contest

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Photo: Pixabay

Each year for the past three years, I have assigned an argument essay contest to my eighth-graders. The contest is sponsored by Stossel in the Classroom (SITC), an educational website hosted by John Stossel, former consumer reporter and correspondent for ABC’s 20/20, and current Fox News contributor. According to the SITC website’s About page, the “program is sponsored by the Center for Independent Thought, an IRS 501(c)3 tax-exempt non-profit educational foundation, funded entirely by private donations.”

SITC offers teachers several teaching resources, including free DVDs featuring Stossel’s news segments with accompanying lesson plans and teacher guides, as well as its annual essay contest and its new video contest. The themes of many of the lessons and DVDs “challenge conventional wisdom” about many current issues, according to this explanation on the Center for Independent Thought’s website.

Here are some details about the essay contest.

Age Range for the Contest: Ages 12-18.

Odds of Winning: For the 2018 contest, 87 essays were awarded a prize out of 2,200 submitted. That’s about a one-in-25 chance. That’s not bad, I tell my kids. A couple of years ago, I remember the odds being about one in forty.

Topic or Prompt: Each year features a different prompt. The 2018 contest, which has concluded, was:

Natural disasters often bring people together, as they undertake rescue operations and work to rebuild their communities. People outside the affected communities usually offer additional support. But what about those that see a disaster as a way to make money? Watch John Stossel’s video about “price gouging” and write a 500-1000 word essay, arguing for or against laws that prohibit price “gouging” during an emergency. How do such laws affect disaster victims? How do they change the incentives of potential suppliers?

The video mentioned in the prompt appears on the website and is easily accessible by students. I usually show students the video up to two or three times so we can discuss it thoroughly. Our discussions usually require that we listen to the video again so we can catch exactly what was said and/or what was not said.  My students are usually engaged with the prompts, which always have a current events theme, which can often veer into the political. Regardless, the topics always give students something new and complex to think about.

This past spring, my students couldn’t believe the controversy surrounding price gouging. They had never considered the nuances present during times of a disaster when people are in desperate need of crucial supplies.

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John Stossel

Best Thing (to me) About This Contest: I would say that the best aspect of this contest is the multi-media approach that it provides. There are not many times during the school year when students must watch and listen to videos in order to develop a viewpoint, write a corresponding thesis, and then complete an argument.

Skills Addressed:

  1. In the Missouri Learning Standards, students are required to utilize technology, including the Internet, to write and publish their work. The SITC essay contest, because of its reliance on the Stossel videos, heavily involve technology. Students may also research on their own to gain the information needed for their essays; I also provide related articles and copies of Stossel’s book No, They Can’t: Why Government  Fails–But Individuals Succeed. I have ten copies of this book in my room. One year, the contest rules stated that students were required to quote the book at least once, so I ordered a handful from Amazon.
  2. Students must also provide a Works Cited page that lists their sources. The DAR American History Essay Contest also requires this. I also require it on several of our class assignments; I think it’s a good thing for students to get into the habit of providing their sources in a consistent format. It gets them ready for high school.

Length: 500-1,000 words. I like that the contest has a minimum as well as a maximum word count, since some of my students will want to write as little as possible if there is no minimum provided.

Deadline: Mid-February of each year. Check the rules page for exact dates for 2019. to submit these essays, teachers are encouraged to electronically submit their students’ essay en masse. This is a little cumbersome, but I know in the past, I have found time to do this at home.

Prizes: A total of $9,500 in cash prizes are awarded. First place receives $1,500 plus an expenses-paid summer trip with a teacher and/or guardian to New York City and lunch with Stossel; second $1,000. There are ten finalists who win $200 each; 25 semi-finals who win $100 each; and fifty honorable mention winners who receive $50 each.

Unexpected Bonus: Easily found mentor texts! Winning entries for the most recent contest and previous years’ contests are easily found on the website. These are super helpful to show students the level of quality this contest requires.

For More Info: Browse the SITC website, which has all the information you need to have your students enter the contest. I like how students can direct their ideas however they choose to make their argument. While there is a specific prompt, students are free to approach it as they desire.

My students have never placed in this contest. I believe we have entered it for the past three or four years. We spend about two weeks of class time working on it. Apparently, we should spend more!

Happening during the spring right before we begin preparing for state testing, this essay contest provides a good review of the most difficult type of expository writing: the argument.


Thanks for reading! Leave a comment with your thoughts or, if you’ve tried this contest in the past, let me know how your students fared.  Follow my blog for more contest information.

Three Points I Pull from “They Say I Say” in My 7th & 8th Grade ELA Classes

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They Say I Say (Third Edition, 2015)

 

I came across this book, They Say I Say (Third Edition, 2015), when my son’s college English composition instructor required it for his freshman-level course. I thumbed through it, read a few chapters, and found some very concise passages written to help students solve probably the number one problem that I see in their academic writing: a lack of idea development.

While this is a college-level text, I use three points from it with my middle school students because of how easily accessible the explanations are. I’ll be honest. It’s hard for me to explain how to interpret a quote, how to elaborate, etc. It’s really a skill learned with practice. Still, kids need an introduction to it before they can practice.

This text puts into words these difficult concepts and how to master them. I usually use a combination where I read-aloud from copies of the text and then all-class discussion during and after reading.

Here are the three areas that I have pulled from this book and use with my seventh- and eighth-graders to teach them 1) how to quote sources, 2) how to write a counter-argument, and 3) how to make their writing flow. Here are the parts of the book that help me teach these three things:

  • The Art of Quoting (Chapter 3) gives great advice for how to adequately introduce evidence into expository writing. For example, writers should:
    • quote only relevant passages
    • frame or introduce every quotation with a little background that builds up to the quote and provides context
    • don’t be a hit-and-run quoter… after presenting the quotation, writers should stay “on the scene” and explain how the quote supports the point being made
    • try the templates in the chapter that can be used for both introducing quotations and explaining quotations
    • blend the author’s points with the writer’s
  • Putting a Naysayer in Your Text (Chapter 6) offers students good ideas for adding counter-arguments and rebuttals to their arguments. For example, writers should:
    • anticipate objections. Here’s a passage I read aloud and then we discuss as a class:

“But wait, you say. Isn’t the advice to incorporate critical views a recipe for destroying your credibility and undermining your argument? Here you are, trying to say something that will hold up, and we want you to tell readers all the negative things someone might try against you? Exactly. We are urging you to tell readers what others might say against you, but our point is that doing so will actually enhance your credibility, not undermine it. As we argue throughout this book, writing well does not mean piling up uncontroversial truths in a vacuum; it means engaging others in a dialogue or debate– not only by opening your text with a summary of what others have said,… but also by imagining what others might say against your argument as it unfolds. Once you see writing as an act of entering a conversation, you should also see how opposing arguments can work for you rather than against you.”

    • use the provided templates for entertaining objections
      • Example: Of course, many will probably disagree because…
    • use the templates for informally introducing objections
      • Here’s one: However, does the evidence I’ve cited prove that…
    • use the templates for making concessions while still standing their ground
      1. Here’s one: On the one hand, I agree with X that _____. But on the other hand, I still insist that___.
  • Connecting the Parts (Chapter 8) is actually the first of the three areas I use from the book with my students.  Outside of argument writing, showing students how to connect their sentences, how to make their ideas flow from the beginning of their essay to the very end, is something that students struggly with greatly. Templates provide a concrete way to learn a skill, and while there are no templates for connecting the parts, there are transitions and a few key moves that writers make to create writing that flows.
    • The book provides a variety of transitions for elaboration, example giving, contrasting, conceding, and others.
    • It suggests using pointing words, but carefully. These are words such as this, those, and other demonstrative pronouns. (For me personally, I don’t spend much time on this tip because I also know that students struggle with vague pronoun references. Skilled writers only would be able to distinguish”and skillfully use pointing words without inadvertently creating vague pronoun references.)
    • It suggests using key terms and phrases. I use this a lot in my own writing. Repeating a specific word here and there can uphold the ideas I’m writing about.
    • It also suggests “repeating yourself, but with a difference.” In other words, writers should always figure out different ways to express the same idea in order to flesh out or develop them. That builds clarity. I require students often to begin sentences with “In other words,…” where appropriate. “In other words,” is hugely important and helpful. I’ve had one high school student come back to my classroom who told me that using that one simple phrase helped them greatly with developing  their essays.

Another bonus: They Say I Say includes “readings” in each chapter, mentor texts that show the methods being explained in the chapter. These are super valuable, even though some are too advanced. Choose carefully.

Check out Amazon.com and see if you can find a used copy of They Say I Say. It has some real teaching gems that have helped me in conveying clearly some very important methods that students can employ to better develop their writing. And again, I don’t use the whole book, but just the three chapters above (and only excerpts of those chapters, actually).

Idea development, including elaboration and interpretation, is probably the most difficult concept to teach and this book, although a college-level text, has really helped me in my teaching.


Thanks for reading! Click like and leave a comment if you have a question or have any other resources for teaching elaboration and interpretation in academic writing.  Follow my blog for more about middle school ELA teaching.

The Triangle Fire and Human Rights

Triangle Fire forms the first literature unit for my 8th-graders’ human rights dissertations

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Here’s the chart that shows the progress each student has made during the school year. This goes up on my wall in early September and remains up until the project is finished in March.

This week I’ve been writing about the unit on the Triangle Waist Co. fire that my 8th-graders start the year with. For them, the last few weeks of seventh grade was an introduction, a sort of “paving the way” for the more in-depth reading and studying that we will begin in just two short weeks. Check out my Monday post on the Triangle Fire resources that I use and some of the activities that we do. Check out my post from yesterday that discussed how I connect Triangle Fire to another horrific disaster, the 9/11 attacks.

Today, I’m going to write about how the Triangle Fire study forms the first section of a project that I call the 8th-grade human rights dissertation. Human rights education is vitally important in my view.

If students don’t know what human rights are, how will they know when those rights are being violated?

There are many materials available to use in teaching human rights. Since I began this project, I used materials produced by an organization known as Youth for Human Rights International. However, since I learned last year that YHRI is a front organization for the Church of Scientology International, I have decided not to use them anymore.

Read my post, Dear Parents: The Church of Scientology Wants to Get Inside Your Child’s Classroom, about that topic. This year, I will be developing new curriculum based on materials from other organizations.

Read my other post, Dear Teachers: Avoid These So-Called Educator’s Kits from the Church of Scientology for alternative human rights education materials I’ve located.

The human rights dissertation is a project that I have done with my 8th-graders for three years now. The first year was a complete trial-by-fire and I hesitate to even let it count since we literally ran out of time toward the end of the project. The second year was a success. Students completed the dissertations in the way I foresaw the project culminating. This past school year was again a successful year, and I would say an even more successful year than the first because I modified and/or improved the project in several ways, which I will discuss later.

The human rights dissertation is actually an expanded five-paragraph essay. Throughout the year, as we read and study these texts, students determine three human rights that each text supports or are revealed in the text that need protection or upholding.

It’s really up to the student to determine how they wish to discuss the rights; as the year progresses I am aware of the direction that they are taking with respect to the human rights and the literature we read. The founding document that we study even before we write the Triangle Fire section of the dissertation is the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the 1948 document drafted by a United Nations committee led by First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, in response to the atrocities of World War II.

There are six sections to this project:

  • an introduction
    • Students write this usually after all their second drafts have been finalized, usually in mid-February. This introduces the entire scope of the paper. We spend a lot of time honing these sections and massaging them into being revelatory personal statements.
  • an explanation of  human rights
    • -Students usually write their first draft for this section in September.
  • a section that connects the Triangle Fire to three human rights
    • -Students usually write their first draft for this section in October.
  • a section that connects “Inside Out and Back Again to three human rights
    • -Students usually write their first draft for this section in November.
  • a section that connects Frederick Douglass’ Narrative to three human rights
    • -Students usually write their first draft for this section in late January/early February.
  • a conclusion
    • Students usually write their first draft for this section in February

First drafts and second drafts are assigned as homework. I have very detailed take-home packets that provide students what they need to know for their drafts. First drafts can be any length, but second drafts will have a two- to three-page length requirement.

Second drafts for each portion are written throughout the year, i.e. they are not written immediately after their first drafts. I believe in taking a break from a piece of writing so the second draft will be a homework assignment a month or two after the first draft is written.  This also gives students time to get that first draft written if they failed to do it on time initially.

Students keep paper copies of their first drafts, which have my notes and revision suggestions, in the file cabinet in the classroom.  They also have digital copies in Google Drive.

As students turn in their drafts, I put a sticker on a large chart on the wall. At any moment, students and I can see their progress.

After we write our second drafts, students must pay special attention to connecting their “essays within the essay.” They complete several rounds of revision as they attempt to make their individual sections blend from one to the next. This gets interesting and students know by this time that this is a needed task.

I’ve even had students, before we get to this point of the project, ask me in class, “Mrs. Yung, how are we gonna make this flow? It can’t just sound like individual papers.” And then to myself, I think, “Hallelujah! They figured it out on their own!”

It’s so wonderful to know that they have learned how important it is to make our ideas connect smoothly in our writing.

This paper gives me the opportunity to reinforce the concept of what I call “interpretation,” the explanation that is needed when quoting from a source or text. This is a skill we practice all year, but the human rights dissertation is the project where this skill really shines. I require at a minimum that each quote from each text be followed by four to six sentences of explanatory exposition that reveals how the quote supports the point they are making.

My go-to piece of advice for students is to make their first or second sentence after a quote begins with “In other words,…”

Last minute additions to the paper include a comprehensive Works Cited page and a title page. The details for these items are included on a final to-do list that students use as they go through the project. The title for these papers is “Humanity Revealed: Understanding Human Rights Through Literature;” however, students may use another title if they wish.

This sheet also has several editing and revision requirements listed, as well as an approximate timeline. We devote about three to four weeks to revising and finalizing these papers in class. Lastly, I provide them with a heavy-duty Avery Flexi-View report cover.

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It’s such a good feeling when students start turning in their dissertations– for them and me!

The human rights dissertation is really my “piece de resistance” of my language arts classes. By the time students finish theirs, they’ve been my students for three years, and I’ve learned so much about their abilities, their interests, their personalities, and their goals for the future.

I truly enjoy watching students wrap up their dissertations and they are always excited to see their accomplishment. Many of them will end up with a paper that is fifteen or more pages long. Some even really go “all out” and see just how much they can write. It’s always a discussion to see who has the longest paper! (And yes, I make a point to tell them that more doesn’t mean better, but for middle schoolers to be excited about writing “just one more page,” who am I to shut that down?!)

As this project kicks off in the fall, I will be posting about it and providing news and photos about any changes that I decide to make this year.  One change I may make is to allow students the choice to add a World War II text to their paper. This change is discussed in this post I recently wrote called “How to Forget the Holocaust.” I plan to eventually add the handouts, timelines, and editing checklists to my future TpT store.


Thanks for reading! Follow my blog to find out more about this project and to receive updates about changes I make to it this year! Do you do a similar project with your students or do you have any suggestions for me? Feel free to leave a comment!

A good thing: Weekly in-class awards

I enjoy recognizing students for their on-time, on-target writing

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Students like to check the board each week to see if their writing earned one of these awards. I recognize them in class and give them five “brave bucks,” an incentive used by our school to recognize students for being respectful, responsible and safe. They can spend these bucks on Fridays in the school store.

Last year, sometime during the second quarter, I decided to start awarding students for their hard work on their weekly written homework assignments. I came up with four awards to recognize students for being on-time and for doing a good job. The awards and the skills they address follow:

  • The Annotator Award for their annotating of the nonfiction article that was assigned
  • The Most Interesting Lead in the World for the lead they wrote to begin the response to the prompt of the assignment
  • The Voice Award for using their unique writer’s voice and not being afraid to take a risk by showing that voice
  • The Extra Award for their proficiency in some other area

Using memegenerator.net, I created some memes to put on a bulletin board in my classroom. The bulletin board is shown above.

This weekly recognition has had good results. Students like to check the board when they enter my classroom on Mondays to see who won the awards in the previous week’s assignment.

I post the student’s work next to their award’s sign, and make sure to write feedback and notes in the margins. Sometimes I highlight the “golden lines” that really stood out to me as I reviewed their writing.

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Weekly Class Awards!

I’ll write more about these particular weekly assignments in a separate post coming soon, but with today’s post, I wanted to relate the importance and positive outcomes of providing these weekly awards.

I figured that if students found motivation and agency when they completed their submissions for the various contests we entered, they would do the same if I treated these weekly assignments like mini-contests. That’s exactly what’s happened.

It’s been a good thing and one I plan to continue for the 2018-19 year.


Follow my blog for more ideas and notes about my experiences teaching middle school English Language Arts. Thanks for reading and click like if you found this useful or leave a comment. It’s good to know what kinds of posts are resonating with my readers.