I still use this assignment on a weekly basis, but I’ve added narrative writing to the mix by assigning what I call Essays of the Week (EOWs) every other week. These narrative assignments use prompts provided by The New York Times Learning Network. I select a grouping of prompts from the list and let students choose one to respond to.
I usually assign a new AOW or EOW on the first day of the week with a hard copy due one week later. AOWs usually take a little more time to go over. For example, after a bell-ringer activity and a mini-lesson that addresses a specific skill required in the rubric (such as using semicolons), these take the better part of the class period when we complete these steps:
introducing the assignment
going over the rubric and its specific requirements
discussing the writing prompt
reading the article aloud
watching any related video on the news story
EOWs don’t take as much class time, since there’s no article to read. We might go through each prompt choice, however, and do some discussion to help students come up with writing ideas.
Let me know how these rubrics work for you.
My adaptation of Kelly Gallagher’s AOW is a mainstay in my teaching. The AOWs build nonfiction reading skills, improve writing stamina, and increase students’ prior knowledge of the world around them. My EOW simply adds variety to our routine while giving them opportunities to write narratives.
Thanks for reading again this week! I appreciate any and all comments. In fact, this post was created in response to a comment posted just last week about this article.
There’s a long list of middle school distractions to get through before Eric’s story will be finished.
Don’t buy a house in Oklahoma.
That was the first line of an essay resting on the screen of a laptop checked out to Eric, a seventh-grader in my middle school language arts classes. It stopped me in my tracks.
I whispered, “Why shouldn’t I buy a house in Oklahoma?” He proceeded to tell me, but I stopped him. “No, you gotta write that down,” I said urgently. “It’s a great opening sentence. Go!”
But he didn’t. He gave me a blank look and just sat there. I walked to the next desk to give him a minute to think. I glanced back. He was making faces at Amanda in the next row over.
Time for my little black chair, I thought. So I retrieved the chair from my closet that fits ever so nicely between the rows of desks in my classroom. It allows me to maneuver right down into the trenches alongside my students. I sat down next to Eric.
“How can I help you get started?” As I sat down, I untangled my lanyard again from my chunky stone necklace.
“I dunno,” he mumbled through auburn bangs. I stood there, thinking of an approach to take with Eric, whom educators would call a “hesitant” or “struggling” writer. He tossed his head back, his long bangs surging like a wave and then falling again to conceal freckles dotting a fair complexion.
I stared at him while he searched his binder for a pencil he wouldn’t need. I know this kid has writing talent, I thought, or he wouldn’t have no naturally jotted out that first stunner of a lead sentence. If he only had confidence in his words.
I lifted Erick’s laptop from the desk, thinking I would type as he spoke his story. And, true, maybe I should have waited a bit before doing that, but I did it anyway. As a writer, I know how important it is to strike while the fire is hot and with a line like Don’t buy a house in Oklahoma, I knew Erick had to explore it. Pronto.
I adjusted the screen. “Tell me why I shouldn’t buy house in Oklahoma.” He began to talk, and I started to type.
And then the bell rang.
The following day, we picked up where we had left off. I sat back down with him and we continued. Eric dictated for about thirty minutes, telling me the story of the tornado and the havoc it had wrought: broken windows, lost belongings, damaged cars, angry parents, minor injuries. Eager to be finished, he rattled off a makeshift ending. “There. That’s all I got,” he reported, glancing up at the clock. “Time to pack up.”
“Not so fast,” I said. “Grab this off the printer, please.” I formatted the story and pressed print so he could see on paper just how much he had produced in less than one class period. He—or we, I guess—had completed a first draft. It was the most writing he had produced in my class all year.
Eric stared at the three pages of double-spaced twelve-point Times New Roman he had created, scanning the paragraphs to the end.
“You spelled Choctaw wrong,” he said.
I smiled. “Well, circle it, Mr. Man, and we’ll fix it tomorrow. By the way, that’s an awesome story.”
Over the next few days and weeks, his narrative went no further than that first draft. Thanks to standardized testing, some end-of-the-year field trips, and the arrival of summer break, his first draft of the essay or story or whatever it will be, was put on hold again.
But not for much longer.
In a couple of weeks, Eric and I will resurrect his draft from Google Docs and see if we can find a direction for it. (He has no idea I’ve been thinking about it now and then over the past several months.) There will be time in our class schedule to develop, revise, and otherwise polish that first draft into a piece he can submit to a publisher or a contest, or at least post to his blog.
I have no illusions. It won’t be easy to get that tornado piece finished, but eventually, he’ll arrive at a final draft and turn it in. As his teacher, I absolutely must believe that he’ll feel a sense of accomplishment, whether he’ll admit it, or even recognize it as such. An added bonus: he should gain some confidence in his words as well.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. We have a long list of middle school distractions to get through before then. Eric will be bored. He’ll need a drink. His Google Doc will “disappear.” He’ll ask me thirty times, “Is it good yet?” And then, there’s Amanda.
*The names were changed for this essay.
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I don’t have a paperless classroom and it will always be this way. I like the transaction that occurs when students actually turn things in.
When students turn in assignments, they walk over to the three stacked baskets (one for each grade that I teach) that stand at the corner of my desk. At times, if I’m standing or sitting there, I’ll notice when they walk up and I’ll take their assignment, skim through it and then drop it in the basket for them. It’s fun to see what they’ve been working on.
Sometimes they drop it in the basket before I get a chance to look at it. Then I’ll grab it right back out and take a look-see. Sometimes they say, “Here ya’ go!” Sometimes they say nothing. Sometimes, they’ll say:
I don’t know what you’ll think of this…
This isn’t very good, but…
I really like how this turned out, and…
This was hard…
This was fun…
This little transaction gives me an opportunity to chat. To comment. To smile. To roll my eyes, even, and hand it right back. (Yes, that happened once… from a talented writer who had knowingly done a lackluster job and said as much when she handed it to me.)
This little transaction gives me the opportunity to read their first few lines, see that fresh and unexpected word they chose, and acknowledge it with “Interesting choice!” or “Wow. I can’t wait to read this later when I can concentrate better on it.”
However, when students submit assignments via Google Drive or in my Google Classroom account, I miss those little, yet significant interactions that are personal, encouraging, and necessary.
True, digital documents have their merits. It’s handy– at times, but only at times– to write comments in the margins of a student’s Google doc. That sometimes works. For example, in my seventh-graders’ PBL project, “Whippersnappers,” it’s useful when we’re on deadline because I can quickly type in my responses faster than when I handwrite them.
I can also type more comments on a Google doc than I can when I get carried away handwriting notes that tumble down the side margins and puddle at the bottom in a clump, where I draw a teeny little arrow directing them to the back for more. (I can’t help it.)
Also, I’m learning about alternatives to handwriting comments in the margins of a Google Doc. Supposedly, there are some app extensions out there that allow teachers to speak their responses directly into the student’s file. That sounds interesting and worth looking into further. That might restore “conversation” to the process.
So, while I am open to technology in my writing classroom, I still value the transaction that occurs when kids actually hand papers in.
Thanks for reading! Leave a comment with how you feel on this topic. How “paperless” is your classroom? Is it working? Know of any new apps for spoken commenting? Please let me know.