I teach a bunch of rejects

Rejection proves that my students are indeed writers

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Here’s a picture of my students posing with their first rejection letters from a youth writing contest. They thought it was funny that I wanted their picture. I just wanted them to know that a rejection letter proves that they are indeed writers.

I teach a bunch of rejects.
I teach them it’s okay to fail and
That it’s good to receive a rejection letter because
That’s what writers do: They get rejected.

I teach a bunch of rejects.
I teach them to risk it all and
Write it down now because
That’s what writers do: they deal in danger.

I teach a bunch of rejects.
I teach them to give themselves permission
To write a junky, uninspired first draft because
That’s what writers do: they don’t wait for inspiration.

I teach a bunch of rejects.
I teach them their words must work hard,
That lazy words aren’t worth their time because
That’s what writers do: they crave precision.

I teach a bunch of rejects.
I teach them to write, to rewrite, try once more
Only to receive this message yet again:
“Best of luck in your creative endeavors.”

And then I photograph my rejects,
My fiery bunch of seventh-graders,
Clutching their “Best of luck” letters because
That’s what I do: I create writers.


Thanks for reading! I’m a big advocate of encouraging students to enter any and all writing contests I can get my hands on. Click here for my favorite contest of the year, the Daughters of the American Revolution American History Essay Contest. See my Student Writing Contests page for the entire list of contest I use.

Next year, I’ll be moving to a new school district where I’ll be teaching high school students. There are even more contests for older students than younger ones, so follow my blog to learn about those opportunities!

 

My Attempt at a STEM Activity: Exploring Coffee Lids

This project was a long time in the making… brewing, I mean

 

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A student writing about her coffee lid, which you can see in the paper bag.

 

This week, I’m posting several photos from a lesson and activity that’s been in the works for a few months, if not for a year. About a year ago, I found an article online on MentalFloss called “9 Facts about Coffee Lids You Didn’t Know You Needed.” The article featured a new book called Coffee Lids by architects Louise Harpman and Scott Specht. The book is a showcase and discussion on the design and evolution of the coffee cup lid. The book includes photographs of more than 150 coffee cup lids and includes commentary on the history of this ubiquitous example of how “form follows function” even in the most mundane of objects.

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Last year, I created an AOW (Article of the Week) assignment based on the “9 Facts” article to introduce the coffee cup lid from a engineering and design standpoint.

It never worked out to assign the AOW last year, but I kept it in mind for this year and finally, with only two weeks to go until school’s out, I finally assigned the AOW assignment plus an additional activity where students could hone their descriptive writing skills.

The first requirement for this project was to collect as many different styles of coffee lids as I could find. I ended up with about 28 different styles. (Most of them were included in the book, by the way.) A handful of students and parents contributed some of the lids. I collected the rest from coffee shops, restaurants, gas stations, and from friends. I started collecting in January and by mid-April, I had enough to do the activity.

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I collected about 28 different styles of coffee cup lids.

About two weeks ago, 8th-graders read and responded to the AOW. This assignment basically formed the introduction to the activity that they completed last week. That activity? To write a descriptive paragraph(s) about one of the lids, which would be written so descriptively that a reader could match the text to the lid without either being labeled.

I took my two classes of my 8th-graders to the gym and to the safe room to write their descriptions last Thursday. They spent about half of the 50-minute class period handwriting their descriptions on notebook paper, and then the other half back in my classroom typing up their descriptions and printing them out.

Leaving my classroom to write their descriptions was beneficial because the gym and safe room are big enough that kids could space out and open their brown bag that contained their coffee lid. (The gym actually worked best, since kids could REALLY space out from each other.) The lid had a sticker on the bottom that students would use to match up to the cup’s descriptive paragraph.

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Students read the descriptive paragraphs and then attempt to find the lid described. The lids were set out on some desks just out of view to the right in the photo above. There were too many lids for them to match up, so next time I’ll have each section match up their respective descriptions and lids.

Overall, the activity didn’t work as well as I hoped it would. On Friday, when kids matched up the lids to the descriptions, there was just too much matching to be done. The descriptions were simply not detailed or precise enough so the lid descriptions could be distinguished from each other. As a result, students gave up after matching up about six lids to their descriptions. Maybe next time, I should create a sheet that they fill out instead of having them write lid numbers on Post-It notes attached to each description.

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I numbered each lid and then put it in a paper bag before passing out one to each student. They wrote their paragraphs and titled them with “Lid 7”, for example.

Oh, well. At least I have two ways to improve this activity for next time: 1) provide more detailed descriptions by requiring students to add precise measurements to their descriptions, and 2) have students match up fewer lids to their descriptions. I have 24 total eighth-graders and it was just too difficult and time-consuming to match up all 24 lids to their descriptions.  Next time, I’ll have each class of twelve match up only their lids.

Here’s a photo of the AOW that was assigned first:

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This is page 1 of the 4-page handout.
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This is page 3 of the 4-page handout.

Here’s the handout I created for the descriptive paragraph activity:

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This was my first attempt at an assignment sheet for the activity. The sheet includes instructions plus an example that I wrote at the bottom. I decided that students didn’t need to use the MLA formatting in the upper-left corner.

I definitely liked this activity for its STEM focus. It encouraged my students to think more deeply about the design and engineering of a common object that they’ve never given serious consideration to. Concepts such as froth accommodation, olfactory satisfaction, and slosh reduction, which were first introduced in the AOW, revealed to them how much design and innovation goes into throw-away items, while also providing some unusual domain-specific Tier 3 words to talk about!

It was fun to see them studying closely all the different kinds of coffee lids, really noticing the minuscule details of each and then transferring those details into their writing. For this first attempt at this project, maybe that’s enough.

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Getting out of the classroom, especially during spring testing, was beneficial on its own. Here, one student studies her lid while it’s in the bag, so no one else can see it.

 

Thanks for reading! I wrote this post quickly. If something is confusing, please let me know. Also… I realize some of the photos didn’t transfer well. Please let me know if you have questions and I’ll be happy to help. Also, feel free to comment with your thoughts or ideas on this activity. I like to try to incorporate STEM topics into Language Arts. What have been your experiences with STEM activities?

 

 

New mini-lesson resource: 100 Ways to Improve Your Writing

This “new to me” book will be fun to try this fall

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A year or two ago, I found an effective paragraph that explained sentence variety perfectly. Read the post about it here.  I dug a little deeper about the author and eventually made my way to this book, 100 Ways to Improve Your Writing, by Gary Provost.  Gary Provost was an author and writing instructor who died in 1995 right in the middle of his career.  In addition to his own books and articles, he produced a series of how-to writing books and seminars.

I ordered 100 Ways from Amazon last week and, after skimming through it, know I’ll be able to use several chapters in my language arts classes next year. I hope these short readings and the discussions they spark will make great mini-lessons to kick off a writing work day.

The book is divided into eleven chapters. Here are a few of them followed by one or two points discussed within each:

  • Five Ways to Write a Strong Beginning (Find a Slant, Set a Tone and Maintain It)
  • Twelve Ways to Give Your Words Power (Use Active Verbs, Be Specific, Use Statistics)
  • Ten Ways to Avoid Grammatical Errors (Do Not Change Tenses, Avoid Dangling Modifiers)
  • Six Ways to Avoid Punctuation Errors (How to Use Colons, Semicolons, Quotation Marks)
  • Twelve Ways to Avoid Making Your Reader Hate You (Avoid Clichés, Avoid Parentheses)
  • Seven Ways to Edit Yourself (Read Your Work Out Loud, Use Common Sense)
  • Nine Ways to Save Time and Energy (Use Transitions, Avoid Wordiness)

While the 158-page book deals with more technical topics, such as punctuation and grammar, the author also discusses the finer, more esoteric qualities of good writing. For example, in “Stop Writing When You Get to the End,” Provost writes,

When you have done what you came to do, stop. Do not linger at the door saying good-bye sixteen times.

How do you know when you have finished? Look at the last sentence and ask yourself, “What does the reader lose if I cross it out?” If the answer is “nothing” or “I don’t know,” then cross it out. Do the same thing with the next to last sentence, and so forth. When you get to the sentence  that you  must have, read it out loud. Is it a good closing sentence? Does it sound final? Is it pleasant to the ear? Does it leave the reader in the mood you intended? If so, you are done. If not, rewrite it so that it does. Then stop writing.

I like the tone of Provost’s writing. Concise. Clear. Practical. Warm. It’s an easy, friendly read, and has its share of funny writing snippets.

In addition, many chapters contain side-by-side examples of ineffective and effective writing. For instance, in the chapter entitled “Be Specific,” several examples of general and vague writing appear on the left-hand side across from their more specific counterpart on the right-hand side. Here’s one: The general “Various ethnic groups have settled in Worcester,” is shown alongside its more specific “Greeks, Italians, and Puerto Ricans have settled in Worcester.”

The book has a copyright date of 1972, so some of the examples used are outdated. I’ll just explain this to the kids, or pause while we read to explain obsolete terms. One I noticed was “word processing.” That term just isn’t used much anymore.

Some of the chapters overlap with existing lessons I already use; however, it never hurts to review the same concepts in different ways. This book will enable me to do that.

Check out this book by buying a single copy. I purchased a used copy on Amazon for about five dollars. That’s an inexpensive price for a potentially valuable new resource. Maybe a class set will be in my future.


Thanks for reading! Click like to help other readers find this post. Follow me for more similar articles on teaching middle school language arts.

 

 

Contest #7 That Works for My Students: Ozarks Writers League Youth Writing Contest

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Photo: Pixabay

Don’t forget to investigate any contest opportunities that may be available from a local writers group in your area. My principal received a flyer from a member of the Ozarks Writers League last fall. The flyer gave the basic details for the league’s annual youth writing contest. I’m always up for the extra motivation that contests provide for my students, so I added some projects to their “Writers Workshop” project list that could be entered in the OWL contest.

The contest had two categories, poetry and short story. Both of these categories are ones that I can always devote more time to, so I jumped at the chance to have students write poems and narratives.

Students could write on any topic, which really gets them excited to create! Of course, for some, that kind of leeway is overwhelming. For those kids, ideas will usually surface if we just have a conversation about their lives, families, hobbies, or memories.

As for poetry, there is a great poetry generator at PoeticPower.com. And to be honest, students will typically use the generator to get started, but will often veer from the templates once they get the juices flowing.

For the OWL contest, I copied off the flyer and kept several for kids to reference as needed. I also found some mentor texts and had those available as well. Those examples were not previous OWL entries (since we hadn’t entered it before and OWL doesn’t post winning entries), but merely mentor texts I just collected on my own.

Even though there were only two categories in which to enter, there were several awards given within those categories. Those categories were:

Short Story: 1st, 2nd, 3rd, Honorable Mention for Attribution, Honorable Mention for Characterization, Honorable Mention for Romance, Honorable Mention for Empathy, Honorable Mention for Humor.

Poetry: 1st, 2nd, 3rd, 1st Honorable Mention, 2nd Honorable Mention

When the contest deadline came around, I had to pay extra attention to the small print in the guidelines. The league required paper copies of all entries. They also had a short list of basic identifying information to be attached to each entry. To make this easier, I made a slip with blanks for students to fill out that we then paper-clipped to their entry. By the time the entries were ready, I had a stack of stories and poems about two inches thick!

According to OWL members who I spoke with at the awards ceremony, not many area schools participate in the contest. That’s okay… it just left us with several opportunities to win.

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2018 Ozark Writers League Winners

Here are the winners! Gabby F. placed 3rd in Short Story for her work “Foster Child”; Brooke S. won Honorable Mention in Characterization for Short Story for her work “Anxiety”; Zack S. placed 3rd in Poetry for his work “Sometimes on a Boat in the Fog”; Cristina H. placed 1st Honorable Mention in Poetry for her work “This is My World”; Sara C. placed Honorable Mention for Romance for her work “The Hopeless Romantic.”

OWL held a brief awards ceremony in February. Students who were able to attend received a certificate and small cash prizes that ranged from $5 to $20. I hyped the results up by posting the winning entries on the wall outside my class and recognizing the kids at an end-of-the-week assembly.

I plan to have students enter the contest again next year. Contests provide motivation and build confidence. Those are reasons enough to enter any contest, even the small local ones. Do some internet research or inquire on social media to learn about any writing contests for students in your local area!


Thanks for reading!  Click “like,” leave a comment and check out my posts about other writing contests for middle school students. Find those by clicking “Writing Contest” in the list of categories in the sidebar on the right side of this page. 

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.