Sometimes poetry can teach better than I can

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Take word choice, for example

Last December, when I read a student’s second draft of their Treasured Object poem and saw that it contained the word “get” four times, I thought Really? Get? Four times? 

It surprised me because I thought I had taught not only sentence variety, but word variety as well. It’s good to vary our words. Yes, a writer can repeat certain words in order to:

However, many times using the same word repeatedly —- especially a vague one like “get” — is simply a sign of lazy writing.

Here’s the second draft that a student turned in during our fall writer’s workshop:

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“Get” is a weak, vague verb as it is. And then to have four in the same short poem! Arghghgh!

In our writer’s workshop process, I simply make a few suggestions for revisions and edits on a student’s second draft. I address the most glaring issue that will help the writer improve for his or her third (and usually final) draft. In this case, the most glaring issue was the overuse of  “get.”

I circled the four “gets” and in the margins, I wrote “Replace weak verbs.” When I returned it to the student, we talked briefly. I suggested his poem would be stronger with a variety of powerful verbs mainly because the reader wouldn’t be distracted and pulled out of the poem by all the “gets.”

Here’s the student’s third and final draft:

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The poem is much stronger, don’t you think?

Sometimes it just takes a little more time to think of a better word. 

I also wondered to myself how this poem was the student’s second draft. How did the student who gave him feedback on his first draft not catch this obvious issue? Lazy editing?

Probably, I thought, acknowledging that enabling students to provide effective feedback is still one area in my high school writer’s workshop process that needs improvement.

This poem allowed a quick fix for a common problem. And it caused the unnecessary repetition to be readily recognized and quickly and effectively repaired. This is yet another reason I like teaching poetry. It truly does teach some concepts more efficiently than I can.


Thanks for reading again this week! How is your poetry practice? Do you encourage and/or assign students to write poems? Do tell. And by the way, my next post will focus on the “Treasured Object” poem. I love this easy-to-write poem that allows students to get personal and write about a belonging they wouldn’t part with for the world. Follow my blog to catch my next post!

 

 

 

New Year, New Units: Beowulf and The Old Man and the Sea

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The British Lit textbook my school uses alongside Hemingway’s book.

Lots of planning comin’ up!

Now that the new year has started, I thought I would write a short post about the units I’m starting with my juniors and seniors next week.

My junior classes will begin Ernest Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea on Wednesday  and my senior classes will start Beowulf on the same day. (In addition, my Composition class will begin brainstorming ideas for their I-Search papers on the same day, while my Novels classes begin their independent reading books.)

 

These lit units are the first ones of the school year for both grades. Last fall, we wrote memoirs, poetry, short story analysis essays, and a variety of pieces for Writer’s Workshop.  We also wrote poetry and entered writing contests, such as the Scholastic Art and Writing Awards.

Of course, we also read. Between nonfiction articles for Article of the Week assignments and various books we “tasted” on First Chapter Fridays, we did expose ourselves to new reading. Still, in-depth and extended study of selected literature was not on the menu.

Until now.

I’m excited to experience these literature studies with my students. I’ve read The Old Man and the Sea before, but not Beowulf. And to be honest, I’m a little embarrassed that I haven’t read this foundational text before. In fact, I’m not sure how I missed reading it until now.

I’m fairly well prepared to get started with these new units, but at the same time, I know that teaching them will be challenging and probably dominate my planning time.

For me, tackling anything new in teaching requires patience, planning, and an expectation that for these first attempts, I’ll be learning right alongside my students. I’ll be…

  • exploring new vocabulary
  • answering study questions
  • designing writing projects
  • creating summative assessments, and
  • planning cumulative activities.

It’s quite a handful to create daily lessons for two new texts. Compound that with the fact that at my small rural high school, I’m the only English teacher for juniors and seniors.  That has its positives (I have autonomy and choice when planning), but it also has its negatives. For example, while I do have a general curriculum to follow, I do not have unit specific materials beyond the textbooks and novels.

As such, I’ll be creating and designing lessons as I go. Thank goodness for ready-made unit plans, which provide me a basic framework that I can tweak and adjust for the future.

I’ll update you on how these new units progress in some future posts.


Thanks for reading again this week! What are you gearing up for now that the holidays are over? Feel free to leave a comment and follow my blog to catch those follow-up posts.

 

Teaching transitions in writing, part 2

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Photo by Sam Carter on Unsplash

This student-written essay illustrates transition ideas

A few weeks ago, I wrote a post about how the nonfiction author James Swanson’ transitions from paragraph and from chapter to chapter in his nonfiction narrative Chasing Lincoln’s Killer. The post discussed transitions words (such as therefore, however, in contrast, nonetheless, and others) that we all know and love and teach. However, the post also discussed a more subtle form of transition… transition ideas. Read that post here. 

Below, I’ve shown a student-written example of  the same primary technique, repetition, that Swanson used to carry the reader from one paragraph of her text to the next.

This student’s term that she chose to guide the reader through her essay was “moving on.” In the photo below, I’ve underlined the five times that the writer repeated the words “moving on” or “move on.”

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In the photo above, I’ve underlined in red the repetition of key words a student used in her personal essay about how she learned resilience and perseverance amid negative circumstances. 

The student told me that she didn’t realize she was using repetition to create her transition ideas. Once I called her attention to it, however, she could see how using those words could help a reader navigate her argument’s reasoning and follow her ideas from one paragraph to the next.

We also discussed how repetition can backfire because it’s possible to overuse words and phrases in a piece of writing.

How to tell the difference?

It’s often a judgment call… a judgment call that requires lots of reading and re-reading (especially aloud!) to determine whether the repetition connects ideas and builds the argument, forming a continuous thread through the piece or merely distracts the reader, pulling them away from the argument.

It’s fun to see students making effective moves in their writing, especially when it comes to writing transitions and working hard to make their ideas carry through a piece smoothly, seamlessly, and unobtrusively.

I’ll have a few more examples to show you in a future post or two. Become a follower to catch that post!


Thanks for reading! How do you teach transitions? It’s one of the more challenging aspects of the craft. Feel free to leave a comment with your experiences and thoughts on the subject.

 

Four-day weeks are the worst… said no teacher ever

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Photo by Radu Florin on Unsplash

What a four-day school week means to me

Last summer, my husband and I moved to a new city. Since we had learned about our upcoming move way back in January, I began searching for a new position about a month later. The local school district in our new hometown didn’t have any positions available. As a result, I decided to explore the many small rural school districts in the surrounding area.

One of the very first openings I noticed was at a school district about forty minutes away from our new home. I noticed the listing and checked out the school’s website. It looked like a promising possibility, but the forty-minute commute gave me pause. Still, I made a mental note to keep it in mind as I continued my search.

A couple more openings soon showed up in other schools. One was about thirty minutes away. Another was a tempting fifteen minutes away. Of course, a few more with forty-minute commutes similar to that first listing popped up in my search results as well.

I continued to prepare my resumé, samples of student work, and other materials that I knew I’d need when I would eventually start interviewing. And just about everyday, I logged on the job search website provided by my state’s department of education and looked for openings in the area.

One day about two weeks later, the listing at that first school I noticed was flagged as being recently revised. Hmmm… I wonder what’s changed, I thought.

I clicked the listing. A significant change had been made: the district’s school board had, a few days earlier, approved a four-day week for the 2019-2020 school year.

The four-day week is a relatively new concept that more than 500 districts across the country are exploring. Small schools, especially those in rural areas, can reduce operating costs and, in lieu of higher salaries, better attract and retain teachers by offering a shorter work week instead.

Well, that definitely changes things, I thought.

Without looking further on the site, I quickly assembled a resumé and emailed it to the school’s principal. Within a week, I had an interview scheduled. About an hour after my interview, I received an offer, which I accepted the next morning.

That four-day week stopped my search cold. Yes, it would mean school days that run about thirty minutes longer, but it would also mean one fewer day of making that forty-minute drive each way, which was the main drawback for me since I was transferring from another rural district with a comparable salary schedule. And now, with the prospect of a four-day week, saving time and gas were just the beginning.

After all, what teacher doesn’t fantasize about what an entire extra day each week would mean for their life? 

  • That extra day means I can schedule a doctor or dental appointment without taking time off from work (and, by the way, costing the school the wages for a sub).
  • It means I can do my grocery shopping on a quiet Monday morning instead of a hectic Saturday afternoon when everyone else is roaming the aisles, too.
  • It means I can hang around the house and redo that cabinet I’ve been needing to paint, but just haven’t found the three or four solid hour it requires.
  • It means I can burn a pile of leaves if I feel like it.
  • Or bake a loaf of bread.
  • Or read a book.
  • Or write a blog post.
  • Or exercise.
  • Or volunteer.
  • Or yes, even do some grading and lesson planning. (Yeah, it happens.)

And think about what an extra day means to younger teachers with small children. That’s one fewer day of childcare to pay for and one more precious day to spend with their infant or preschooler. As a mother (my kids are grown now), that extra day would have meant the world to me.

And yes, logistically, I understand how difficult it might be to schedule childcare on a four-day calendar. However, after-school clubs and other community programs have been known to revise their hours and services to accommodate the change.

And mind you, I don’t have every Monday off at my new school. Of about forty Mondays in the school year, twenty-two are actual “no school” days where both students and teachers stay home. On the remaining sixteen Mondays, only teachers attend school to plan and take part in professional development (PD) activities, such as first aid workshops, a suicide prevention session, and technology training.

Fortunately, my district doesn’t pack these Mondays with PD sessions; I usually have four to five hours of time to spend in my classroom preparing for the weeks ahead. I accomplish so much on those days completing work that I would normally just take home in a bag anyway.

I love the four-day week my new school district voted to adopt last spring. The district plans to evaluate  the change next semester to learn how it’s working for students, parents, and school personnel. Everyone’s needs must be considered, for sure, but we must remember that educating students must remain the number one priority.

For me, however, the four-day week means my weekends are long, luxurious, and wonderfully rejuvenating. Yes, I could earn more in a larger, better resourced suburban district closer to my home, but my smaller paycheck is more than offset by that one glorious extra day.


Thanks for reading! Have you heard of any districts in your area considering the switch to a four-day week? What are your thoughts? Let me know with a comment. And don’t forget to become a follower for more ELA posts. Here’s a link to a recent post

 

 

My “Article of the Week” rubric for middle and high school

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Plus rubrics you can tweak  to fit your classroom

Last February, I wrote this post about what I consider to be my most effective writing assignment: Kelly Gallagher’s Article of the Week (AOW).

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.

Here are some photos of the rubric portions of my AOWs and EOWs. Feel free to comment, ask a question, or share this post.

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This is the rubric I made for the first AOW of the school year.
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This AOW rubric contains less explicit instructions for citing of the article. I use this rubric on AOWs so students have a little more leeway with how they set up, cite, and interpret their quotations from the article. Some students work best with this format; some need more structure. 

 

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This EOW rubric specifically asks students to begin their essays with dialogue. It also asks students to ground their dialogue with narration. On this same day, we also discussed dialogue punctuation and how to narrate dialogue with detail and elaboration about the characters who are speaking.

 

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This EOW rubric specifically asks students to use  a semicolon in their writing. On the day this was assigned, we also watched this video by Shmoop about how to use semicolons. 
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This EOW rubric specifically asks students to use an em dash in their writing. On the day this was assigned, we also watched this video by  Shmoop about how to use an em dash.

 

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.

Don’t give up on improving your students’ vocabulary skills

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Photo by bruce mars from Pexels

Stick with your plan; give your lessons time to work

 

I recently designed some daily bell-ringer activities to teach my students some new vocabulary words. To create these on-going brief lessons, I continue to use Vocab Gal’s “Power Words of the Week” from Sadlier’s ELA Blog, and “Vocabulary Words of the Day” from Prestwick House.

One way teachers can build a word-rich environment in the classroom is by spotlighting a weekly vocabulary word. Use my vocabulary Power Word of the Week to ensure vocabulary instruction occurs daily in your classroom!
This is an example of the Vocab Gal’s Power Word of the Week slides. I copy each image into a PowerPoint and leave it on the SMART Board while we do the various activities explained in this post.

Words we’ve recently learned include the following:

  • paragon
  • perpetuate
  • aloof
  • virtuoso
  • gossamer
  • fend
  • inimitable
  • pejorative

Read this post to learn about the specific activities we use to explore each word.

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Even though these images from Prestwick House suggest using them daily, I use the same word for a full week. I think that helps kids learn the words more effectively.

At times over the past seven to eight weeks,

I’ve wondered whether my vocab activities are becoming a little

stale. A little repetitive. Yawn-inducing. 

And then over the weekend, as I reviewed second drafts of writing projects that students had turned in during writer’s workshop last week, I noticed two students had used the word “inimitable.” Do you know (of course, you do!) how gratifying it was to see my students using words they had recently acquired as a result of my “repetitive” vocabulary lessons?

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A student used the word inimitable in her Treasured Object poem.

I guess repetition has its merits, after all.

It’s easy to doubt myself. I do it a lot. My self-doubt has, at times, caused me to alter my teaching when I’ve suspected it wasn’t working. My self-doubt has, at times, even caused me to discontinue a particular unit or strategy.

And to be honest, I had thought about pushing the pause button on these vocabulary lessons. However, when I read the word “inimitable” in my students’ drafts, I changed my mind.

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Another student used the word inimitable in her personal essay.

Exposing kids to new words during a four-day week’s worth of bell-ringer activities seems to be taking hold. When kids acquire new words and then use them to express themselves in poetry or a personal essay, that’s all the confirmation I need to stick with my plan. These two students have given me enough incentive to stay with these vocab lessons and not alter or discontinue them just yet.

Are you like me in this regard? Do you question whether your vocab instruction is helping your students? Don’t assume it’s not working. Continue to expose your students to new words that will give them the precision they need to fully express their ideas in writing. Don’t give up on your vocabulary instruction. Keep with it. Persevere.



This vocabulary pep talk has been brought to you by me. Seriously, vocabulary gets short shrift; kids need to acquire an extensive vocabulary as they transition to high school and college or the workplace. What are your tried-and-true vocabulary lesson ideas? Feel free to share and then follow my blog for more reflection!

Teaching transitions in writing

Don’t teach just transition words… teach transition ideas as well.

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I taught this book for eight years in my middle school ELA classes. It’s such a ride! Plus, when you read it as a writer, you notice key skills the author James Swanson utilized heavily when he wrote this little gem.

For me, teaching transitions is one of the most difficult concepts to teach in writing and one of the most needed. When you teach transitions, you are helping students learn how to write smoothly, to make their ideas flow from one paragraph to the next, even from one sentence to the next.

In short, we’re talking about the concept of cohesion in writing. As you know, cohesion happens when an idea is carried through from the introductory paragraph(s) to the supporting sections of the text and finally, to the summary or conclusion. There are two ways to accomplish cohesion: transition words and ideas as transitions.

Transition words

I’ve done what many other teachers have done. We post anchor charts around our classrooms that divide transition words into groups based on their intended jobs within a piece of writing. It’s a fairly cut-and-dry skill to teach. Here are three examples of many:

  • Transitions that show sequence: first, second, third, etc.
  • Transitions that show cause and effect: as a result, consequently, etc.
  • Transitions that compare and contrast: on the other hand, in contrast, etc.

Yes, anchor charts do an adequate job of supplying these phrases for students as they write. In addition, I’ve also distributed handouts that list these same groups of words. And that’s all fine and good. Most students understand how transition words can help their writing flow smoothly so the reader can easily follow their ideas.

Transition ideas

But there’s another kind of transition—transition ideas—that are just as important, if not more important, than all those transition words. It’s also more difficult to teach because you can’t point to a list of words and phrases for students to use. That’s why I was excited when I found several examples of transition ideas in a text that I routinely taught, Chasing Lincoln’s Killer by James Swanson.

Transition ideas rely on words used in the text by the author to connect the scenes in a story, the claim in an argument from one paragraph to the next, or important big ideas in an informative article.

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Chasing Lincoln’s Killer contains several examples of transition ideas. And since it’s often easier for me to show this than it is to explain it, take a look at the photos below.

The first photo below is from Chapter IV in the book. I’ve underlined in red the transition ideas… places where the writer wanted to move the story from one scene to another on the night of April 14, 1865 when President Lincoln was assassinated. To continue his story from one location to another Swanson utilized key words to carry the reader from the home of Secretary of State William Seward to the scene of the Lincoln shooting, Ford’s Theater.

As you can see, Swanson intentionally repeated key words and phrases–“drenched in blood”– to help his reader make the leap in the story with him.

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Here’s another example. Swanson’s narrative needed to transfer from the farm and home of Dr. Mudd back to Ford’s Theater. Swanson showed the Mudds sleeping and transitioned that idea to President Lincoln, who was also “sleeping” after being shot by the assassin John Wilkes Booth.

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Below is yet another example where Swanson carries the reader, at the conclusion of Chapter VII, into the action of Chapter VIII. He uses transition ideas to switch the reader from the lowland river areas where Booth and conspirator David Herold prepared for camping to Washington, D.C., where Mary Surratt, another conspirator, also was wrapping up the busy day.

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And below you can see how Swanson began Chapter VIII in a way that echoed the action at the end of Chapter VII.

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If you’d like even more explanation of transition ideas, show your middle school and high school students this video by Shmoop. It’s quirky and a little weird, but that’s Shmoop.  It gets the point across well, I think.

Transition words and transition ideas are super important. They help students write smoothly and cohesively. Both are the key to writing pieces that absorb the reader, causing them to focus intently on the message of the writing. Use these passages from Chasing Lincoln’s Killer and this Shmoop video the next time you prepare a mini-lesson on transitions.


Thanks for reading again this week! How do you teach transitions? Leave a comment to share your ideas and follow my blog for weekly posts about teaching ELA.