Near the beginning of the school year, I read aloud the comment in the picture below to my middle school Language Arts students. I came upon this comment one day when I was reading this New York Times article about the death of cursive writing.
The writer of this comment is a university professor who has some interesting observations about students who know and use cursive writing. I usually read this aloud to the class after the first week, when students have had about three cursive quotes to complete at the beginning of class. Read about that activity here.
I pass out copies of the professor’s comments to students, inform them that yes, there are some typos in it (why didn’t he proofread this?), and then I read it aloud. It succinctly explains one reason, among others, why I believe I should teach cursive to my kids… to make them competitive with their private school peers, and with students around the world. Why should we expect less of public education students, I ask?
After we finish reading the professor’s comment, I ask the kids what they think of his ideas and his rationale for advocating cursive writing. As we discuss Mulvey’s ideas, however, it becomes clear that many of students don’t understand the differences between private and public schools. So we talk about our public school and how it’s supported by the taxes their parents pay, and therefore, must abide by certain guidelines and standards set by our government.
We also discuss how private schools use different standards and curriculum and have more autonomy in their choice of subjects taught and activities offered. I usually discuss a local private school that many of them are aware of. I know this private school requires that their students write in cursive and, as a result, those students reap the benefits of cursive writing.
Those students enjoy a competitive edge when compared to public school students who often aren’t required to learn and practice cursive. They also are on the same level as students around the world who learn cursive. This is in addition to the more often expressed benefits of cursive writing: deeper thinking, more carefully constructed thoughts, more complex ideas.
Why shouldn’t my public school students be allowed to have these competitive edges also? I tell them I am simply making sure they are getting as full and complete an education as the students at the nearby private school.
Our discussion, prompted by Mulvey’s comment, does three things:
it helps them understand why I spend time on cursive writing
it makes them think twice before complaining about cursive
it helps them get my point, which is that I care about them and their education and if we have to spend time learning something that will make them competitive later, then so be it.
And that usually solves the whole “Why do we have to write in cursive?” tirade. Now they know my reasons and the purpose behind them. They want to be competitive, too, after all.
What are your thoughts on Mulvey’s views? Agree? Disagree? Somewhere in the middle? There are other reasons why I think cursive writing is important; I’ll discuss those other reasons to teach and practice cursive in the upper grades in my post on Thurs., June 14.
Finally… here’s that follow-up post I promised plus the winning essay entry
Last winter, I wrote a post about a contest that my seventh-graders enter each fall: the Patriot’s Pen youth essay contest sponsored by the Veterans of Foreign Wars. At the conclusion of that post, I wrote that I would update you on the results of that contest. Well, ahem… I’m just now getting to that. Whoops.
The 2017 Patriot’s Pen essay contest sponsored by the Veterans of Foreign Wars was another success this year. The first-place winner in this seventh-grade contest was Avery F. Second-place went to Bella F. and third-place went to Logan C. The winners were awarded certificates, pins, and $100, $75 and $50 cash prizes, respectively. This year’s theme was “America’s Gift to My Generation.”
The awards were presented by Hollister VFW Post Commander, Gerald Long (at right in photo below), and VFW State Inspector Paul Frampton (at left).
Avery F.’s first-place essay follows:
America’s Gift to my Generation
A whisper; a promising whisper. It doesn’t promise death, but rather life. It doesn’t kill but rather sacrifices. For when there’s something that we love, we really truly love, we must do any and everything we can to protect it.
For we are Americans. We grew up with a freedom many people only dream of having. Our ancestors fought many brutal wars so that we could lavish in a country and all be united. A country where diversity is alive; where we all can consider ourselves brothers and sisters, children of God despite our differences.
This is America’s gift to my generation: a country that was taught by the promises, the brave actions that good people like my great-grandfather, a veteran gunner on the USS Franklin during World War II, fought for. America was raised by people who wanted to ring the best out of the world and people from different cultures with different traditions and the same desire: a place to possess rights to embrace the different cultures, traditions, and languages that could someday, today be admired by people of all sorts.
When America was first born, there were seven key founding fathers. These men imagined a country of peace in diversity. They had the courage to separate themselves from injustice because they hoped for a country blessed with freedom where people were able to believe in what they wanted to. These men made a proclamation for “we the people” to follow known as the U.S. Constitution, a document that establishes our rights as equals, the privileges they fought for us to have.
Those whispers, those promising whispers don’t promise death; for when a battle is being fought, nothing can be quite positively assured. They rather promise life. When brave men and women volunteer for the military, they show their love, compassion that they have for their family, not just their blood family, but the family that we the people of the United States create when we unite ourselves as one under God. For when there’s something that we love, we really truly love, we must do any and everything we can to protect it. This is America’s gift to my generation.
I hope you’ll consider having your students enter this contest this fall. There is so much room for creativity within each year’s provided theme. Plus, my students love contests and especially this one with its cash prizes and recognition. Next year will be the fourth year my kids have participated. It’s truly a highlight of the year!
Thanks for reading! If you found this informative, click “like” and feel free to leave a comment. Follow this blog for updates on the 2018-19 VFW Patriot’s Pen contest. I already have some details that I’ll be posting soon. Stay tuned!
Copy off the paragraph below from writing guru Gary Provost and read it aloud to your students at the beginning of class or as a mini-lesson. Don’t just read it aloud… make sure they follow along on their own copy. It’s more effective that way. You’ll see the light bulbs pop on across your room as you read it. That’s what happens when I read it to my students. I usually read it once in seventh-grade, and then we revisit it once or twice in eighth grade. It’s awesome.
“This sentence has five words. Here are five more words. Five-word sentences are fine. But several together become monotonous. Listen to what is happening. The writing is getting boring. The sound of it drones. It’s like a stuck record. The ear demands some variety. Now listen. I vary the sentence length, and I create music. Music. The writing sings. It has a pleasant rhythm, a lilt, a harmony. I use short sentences. And I use sentences of medium length. And sometimes, when I am certain the reader is rested, I will engage him with a sentence of considerable length, a sentence that burns with energy and builds with all the impetus of a crescendo, the roll of the drums, the crash of the cymbals— sounds that say listen to this, it is important.”
As you read this aloud to your students, if your kids are like mine, you’ll see their eyes raise from the page and lock with yours in recognition of what Provost is cleverly doing: literally showing them sentence variety and how effective it is.
You may have to explain a few things (What’s a stuck record? What does it mean when something drones? What does monotonous mean?), but I can’t think of a faster, more effective way to explain the positives of sentence variety.
Then collect the paragraphs, and remind your kids to apply sentence variety to the writing project they happen to be working on for the day…. assuming they’re not first-drafting. For my own writing, sentence variety comes into play during revision. If I’m lucky, it’ll happen during a first draft, but not usually.
That’s all for today! Thanks for reading! Click “like” if you found this useful and leave a comment with your own approach to teaching sentence variety. This works for me, but I’d like to know what works for you.
About a week before school ended in May, I asked my sixth- and seventh-grade students to write a 300-word reflection of the progress they made in my language arts class this past year. I find this assignment very valuable, both for me and my students because it provides three things:
a snapshot of how theyassess their progress in their own voice,
a last-minute glimpse of their end-of-year writing skills, and
an opportunity for me to reflect on my teaching.
Here are a few golden lines from some of my seventh graders, transcribed here without corrections. I bulleted my own thoughts and clarifications below each one.
“In eighth grade my goal is to have more of my writing published and to have a better comprehension in not only writing but in bigger and stronger vocabulary words.”
I love that this student wants to be published and knows that it’s a real possibility. It’s also gratifying when students acknowledge the value of a strong vocabulary.
“I have become a better writer honestly from writing more. It sounds dumb but it actually helps to write more.”
This should go on a plaque. I truly believe that “practice makes perfect.” Now, of course, I don’t advocate quantity over quality, but, in my experience, there is something to be said for simply doing LOTS OF WRITING, which in turn earns LOTS OF FEEDBACK with which to improve. In addition, frequent writing has another plus: it builds up students’ stamina and their comfort level with writing. When asked to type a two-page essay for their weekly homework assignment, my students don’t panic… they just start planning.
“Then I improved a lot on punctuation compared to last year because the more I learned about it and the more I practiced it, the more I used it and the better I got at it.”
Again, this reflection supports the benefits of writing frequently. The more we practice, the more comfortable we become with it. In my own blogging experience, writing and posting daily used to be a challenge, but the more I do it (practice it, essentially), the easier it is. I think it’s good to share in the struggles of writing with your students.
“Sentences were like idea changers.”
The student who wrote this really hates writing, so I was surprised to find this little nugget buried in his reflection. Interesting! It shows a recognition of the deeper thinking and re-thinking that occurs when we write and read. I do regret that I wasn’t able to turn this student “on” to writing this year.
“Then I started adding a little detail to thicken my stores adding more and more of the five senses, and now I think i’m right on the edge of terribly and decent.”
Love the honesty! Despite the errors, I feel that this student’s confidence is building ever so gradually. I’m looking forward to next year with this student. Maybe I’ll be able to show him that proof-reading will help his ideas come across better.
“I almost only thought i could only have one perspective of what you was writing about.”
This student is reflecting on a recently completed argument essay. What I like about this comment is that this student has grasped the concept of “argument,”…that an argument is a discussion, a give-and-take conversation on a topic with multiple perspectives. It bothers me that this student is still struggling with parts of speech, subject-verb agreement, and editing.
“When I start with an interesting lead that has recently been the last think that I do because before that I would spend time trying to figure one out an interesting lead and I wouldn’t leave myself anytime for actual writing.”
This is a little hard to understand, but based on some conversations I remember with this student during the school year, I’m fairly sure this student is trying to explain how, in the past, she would labor so long over an attention-getting lead that she would run out of steam (or time) to work on the main points of her essay. To prevent the “I can’t think of how to start” syndrome, I encourage kids to jump to the middle of their essays or to their conclusions or anywhere really, just to get words onto the page. The lead can always be developed later. This approach seems to work so far. My goal with this student for next year: write smoother sentences, read the sentences out loud, break long sentences into shorter ones.
“I would write like a dog with hooves it was hard.”
The first time I read this, I gasped. It’s raw and accurate. Priceless. This student struggles so much with syntax and sentence structure, punctuation, you-name-it; however, this student wants to learn and obviously has a gift for simile. I love this sentence for its blunt honesty and voice. At the same time, I regret that after an entire school year of instruction, this student still struggles with run-ons.
“I do have good grammar most of the time (but not in first drafts).”
Bravo bravo! Here’s my take on this one: This student has moved on from the “one and done” mindset to the acknowledgment that revision and rewriting are just part of the process. However, I know this student really stressed over her reflection. To help, I told her she could just write down the answers to the questions in the “Clarity of Ideas” section of the rubric on the handout below. I asked that she assemble her answers into paragraphs. It was a start, at least.
You can tell from the students’ responses that I have a wide range of abilities in my seventh graders. For example, some students need help with basic sentence structure, while a few can regularly craft beautiful and flowing complex sentences. These disparities can be challenging at times, but this reflection assignment helps me with meeting the various needs of my students.
The reflection essay also makes me wonder whether I should assign these more often. I’ll share some reflections from my sixth-graders tomorrow.
Thanks for reading! Do you have a “reflection” assignment you use in your language arts classes? What’s your experience with it? Please click like and leave a comment to share your ideas.
Time to reflect on the first year of my 7th-grade PBL project
Year one is down! During the 2017-18 academic school year, my seventh-grade language arts classes started a project in partnership with the White River Valley Historical Society, a local organization in Forsyth, Mo., that preserves, promotes, and protects the cultural heritage of southern Missouri and northern Arkansas. Read other posts about this project here.
The project was to rejuvenate a children’s newsletter called Whippersnappers that the society had published previously for a few years, but later abandoned when its primary contributor, a volunteer student, grew older. Over the course of a few conversations last summer with the society’s director, it was decided that my seventh-grade students could contribute the content. Here’s the front page of our second issue:
To produce each issue, my classes thought up story ideas for the newsletter, wrote their stories, and shared in the writing process as they researched and revised their work for publication by the WRVHS. In October, our first issue was distributed. Just before Christmas break, our December/January issue was released. In March, the February/March issue came out, and the final issue of the year was released the day before school let out for the summer.
It was a whirlwind year, full of experimentation and unpredictability. I’ve listed below, in no particular order, some positives from the experience, but will probably think of more as the summer progresses. As I think of other positives, I’ll edit them into this post, so follow this blog to be aware of updates.
Students were able to choose their own story topics; they had agency over the content. For the first couple of issues, we brainstormed ideas on the whiteboard. More than enough ideas were gained from these brainstorms that those first two brainstorming sessions created a topic list from which students could choose for the remaining two issues.
Students had to consider their audience. The readers of the Whippersnappers newsletter are kids ages five to fourteen, which is quite a span. Writers had to decide exactly who, within that age range, their particular story appealed to, and keep those readers in mind with regard to word choice.
Students were required to consider the criteria of the publisher. Stories had to contain a local or regional history angle. If that focus was missing from a story, students needed to figure out how to include them before their stories could be submitted to the publisher.
It was satisfying for the students to see their name in print. (Due to privacy, students’ first names and last initial were used for their bylines.) In addition, seeing where in the issue their article was placed was important to them. They liked being on page one; however, when their story was placed last in the issue, we discussed the reasons publishers might have for doing this, such as space limitations.
Students knew they had an authentic audience that would be reading their work; I was not the final audience. They knew that people in the community would be receiving these in their mail and that made their work more accountable.
Field trips were fun! We took two, one to the WRVHS main office in Forsyth, Mo. and their newer museum in downtown Branson. This allowed them to see up close the work of the WRVHS and to hold some historical artifacts, as well as see the society’s archives and files.
They learned by trial-and-error that sentence variety takes on new meaning with a publication. After our second issue was published, we held a “wrap-up” discussion and noticed that about half started with the question, “Did you know that…?” Seeing the over-reliance on this common introductory technique showed them the need to work harder at varying their leads. It also showed the importance of previewing the issue as a whole.
I’m glad there are only a few negatives to reflect upon. I would like to tackle these for the next 2018-19 school year:
Research was limited. Students used an online database of the society’s quarterly magazine almost exclusively. This database, however, only had searchable issues through 1997, due to a grant partnership with a local library system. Students would reference information found in these magazines with standard attribution and speaker tags. The benefits of this was that students could safely and easily research their topic. However, using this one form of research was limiting. It would have been great to vary our research with interviews or in-person contact with researchers at the WRVHS, for example. Next year, I would like to address this issue. Another hurdle is that my students do not have email addresses, so that limits how they can contact sources. The WRVHS director suggested a private Facebook group where the students could post questions to anonymous research volunteers at the WRVHS. This might be an alternative.
Classroom management was challenging. During those first few days of researching and writing, as students were grappling with their topics and how to begin, classroom management was difficult. Some students could work independently, which was a great help. Most students needed my help from time to time and if I was busy working with another student, they would just stop working and wait on me. Eventually, they would begin to distract others. And then a few students need constant help and/or redirection. It’s was very hard to find the balance needed to make progress. There were a few days when I thought, “Why did I ever think this would work?” Those were the days I wanted to break out our textbooks and do a simple read-and-response assignment.
I need more defined deadlines. Kids need to see results. Quickly. Stories for our first issue were sent out and about a week later, the issue was published and delivered. The other issues did not follow such a tight schedule, and I wished they had. When kids don’t know when the issue will print, they lose interest and excitement ebbs. So for next year, I’d like to set up a schedule to see if we can have solid dates for 1) delivering the stories to the publisher’s offices, and 2) receiving published newsletters back at school. If the students know that on Friday, Sept. 2, for example, we are sending out finished stories with no exceptions for last-minute edits or revisions, perhaps we will later see more predictable publishing dates.
All in all, I think this first year was a success and I want to try it again next year. The students seemed to value the experience and see importance in it.
What curriculum did I have to alter or remove in order to fit Whippersnappers into my year-long plans? I moved a novel unit to spring and just planned more tightly so everything could get accomplished. Seventh-graders still entered all the contests they normally do and they still completed their Writers Workshop project list. They became accustomed to having several projects in-process simultaneously. After all, I told them, that’s how real writers work.
Thank you for reading! Feel free to comment away to share your own PBL ideas for your ELA middle schoolers! One more thing: I am totally open to suggestions for how to address any of my “negatives” above. If you’ve done anything like this before, please share your secrets for classroom management, student research, etc. Let’s learn from each other!
It’s hard to find mentor texts sometimes, and occasionally I just write one myself when the need arises, or I scroll through my sister blog to find stories I’ve already written.
For my students, I define “memoir” as a personal narrative that contains a beginning, middle, and end, plus a lesson learned from the situation. That lesson learned can also be simply a realization or understanding of the writer’s place in the world, or how the world, (or more generally, life) works. For younger or struggling writers, the lessons learned can be overtly stated in the concluding paragraphs, as in “From this experience, I learned…” However, for more skilled writers, the lessons learned can be implied and woven into the piece in a more unexpected or creative way. Here’s my memoir. Feel free to use for educational purposes.
Exactly Why You Should Be Aware of Your Surroundings
During my growing-up years, I had always been taught by good parents to be aware of my surroundings — whether at home or out on my own. And while I heeded that advice, I needed my parents to complete the thought. I needed to hear why: because bad things really do happen to unsuspecting women and if you don’t pay attention to your surroundings, someone might take you away from us.
I finally figured that out after college when I was living on my own and running daily near my apartment in Topeka, Kansas and had a “close call” with a stranger in a car. My route, which I ran alone and required about thirty minutes to complete, took me through a recreational complex across the street that contained what was known then as The Gage Park Zoo and a well-landscaped public park.
My route then continued on into an adjacent neighborhood clustered with middle-class homes, and finally back to my apartment community. Every day without fail, I would get up at 6 a.m., walk through the zoo and park, run through the neighborhood, have some breakfast, shower and get ready for my 8-to-5 job at the Kansas Press Association, which was a short five-minute drive away.
One fresh, quiet morning as I entered the park, I noticed a car in a parking space near the front edge of the zoo. As I walked by, I saw that a man was sitting inside the car. Strange, I thought, for six in the morning. Suspicious. It was light out, but barely. A humid haze hovered over the park grounds and the only sounds you could hear were the whir of traffic on the distant freeway, the chirps from a few songbirds, and the drowsy mumblings of teenagers catching up on the previous night’s news at the park’s swimming pool.
I continued to make my round-about way through the park: past the central square lawn, right at the rose garden, then another right back down the other side of the square lawn. When I rounded this last corner, I noticed the car again. It was backing out of its space. Good, I thought. It’s leaving.
But then, instead of turning toward the way out, the car turned into the park, and made a right onto the lower edge of the square lawn. Our paths would intersect, I knew, if he made a left at the corner of the square lawn. Which he did. Now it was inevitable: we would meet. He was up to something. Was he going to stare at me? Was he going to kidnap me? Would this be an abduction?
Keep in mind that this was in 1989. Before cell phones. Before pagers. If there was trouble, there was no way to contact someone. These were the days of the pay phone, but I was unaware of any pay phones in the park.
With the car approaching, I glanced over at the pool and knew I could cut across the lawn and find refuge there. But my independence didn’t allow that. I stayed on the paved road and continued heading straight toward the car, which was now approaching me. I eyed the car. I told myself to make eye contact with the man. Make good, solid eye contact when he gets here, I thought. Even though I was terribly afraid, I was not going to appear to be that way. So I would maintain my stride, look him in the eye, and keep walking. I would walk strongly, confidently, quickly. This is what I do every day of my life, mister, and you aren’t going to stop me, I grumbled under my breath.
Soon, the car was upon me. Driving slowly. Five miles per hour, if that. The muffler on the older, metallic, olive green sedan hummed and coughed. All too quickly, he was upon me. We made eye contact. I looked at him clearly, intently, and held my stare. He was white, unshaven, sun-tanned, with hazel eyes. His gaze met mine for a long, tense moment, all the while driving slowly, window rolled down, his left arm lazily resting along the top of the door. He drove on by. I had previously decided that I would not turn and watch him continue through the park. Didn’t want to provoke him. Didn’t want to make him suspicious of what I might do. So I kept walking and heard the car gradually accelerate behind me. And he was gone.
I never saw the man again, but I did change my routine. I started running in the evenings around six o’clock when there were more people out and about. Before the incident, I had known that keeping to a set workout routine (same route, same time every day) was ill-advised for a woman, but I obviously didn’t take that advice seriously enough either. At least not seriously enough to change my all-too-predictable behavior. Again, perhaps I wasn’t told exactly why I should vary my schedule. After all, it’s hard to do, and in my opinion, an unreasonable expectation for women.
Wasn’t it enough to just be aware of my surroundings? Apparently not. Because even though my parents had already taught me that, my Gage Park “close call” taught me the point of that advice: because bad things really do happen to unsuspecting women and if you don’t pay attention to your surroundings, someone might take you away from us.
Follow this blog for writing contests, more mentor texts, reflections and other observations about teaching middle school ELA. I plan to post more mentor texts soon, and if you follow this blog, you’ll receive an email when those are added. Check out my sister blog for more writing. Thanks for reading!
Last fall, one of my seventh-grade students wrote an “Expert Advice” article, one of ten assignments in our Writer’s Workshop project list. My students seemed to like this particular assignment. They chose a topic they were familiar with and then wrote a how-to article. “Jared” wrote an article called “Four Ways Novice Hunters Can Avoid Hunting Accidents.” He wrote a first draft, received feedback from another student, and then submitted a second draft to me.
Right away, I could tell it might be a piece I could submit on his behalf to a magazine, print or online. I knew Jared had a publishable story because of the way he tackled the assignment. First, he wrote his article in steps, which always makes for a reader-friendly piece. Second, Jared’s advice indicated that, as an avid hunter, he wrote from experience and possessed some natural expertise. In addition, his writing contained his own voice with tips such as, “Hunting on legal ground is also an important law to follow. By hunting on legal ground, or government property, you can avoid trespassing and a visit from the sheriff.” I knew that, with a few more rounds of revisions and edits, Jared would have an article ready to send out.
So the next morning during my plan time, I googled “deer hunting magazines youth” to see what I could find. A few results popped up. I visited a couple and found one in particular that seemed promising. I read what kinds of articles they typically publish and found the name of the editor. I also discovered that the magazine had a distribution of 57,000 copies!
After talking to Jared’s mother for her approval, I dashed off a short email to the editor asking if he would be interested in reviewing the article after Jared finished it. Here’s my email:
Dear (Editor’s Name):
Good morning! I’m an English teacher in Missouri and I have a student who is working on a very good how-to article for novice or first-time hunters. I told him I would inquire about any publishing opportunities he may wish to pursue.
Does your magazine ever publish student-written articles? Would this how-to type of article be a fit for your publication? If not, do you have any advice on where he might send his piece when it is finished?
Thanks for your time in thinking about this. I appreciate it.
Marilyn Yung, Teacher
Within three hours, the editor responded. (His quick response surprised me, by the way, because in my own writing experience, editors usually require from a few days to a week or two to respond.)
The editor’s reply: Yes, he would be interested in seeing the article when Jared had it ready. He explained that while the advice may not be useful to many of the magazine’s readers, the fact that the writer is a student may be the interesting part. He added that even if it didn’t work for the print publication, it could likely be used for the website. He ended with, “Either way, I’d like to take a look and see. We are trying to provide more how-to info for beginners, and we are also interested in encouraging young hunters and writers!”
So after two or three more revisions, we emailed the final draft just before the holiday break. I’ll let you know when I hear the final word from the editor about Jared’s article. Whether it is accepted for publication or not, it’s my hope Jared has learned he has solid potential as a writer for the world beyond the school walls.
Thanks for reading! If you found this post useful, click “like” so more teachers will find it. Follow this blog for more articles and stories about teaching middle school ELA. Check out my sister blog for other writing.