Rejection proves that my students 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!
I will definitely try this project again. I see potential.
This spring, I assigned a graphic essay to my eighth-graders after they finished reading Frederick Douglass’ Narrative. I felt the graphic essay would:
offer a break from traditional essay writing;
help students discuss theme with evidence and their own commentary;
allow students to discuss symbolism; and
allow students to get creative and apply their artistic skills.
I found this idea on a blog by teacher and author Buffy Hamilton at her website, Living in the Layers. Hamilton’s post references projects created by students at North Atlanta High School, including the graphic essay project created by teacher Casey Christenson. Her students created graphic essays based around Henry David Thoreau’s Walden Pond.
Usually in my classes after we finish reading a book, students write a traditional essay on a specific topic or question from the book. However, at the conclusion of reading Douglass, my eighth graders were already writing another essay on Douglass to be included in their human rights dissertations. So instead of writing another essay, I decided to provide some variety and offer an alternative… the graphic essay.
When I explained the assignment to them, they were eager to be my “guinea pigs” (yet again!) for this new-to-me project. I’ve never had students not want to experiment with a new idea and I let them know that I appreciate their flexibility.
To introduce the project, I gave each student a copy of the assignment sheet. My sheet was based on Hamilton’s, which was based on Christenson’s. (Don’t you love how teachers borrow from each other?!?) Here is a photo of the assignment sheet I made:
In class, we read through the steps and the requirements for the project. We also discussed the three theme options from which they could choose. Deciding on one of these themes was the first part of the process, as shown in step number one in the photo above.
They then were to develop a thesis statement that would argue the theme they chose. Following this, they were to cite three quotations from the book that supported their theme, and then provide a commentary or explanation of how each quote supported or related to the theme.
Students then were to select a symbol that would connect to and unify the theme. Finally, they were to compose all these elements on an 11″ x 17″ sheet of construction paper. They could use any art materials I had in my room (markers, colored pencils, crayons, stickers).
We also decided to sacrifice an older copy of Douglass to use in the essays. Students could use the pages of the actual text in their compositions. Some cut shapes out of the pages, while others used the pages that contained their quotes used to support their chosen themes.
I also had printed off some photos from Christenson’s blog post. These photos showed some examples of graphic essays. This was very helpful as it showed my students the level of detail that was expected. Here are pictures of those mentor texts:
Overall, the project went well, considering it was my first attempt. When all the essays were finished, I posted them in the room in “gallery walk” style, so students could vote for their top six. I projected the requirements on the Smartboard during the “gallery walk” so students could choose those that best met the criteria. This was needed so students wouldn’t focus too much attention on the artwork at the expense of the theme, evidence, commentary, and symbolism.
How well each essay met the criteria was an important distinction for them to make, too. One student with excellent creative execution didn’t cite any quotations. Despite the visual appearance of this student’s project, it didn’t accomplish the other goals, and as a result, students wisely did not give this student’s essay”Top 6″ status .
Here are more graphic essays made by my students:
I’ll try this project again next year at my new high school position. I really like how it capitalizes on students’ learning differences and artistic talent to discuss and argue theme and symbolism. Thanks to Living in the Layers for the idea and inspiration
Thanks for reading! Have you ever tried graphic essays in your language arts or English classroom? Drop me a comment and share your experience. See you next week!
I asked them to get out a sheet of paper and something to write with.
I asked them to think of someone they knew well that they could write a good description of because we were going to write a cumulative sentence.
At this point, someone usually asked, “What’s a cumulative sentence?” To this, I answered, “It’s a sentence that accumulates details about a person or whatever we’re writing about.” It seemed they could usually associate the word “accumulate” with “cumulative” and then we were good to go. There’s no need to get more technical than that.
I wrote a sentence starter on the whiteboard, which would form the basis for my own cumulative sentence. I wrote “I thought of Aaron,” on the board. I pointed out that their sentence starter, “which is actually a complete sentence—and is otherwise known as an independent clause, right?”—needed to end with a comma since our sentence was just getting started.
Then I told them we were going to watch a short video of my niece’s husband—the Aaron in my sentence starter—so we can describe him well.
After watching the video (which really impressed the kids, by the way), I added a verb cluster that began with a participial verb (an -ing verb). I added this to my sentence: “extending his legs,”
Then I asked the kids to write a similar phrase that began with an -ing verb. I reminded them to end the phrase with a comma.
Next, I added this to my sentence: “sprawling across the wall-to-wall mat,”
The kids added another descriptive phrase to their sentence. I again reminded them to start it with an -ing verb and end with a comma.
Finally, we added one more. I added “shifting his weight gracefully throughout his routine.” Notice that I ended this final verb cluster with a period since the sentence was now completed. The kids did the same.
We went around the room and everyone shared their sentence (if they wanted).
I encouraged them to try this sentence structure in their writing that day. Seventh-graders were starting a final month of Writer’s Workshop and were able to work on any number of writing projects, including memoirs and narratives. I made sure to stress to them that cumulative sentences would instantly elevate the quality of their writing because it would help them vary the length of their sentences.
In fact, I said, the average 7th-grader’s sentence contains ten words. (This statistic was included in Swain’s materials I received at the workshop.)
Then I asked them, just for fun, to count the words in their sentences. Everyone had more than ten. Several had more than twenty words. One had 28!
The next day I put three sentence starters on the whiteboard and asked them to choose one and write a cumulative sentence just like we did the day before. These were the sentence starters I wrote on the board:
I watched the baby sloth,
The firefighter worked courageously,
The photographer roamed the crowd,
Here are two questions that I received from various students throughout the day (I taught this same mini-lesson to 6th-, 7th-, and 8th-graders; all grades did well with it):
Question 1: Do we always have to start the verb clusters with -ing verbs?
My answer: No, you don’t, but for today, let’s do, since we’re learning something new.
Question 2: Can we use “and” in between the verb clusters?
My answer: Yes, you can, but try it without and see if you like the way it sounds. I like to make sure that kids realize writing is also about rhythm and sound and that writers make their own creative choices. A few kids added “and” to their sentences and then took them back out. Some kids explained that using “and” made the sentences sound more like a list, causing the sentences to sound less “in the moment” and more formal. I agreed and was impressed that kids picked up on the nuance of the cumulative sentence.
Tomorrow, I’ve got a short mini-lesson planned for when kids enter the room. On the Smartboard, I’ll have a Powerpoint slide that has a cumulative sentence that uses absolute phrases in the description. Here’s a screenshot of the slide I’ll use:
The sentence in the photo above generated some interesting conversations with my 8th-graders. We noticed that when -ing verb clusters are used instead of absolute phrases, the reader can actually see (as in a “mind movie”) the action in the descriptors. The sentence is much more visual.
In contrast, when absolute phrases are used, that may not always be the case. Students preferred using -ing verb clusters for the imagery they provided to the sentence. Our preferences also veered toward using a mix of absolutes and -ing verb clusters. While a string of absolutes may feature repetition, the writer may not provide the “mind movie” effect as strongly.
And mind you, these discussions were short and not as technical as it might sound. We are starting end-of-year testing tomorrow, and the kids were definitely NOT in the mood for this, but since I’ve never formally taught the cumulative sentence before, it ended up being a good day to experiment with words and phrases. Just talking about how words and sentences sound always leaves the impression that “This is what writers do,”… i.e. they experiment, try styles on for size, and otherwise get creative with their writing. As I always say, “It’s language arts, not language science.”
One last note about the day: I did some quick online research (as in “I googled it”) on the cumulative sentence to make sure I was understanding the various forms it can take. In doing so, I learned about periodic sentences. Periodic sentences have their independent clauses (the sentence portion or the independent chunk) at the end, similar to a period. I think I’ll introduce this to my students next. Stay tuned!
Thanks for reading! Grammar has always been my weakness when it comes to teaching ELA; however, I do like Sherry Swain’s way of teaching the cumulative sentence. It seems to be a practical thing for students to know. Follow my blog for more articles.
I searched through lower Manhattan to find the Triangle Shirtwaist Co. building
There’s nothing like visiting a place you’ve only read about in books. Last week during spring break, my daughter and I visited New York City primarily to visit the City College of New York, where my daughter will begin graduate school next fall.
Last Tuesday, instead of taking the subway from Brooklyn to Manhattan, we took the NYC Ferry across the East River to Wall Street Pier 11 to see the sights of lower Manhattan, including the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory building, where 146 workers, mostly young female immigrants, died in a fire that swept through the building in about thirty minutes on March 25, 1911.
Among other gross negligences, exit doors were blocked, water buckets were empty, and fire escapes were found unable to withstand the weight of those rushing down. It was a horrific sight for onlookers to watch scores of young women leap to their deaths onto the concrete sidewalks below.
The fire ultimately ushered in many improvements to working conditions that Americans of all industries now enjoy. For example, fire drills, fire exits and escape routes, and outward-swinging exit doors are all safety stand-bys that we take for granted.
There are two plaques on the corner of the former Asch Building (as the building was known in 1911) that commemorate the disaster. The lower plaque, which designates the site on the National Historic Landmark, is shown above. The upper plaque, placed by the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union, reads as follows:
On this site, 146 workers lost their lives in the Triangle Shirtwaist Company fire in a March 25, 1911. Out of their martyrdom came new concepts of social responsibility and labor legislation that have helped make American working conditions the finest in the world.
The exterior of the Triangle Fire building appears exactly as it did in 1911. Today, it is known as the Brown Building and houses the biology and chemistry classes at New York University. It stands at the corner of Greene Street and Washington Place, about a block east of Washington Square Park and its famous arch.
It’s so valuable to me to visit a place that I teach about. It adds relevancy to the book I read with my eighth-graders each fall, Flesh and Blood So Cheap by Albert Marrin. If you’re ever able to see a location in person that you’ve read about, take advantage of the opportunity.
Thanks for reading! Have you ever visited a location you’ve taught or read about? Leave a comment to let me know. Here are some links to other posts in this blog regarding the Triangle Shirtwaist Co. fire.
Click here,here and here for three posts regarding our Triangle Fire unit. I also discuss how I incorporate Triangle Fire into my eighth-graders human rights dissertations in this post.
I’m pretty proud of the student’s written response in the photo above. It’s written by a seventh-grader who, while being a strong writer, struggles with turning in work, whether assigned as homework or completed during class.
He is not doing well in my class “grade-wise”; however, this paragraph shows the higher level of thinking he is able to record in writing. (Yes, there are problems with this response, such as misspelled words and run-ons, but this student’s idea development is strong and that’s more important to me. We can always fix the editing later.)
Some of the paragraph may be hard to discern, so I’ve transcribed it below without corrections:
“In the book, Chasing Lincoln’s Killer, we learn/learned more than most people would normally know. Most people just know Lincoln was shot watching a play but there is more. I learned for the first time their was a twelve-day manhunt. Acorrding to the novel James Swanson authorther of Chasing Lincoln’s Killer, “There was a plan.” In other words, Booth had it all figured out. Close to the end after Booth was shot, and paralized he asked someone to hold up his hands whe they did he spoke useless, useless. I think when Booth says this he is saying that all his efforts, his plans, and evan his completed task was useless cause he felled to live on, he felled to tell his story, he felled to fight on for the south.”
This paragraph was written in response to the prompt below. Here’s what I love about this response:
it builds up to and introduces the evidence in a satisfying way
it interprets the evidence with two sentences, including that final golden one
it uses repetition effectively (and I made sure to tell him that when I spoke with him about it)
the writer put his own “spin” on the material… it feels original and fresh
Here’s that prompt:
I realize that there are quite a few “requirements” in this prompt. Sometimes I feel that I’m overly prescriptive with my prompts.
And then I receive a response back like this that reminds me that many kids thrive with the guidelines. They’re able to combine the guidelines with their own ideas and voice to create accurate, effective communication that also possesses a distinct style.
Thanks for reading! I use similar prompts like this throughout the year. Sometimes I’ll add other items for kids to use such as sentences that begin “For example, …”. What do your writing prompts look like? Feel free to leave a comment!
Gallagher developed the Article of the Week assignment to help students gain more background knowledge about politics, history, current events… in short, the world around them.
When I took Gallagher’s cue and began assigning AOWs in my middle school classroom, I chose to do so because I agree that kids need to expand their background knowledge. Many can’t relate to the literature we teach because they don’t possess the personal prior knowledge to connect to that literature.
I also like the idea of kids writing to reflect or give their take on a particular topic. Plus, reading and responding to nonfiction texts takes a different set of skills than reading literature: identifying central ideas, finding evidence to support those central ideas, noticing patterns and sequences in the content of the articles, and more. AOWs would surely help my students develop or at least practice those skills.
Gallagher’s AOWs are concise. His handout consists of a reprinted article, with a box at the top of the page that asks students to do three things: 1) mark their confusion, 2) show evidence of a close reading, and 3) write a 1+ page reflection.
How I tweaked Gallagher’s AOW to make it work for me
However, the steps outlined by Gallagher are too open-ended for my middle school students. The expectations for their writing are not focused on Gallagher’s high school handout in a way that my students (most of them anyway) would appreciate. Instructions so brief would only lead to confusion for many of them.
For that reason, I’ve provided more specific instructions and I’ve used each assignment to teach two specific skills I am focusing on this year that actually go hand-in-hand: interpretation and idea development.
Here’s a photo of the rubric for the AOW shown in the photo at the top of this post:
Another important aspect that I feel makes these assignments essential is their frequency. I assign these once a week. (The AOWs are in addition to in-class writing activities, such as writing prompts and essays.) Every Monday morning, students are given a new AOW that is due the following Monday. Writing a thorough response on a weekly basis outside of class gets my students in the habit of writing regularly.
I assign these responses weekly to help students develop writing stamina and to help them learn to write on demand. My own daughter was required in her eighth-grade classes (at another district) to write weekly and I know it was invaluable in helping her develop the confidence to write consistently.
Kids need narrative practice, too
One change I have made over the past year, however, is to alternate AOWs with what I call EOWs (Essays of the Week). EOWs focus on narrative writing skills and include a list of twenty or so prompts around a certain theme. Recent themes included style and health, politics and power, and food. I decided to create EOWs after I determined that kids needed more practice writing in a narrative style. These essays allow kids to inject more of their personal voice into their writing.
Kids tell me they enjoy writing the EOWs much more than they do the AOWs; they like the increased creativity involved. Another difference: the rubric obviously doesn’t require annotating, but may require that students open their essay with dialogue, for example. The EOWs also have a longer length requirement: they must be two pages typed instead of the usual one page for AOWs.
I pull my prompt topics from a list of 650 writing prompts published by the New York Times. One good thing about these EOWs: they can be reused from year to year. However, if you teach middle school, make sure you don’t just “cut and paste” a swath of topics from the list, since some are definitely geared to older students.
One downside to using AOWs is that for them to be topical, I must spend time every other week to find an article to use. I have used several from Newsela.com, modifying them for a printed handout. I have also found many elsewhere. I keep my eyes and ears open for the current week’s news so I can provide a really up-to-the-minute assignment.
Introducing an AOW usually takes the better part of our 53-minute class periods. After I pass out the handout, we briefly talk about the article’s subject, then we’ll look at the prompt and the rubric to see what they require. Following this introduction, I’ll often read aloud the article, using a document camera while I read, all the while demonstrating annotation.
This is how we do it
After we finish reading the article, I’ll show the kids a related video from Youtube or a similar video source. For example, for one AOW on football head injuries, we watched one to three short clips about players who suffer from concussion injuries.
The EOWs don’t require as much time to introduce. We just skim through the list, discuss a few that look especially interesting to some students, and move on. They know what to do beyond that, which is to put their things away so we can carry on with whatever else I have planned for the day. AOWs and EOWs are homework assignments.
I put a lot of thought and time into creating these weekly assignments, which I consider my number one most effective teaching tool. However, I know these weekly assignments help my students conquer their fear and hesitation with writing. Writing on a regular basis is a great skill that I know will benefit them immensely in high school and beyond.
Thanks for reading again this week! Let me know how you’ve tweaked Gallagher’s AOW concept for your students.
Plus: the movies we watched the final two days before Christmas break
Every teacher knows the feeling. You’re in the final week of school before Christmas break. There’s no point in starting something new, and often, you’re finishing up a project or unit and you need a couple of extra days for the late work to pour in, so you have time to grade and update the school’s system before submitting them for the end of quarter. Those couple of extra days you need require some type of activity to keep the kids busy. And for many of us, that means a movie.
If you’re like me, you feel a wave of guilt when you even think about showing a movie when there’s no real point to showing it other than as a time-filler.
But here’s the thing: as long as a movie has educational value for your students, meaning that it teaches them something they don’t already know, you should feel good about showing it.
I keep my eyes open for valuable movies with at least one of these two characteristics:
1) a strong, life-affirming theme
I’m not going to show movies that don’t end on a positive note. There must be a “moral to the story” that’s worth knowing. Kids are exposed to so many negative
2) a wealth of information about a historical or news-worthy event or an important person on the world stage.
Kids need background knowledge about national and global affairs i order to progress through school. How will they connect with Chasing Lincoln’s Killer if they don’t have adequate prior knowledge about the Civil War, for example?
Of course, the movies must also be rated G, PG, or PG-13. For PG-13 movies, my district requires a signed parent permission slip, so if I plan to show one of those, I must have the permission slip ready to go home about a week before I plan to show the movie.
So, what videos did we watch two days before Christmas break?
In seventh grade, we watched the History Channel drama miniseries America: The Story of Us episodes 4 and half of episode 5, which focus on the years leading up to the Civil War and also the Civil War itself. Watching these helped us prep for our reading in January of James Swanson’s Chasing Lincoln’s Killer, one of my favorite seventh-grade units.
I was unfamiliar with the series when I found it on YouTube (it’s also available on History Channel’s website). I consulted Common Sense Media, and it rated the series suitable for kids ages twelve and up. One caution: episode 5 gets grisly with scenes of battlefield medical care. It’s bloody and graphic, but doesn’t show actual surgeries; it leaves much to the imagination. If your kids have watched Grey’s Anatomy, (which by the way, Common Sense rates for ages 15+), they’ve seen worse.
On Tuesday, Jan. 8, we’ll finish episode 5 and review what we learned about the Civil War by watching these two videos.
What I like about these documentaries is that they contain live-action scenes with the quality of a feature film that kids might see at a theater. The episodes also contain “talking heads” commentary by historians and authors, but also by popular celebrities many of the kids recognize: Sean Combs, Michael Strahan, Tom Brokaw, and others.
The scenes are interspersed with arresting images such as an extreme slow-motion of a minie ball bullet spiraling down the barrel of a rifle and then hurtling through the air. The boys really paid attention to that. In fact, episode 5 opens by introducing the minie ball and asserts that the minie ball —and the bloodshed it caused— is just one example of how the Civil War contributed to and was a reflection of the rise of industrial technology, especially in warfare.
The series contains twelve episodes. Look through the episodes and find those that may provide your kids with the background that will help them connect better to your literature units.
In eighth grade, we watched Sully, starring Tom Hanks and Aaron Eckhart. It’s “The story of Chesley Sullenberger, an American pilot who became a hero (in 2009) after landing his damaged plane on the Hudson River in order to save the flight’s passengers and crew,” according to IMDb. We watched this movie because it riffs on what defines humanity and therefore ties in with our human rights dissertations we are currently building.
Near the end of film, Sully says to his critics at a hearing of the cockpit voice recordings, “You still have not taken into account the human factor. You’ve allowed no time for analysis or decision making. In these simulations, you’re taking all of the humanity out of the cockpit.” We’ll discuss the crucial point Sullenberger was making when we return from break. In fact, students will copy this quote from the movie into cursive on Monday, Jan. 7 and then we’ll discuss how Sully’s point may find a place in our human rights dissertations that we’re building throughout the year.
We didn’t discuss Sully in depth after we watched it. Frankly, we ran out of time and few students were in the mood to analyze it in-depth since it was the last time eight-graders would be in my class before break. That’s okay. At least they’ve gained some background knowledge about an important national event. Plus, we’ll get to have an interesting discussion about what this movie says about humanity, the human spirit, and the essence of being human.
So to conclude, choose the right movies to show your students and avoid the teacher-guilt. Focus on worthwhile movies with rich, life-affirming themes that are full of historical and cultural knowledge. Movies shouldn’t be used to merely fill up time!
I’ll be posting near the end of the year about my favorite end-of-year movies to show. I typically show Walter Mitty to my departing eighth-graders and The Walk to sixth-graders. Seventh-graders watch New York: The Documentary to build background knowledge they’ll need the following fall. Follow my blog to catch that post!