His Google Doc will “disappear”

There’s a long list of middle school distractions to get through before Eric’s story will be finished.

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Photo: Asier Astorkiza on Unsplash

Don’t buy a house in Oklahoma.

That was the first line of an essay resting on the screen of a laptop checked out to Eric, a seventh-grader in my middle school language arts classes. It stopped me in my tracks.

I whispered, “Why shouldn’t I buy a house in Oklahoma?” He proceeded to tell me, but I stopped him. “No, you gotta write that down,” I said urgently. “It’s a great opening sentence. Go!”

But he didn’t. He gave me a blank look and just sat there. I walked to the next desk to give him a minute to think. I glanced back. He was making faces at Amanda in the next row over.

Time for my little black chair, I thought. So I retrieved the chair from my closet that fits ever so nicely between the rows of desks in my classroom. It allows me to maneuver right down into the trenches alongside my students. I sat down next to Eric.

“How can I help you get started?” As I sat down, I untangled my lanyard again from my chunky stone necklace.

“I dunno,” he mumbled through auburn bangs. I stood there, thinking of an approach to take with Eric, whom educators would call a “hesitant” or “struggling” writer. He tossed his head back, his long bangs surging like a wave and then falling again to conceal freckles dotting a fair complexion.

I stared at him while he searched his binder for a pencil he wouldn’t need. I know this kid has writing talent, I thought, or he wouldn’t have no naturally jotted out that first stunner of a lead sentence. If he only had confidence in his words.

I lifted Erick’s laptop from the desk, thinking I would type as he spoke his story. And, true, maybe I should have waited a bit before doing that, but I did it anyway. As a writer, I know how important it is to strike while the fire is hot and with a line like Don’t buy a house in Oklahoma, I knew Erick had to explore it. Pronto.

I adjusted the screen. “Tell me why I shouldn’t buy house in Oklahoma.” He began to talk, and I started to type.

And then the bell rang.

The following day, we picked up where we had left off. I sat back down with him and we continued. Eric dictated for about thirty minutes, telling me the story of the tornado and the havoc it had wrought: broken windows, lost belongings, damaged cars, angry parents, minor injuries. Eager to be finished, he rattled off a makeshift ending. “There. That’s all I got,” he reported, glancing up at the clock. “Time to pack up.”

“Not so fast,” I said. “Grab this off the printer, please.” I formatted the story and pressed print so he could see on paper just how much he had produced in less than one class period. He—or we, I guess—had completed a first draft. It was the most writing he had produced in my class all year.

Eric stared at the three pages of double-spaced twelve-point Times New Roman he had created, scanning the paragraphs to the end.

“You spelled Choctaw wrong,” he said.

I smiled. “Well, circle it, Mr. Man, and we’ll fix it tomorrow. By the way, that’s an awesome story.”

Over the next few days and weeks, his narrative went no further than that first draft. Thanks to standardized testing, some end-of-the-year field trips, and the arrival of summer break, his first draft of the essay or story or whatever it will be, was put on hold again.

But not for much longer.

In a couple of weeks, Eric and I will resurrect his draft from Google Docs and see if we can find a direction for it. (He has no idea I’ve been thinking about it now and then over the past several months.)  There will be time in our class schedule to develop, revise, and otherwise polish that first draft into a piece he can submit to a publisher or a contest, or at least post to his blog.

I have no illusions. It won’t be easy to get that tornado piece finished, but eventually, he’ll arrive at a final draft and turn it in. As his teacher, I absolutely must believe that he’ll feel a sense of accomplishment, whether he’ll admit it, or even recognize it as such. An added bonus: he should gain some confidence in his words as well.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. We have a long list of middle school distractions to get through before then. Eric will be bored. He’ll need a drink. His Google Doc will “disappear.” He’ll ask me thirty times, “Is it good yet?” And then, there’s Amanda.


*The names were changed for this essay.

Thanks for reading! Follow me for more essays focused on education, and specifically, teaching English Language Arts in middle school. Click like and follow my blog for more posts. As the school year continues, it’s getting more and more difficult to post weekly, but I’m trying!  Thanks for stopping by.

Our field trip to a local 9/11 memorial

Plus: a few things my students didn’t know about 9/11

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On Wednesday, Sept. 12, I took my eighth-grade students to a local college to view the 9/11 memorial there. I have wanted to do this for a couple of years and finally, this year the stars aligned: my lesson planning fell into place, a few phone calls were made, permission slips were returned, and it happened.

My co-teacher next door and I both share classes, and as a result, we have a possible 100 minutes available to take short outings around our town. Local field trips are actually something we should take more advantage of because I think it really helps kids to get out into the community and experience what it offers.

Viewing the local memorial’ actual steel column from a building destroyed on Sept. 11, 2001 is important and helps to make the terror attacks a tangible reality for kids. Since they weren’t even born yet in 2001, I get the feeling from talking with them that 9/11 is an event relegated to the distant past, (as hard as that might be for older adults to believe!).

Fortunately, middle school kids are VERY interested in the attacks, however. They want to learn about them and understand the gravity of the event.  Read this post to see how I cover 9/11 in my language arts classes.

Here are a few things my students didn’t know about 9/11 prior to our discussions:

  • One student thought that only one plane was involved.
  • They didn’t know the hijacked planes were carrying passengers; they thought the hijackers were flying their own empty planes.
  • A few didn’t know that radical Islam was the religion observed by the hijackers.
  • They didn’t know that people from all over the world worked in the World Trade Center towers.
  • They didn’t know about the bombing of the Pentagon or Flight 93 in Pennsylvania.
  • They had no idea the cleanup lasted for nine months.
  • They didn’t know that buildings in addition to the Twin Towers were damaged and/or required demolition.
  • They didn’t know anything about the World Trade Center bombing in 1993.
  • They didn’t know who Osama bin Laden was.

This week, kids will continue to read about the 9/11 attacks and apply what they learn to a few writing projects. I’ll update you on those activities soon.


Thanks for reading! Leave a comment with your own 9/11 teaching ideas and projects. I’d love to hear what you do in your classroom.

Dear Teachers: Share your work with the world.

Let others know what you’re doing in your classroom.

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A card I received back from the director of the Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage in Washington, DC. 

A colleague of mine, Dr. Keri Franklin, founding director of the Ozarks Writing Project, a site of the National Writing Project, and also director of assessment at Missouri State University, recommended that I send some issues of my seventh-graders’ Whippersnappers newsletter,  to the director of the Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage in Washington, DC. My students create this newsletter in partnership with the White River Valley Historical Society, a local research organization. It might be a good idea, Franklin suggested, to let the Smithsonian know about the history-based writing that my students are involved in.

So, the week after school ended (Does school ever really end???), I wrote a letter, enclosed it with some newsletter copies, and sent the package off to the center mentioned above.

Yesterday, I received a nice, handwritten note from the director, Dr. Michael Atwood Mason, thanking me for letting him know about my class’ activities.

I plan to display the card from the Smithsonian in my classroom in the fall. My students will be impressed that their words are reaching out even further than they ever expected with this project.

That short note got me thinking about how I’m thankful that my colleague gave me this suggestion to reach out. I think that often as teachers we become so involved in the cocoon of our classes that we forget that people out in “the real world” want and need to know what we’re doing inside the schools. It’s easy to become isolated in our work… with our main contacts on a daily basis being our students, administrators, other teachers, and parents.

This experience has reminded me to make the effort to branch out a little and communicate with those beyond the walls of my classroom. Not only does it give me a boost in the everyday routine when I hear back from a contact I’ve made, but it also reminds me to be open to the possibilities and future opportunities that may occur as a result of my sharing.


Thanks for reading! Have you shared any of your classroom activities with those outside of academia? Share your experiences in the comments below and follow my blog for more writing about my “brave and true” ELA classroom experiences.

Words are things that are beautiful to picture, things that glow in the world.

Today’s post: Sixth-graders reflect on their writing

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Photo by Nong Vang on Unsplash

Today, I’m posting some responses from a reflection assignment I gave to my sixth-graders the last week of school. I asked them to write a 300-word reflection of the progress they made in my language arts class this year. Read more about the assignment and my seventh-grade reflections at this link.

I love this assignment.  And to think that I almost didn’t assign it due to the “busy-ness” of the last week and its field trips, assemblies, and other end-of-year activities. Through the words of my students, I’ve learned so much about what is important to them with regards to my classes, including those areas they know they need to grow in next year.

And, by the way, this was a first-draft assignment, which meant we would not be taking the time to revise; however, students know that I expect them to polish their first drafts, making any corrections or revisions needed before turning in.

Here are a few golden lines from some of my sixth-graders, transcribed here without corrections, along with my own reflections and thoughts.

“I am so much better at punctuation that I was last year. punctuation has always been hard for me, because I always seem to be using the wrong mark.”

  • It’s nice to know this student feels progress in this area.

“I used to just say, ‘I walked to the store.’  Now I add alot more detail and say, ‘I cassually walked to the small, brightly colored store.’  So because I add in more detail the reader gets a better picture, and I won’t need to answer as many questions.”

  • Sensory language and imagery are emphasized in class and it shows. With her funny final remark, I think this student is relating that her descriptions paint a picture so clear that the reader isn’t left with questions. That’s progress!

“I feel like I explain things in all my stories instead of making it an interesting story that people would actually read.”

  • This student is beginning to understand “show don’t tell.”

“Granted, there are spell check softwares, but computers can’t fix everything, like tense and homophones.”

  • Yes! A student who sees the limits of technology!

“I can tell what transitions are I used to get them mixed up. And the same with fanboys. But now I can actually remember most of them and when I can use them and how to use them.”

  • This student is becoming adept at some of the most often used tools that writers use to express their ideas smoothly… conjunctions and transitions.

“Writing is a way that I express myself. It helps me have less stress and helps me worry less.”

  • This is a milestone in itself. This student will go far if she has this mindset in sixth grade!

“I feel Mrs. Yung makes you do a lot of writing so you get compturible it’s rough at first but by a month or two you will be find you’ll write for fun also.”

  • This student struggles with many basics, but has shown improvement over the course of the school year. He also wants to improve, which is half the battle. Goals for next year: learning to reserve enough time to polish and revise the writing.

“Mrs. Yung put writing contest so if you you get a prize or even in a book. I think writing is the easiest thing to do case you write about when you think about and it takes skill too.”

  • I know this assignment was a challenge for this student. He didn’t reach the word requirement, but did get his thoughts onto the page. Goals for next year: syntax, simple sentence structure.

“We wrote from just writing a big blob of words to dividing into paragraphs.”

  • A primary objective of elementary writing instruction is mastering the paragraph. Writing a draft of multiple paragraphs is indeed new territory and one we will continue to observe in seventh grade. I still see too many one-paragraph essays.

“Words are things that are beautiful to picture, things that glow in the world.”

  • This student obviously values words and does it with a creative flair. Score!

“I really like poems now. Last year I always thought poems had to rhyme but when I went to 6th grade I learned that they didn’t have to rhyme.”

“I have also learned that there are many types of things to write. My where I’m from poem this is a good example of something I was proud of. I put basically everything I know about myself in there.”

  • Variety is the spice of life and that goes for writing, too! While it’s good to focus on the standards, argument writing, et al, it’s important to show students the more creative side of the craft.

“Another thing is that I can put more feeling and emotion into my stories and essays, by using descriptive words and I feel like I could throw my voice into it.”

  • It’s gratifying that this student feels free to express himself on the page.

“Language arts isn’t my favorite subject actually science is but Language arts is interesting and has a lot of rules. Sadly I don’t quite understand all of them, because they are tricky and English is one of the hardest languages to understand this makes it more difficult. Also, I’ve been practicing it sense I was a little child.”

  • It’s easy to forget that English is a difficult language to master. It’s full of rules and contradictions to those rules. This response reminds me how important it is for me to provide students the writing tools and techniques they will need as they mature to more developed writing.

Thanks for reading! If you see enjoy my blog, please follow! I’m trying to find ways to make my site more valuable… more than just a place for me to “show and tell” what happens in my classroom. If you have ideas for stories or have specific questions about something you read here or about teaching in general, please leave a comment so we can share our experiences.