It’s a Project-Based Learning partnership with White River Valley Historical Society
The October-November 2017 issue of WRVHS Whippersnappers was published a few weeks ago! My seventh-grade students wrote all the content for the issue using online archived articles from the White River Valley History Society Quarterly magazine as their research. They designed the content around Halloween and the fall season.
About half of the students wrote for the first issue; the rest are writing for the second issue that prints in December. After the Christmas break, students will return and begin designing and writing content for the February and April issues.
I appreciate the help and support of Leslie Wyman, managing director, and Dusty Ingenthron, webmaster, at the WRVHS. Their enthusiasm and cooperation have allowed me to bring this Project-Based Learning idea to fruition for my seventh-graders!
Click here for a previous post about how this idea got started.
Teaching the standards takes time; so does building trust.
“So are you calling us stupid?!” a middle school student asked me two months into my first year of teaching. Her eyes bore straight through to my heart. It was 9:15 a.m. on a Monday during my first year of teaching in a small rural school in Missouri. Friday of that week seemed as far away as the following summer.
A sickening ache throbbed in my stomach. I clutched the lesson plans I had printed out the day before at home, and took a breath.
“No, I’m calling you careless,” I retorted. I don’t even remember exactly what we were discussing. Probably sloppy handwriting, perpetual lateness, or a general lack of responsibility that I was amazed existed to such a degree in the vast majority of the students. Sure, some students cared. Some turned in their assignments on time. With their names on their papers. With legible handwriting. With responses written in sentences, instead of one or two words. How my observation on my students’ work could be so questioned, and in such a belligerent tone from this particular student, stupefied me.
I had not signed up for this disrespect, this arrogance, this chaos at this point in my life. Sure, I had signed up for a Master’s degree. Actually, I was still in the process of obtaining a Master’s of Art in Teaching from Missouri State University and was teaching under a provisional contract, and honestly, that may have been part of the difficulty. After all, I had not completed any student teaching. I had jumped right into full-time teaching because the school had had an urgent need to get the position filled.
As a result, that Monday morning made me fear that my foray into education was, at the least, a huge mistake.
Now, six years later, I teach in the same classroom, albeit a slightly different subject—from reading to language arts, specifically writing. My students better understand the priorities I place on handwriting, presentation, and a degree of professionalism in their work. We are learning together about ourselves, history, literature, current events and then writing about those in various ways.
Yes, they still moan and groan when I pass out their weekly written homework assignment. And slightly more than half turn in those assignments on time. But they are learning. Their ability to convey their thoughts on paper slowly, ever so slowly, improves with each assignment.
I also take heart in knowing that several former students tell me they now appreciate that I gave them those assignments because producing a solid essay on a weekly basis built self-confidence in their writing skills, developed their writer’s voice, and helped them conquer the fear of filling up a blank page.
On that Monday morning during my first year, my students just didn’t know me well enough. Relationships, credibility, confidence, and respect all develop slowly over time. So while it does take time to organize and plan instruction to teach the learning standards, it takes more time to establish trust with your students.
Today, I’m confident my students trust me. They know I’m interested in their interpretations. They know I value their ideas. They know I believe they are capable of discussing complicated concepts, of thinking through those concepts and figuring out how to put those concepts into written pieces. They also know I give them real opportunities to be published; in fact, many of them have already been published. Some of them even win contests. Above all, they know I would never call them stupid.
The future of the country is in good — albeit small — hands.
Just when you think the country is spiraling out of control due to natural disasters, political upheaval, and lone wolf violence, you read some words written by twelve- and thirteen-year-olds and you realize that kids will carry us through. In short, everything’s gonna be okay.
I just finished reading some first drafts written by my seventh-grade students. These drafts will grow into essays they will submit in a couple of weeks to an essay contest sponsored by our local Veterans of Foreign Wars post.
Each year has a different theme and this year’s is “America’s Gift to My Generation.” What are these gifts, as determined by my students? Here are some my students wrote about: freedom, the ability to make choices, security, free speech, education, medical technology, optimism, diversity, the opportunity to seek meaningful work, the Bill of Rights.
These gifts make me hopeful. My students could have written about video games and unlimited data, but they didn’t. To know that Sarah values her education, Eric treasures the freedom to speak out, and Kaila cherishes being secure, makes me realize that the future of the United States is in good — albeit small — hands.
A cynic might say, “Well, what would you expect? The kids want to win the veterans’ contest. Of course, they’re going to write about freedom, for example.” And to the cynic, I respond, “You’re exactly right.” My students know their audience. They know what’s appropriate (most of ’em anyway). That speaks well of their judgment and foresight, and again, I am encouraged.
I’m also encouraged because my students are diverse. Some occupy the lowest rungs on the socio-economic ladder; some rest comfortably at the top. Some have the latest Smartphone; others are living the digital divide. Some ask to borrow scissors and glue-sticks to take home for a class project; others have all these supplies at home plus full bookshelves.
However, despite their various circumstances, these first drafts reveal that deep down my students know what’s important and worth writing about. They understand priorities. They know that being an American provides advantages that millions in other parts of the world simply don’t have. More importantly, my seventh-graders — tomorrow’s leaders — know whom they should thank for those advantages: our veterans.
Next week, we’ll start revising these first drafts. They’ll become more focused, more eloquent, more concise. These short writings will blossom into hopeful messages that confirm our future is secure.
Our local VFW post will generously award three students with recognition and cash prizes during our Veteran’s Day assembly in November. When that happens, I’ll share with you the gifts the winners wrote about. Until then, no matter what happens in the meantime, trust my seventh-graders. Everything’s gonna be okay.
Thanks for reading. If you learned something from this post, click like and share it on social media. Most importantly, leave a comment so I can know your thoughts on the subject. Also, follow this blog for more ELA teaching reflections and information about writing contests for students, including the VFW contest mentioned above.
I attended an ed-tech conference over the summer. One of the sessions, Social Media in the Classroom, was taught by a middle school teacher from another district in my area who admins a private Instagram account for her ELA classes.
The idea intrigued me. I already knew Instagram was fun, based on my experience with my own personal account. For me, Instagram is an expressive way to curate a portfolio of imagery and writing that represents and records my personality and experiences. In addition, Instagram reveals the power of the visual… something my students are immersed in daily. So I decided to jump in and create one private account for the two periods each of sixth-, seventh-, and eighth-graders that I see throughout the day.
Since then, I’ve posted thirty-six times about every three days or so. I thought my enthusiasm might wane as the school year settled in, but it’s been the opposite. I find more and more reasons to post on the account and bring class activities into the social media lives of my students. I plan to continue my Instagram experiment through May to get a clear, definitive impression of the role Instagram can potentially play in my classroom.
In the meantime, here’s what I’ve figured out so far about using Instagram:
Having an Instagram account is merely another way to connect with some of my students and parents. I have thirty-four followers right now out of nearly one-hundred students total. (Yes, it’s a really small district.) Right now, only a handful of parents follow the account.
Having an Instagram account lets parents see what’s really happening in my classroom. My class page on the district website has grip-and-grin shots of essay contest winners, short articles about students who’ve been published, and other public announcements. However, on my class Instagram, things are more spontaneous. Most of the pictures I take are snapped quickly with very little posing. When kids are reading, working quietly, collaborating with others, or discussing things… that’s when I grab my phone.
Having an Instagram account is beneficial for the parents of the new kids at school. One new sixth-grader’s mother commented how nice it was to see a photo of her child having fun, fitting in, and getting accustomed to the new surroundings.
Having an Instagram account gives me a fun way to reinforce the basics, such as grammar and spelling, that I teach in the classroom. Grumpy Cat memes go a long way. Read this Edutopia post to see how another teacher uses Instagram to augment classroom lessons.
Having an Instagram account adds accountability to class work and simultaneously boosts the confidence of my students. I like to post photos of a well-turned phrase, an especially astute essay, or some beautiful cursive handwriting. It’s fun to showcase student work in this way.
Having an Instagram account adds another level of purpose to my students’ writing because they know their work may appear in a post to our small audience of followers
True, hosting the account means that some kids take part and some don’t. Most of my students have Smartphones and internet access, but not all do. And some parents just don’t want their kids to participate for whatever reason, and I understand. Therefore, I make sure students know that following the account won’t benefit their grade. And honestly, the account doesn’t come up in class discussions very often. It’s an extra avenue, another way to connect, another type of conversation to have with my students.
Yes, hosting the class Instagram also means more time that I spend at my job. Without fail, I tend to post from home. I don’t mind, though. When you enjoy your job and find purpose in it on a daily basis, working when you’re not “at work” doesn’t matter.
To sum it all up, my class Instagram account has added another dimension to my teaching. This “work-in-progress” allows me to share with students their learning, their writing successes, and — assuming they remain a follower after they’ve moved on to high school — some treasured middle school memories.
Thanks for reading! If you learned something from this post, click like and share it on social media. Most importantly, leave a comment so I can know your thoughts on the subject. Also, follow my blog for more ELA teaching reflections and information about writing contests for students.
Last spring, many of my students entered their “Where I’m From” poems in Creative Communication‘s Spring 2017 Poetry Contest. Fifteen are now published writers with the printing of the anthology shown in the photo. I am so proud of them! I’ve also shared these photos and posted them on my class Instagram page… I am thatexcited!
They wrote, revised, and rewrote their poems before submitting them online last spring. Eighteen were approved to be published and all but three gained permission from parents to be published. Those who didn’t receive parental permission failed to take the approval form home, I guess, and unfortunately, regret not making that extra effort to see their name in print.
In addition, our school, Kirbyville Middle School, is listed in the front of the anthology as a “Poetic Distinction Honor School” since more than fifteen students were published in this volume. Bonus!
If you haven’t tried this contest with your students, read more about it here.
In the past, Creative Communication also held essay contests and published anthologies for those. Unfortunately, as of last spring, they have ceased holding the essay contests. That’s a shame, in my opinion. My students submitted “Slice of Life” essays last fall, and grew to appreciate the genre and many looked forward to writing them. Oh, well. I guess I’ll have to keep hunting for more essay contests. I’ll keep you posted as I find more.
In the meantime, stay tuned for a post about an argument essay contest my eighth-graders enter every February.
Thanks for reading! If you learned something from this post, click “like,” leave a comment, and follow my blog to read more about what I’m figuring out as I teach middle school language arts.
In my classroom, I stress that writing is so much more than just knowing a bunch of grammar and punctuation rules.
Writing is really about expressing oneself, your dreams, your beliefs, your hopes, your imagination. Writers don’t write to show off to readers that they know how to avoid vague pronouns; instead, writers use the rules to capture readers and take them on their journey through, as examples, the logic of their argument against homework, the plot of their sci-fi fantasy, or their description of the TRAPPIST-1 solar system.
When students understand that they have a vested interest in learning the rules — to keep the reader engaged — their desire to get the rules right increases.
So how does a teacher help middle schoolers understand that all these rules they hear in my class mini-lessons are there solely to help the reader stay on their journey? I’ve tried my hand at having small discussions that go something like this:
“When you forget about the rules and goof up — like if you misspell a word, leave out an important comma, write a run-on, or use a vague pronoun — you distract your reader. If you spell a word wrong, they’ll lose their concentration and think stuff like That word looks funny. I think it’s wrong… or is it? At this point, you know what? You’ve lost your reader. Now they’re thinking about that word you misspelled, and not about your ideas.”
“Or say you have a run-on sentence in your writing. Your reader stumbles through your sentence or paragraph and then they stop. They think, Wait. What?? That didn’t make sense. Then they re-read it, trying to figure out your sentence. At this point, guess what? You’ve lost ’em. Now they’re trying to piece together what you wrote to figure out what you really meant to write. Basically, your run-on sentence pulled your reader’s mind away from your once-riveting story, and now you just have to hope they have the patience to keep reading.”
Sometimes, I give them an example from the movies:
“Have you ever been absorbed in a really good movie and notice that an actor’s once-rumpled hair suddenly appears perfectly in place? Or you notice a glass perched on a tabletop that wasn’t there before? What happened when you noticed that glass? You were pulled out of the movie. You missed some dialogue. You got lost for a bit. You missed out on something, maybe something important.”
“If the editors had noticed and fixed that mistake, they wouldn’t have caused you to become distracted. It’s the same with writing. We have to keep our readers interested in our ideas, not distract them with our mistakes.”
“This is the reason we learn capitalization, how to use commas, how to spell, how to link our sentences correctly… to keep the reader thinking about your story or article, and not the silly comma you forgot to include.”
So that’s how the discussion goes when I help my middle schoolers learn that there are real reasons to understand grammar and conventions. Sometimes they get it; sometimes they don’t. Either way, we keep working on it when we conference. How do you help your students care about editing? Leave a comment. I really want to know.
I love reading books about the teaching of writing. It’s always so valuable to me to find ways to help kids love writing!
Right now, I’m re-reading Real Revision by Kate Messner, a text chock-full of innovative strategies that real-life published authors use when they revise their own writing. This book contains so many practical tips from Messner, who is also a seventh-grade English teacher. I have already used one of her revision strategies in my classroom this fall and I know this book will provide more ideas as I continue with it.
I’m also getting ready to write a short post on another book I recently read, Renew! Become a Better and More Authentic Writing Teacher by Shawna Coppola. This book also contains down-to-earth advice and examples from the classrooms where Coppola works as a literacy specialist. Another bonus from this book: Coppola gives me permission to literally rethink how I teach the writing process. As a result, I’ve put off posting my usual five-step writing process poster. Why? Well, I don’t really follow completely it in my own writing, so why should I force my students to?
There is one downside to all this reading, though… when I set these inspiring books aside for the moment, it’s a little disheartening because I realize that I could have taught a lesson so much better, explained a writing dilemma so much more effectively, or responded to a student in a much more powerful way than I did.
The upside, however, is that I do find concrete, implementable ways to improve my teaching, and that’s the ultimate goal, after all.
How about you? What are you reading about the teaching of writing? Any books I should check out?
Thanks for reading! Feel free to click “like” and leave a comment about any books you’re currently reading.
I’m a writer who teaches writing. Click here for my personal writing blog.