I still use this assignment on a weekly basis, but I’ve added narrative writing to the mix by assigning what I call Essays of the Week (EOWs) every other week. These narrative assignments use prompts provided by The New York Times Learning Network. I select a grouping of prompts from the list and let students choose one to respond to.
I usually assign a new AOW or EOW on the first day of the week with a hard copy due one week later. AOWs usually take a little more time to go over. For example, after a bell-ringer activity and a mini-lesson that addresses a specific skill required in the rubric (such as using semicolons), these take the better part of the class period when we complete these steps:
introducing the assignment
going over the rubric and its specific requirements
discussing the writing prompt
reading the article aloud
watching any related video on the news story
EOWs don’t take as much class time, since there’s no article to read. We might go through each prompt choice, however, and do some discussion to help students come up with writing ideas.
Let me know how these rubrics work for you.
My adaptation of Kelly Gallagher’s AOW is a mainstay in my teaching. The AOWs build nonfiction reading skills, improve writing stamina, and increase students’ prior knowledge of the world around them. My EOW simply adds variety to our routine while giving them opportunities to write narratives.
Thanks for reading again this week! I appreciate any and all comments. In fact, this post was created in response to a comment posted just last week about this article.
Words we’ve recently learned include the following:
Read this post to learn about the specific activities we use to explore each word.
At times over the past seven to eight weeks,
I’ve wondered whether my vocab activities are becoming a little
stale. A little repetitive. Yawn-inducing.
And then over the weekend, as I reviewed second drafts of writing projects that students had turned in during writer’s workshop last week, I noticed two students had used the word “inimitable.” Do you know (of course, you do!) how gratifying it was to see my students using words they had recently acquired as a result of my “repetitive” vocabulary lessons?
I guess repetition has its merits, after all.
It’s easy to doubt myself. I do it a lot. My self-doubt has, at times, caused me to alter my teaching when I’ve suspected it wasn’t working. My self-doubt has, at times, even caused me to discontinue a particular unit or strategy.
And to be honest, I had thought about pushing the pause button on these vocabulary lessons. However, when I read the word “inimitable” in my students’ drafts, I changed my mind.
Exposing kids to new words during a four-day week’s worth of bell-ringer activities seems to be taking hold. When kids acquire new words and then use them to express themselves in poetry or a personal essay, that’s all the confirmation I need to stick with my plan. These two students have given me enough incentive to stay with these vocab lessons and not alter or discontinue them just yet.
Are you like me in this regard? Do you question whether your vocab instruction is helping your students? Don’t assume it’s not working. Continue to expose your students to new words that will give them the precision they need to fully express their ideas in writing. Don’t give up on your vocabulary instruction. Keep with it. Persevere.
This vocabulary pep talk has been brought to you by me. Seriously, vocabulary gets short shrift; kids need to acquire an extensive vocabulary as they transition to high school and college or the workplace. What are your tried-and-true vocabulary lesson ideas? Feel free to share and then follow my blog for more reflection!
Don’t teach just transition words… teach transition ideas as well.
I taught this book for eight years in my middle school ELA classes. It’s such a ride! Plus, when you read it as a writer, you notice key skills the author James Swanson utilized heavily when he wrote this little gem.
For me, teaching transitions is one of the most difficult concepts to teach in writing and one of the most needed. When you teach transitions, you are helping students learn how to write smoothly, to make their ideas flow from one paragraph to the next, even from one sentence to the next.
In short, we’re talking about the concept of cohesion in writing. As you know, cohesion happens when an idea is carried through from the introductory paragraph(s) to the supporting sections of the text and finally, to the summary or conclusion. There are two ways to accomplish cohesion: transition words and ideas as transitions.
I’ve done what many other teachers have done. We post anchor charts around our classrooms that divide transition words into groups based on their intended jobs within a piece of writing. It’s a fairly cut-and-dry skill to teach. Here are three examples of many:
Transitions that show sequence: first, second, third, etc.
Transitions that show cause and effect: as a result, consequently, etc.
Transitions that compare and contrast: on the other hand, in contrast, etc.
Yes, anchor charts do an adequate job of supplying these phrases for students as they write. In addition, I’ve also distributed handouts that list these same groups of words. And that’s all fine and good. Most students understand how transition words can help their writing flow smoothly so the reader can easily follow their ideas.
But there’s another kind of transition—transition ideas—that are just as important, if not more important, than all those transition words. It’s also more difficult to teach because you can’t point to a list of words and phrases for students to use. That’s why I was excited when I found several examples of transition ideas in a text that I routinely taught, Chasing Lincoln’s Killer by James Swanson.
Transition ideas rely on words used in the text by the author to connect the scenes in a story, the claim in an argument from one paragraph to the next, or important big ideas in an informative article.
Chasing Lincoln’s Killer contains several examples of transition ideas. And since it’s often easier for me to show this than it is to explain it, take a look at the photos below.
The first photo below is from Chapter IV in the book. I’ve underlined in red the transition ideas… places where the writer wanted to move the story from one scene to another on the night of April 14, 1865 when President Lincoln was assassinated. To continue his story from one location to another Swanson utilized key words to carry the reader from the home of Secretary of State William Seward to the scene of the Lincoln shooting, Ford’s Theater.
As you can see, Swanson intentionally repeated key words and phrases–“drenched in blood”– to help his reader make the leap in the story with him.
Here’s another example. Swanson’s narrative needed to transfer from the farm and home of Dr. Mudd back to Ford’s Theater. Swanson showed the Mudds sleeping and transitioned that idea to President Lincoln, who was also “sleeping” after being shot by the assassin John Wilkes Booth.
Below is yet another example where Swanson carries the reader, at the conclusion of Chapter VII, into the action of Chapter VIII. He uses transition ideas to switch the reader from the lowland river areas where Booth and conspirator David Herold prepared for camping to Washington, D.C., where Mary Surratt, another conspirator, also was wrapping up the busy day.
And below you can see how Swanson began Chapter VIII in a way that echoed the action at the end of Chapter VII.
If you’d like even more explanation of transition ideas, show your middle school and high school students this video by Shmoop. It’s quirky and a little weird, but that’s Shmoop. It gets the point across well, I think.
Transition words and transition ideas are super important. They help students write smoothly and cohesively. Both are the key to writing pieces that absorb the reader, causing them to focus intently on the message of the writing. Use these passages from Chasing Lincoln’s Killer and this Shmoop video the next time you prepare a mini-lesson on transitions.
Thanks for reading again this week! How do you teach transitions? Leave a comment to share your ideas and follow my blog for weekly posts about teaching ELA.
Note: I published this post about a year ago when I first attempted an after-school NaNoWriMo program. This year, I have recently moved and am now teaching high school. I hope to eventually host a similar after-school NaNoWriMo program in my new district, but for now, I’ll just look back fondly on last year’s endeavor.
I’m finally doing NaNoWriMo with my students. Well, sort of.
All during November, about fifteen students ranging from fifth- through eighth-grade arrive in my room after school and write for forty-five minutes. I only know a little about what they’re writing. That’s because I’m busy working, too, on my own project… what I call my “historical memoir project thing.” Yes, you heard right. I’m doing NaNoWriMo and I’m not even writing a novel. Oh, well. You gotta start somewhere.
No, the NaNoWriMo in my classroom is not a full-blown NaNoWriMo experience. I don’t have the official posters, or the workbooks, or the full curriculum. But we’re still having a good time getting together after school and just writing.
From some conversations I’ve overheard around my classroom, I know some kids are writing fantasy stories. Some are writing sci-fi. One kid is writing about a worm. Regardless, each student is writing for themselves and that’s the key.
In case you’re unfamiliar with NaNoWriMo, it stands for National Novel Writing Month, when writers around the country write a first draft of a 50,000-word novel. There’s a youth version of this challenge, where students set personal goals to accomplish the first drafts of their own novels, and that’s what we are attempting in my classroom every day after school all November long.
I’ve thought about doing NaNoWriMo for a few years, and finally, last summer, I decided I would stop waiting to do it “right” and, in a nod to Nike, “just do it.” So, in June, I tested the idea with my students with a teaser post on my private class Instagram. Several were interested, including some recently graduated students who were disappointed that I hadn’t tried it when they were in middle school.
Jump forward to last Monday, Nov. 5, the first day on my calendar that we could meet. At the end of the day, when I was tired and definitely ready to lay out my plans for Tuesday and head for home, I asked myself Why did I ever decide to do this?!
However, now with that first week behind me, I’m so glad I “just did it” because my lame version of NaNoWriMo is already illuminating two truths that are easy to forget:
It’s amazing how dedicated kids can be when they’re personally motivated. The mood in my classroom during NaNoWriMo is quite different from my regular classroom, which always contains a few students with little desire to pursue writing. They distract others. They sharpen their pencils four times an hour. They need drinks and bathroom breaks. But after school during NaNoWriMo, it’s a different world. These kids are choosing to write, imagine, create, produce, and they go at it earnestly and with enthusiasm.
Some kids have writing lives outside of school. It’s gratifying to know that there are several students who are writing on their own, at home in notebooks, and online. They “own” these works… no teacher has asked them to outline their ideas, no teacher has asked them to turn in a synopsis or a summary.
Plus, these kids are excited to get to work. I’m amazed that—after eight hours of classes, mind you— my NaNoWriMo kids willingly (with smiles on their faces!) walk into my room with their coats and binders, drop them into a chair, get a laptop from the computer cart, sit down, and write. And think. And quietly chat with others at their table.
It’s a social get-together, after all. I bring snacks of some kind on Mondays, but for the rest of the week, the kids bring their own if they need to. Some bring an orange, some a small bag of chips or crackers, but most don’t bring food.
What they do bring is their imaginations, their productivity, and their determination to get something down on paper. I’ve made sure to tell them that NANOWRIMO is the time to shut off their “inner editor” and just get words on the page. Revision can happen later.
At the end of the hour, we fill out our word-count goal chart. On this chart, we’ve each listed our names with our word-count goal for the month at the far right. If a student reaches their word-count goal for the day (the monthly goal divided by the number of days in the month), they put an X on the chart in that day’s column.
We’ve kept our goals reasonable. Next year, we may be more ambitious. This is not a real NaNoWriMo after all. However, it’s a start. We each have a word-count goal. We each have a project to work on and the dedicated time to work on it.
Who would have thought that I would have accomplished real progress on my “historical memoir project thing” in just forty-five minutes a day… at the end of a busy school day… with twelve to fifteen middle schoolers in the same room?
Thanks for reading! Have you ever tried NaNoWriMo? How was your experience? Did you participate with your students or was it just a personal challenge?
I would love to try NaNoWriMo with my new high school students eventually, but first things first. This year definitely presents a learning curve for me with adjusting to older, more reserved older students.
I’m trying these four short vocabulary bell-work tasks to help kids better learn new words
I recently signed up to receive weekly email updates from the Sadlier School. As part of the email, I receive a free “Power Word of the Week” email from the Vocab Gal’s blog. I’ve been using these “slides” in my classes as a vocabulary bell-work activity. I’m trying four different activities with each new Power Word, so for each day of our week, we can spend a few more minutes to learn the word better. (Yes, you read that right. This year, our district has switched to a four-day week. I’ll let you know how that’s going in an upcoming post.)
The Power Word of the Week slide defines the word, uses it in a sentence, and then asks students to write their own sentence using the word.
Here’s an example of the slides:
We follow the slide exactly and students write a sentence using the new word. Sometimes, depending on the new word, I’ll ask a volunteer to think of a random word (popsicle? frog? hockey?) to throw into the sentence, so the sentences they write will contain both the new word and the random word. It adds more interest to the standard “write a sentence” activity.
The next day, I put the same slide back on the screen and ask students to review the definition and then use it in another sentence. However, this time they must use the word in a sentence about a topic covered in a recent Article of the Week assignment. We recently used the word “gossamer” in a sentence about California’s Fair Pay to Play Act; we also used the word “paragon” in a sentence about robotic bee engineering in the Netherlands.
Here are some student-written examples:
California’s reasons for paying athlete’s for endorsement deals were like gossamer in the eyes of the NCAA.
Scientists from Delft University are working to engineer robotic bees that, if forced to do the work of real bees, will be paragons of nature.
I’ve also asked students to write sentences using the Power Word plus a Power Word from a previous week. This keep the new words in our working vocabularies and increases the chances that these new words will be retained.
On this day, I ask students to make more connections. We take the Power Word and invent an app that is called the word. For example, imagine there’s an app called “Paragon,” then…
Write two to three sentences that describe the features of the app. What would an app called Paragon do?
Write a user review of the app that shows knowledge of the word.
If you have time, ask students to create a logo for the app. This is key if you do this add-on: ask students to make sure the logo illustrates in some way the word’s meaning.
Here are two examples of the Create-an-App activity completed as bell-work:
Two other student examples:
The Perpetuate App…This app helps you find out who your ancestors are. It does that so you can perpetuate their customs.
Use the app Perpetuate… to make any moment in life permanent or long-lasting. Make great life moments last forever.
On this day, I ask students to write a haiku poem. (Many students tell me they haven’t written a haiku since third or fourth grade!) I write one of my own as an example and post it on the board. Students then get started on their own. The requirements: 1) their haiku must be three lines long and contain five syllables in the first and last lines and seven in the second; 2) The poem must contain the Power Word; 3) The poem must be nature-related, in keeping with traditional haiku poetry.
Here’s an example I recently used in class with “fend” as the Power Word:
Soar above, pointing south to
Fend off winter’s wrath
I love words, but I’ve always been perplexed by the best way to increase students’ vocabularies. Rote memorization doesn’t work. Neither does working with a new word every day for that day only. On the other hand, spending five to ten minutes over the course of four days to explore a new word seems, so far anyway, to be a viable option… at least one worth testing out.
When we’ve covered ten or so new Power Words, I’ll assess students to see how well they’ve retained knowledge of the words. I’ll let you know how that goes.
Thanks for reading again this week! In my previous teaching position, my students practiced their cursive writing everyday for bell-work. Since my new students haven’t written in cursive in years, I decided to not fight the cursive battle, and have them learn some new vocabulary instead. So far, I think it’s working.
Stay tuned (in other words, follow my blog!) to receive the follow-up post where I’ll report on a summative assessment.
Plus, here’s a free slow-motion video site to give students more practice
For some reason, young writers seem to want to write as little as possible when describing a scene. I read descriptions as sparse as this example: I shot the ball and it went in and everybody freaked out. However, when kids see the effectiveness of exploding a moment, they’ll surprise themselves with how much description they can generate.
About a year ago, I wrote this post about a mini-lesson where my students watched a slow-motion video clip from writer and author Barry Lane’s YouTube channel. We watched the clip in five- to ten-second second segments. Following each segment, I would pause the video and the kids would write down what they saw. In effect, they were exploding a moment. The video was of a boy who looks about ten years old hitting a baseball. The idea is that the boy hits a home run, which causes the crowd to go wild.
If you’re unfamiliar with “exploding a moment”…
Exploding a moment is one of Lane’s signature revision strategies. When writers explode moments, they do what movie directors do to indicate a film’s pivotal moment: they show the moment in slow motion to indicate its importance. When a moment in a narrative holds the same importance, exploding that moment across a page or two can do the same thing. If students take an important moment from their narratives and envision it happening in slow motion, and then write what they see, they’ll inevitably “paint” a much more detailed rendering of the moment than they would otherwise.
This year, I wanted to try this same Barry Lane idea with high school students.
This year, I wanted to try this same Barry Lane idea with my students at the high school where I now teach; however, I thought the ten-year-old’s baseball video might seem too much like middle school material.
So, I tried to remember movies that I’ve seen that include slow-motion moments. One of those I remembered also just happened to be baseball-themed: The Natural.
If you watch this YouTube video clip and watch it from :40 to 1:20 in eight- to ten-second chunks, you’ll provide your students a similar moment to explode that is a little more “grown up.”
Here’s that clip from The Natural, which only a couple of my students (out of about 90) had seen.
Before playing The Natural clip, I asked students to imagine that they were Roy Hobbs, the player at bat (played by Robert Redford), and I also suggested that they write their explosion in first-person point-of-view. I thought this would make their writing more immediate. Also, when it came time to share, it might be helpful if we all focused on the same character’s perspective in the video.
Playing the movie clip, pausing, asking students to write what they saw, and then also having a few of them share their “explosions” took about thirty minutes or so. (With some classes it took less time because —at least at my school— many of these older students are reluctant to share their writing. Right now, many of my high school students don’t care to share their writing, which is a real change from middle school where kids can’t share enough!)
Here’s one student’s exploded moment:
Here’s another example from one of my high school students:
Finally, here’s a copy of my handwritten explosion that I shared here and there during my classes to either encourage sharing or just to help students see what exploding a moment might look like.
Here’s that free slow-mo video site…
I’ve also thought about finding more short video or movie clips to play during the year so kids can continue to practice this technique more. Videvo.net has a huge supply of short, slow-motion video clips of everything from runners in a marathon to a candle flame.
Many are free to view and some are only available for purchase with an account. Here’s a link to a free clip of that candle flame.
I haven’t used any of these yet, but I think an occasional one might make a good bell-ringer activity while also keeping the explode a moment technique fresh in students’ minds.
And no, it might not seem that a candle flame would be a pivotal moment in a narrative… but it could be.
Imagine if you had a character making an important life decision while watching a candle flicker. For example, I can picture the character watching the flame, pondering her choice of whether to marry her boyfriend. As she examines the flame, she might see connections to their relationship. For instance, she might see that the flame bends and sways in the breeze, much like their relationship has had to bend and sway to accommodate their individual needs and goals. Anyway, you get the idea.
Thanks for reading again this week! Feel free to click “like” if you found this post helpful, and leave a comment as well. Also, follow my blog to stay in touch.
Do what the rubric says. And only what the rubric says. And by all means, don’t think too hard.
Last week in my high school Language Arts classes, students spent time planning memoirs that they will begin drafting this week. On Friday, a few girls who had already decided on a memory to recount were starting to write their opening paragraphs.
As one student was scribbling out her first lines, she asked, “Do you have the assignment sheet for the memoir?”
“No, I’ll have it ready for you next week. For now, just go ahead and start writing,” I told her.
“How long does it have to be?” another student at the same table asked.
“I’m not sure. I haven’t decided yet. It’s too early to think about that anyway,” I told her. Actually, I had already considered an approximate length, but hadn’t decided for sure.
“But what are we supposed to put in it?” the first student pressed.
I was surprised. We had been learning about the genre of memoir all week.
“Well, what we’ve talked about the past few days,” I told her, alluding to the mentor texts we had read during our class periods earlier in the week, including a narrative by Annie Dillard, an essay written by a young woman, which appeared in Teen Ink, plus a short memoir I wrote a few years back. “You’ll write about a memory or moment that impacted your life in some way and then you’ll reflect on it… tell why the memory has stayed with you… what you gained from the experience… how it affected your life or your understanding of life.”
“Well, I’m not gonna start writing then if I don’t know what you’re looking for,” she said. “I’ll just jot down some notes for now.” In no way was this student rude or disrespectful; in fact, her candor with expressing how she wished to approach the task at hand impressed me.
“That’s fine,” I replied, surprised at her hesitation to get started. Five minutes earlier, she was ready to begin, ready to start recounting her experiences. Without the assignment sheet, however, she seemed unwilling to experiment.
I thought, Yes, make sure you don’t write anything that might not be ultimately used in your final draft. Of course, I was being sarcastic, so I kept that thought to myself; however, it did lead me to wonder that perhaps these students merely possess a “one and done” approach to writing not only in my class, but possibly other classes across the curriculum.
The whole situation gave me pause. I was taken aback that this student and her friend refused to write simply because they didn’t have “directions.”
So I rationalized. These girls are conscientious students, after all. Maybe they just aren’t used to creative writing, I thought. Or maybe they’re unaccustomed to revising their work beyond mere proofreading. That could be it.
But could it be more than that? Picturing my own detailed assignment sheets (some of which contain rubrics), I know these sheets may appear to students to spell things out a little too clearly, as in “Here’s the rubric. Do what it says. Don’t do anything it doesn’t say. Turn it in. Get the A.”
Of course, part of my reasoning for providing such detailed rubrics takes absent students into account. If a student is absent when an assignment is explained, everything they need to know about it is found on the sheet.
But in the case of these girls, could their hesitancy to start writing their memoirs be the unintended result of well-meaning teachers like me who provide students with specific checklists, detailed rubrics, and formulaic instructions for getting the job done right the first time?
By providing rubrics consistently, have I unintentionally signaled to students that the rigid adherence to a rubric is what’s most important?
Have I signaled to students that there is only one way to complete a task?
Have I inadvertently prioritized specific steps or criteria in the rubric at the expense of experimentation? In other words, can I use a rubric that encourages flexibility in a process and creativity of thought?
Does the rubric with its points awarded for a correctly cited quotation, for example, receive more consideration than it should from a busy student who just wants to finish the assignment as quickly as possible?
After all, if a student focuses on satisfying the rubric, then it won’t be necessary to rethink an idea or backtrack on a thought… essential, organic, and mysterious parts of the writing and thinking process.
Of course, rubrics serve a valid purpose. Rubrics clearly convey to students how to succeed on a task. And for teachers, rubrics allow quick, fair, and objective grading.
However, as my students’ hesitancy indicated, perhaps I should use rubrics and checklists more sparingly. Perhaps I should allow for variation from the expected way to complete a task. Perhaps I should allow—encourage even—students to find their own way through an assignment. To get lost in it. To muddle through it. To get unorthodox with it. To think it through on their own.
After all, their future boss won’t provide a rubric for landing an account or creating a marketing campaign. Instead, she’ll expect the former student to know how to figure things out for themselves.
Thanks for reading! School has started and we’ve already got a few assignments under our belts. Rubrics be warned. Stay tuned for more posts about the transition from middle school to high school ELA.