Use Article of the Week assignments to build relevant mini-lessons

Photo by Javier Sierra on Unsplash

The AOW can help you design targeted instruction in specific problem areas of writing

Don’t you love it when a classroom activity teaches something not only to your students, but to you as well? That’s the case with my most effective writing assignment, the Article of the Week (AOW). Not only do Article of the Week assignments teach my students to produce informed, structured writing in response to texts on current events, but these babies also teach me what specific problem areas of writing my students need targeted instruction in.

The AOW is a win for students and a win for me.

Here’s my Google Slides presentation. It’s nothing fancy, but gets the job done.

Modeled after the assignment developed by author and English educator Kelly Gallagher, AOWs can also be used to teach and reinforce lessons in grammar, usage, and mechanics… if I approach them as learning tools for me about the writing skills of my students.

Stay attuned to the ten percent

With my AOWs, I’ve learned that I must make a conscious effort to do more than just mark each paper when I grade them. When I’m reading students’ essays, I consciously stay attuned to the “ten percent,” the errors that I see ten percent of my students making.

Approximately 45 students were on the rosters in my junior classes this past school year. When, for example, I noticed the same error or style problem in the writing of four or five students, it was a signal that I needed to discuss that error in a mini-lesson.

This slide shows passages from two students’ essays. Even though they began their interpretations with the transition, “In other words,” several students had trouble actually putting those quotes into other words. In class, we also discussed how the second passage doesn’t contain enough of the direct quote to make sense for the reader. Honestly, I was surprised how difficult this was for students to grasp.

Knowing that I can address errors in future mini-lessons gives greater purpose to my grading. Beyond assigning points to student writing, I search for common areas of confusion that exist among the highest and lowest skilled students. For example, it surprised me this past winter when one of my strongest writers, who could pass a college-level class with flying colors right now, told me he struggled with the difference between then and than.

During this past school year, I gave these mini-lessons on Tuesdays right after I passed back essays from the previous week and before passing out the next one.

Again, this slide shows how important it is that when writers begin a sentence with “In other words,…,” they actually put the quote into other words, and not bring up new information.

When I notice a recurring grammar, usage, or mechanical error, I quickly mark the error on the student’s paper (I have students hand in assignments on paper, in general), and write a quick comment nearby in the margin. For example, I might draw a star and write, “use different words than those in the quote.”

Then I make a Google Slides presentation that addresses the error. I retype the sentence or paragraph that contains the writing error the student made either from their handwritten or printed paper onto a slide. As the year progresses, I add a slide to the presentation each time I feel the need to present a mini-lesson.

When I project the presentation, which I titled “AOW Noticings,” I make a point to ensure that students know they are looking at the writing of their peers. They seem to pay better attention when they know they are looking at writing from class, as opposed to an unrelated text.

Elaborative sentences that start with phrase such as “For example,…” must actually provide information that is an example of the information that came before.

And of course, the writer’s name isn’t identified, but I know students recognize their work. When they do, some readily raise their hands and say, “Yep, that’s mine!” Rest assured, I make sure they know I’m not in any way putting them on the spot. In fact, I mention to the entire class to check their papers for my comments in the margins to see if they also made the error.

In other words, we’re all learning.

Then we spend a few minutes discussing the error, figuring out revisions and edits, and otherwise clearing up any confusion that exists in the writing.

Whether we’re talking about…

  • accuracy in paraphrasing,
  • punctuation,
  • the use of transitions,
  • or really any writing topic…

…the goal is to notice and repair areas of confusion within the writing.

Many kids don’t know how to handle someone’s name in an article, so I made this slide to address that. Many students want to refer to well-known people by their first name.

When we’re finished, I encourage students to revise and/or edit their AOW writing to earn a higher grade. True, only a handful will make those corrections, but it’s still worthwhile to make the extra effort.

And now it’s confession time.

Don’t tell anyone, but I’m not always faithful to adding to my AOW Noticings slides. At times during the school year — and especially when things get really busy — I do little more than mark up the essays, enter the grades, and move on. Yes, it’s always good when I do provide that targeted feedback (including accolades for the many things they do right!), but it can’t always be done. In other words, #endteacherguilt.

In closing, for all those times when I do manage to keep all the balls in the air, it’s nice to know that I can learn as much about my students and their writing — and then apply that to a relevant mini-lesson — as my students do from my AOW assignments.


Thanks for reading again this week! AOWs are a mainstay in my high school (junior and seniors) English classes. They definitely provide the most bang for the learning buck. Do you use AOWs in your teaching practice? What tips do you have for me? Leave a like, make a comment, and become a follower for more posts like this one.

Mini-lesson idea: Avoiding first-person point of view in academic essays

Photo by Christina Morillo from Pexels

For the most part, it’s an easy fix.

It’s nice when a common issue you know your students have with writing can be easily remedied. This is one of them: avoiding unintentional and unnecessary first-person point of view in academic writing.

For the most part, the first-person words can simply be removed with… wait for it… NO ADDITIONAL CHANGES.

Easy-peasy.

In the “before” photo below (from a literary analysis of The Old Man and the Sea), I’ve underlined the first-person verbiage that needs to be removed for three reasons: 1) it doesn’t accomplish anything, 2) it’s not intentional (meaning it’s not used for any desired effect), and 3) it has no purpose.

Project these examples in a mini-lesson to show a student-written mentor text:

In the “after” photo below, the student had to merely remove those first- person references to infuse his writing with more authority and credibility.

Here are those changes again, but now removed from their context:

  • “…and I think they are right;…”
  • “Instead, I believe the religious aspect doesn’t change…”
  • “We have one story in which…” changes to “There is one story in which…”

But to back up a bit… why is first-person point of view so objectionable in the first place?

I usually take the traditional view that using unintentional and inappropriate first-person point of view in academic writing lends an air of opinion to the writing… and therefore, some bias… and therefore, some weakness to the argument. When the first-person references are removed, the message is more direct and convincing.

At the same time, first-person point of view does have its place, even in academic writing. Above all, first-person point of view should be used with a sense of purpose, especially with regard to the intended audience of the piece.

And that’s the problem. With the example in the photos above, this student didn’t foresee the effect of using the first-person.

She just plopped those words into the text without thought or intention.

Purpose and intention are key. As this handout from Duke University advises:

Finally, academic writers should consider their audience and message when employing the first person and/or the personal voice.

What is an appropriate tone to take with regard to a certain topic? What is one’s own relationship to the subject at hand? For example, if one is writing about the Holocaust or a natural disaster, it may not be appropriate to cite personal material unless it is directly relevant and can be included in a respectful manner. On the other hand, when writing about topics such as race or gender, one’s own experience(s) of living in a racialized/gendered society may be not only appropriate but even necessary to include. Academic writers must decide whether, when, and where first-person references and the personal voice are appropriate to their message and their audience.

“The First Person in Academic Writing”; Thompson Writing Program at Duke University

In other words, writers must be intentional and weigh their options with point of view, try out different perspectives, revise, and make the needed changes… often only to go back to the original version after all.

Basically, choosing point of view in any written piece is a judgment call.

And that’s why teaching writing is so hard. It’s full of judgment calls,…

and it takes time to make them… more time than kids want to invest, unless they genuinely care about the assignment. (Learning how to create assignments that kids genuinely care about is another blog post entirely.)

Then and only then will students be willing to take the time to get the perspective intentionally and purposefully right.

Until that time, though, know that removing first person POV — when it’s unintentional and unnecessary — can be as easy as deleting a few words and leaving the rest as is.

Ahhhh. Like I said, easy-peasy.


Thanks for reading! Do you grapple with this common, hard-to-explain issue with your students? Tell me your approach by leaving a comment. While this post shows my best effort to help kids with this, I’m open to your suggestions, as always. Check out this recent post and become a follower for more.

New mini-lesson resource: 100 Ways to Improve Your Writing

This “new to me” book will be fun to try this fall

FullSizeRender (4)

A year or two ago, I found an effective paragraph that explained sentence variety perfectly. Read the post about it here.  I dug a little deeper about the author and eventually made my way to this book, 100 Ways to Improve Your Writing, by Gary Provost.  Gary Provost was an author and writing instructor who died in 1995 right in the middle of his career.  In addition to his own books and articles, he produced a series of how-to writing books and seminars.

I ordered 100 Ways from Amazon last week and, after skimming through it, know I’ll be able to use several chapters in my language arts classes next year. I hope these short readings and the discussions they spark will make great mini-lessons to kick off a writing work day.

The book is divided into eleven chapters. Here are a few of them followed by one or two points discussed within each:

  • Five Ways to Write a Strong Beginning (Find a Slant, Set a Tone and Maintain It)
  • Twelve Ways to Give Your Words Power (Use Active Verbs, Be Specific, Use Statistics)
  • Ten Ways to Avoid Grammatical Errors (Do Not Change Tenses, Avoid Dangling Modifiers)
  • Six Ways to Avoid Punctuation Errors (How to Use Colons, Semicolons, Quotation Marks)
  • Twelve Ways to Avoid Making Your Reader Hate You (Avoid Clichés, Avoid Parentheses)
  • Seven Ways to Edit Yourself (Read Your Work Out Loud, Use Common Sense)
  • Nine Ways to Save Time and Energy (Use Transitions, Avoid Wordiness)

While the 158-page book deals with more technical topics, such as punctuation and grammar, the author also discusses the finer, more esoteric qualities of good writing. For example, in “Stop Writing When You Get to the End,” Provost writes,

When you have done what you came to do, stop. Do not linger at the door saying good-bye sixteen times.

How do you know when you have finished? Look at the last sentence and ask yourself, “What does the reader lose if I cross it out?” If the answer is “nothing” or “I don’t know,” then cross it out. Do the same thing with the next to last sentence, and so forth. When you get to the sentence  that you  must have, read it out loud. Is it a good closing sentence? Does it sound final? Is it pleasant to the ear? Does it leave the reader in the mood you intended? If so, you are done. If not, rewrite it so that it does. Then stop writing.

I like the tone of Provost’s writing. Concise. Clear. Practical. Warm. It’s an easy, friendly read, and has its share of funny writing snippets.

In addition, many chapters contain side-by-side examples of ineffective and effective writing. For instance, in the chapter entitled “Be Specific,” several examples of general and vague writing appear on the left-hand side across from their more specific counterpart on the right-hand side. Here’s one: The general “Various ethnic groups have settled in Worcester,” is shown alongside its more specific “Greeks, Italians, and Puerto Ricans have settled in Worcester.”

The book has a copyright date of 1972, so some of the examples used are outdated. I’ll just explain this to the kids, or pause while we read to explain obsolete terms. One I noticed was “word processing.” That term just isn’t used much anymore.

Some of the chapters overlap with existing lessons I already use; however, it never hurts to review the same concepts in different ways. This book will enable me to do that.

Check out this book by buying a single copy. I purchased a used copy on Amazon for about five dollars. That’s an inexpensive price for a potentially valuable new resource. Maybe a class set will be in my future.


Thanks for reading! Click like to help other readers find this post. Follow me for more similar articles on teaching middle school language arts.