I teach a bunch of rejects

Rejection proves that my students are indeed writers

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Here’s a picture of my students posing with their first rejection letters from a youth writing contest. They thought it was funny that I wanted their picture. I just wanted them to know that a rejection letter proves that they 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!

 

My students confuse the words “although” and “however” and I’m not sure why

So, as a teacher, how do I figure this one out?

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Photo by bruce mars from Pexels

Lately, I’ve noticed a pattern in my students’ writing. The pattern I’m noticing may reveal some confusion that my students have regarding  the words “although” and “however.” It seems that some students will use “although” correctly in a guided writing prompt, but then in other situations, often in the same essay, use it again incorrectly when they should instead use the word “however.”

Grammatically speaking, they’ll use “although” correctly as a subordinate conjunction, but then also use it incorrectly in place of the conjunctive adverb, “however.” They’ll use “although” when “however” actually would be the appropriate choice.

In effect, students are interchanging these words Perhaps they don’t realize these words have different meanings in sentences.

I’ve been aware of this issue for a while now, but only recently have I also observed that most of my students don’t naturally use the word “however.” In fact, it’s almost as if the word “however” doesn’t exist in their writing vocabularies. (It’s hard to see your students not do something or not use a word, y’know?!)

Here are some examples of how my students correctly and incorrectly recently used the word “although.” These are paragraphs written in response to the question, “What is the theme of The Song of the Trees by Mildred Taylor?”

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Jordan’s sentence that begins with “Although…” shows that he is mastering complex sentences.

As part of the assignment for this response, I asked my students to start one sentence of their eight sentences in the response with the word “Although.” I add requirements like this one to prompts to encourage students to write richer, fuller complex sentences.

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Stephanie’s sentence above should actually begin with “However, …” It seems she is using the words interchangeably. 

This is an example from “Stephanie” that shows some word usage confusion. “However,” would be the correct choice here instead of “Although,” since the independent clause as written (“he did not need to die that day.”) is not complex. Getting her to use “however” will be the trick, since it seems to be a word she rarely uses. It is interesting to note that Stephanie has inserted a comma after “Although,” which is exactly where the comma would be needed had she used “However.”

So what do I do with this “Although” vs. “However” observation? How do I solve this problem my students are having?

  • Should I collect a small group of student writing that includes both correct and incorrect usage? (This will take time and organization, but it seems kids respond better to class discussions when we are looking at their own or a classmate’s work.)
  • Should I have kids compare the two constructions and discuss how effective (or ineffective) it is to use Stephanie’s construction?
  • Should I discuss the logic of both constructions? It would be good to have students see for themselves how Stephanie’s construction is inaccurate, a little confusing, and therefore an unclear use of the word “although.”
  • Do I need to break down the sentences students write and swap out the two words to show students how they differ in meaning?
  • Do I need to discuss subordinate conjunctions (such as “although”) again?
  • Do I need to discuss conjunctive adverbs (such as “however”)? Surely, that’s not necessary in seventh grade!

There are just so many directions I could go with this, aren’t there?!

Usually, I conference one-on-one with the students to discuss issues like these. I also jot  notes on drafts to this effect where I cross out the incorrect use of  “Although,” and then try to explain somehow in the margins that “However” would be the best choice. However, now that I am starting to see this as a trend among my students, perhaps I should approach it with a whole-class mini-lesson.

And I think the whole-class approach will happen eventually. However, before it does, I’ll need to start collecting examples that show “although” and “however” being used correctly and incorrectly. Some of these examples will come from student writing, and articles and books from my own reading. Once I have those examples, I could create a handout or  Powerpoint or some other visual to teach the difference between these two words.


Thanks for reading about the thought process that goes into teaching. Another thing I think about: ways to be more hands-on or interactive when I teach. Could I go beyond creating a paper handout or a Powerpoint to teach the differences between “although” and “however?” Feel free to leave a comment and follow my blog for more articles about teaching middle school ELA.

 

To the parent who told my student she’d never be a writer

Thanks but no thanks for the motherly advice.

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Photo: Luke Southern on Unsplash

Yes, a student informed me about a month ago that her mother told her she wouldn’t ever be a writer.

“Say that again?” I asked when I overheard Claire report to a friend what her mother had said the previous evening as she revised a narrative essay.

“Yeah, she told me I wasn’t gonna be a writer,” Claire told me.

“Do you know why she said that?” I asked, to which Claire replied, “No, not really.” She didn’t really seem bothered by it. She just thought it strange that her mother would make such a pronouncement.

I have two things to say to Claire’s mother: 1) what would possibly compel you to say something so negative to your daughter (who is one of my most pleasant, optimistic, and thoughtful students, by the way) and 2) you’re late in your unwelcome advice, because—sorry, Mom—your daughter is already a writer.

Gary Provost, the late author and writing coach, opens his classic writing tome, 100 Ways to Improve Your Writing with this jewel of a lead:

This book will teach you how to write better ransom notes. It will also teach you how to write better love letters, short stories, magazine articles, letters to the editor, business proposals, sermons, poems, novels, parole requests, church newsletters, songs, memos, essays, term papers, theses, graffiti, death threats, advertisements, and shopping lists.

If Provost knows his stuff (and he does), this list proves that writing is all around us. We don’t have to be sitting in a classroom. It’s not relegated to literary pursuits. It’s not reserved just for word nerds. Writing is something we all do to some degree all the time.

True, writing out a recipe is quite different from crafting a short story. And true, Claire isn’t one of my most prolific students. Her grade is usually a solid C at any given time due to a lack of organization skills that (at 13, mind you) she’s still honing.

But she’s exploring words and ideas. She’s trying on personal writing projects and seeing where they lead. In fact, she’s on her fourth draft of an especially touching essay about the home her ancestors were forced to abandon in their war-torn native land… and the pet cockatiel left inside that a relative promised to care for. She knows that’s a story that she needs to keep alive.

So, whether Claire’s mother realizes it or not, and whether she likes it or not, Claire is indeed already a writer. All this motherly advice, this practical shot-in-the-arm that Claire’s mother may have thought helpful, is actually moot.

The point is not that Claire won’t ever be a writer, or even want to be one, the point is that she already is one.


Thanks for reading! I just don’t understand why a parent would discourage their child from writing. It’s a skill that’s too important. Feel free to leave a comment about this post and follow my blog for more essays on teaching language arts.

NCTE’s Promising Young Writer’s 2019 Contest Prompt has been released

A writing contest just for 8th-graders!

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Photo: Justin Luebke on Unsplash

The long-awaited 2019 prompt for NCTE’s Promising Young Writer’s contest has been released. This year, NCTE invites students to write about instances in their lives when they “made a conscious choice to welcome or show hospitality to an experience, feeling, or person.” Click this link for more information.

This contest’s purpose is to, in the words of NCTE’s contest description, “1) To stimulate and recognize the writing talents of eighth-grade students and 2) to emphasize the importance of writing skills among eighth-grade students.”

I am glad there’s a contest specifically for eighth-grade writers. It seems this grade, the final grade before high school, can often be overlooked in the grand scheme of a student’s schooling. It’s the final year of middle school, and while a student’s formative years are far in the past, their all-important high school career has yet to begin.

If you’re unfamiliar with this contest, click here for my entire blog post about it. Check out the comments for special insight from a fellow teacher who has experience with this contest. She offers some especially good tips and thoughts.

One comment she makes: “What I love most about this contest is that there is no set number of winners. Everyone who meets the criteria will receive an award, and even though that is usually a very select few, it’s still nice that it’s not really a ‘competition.’ Students are measured against the criteria, not against each other.”


Thanks for reading! I hope this post provides you the information you need about this contest so you can investigate it further for your students. While this is a new contest for my students, I do plan to assign it after the Christmas break. Have a great week!

 

 

I love this back-to-school poetry project for 6th-graders from YA author Kate Messner

It combines poetry and revision (and publication!)

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“Sometimes on the beach, I see balloons floating and people walking.” Photo by Gabriel Baranski on Unsplash

“The Sometimes Poem” is one of my favorite ways to start the school year with my sixth-graders. I’ve used this project for two years running and I plan to use it again in August. It includes three skills: poetry techniques, revision, and submitting for publication. I credit children’s and YA author, Kate Messner, for her inspiration and ideas for this project.

In 2016, I attended the Write To Learn Conference and sat in on Messner’s presentation on revision strategies.  Her presentation allowed the teachers in attendance to create and revise their own “Sometimes” poems.

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This book contains real-life strategies real authors use when they revise their novels, articles, and short stories.

Here’s how I present this lesson that’s based on Messner’s slideshow and her excellent book, Real Revision. (My copy, shown at right, is old, but awesome.)  I’ve tweaked Messner’s slideshow for my own use over the past two years. First, download the Google slideshow. Then, skim through the slideshow to become familiar with the project. Notice that I have hidden some of the slides for this project. As you skim, you may decide to modify my changes to fit your needs and students.

  1. Ask students to write for three minutes to describe a place that they love. We use pencils and paper for this to get fresher ideas and more thoughtful writing. Laptops can be used later after revision and before submitting to the publisher.
  2. Before students begin, I share a paragraph I’ve written about my favorite place, which is on a swing in my yard. My paragraph serves as a mentor text.
  3. After three minutes, ask if students would like two or three more minutes, extend the time. usually, in my experience, students need a few minutes more.
  4. Students may share their writing about their favorite places.
  5. Have students listen as you read aloud from Messner’s own poem, “Sometimes On a Mountain in April.” Messner’s poem can also serve as a mentor text, but in addition, it shows students how their paragraph will soon be transformed into a poem.
  6. Show students your attempt at turning your paragraph into a poem. Read aloud one more time your paragraph, and then read to them your poem. Discuss with students how to pull details from the paragraph to create lines for a poem that are filled with imagery.
  7. Also show students at this point how to use repetition in their poem, just like Messner did. She added the words “Sometime on a mountain in April” about every three lines. This creates a poetic structure and rhythm to their writing.
  8. For me, this step is usually when students really begin to like what they’ve written. Have students transform their paragraph into poetry. You’ll need about five to eight minutes for this step, but allow more if students need it. For those who struggle, help them locate one detail that they can craft into a line of a poem.  After helping them do this one line, it’s their turn to find another.
  9. After students have six lines for their poem, tell them that it’s time to revise.
  10. Go deep with a quick discussion of theme… what the poem is REALLY about. On the surface, my poem is about sitting in a swing in my yard. However, it’s REALLY about appreciating the little things in life. In a word, contentment. I learned to spend a small amount of time on theme with this project, but not too much. If students can end up telling you what their poem is about on the surface AND what it’s really about, then you’re good. Let revision be the focus for this project.
  11. To revise, ask students to add more imagery and sensory language. To do this, have students add one fragrance to their poem. It should be a new line of poetry. Show them yours. It’s good to have your original six lines on the board. Then add the new fragrance line(s) below. Students may add as many lines as they would like, but one helps them see how sensory language enriches their writing.
  12.  Keep revising! Have students add one more of the five senses to their poem. They definitely have sight if they’ve written anything at all, and they’ve also added in a fragrance. Students should be adding a sound, a taste, or a texture to their poem now. Show them yours again, if needed, as a mentor text. With this step, students see that adding details is one way to revise.
  13. Revise some more! Have students scan their poem for these overused words: very, really, just. With this step, students see that removing unnecessary words is another way to revise.
  14. Keep at it! Have students remove five more unnecessary words. Tell students to look for the least important words. If kids struggle to find five, require that they at least remove three.
  15. Now revise with a partner! Put slide 95 on your screen and leave it there for the partner work. Have one student pass out a pink, green, yellow, and pink highlighter to each student. Note: Use any four different colors, but everyone needs to have the same colors. Read aloud this slide first with your students after they pair up.
  16. Students will use the pink highlighter to indicate areas that should be removed. They’ll use green to indicate confusing areas. Blue indicates areas that should be more precise or more detailed. Yellow indicates that a line or area is effective as is.
  17. Before students begin highlighting, pass out one sticky note to each student. Tell students that they are to write notes for your partner that explain your highlighting (if needed)  and to offer suggestions.
  18. When students are finished highlighting and writing notes on the sticky note, show them the “When your partner is done” slide. Have students rework their own poem again, considering their partner’s suggestions.
  19. Use this moment to revisit theme. Have students ask themselves “What is my poem about? What is my poem REALLY about? Is that theme clear in my poem?” You may need to help students think of words and phrases that will help them convey their theme. This is tough. Don’t stress it with your sixth-graders. It’s good that they are putting effort into this higher-level skill.

So that’s the basic framework for this exciting poetry project. I have used it for two years with both sixth- and seventh-graders each August. It’s a great way to get back into the “writing zone” and it helps me get to know my students and their personalities. In fact, here’s a poem written by one of my students last year:

Sometimes in a Tree Stand

by Alex J.

Sometimes when I’m sitting in my tree stand,

early in the morning,

I can hear dogs barking through the hills

and can see the birds fly above us.

Sometimes when I’m sitting in my tree stand,

I can hear the leaves crunching when animals walk,

and sometimes smell the pine trees.

Sometimes in the tree stand,

I can feel the morning breeze.

Then time goes on.

The dogs go quiet,

and the birds settle down.

The leaves stop crunching.

And the smell of the pine trees

are replaced by the smell of the day.

The morning breeze dies down,

and I know it’s time to leave,

but I’ll come back tomorrow.

The heavy emphasis on revision subtly shows students challenging and fun ways to add sensory language and delete unnecessary verbiage from their poems. What’s more, it exposes students to theme and guides them in seeking elements of deeper meaning in their work.

But that’s not all! Have your students enter their “Sometimes” poem in Creative Communication’s Poetry Anthology contest. Their work just might be published in a hardcover book! Alex J’s. poem (above) was published and showed Alex that he has real potential as a writer. Read this post for more information about the anthologies.

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Creative Communication’s Poetry Anthology Collection includes volumes for 6th-graders (not shown).

I can’t tell you how great it is when students realize they’re sending their poems to a publisher. They will definitely step up their effort and take greater care with their work once they know their poems are going places! In fact, you may want to tell them at the beginning of the project that they will eventually submit their poems to a publisher. I assure you that it will set the stage for more engagement.

Thanks for reading! Try this project. I really think you’ll enjoy using it as a BTS project. Thanks to Kate Messner for her inspiration and materials!

When my class is your class’ punishment

Since when should writing be a form of punishment?

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Photo by Charles Deluvio 🇵🇭🇨🇦 on Unsplash

This happens every so often: I’ll be talking to other teachers about some discipline issue they experienced during the day where they had to dole out some kind of punishment. More times than I want to remember, they’ll say something like, “So I made him write an essay about…”

Then I’ll think to myself: Great. Here I am trying to teach kids in my middle school language arts class to love writing, to need writing, and to see its value in their lives, and this teacher is using it as a punishment.

And no, this doesn’t happen frequently, but it still happens often enough.

Thankfully, the National Council of Teachers of English took a formal position on the issue as long ago as 1984. Its “Resolution on Condemning the Use of Writing as Punishment” warns that the practice “defeats the purposes of instruction in this important life skill and causes students to dislike an activity necessary to their intellectual development and career success.”

In other words, punishing students with writing assignments—whether those assignments are paragraphs, full essays, or even merely copying sentences over and over a la Bart Simpson—creates students who associate writing with drudgery.

However, writing should not be a punishment.

Writing should be seen as a diversion where students can express themselves and their ideas in creative and unique ways.

Writing should be seen as the literary art that it is, no matter if students are writing an essay for class, a novel for Wattpad, a screenplay for a contest, or even an entry in their own journal.

Writing should be seen as an intensely personal endeavor that can serve them well as they continue through life.

So punishing a student with a writing assignment does not sit well with me. After all, does punishing a student with the task of writing an essay actually curb the unwanted behavior? Or does it just compound the notion that writing is something to avoid, something no one would ever want or need to do?

When should the act of writing—and, in a broader sense, the act of learning (since writing is one way we learn)—be a form of punishment?

Never.


Click like if you can relate. Also, leave a comment with your own experiences with “writing as punishment.” Follow my blog for more writing about ELA middle school teaching.

Paperless classroom? No thanks.

I like “the little transaction.”

 

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Photo: Christa Dodoo from Unsplash

I don’t have a paperless classroom and it will always be this way. I like the transaction that occurs when students actually turn things in.

When students turn in assignments, they walk over to the three stacked baskets (one for each grade that I teach) that stand at the corner of my desk. At times, if I’m standing or sitting there, I’ll notice when they walk up and I’ll take their assignment, skim through it and then drop it in the basket for them.  It’s fun to see what they’ve been working on.

Sometimes they drop it in the basket before I get a chance to look at it. Then I’ll grab it right back out and take a look-see. Sometimes they say, “Here ya’ go!” Sometimes they say nothing. Sometimes, they’ll say:

  • I don’t know what you’ll think of this…
  • This isn’t very good, but…
  • I really like how this turned out, and…
  • This was hard…
  • This was fun…

This little transaction gives me an opportunity to chat. To comment. To smile. To roll my eyes, even, and hand it right back. (Yes, that happened once… from a talented writer who had knowingly done a lackluster job and said as much when she handed it to me.)

This little transaction gives me the opportunity to read their first few lines, see that fresh and unexpected word they chose, and acknowledge it with “Interesting choice!”  or “Wow. I can’t wait to read this later when I can concentrate better on it.”

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We use a lot of paper in my classroom. In fact, some kids tell me that they get tired of looking at screens.

However, when students submit assignments via Google Drive or in my Google Classroom account, I miss those little, yet significant interactions that are personal, encouraging, and necessary.

True, digital documents have their merits. It’s handy– at times, but only at times– to write comments in the margins of a student’s Google doc. That sometimes works. For example, in my seventh-graders’ PBL project, “Whippersnappers,” it’s useful when we’re on deadline because I can quickly type in my responses faster than when I handwrite them.

I can also type more comments on a Google doc than I can when I get carried away handwriting notes that tumble down the side margins and puddle at the bottom in a clump, where I draw a teeny little arrow directing them to the back for more.  (I can’t help it.)

Also, I’m learning about alternatives to handwriting comments in the margins of a Google doc. Supposedly, there are some app extensions out there that allow teachers to speak their responses directly into the student’s file. That sounds interesting and worth looking into further. That might restore “conversation” to the process.

So, while I  am open to technology in my writing classroom, I still value the transaction that occurs when kids actually hand papers in.


Thanks for reading! Leave a comment with how you feel on this topic. How “paperless” is your classroom? Is it working? Know of any new apps for spoken commenting? Please let me know.