When anxious, depressed students stare into space

Don’t assume they aren’t listening

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Photo: J.C. Gellidon on Unsplash

Last spring in my middle school language arts classes, I taught the Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave for the eighth year. It’s the autobiography of Douglass, who was born into slavery. In his formative years, he experienced an epiphany: literacy equaled freedom. As a result, he taught himself to read and write. Years later, sure enough, he escaped from bondage.

As a free man, he became an outspoken leader for civil rights and suffrage and was eventually appointed United States Minister to Haiti. Douglass’ narrative is one of my favorite books in American literature for its honest and raw portrayal of the horrors of slavery conveyed with Douglass’ frank, accessible, and often poetic prose.

It’s an important book that is as relevant today as when it was first published in 1845. As a result, students find the text compelling and riveting. They are spellbound as they read of the realities of slavery often for the first time.

During the unit in which we read Douglass, one of my brightest students—let’s call her Ellen—endured a new low in her personal experience with anxiety and depression. She had battled these demons for a few years then, but did seem to sink even deeper during the month or so that we spent studying Douglass’ text.

It was a tough spring. At a time when her peers were looking forward to spring break, the April dance, and their graduation to high school, Ellen found it difficult just to get to school. She was often absent. On a good day, she was late to first period by half an hour.

As we read Douglass’ account of his life, Ellen seemed bored and detached. And, to be honest, I worried at the time about the content of the book being detrimental to her fragile state. How helpful can it be to read about the atrocities of human bondage when one is already suffering from negative emotions from all sides?

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Frederick Douglass’ master believed learning would spoil the best slave in the world. Engraved by J.C. Buttre from a daguerreotype. | Photo: public domain

When we read Douglass’ stories about his various masters and life primarily as a city slave, Ellen stared blankly across the room or at the wood grain Formica pattern of her desktop. She did not turn in assignments, and only rarely contributed to class discussions. However, she would take usually do well on the occasional reading comprehension quizzes. Even so, I could tell she wasn’t engaged with Douglass. Or that’s what I assumed.

One day at the end of class, near the culmination of the unit, she casually mentioned to me, “I wrote this poem last night.” An introspective girl, Ellen enjoyed writing poetry and it wasn’t the first time she had asked me to read something she had written outside of class.

I glanced at the title, “Master Mind, and then skimmed through the stanzas as the next group of students coasted in for the boisterous last class period of the day. I noticed Frederick Douglass’ name tucked among the lines; my interest piqued.

“Can I keep this and read it after school?” I asked Ellen. She nodded and sauntered off to eighth hour.

After school, I picked up the poem and read it again. This time, I was able to concentrate.

As I read, I began to realize Ellen had written about her own kind of slavery… to depression.

I felt bad for assuming she hadn’t been listening when, truth be told, she had indeed found connection with Douglass’ experience and words. Yes, she understood and appreciated the horrific dehumanization of American slavery that Douglass experienced, but she went further. She correlated Douglass’ oppression under slavery and injustice to her own oppression under anxiety and depression.

In no way, I’m sure, did she intend to downplay or distract from Douglass’ experience when she compared her own struggle with mental health to his struggle with state-sanctioned slavery. After all, students cannot help but be shocked at the inhumane treatment Africans suffered under the peculiar institution. When Ellen applied Douglass’ experience to her own, I believe it was an honest attempt to deal with her crisis.

And what’s more, she creatively built on that attempt and created her “Master Mind” poem to sustain and even heal herself.

In short, Ellen was doing exactly what educators want their students to do: apply classic literature to contemporary life.

Here are two excerpts from Ellen’s poem:

Master Mind

I am a slave to my own mind.

I’m tied up, naked, and afraid,

While my uninvited thoughts hold the whip,

All day, I try to please my master,

Only to be starved of my happiness.

My fear shatters all remnants of hope,

By striking me for laughter…

 

Another excerpt:

For I want to be the next Frederick Douglass.

I will escape the darkness in my head,

And I plan on writing about my struggle and the struggle of others…

I am simply bringing a different kind of modern slavery to light.

 

And to think I assumed Ellen was just filling a chair in my classroom. Yes, she was staring into space, but she was still engaged, making meaning, finding sustenance and encouragement from her identification with Douglass.

This was the ultimate text-to-self connection, wasn’t it?

Let’s not always assume that students aren’t “getting it.” They may be understanding and gaining more from a text than we ever expect.

This experience with Ellen has shown me the value of being watchful of how students are connecting with our classroom texts. From now on, I won’t be so quick to assume that students who stare off into space are not engaged.


Thanks for reading! This has been a busy summer, and I’ve skipped a couple of weeks’ worth of posts. Between a month-long trip to Greece, (click here for one of about 25 posts), moving to a new city, a new teaching position, AND delivering my daughter to NYC last weekend for graduate school, writing on my teaching blog has been put on the back burner. However, I intend to start posting weekly starting today.

Stay tuned for my next post where I write about my new high school classes, memoirs, and map-making.

 

I teach kids it’s okay to be rejected

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 kids it’s okay to be rejected.
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 turned down.

I teach kids it’s okay to be rejected.
I teach them to risk it all and
Write it down now because
That’s what writers do: they deal in danger.

I teach kids it’s okay to be rejected.
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 kids it’s okay to be rejected.
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 kids it’s okay to be rejected.
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 kids,
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 attempt at teaching kids how to add narration into their dialogue

Here’s a mini-lesson I created a few months ago

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Photo: Unsplash

Kids love to write dialogue, but it often ends up being just a series of spoken words… a lengthy showcase of spoken words followed by any one of the following: he said, she said, he replied, she stated.

This year, in my AOW and EOW assignments, I would occasionally ask students to start their responses with dialogue. I did this to encourage (or force, I guess, since it was required in the assignment) students to add narrative elements to their writing. Sure, it’s easy to just respond to a prompt with “The central idea of this article was…”. However, another level of complexity is added if one must start with dialogue. When one adds dialogue to the standard response, a story is automatically brought into the mix.

Once the students became accustomed to using dialogue in their responses (in effect, they’re blending genres, aren’t they?!), I noticed that the dialogue lacked narration… the additional information writers build into their dialogue to show setting, personality traits, reveal motivation, or other important details.

To show students what I was talking about when I asked them to add narration to their dialogue, I took two excerpts from two novels from my bookshelves, A River Runs Through It by Norman Maclean and A Separate Peace by John Knowles. For each novel, I found a short excerpt and typed it verbatim into a Word document as published. Then I took those same excerpts and removed the narration. Here’s a photo of the handout I made for this activity:

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The handout above (sorry about the quality of the picture, by the way), contains excerpts from the two novels. I chose dialogue that possessed descriptive narration. 

Here is a picture of the back side of the above sheet:

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This back side of the handout shows the two excerpts with the narration removed.

I read aloud each passage from the novels, starting with the excerpt WITHOUT narration, and then followed with reading the respective excerpt WITH the narration. Then I asked:

  • What do you notice?
  • What do we learn when we have the narration added to the dialogue?
  • What did the reader miss out on by not having the extra information that the narration provides?
  • What else does the narration accomplish?

We basically just discuss the narration’s effect on the text. It’s a good way for kids to readily experience the benefits of narration and how it can help their dialogue work harder for them.

At the beginning of class, I put the following quote on the Smartboard from WritersDigest.com to prep them for our mini-lesson. Here’s that quote, which they copy into cursive on a sheet of paper and then turn in for points.

Conversations should never take place in a vacuum. The narration needs to firmly ground your reader in time and space…Narration anchors the reader and creates the atmosphere of the setting and the specific circumstance of the scene.—Helga Schier, PhD., Writer’s Digest

Here’s how I would change this mini-lesson for next time:

The handout needs to have one novel’s excerpts on each side. As we went over the handout, the kids were flipping the paper back and forth from the excerpt without narration and then to the one with narration on the back. It would have been more effective to have the “without narration” excerpt for one of the novels on the top half of the page followed by the “with narration” excerpt below it. Seeing the before and after versions would have helped students more easily see the difference the narration makes.

I felt like the kids understood more about narration after this mini-lesson, but it’s a topic that definitely needs another go-over because I didn’t see many practice it in their assignments. No doubt this skill should be worked on with some in-class writing assignments so kids can apply it when I’m around to help or offer support.

A few kids (the stronger writers) did add some narration, but even some of those merely added lazy adjectives or adverbs to their dialogue, a la the following example:

“No, I don’t think you understand,” Mom stated urgently.

Not quite what I had in mind!

So obviously, narration in dialogue is a work in progress and like everything else that I teach, it takes repetition and practice.


Thanks for reading again this week!  Have a great June… what I call the Saturday night of the summer for teachers! Let me know your thoughts on this post and follow my blog for more middle and high school ELA teaching stories.

“Where I’m From” Poems

My All-Time Favorite Poetry Activity

 

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George Ella Lyon, American Writer and Teacher

Have you heard of George Ella Lyon? She’s an American writer and teacher from Kentucky who wrote a poem several years ago called “Where I’m From.” Here’s Lyons’ poem:

Where I’m From

I am from clothespins,
from Clorox and carbon-tetrachloride.
I am from the dirt under the back porch.
(Black, glistening,
it tasted like beets.)
I am from the forsythia bush
the Dutch elm
whose long-gone limbs I remember
as if they were my own.

I’m from fudge and eyeglasses,
from Imogene and Alafair.
I’m from the know-it-alls
and the pass-it-ons,
from Perk up! and Pipe down!
I’m from He restoreth my soul
with a cottonball lamb
and ten verses I can say myself.

I’m from Artemus and Billie’s Branch,
fried corn and strong coffee.
From the finger my grandfather lost
to the auger,
the eye my father shut to keep his sight.

Under my bed was a dress box
spilling old pictures,
a sift of lost faces
to drift beneath my dreams.
I am from those moments–
snapped before I budded —
leaf-fall from the family tree.

Lyons’ website is extensive and explains the inspiration for her writing the poem. Here’s an excerpt from her website:

“Where I’m From” grew out of my response to a poem from Stories I Ain’t Told Nobody Yet (Orchard Books, 1989; Theater Communications Group, 1991) by my friend, Tennessee writer Jo Carson. All of the People Pieces, as Jo calls them, are based on things folks actually said, and number 22 begins, “I want to know when you get to be from a place. ” Jo’s speaker, one of those people “that doesn’t have roots like trees, ” tells us “I am from Interstate 40” and “I am from the work my father did. ”

In the summer of 1993, I decided to see what would happen if I made my own where-I’m-from lists, which I did, in a black and white speckled composition book. I edited them into a poem — not my usual way of working — but even when that was done I kept on making the lists. The process was too rich and too much fun to give up after only one poem. Realizing this, I decided to try it as an exercise with other writers, and it immediately took off. The list form is simple and familiar, and the question of where you are from reaches deep.

Each spring, my sixth-grade students write their own “Where I’m From” poems. These poems never fail to produce highly personal, touching, and honest poems.

I always display the students’  work in the hallway or on a bulletin board so everyone can read them. Students are drawn to these simple little poems that can’t help but be packed with imagery and sensory language. In fact, just last week, one of my eighth-grade students mentioned that it was one of her favorite things she had written in my class.

To get started, I read aloud Lyons’ “Where I’m From” poem as a mentor text and then I follow that up with reading three or four poems from former students. Then I pass out a template to guide students through the poem’s organization and ideas. There are several versions of the poem template out there on the Internet and on Lyons’ website; this one works especially well: iamfrompoem

Students should use this template as a guide when brainstorming and writing their poems. I don’t require that every blank be filled out as printed on the template; students can modify it to fit their life story. It’s simply a guideline, a starting point.

These poems speak for themselves. Since that’s the case, I have simply posted below some of the more poignant ones from my current sixth-grade classes.

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I schedule our “Where I’m From” poems so they can be considered for publication in Creative Communication’s Spring Poetry Anthology. (By the way, check out this link for more on this publisher and its contests.) Each year, more than half of my sixth-graders see their “Where I’m From” poems published in a real hard-cover book. It’s very inspiring and is an awesome way to end the year!


Have you ever taught “Where I’m From” poems? Leave a comment with your thoughts and experiences. Thanks for reading! See you next week.

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.

Contest #13: Carl Sandburg Student Poetry Contest

Try this contest for grades 3-12. Entries are due Feb. 25.

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Photo by Anastasiya Gepp on Pexels.com

I’ve stumbled upon another student writing contest that middle schoolers may enter:  the Carl Sandburg Student Poetry Contest. 

The sponsors invite students to submit a poem to the Carl Sandburg Home National Historic Site’s annual Student Poetry Contest. The contest encourages youth to explore writing their own poetry, and is open to students nationwide!” reads the contest’s website.

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See page for author [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Sponsors intend the contest to honor and extend the legacy that Carl Sandburg made on the American literary canon with his poetry and journalism. Sandburg published an anthology of poetry in 1916 titled “Chicago Poems” that earned him a spot among the literary elite.

Each year’s contest has a different theme. This year’s theme is “Joy.” Students are encouraged to write poems that speak of joy in momentous occasions or small moments.

The judges evaluate how well a student’s entry communicates the theme, so make sure your students are clear with the theme; however, students can relate and celebrate joy however they wish in their poetry entries.

Download this submission guidelines PDF here.

The 2018 theme was “Dreams.” Here’s the first place 6th-8th grade poem appears below. Use it as a mentor text. Other winning entries are found here.

First Place
dear moth wings  by Kiran Narula

he tore you from your body, stripped you

to a thin sheet like papyrus. you are paper
from a book without its spine,
words in disarray, meaning turned meaningless.
his fingers were warning signs,
holding your delicacy between his thumb
and forefinger. he left you in dirt, i don’t know
if you held onto something else that could
move you, caught onto the threads of a shoelace
from the kids who ran in the field
or mended yourself to a flower’s center,
broke the pattern of pink petals with your beige,
blended with something that you could become.
you are only what is left, the shell of a body,
pulled away from what rooted you.
i wonder what it’s like to be ripped at the seams,
fall apart like loosened thread, nothing to stitch
yourself to. you used to beat like timpani, now you are
fragments of scales and chitin and veins,
a lampshade without a light.
do you have purpose if you are
separated from your stem –
are you still wings if you cannot fly?
i guess skin is still skin without bones.

For the 2019 contest, find guidelines here and download this submission form

The guidelines do limit teachers to sending in three poems per classroom. (I wanted to clarify the limit, but at the time of this post, the Carl Sandburg National Historic Site was closed due to the federal government shutdown. I will attempt to email them after the shutdown to find out more.)

Poems must be mailed, faxed (what?!) or hand-delivered by February 25, 2019; that date is slightly less than a month away, so you still have time for your students to put some ideas together and enter.

In addition, there are some specific requirements to follow, so double-check the guidelines before mailing. For example, no staples may be used to fasten their materials, and the submission form must be signed by the student, a parent, plus the teacher. 

This is a new contest for me. I’ve never had students enter it before; however, I may just have my sixth-graders give it a try next month. Seventh- and eighth-graders will be deep in other projects next month, but sixth-graders should be ready to dive into “Joy.”



Thanks for reading! Check out this contest’s guidelines as soon as possible so your students have time to generate at least two to three drafts before submitting their entries. I’ll add a link to this contest on my Student Writing Contest page, so it’s easier to find next time you need to access it.