How I actually accomplished something in my classes the week before Christmas break

Students presented their writing contest entries for an end-of-semester critique

 

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Students listen to a classmate read her personal narrative essay during one of the last classes of the semester. Students took these presentations seriously and provided relevant and helpful feedback. It was so productive!

The last week before Christmas break was super productive. Oh, don’t get me wrong… we still watched videos late in the week, but we ACCOMPLISHED SO MUCH early in the week with our contest entry presentations that my self-inflicted and totally undeserved teacher guilt over watching videos instantly evaporated when I pressed the play button.

By the way, teachers shouldn’t feel guilty about showing videos right before Christmas IF they find movies that have real value that they can connect to their curriculum. Also, avoid Elf, Remember the Titans, or any other movie that kids have already seen at least six times. (You’ll find out what we watched in my classes in a post later this week.)

And now, back to my regularly scheduled article:

We had a goal; more specifically, we had a writing contest deadline. On Friday, December 21, the last half-day of school before Christmas break, I planned to mail in the submission forms for ten students, a mix of both seventh- and eighth-graders, who had written entries to the Scholastic Writing Awards.

On the Monday and Tuesday before that Friday, I had asked students to choose their favorite pieces of writing from their Writer’s Workshop portfolios to present to the class. For the ten students who were submitting contest entries to Scholastic, I specifically asked them to read those entries. We could use the presentations as a final check before sending them off.

Reading the pieces aloud to students might reveal any areas of confusion and editing issues that remained.  True, the pieces had been through at least three drafts, some four or more; however, there’s nothing like reading your writing aloud to someone who’s never heard it before to find areas for improvement.

We started with the students with Scholastic entries.  I had given each student a rubric form to fill out as they listened to the Scholastic entries aloud. This form was based on the rubric students use when they listen to their classmates present their One-Word Summaries. This version was less involved, however, since it mainly was asking students to listen for confusion. In other words, if something didn’t make sense, it needed to be addressed.

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I took a photo of the rubric sheet on my laptop screen. This sheet helped students organize their thoughts and notice any confusing parts of their classmates’ writing. Filling out these sheets also made students accountable for their listening. (By the way, I collected these sheets, but did not take a grade on them since it was just a few days before semester’s end.)

Let me say this: I was so impressed with how seriously the students took this activity. Despite it being the last few days before Christmas break, and despite having turned in the final project of the semester (their Writer’s Workshop Portfolios), students approached this last “Speaking & Listening” activity in a constructive, critical, and professional manner.

Their discussions were focused, direct, and helpful. The rubric contained a blank for them to circle “Yes” or “No,” in response to the question: “At all times, I was able to follow the writing without becoming confused.” This part of the rubric was crucial and helped spur effective conversations. I prompted students to raise their hands if they noticed any confusing areas from the writing to discuss. For example, one student’s poem contained a line that caused confusion.  It was a line that defined happiness as the feeling one has when you throw your playing cards down in anger after losing a game.

Some students expressed confusion with how anger could be used to define happiness. These students asked the writer to repeat the poem, including the confusing line. These students listened carefully. They offered these questions:

Would frustration be a more accurate word than anger?

Does using frustration really solve the issue, though?

Would adding the word “playful” before anger or frustration provide the tone needed and eliminate the confusion?

Consensus decided that using “playful” would indeed help. At the conclusion of that student’s turn, before she sat down, I made sure to let her know that it was strictly her decision whether or not to use the word “playful.” It was her poem, after all. The main point for her to remember, I reminded her, was that the line caused confusion in the mind of the reader. When readers are confused, they lose interest, unless the material is something they intrinsically need to understand.

It’s the writer’s job to make the reading experience as smooth as possible, so the reader doesn’t become confused, and therefore, lose interest.

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Photo: Unsplash

Word choice was a significant part of our discussions during these end-of-semester presentations. It was fun watching students suggest better, stronger, more precise words in a group setting. Some students even left their desks to offer help, making notes on or looking at the copy of the writer’s essay or poem.

Another important change was suggested with another student’s (let’s call her Susan) essay. This suggestion was made after several students expressed confusion over the main character in Susan’s short story. Students didn’t understand if the main character was, in fact, a bird or a human. Susan relayed to us that the character was indeed a bird, a creature of reverence to Crow Tribal members.

To help clear up the cryptic nature of Susan’s writing, I asked students, “Without Susan there to answer questions, how will the Scholastic judges understand the story?” Students came up with their own idea for Susan: provide a prologue, a paragraph or two of background at the beginning of the essay that explains the connection to the Crow. It was an excellent and practical idea and one students arrived at on their own.

These are just two examples of how my students took the writing critique seriously. Even more, one boy who is usually very disinterested in group work made the comment that he wished we had done these presentations earlier in the Writer’s Workshop process. I told him that I agreed and made a mental note that we definitely should conduct these critiques sometime during the Writer’s Workshop, when it has more relevance.

Since there was still time for the Scholastic Award entrants to make changes to their entries, the activity was indeed relevant. For those other students, who were actually reading completed final drafts with no additional opportunity to make further changes (since I had already entered grades due to our schedule), there wasn’t much point to suggesting changes.

However, some of the writing will be worked on next semester for upcoming contests. In March, students who chose to enter the Outdoor Writers of America Norm Strung Youth Writing Awards, will revise their poems from their portfolios and submit those. (I plan to have students present their entries for that contest in March.)

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Check out this contest for your students! Read this post first.

Finally, it’s good to discover another new activity that proves effective for my classes. (And to think we did this valuable activity in the final days of the semester amazes me!)

In addition, I’m always looking for easy ways to provide opportunities that address the Missouri Learning Standards’ “Speaking and Listening” components. Having kids present their work at semester’s end was perfect for that task. Plus, it allowed those Scholastic Writing Award writers another opportunity to further revise and check their work. It was a positive and beneficial way to end the semester!

 

 


Thanks for reading! Click “like” if you found this article helpful and then leave a quick comment about the ideas you found most beneficial. Don’t forget: follow this blog to catch my next post on how not to feel guilty about showing videos right before a break.

It’s a Wrap! Three Take-Aways from Writer’s Workshop

Students turned in their final portfolios on Friday, and just like that, the semester is nearly over.

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A 7th-grader assembles his final Writer’s Workshop portfolio.

On Friday, my seventh- and eighth-graders turned in their final Writer’s Workshop portfolios. In early November, students began choosing eight writing projects from a list of twelve. The list offered a range of projects ranging from poetry to arguments to narratives to informational works. The focus of WW was the writing process. The procedure required that they complete three drafts and share their work with their peers and me for feedback and revision suggestions.

Click here to read my post from three weeks ago that outlines how WW works in my classroom.

By the way, I didn’t include a list of the various writing projects in that earlier post. Here are two photos of the final portfolio rubric I used this year, which lists the projects students could choose from.

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7th-Grade Final Portfolio Rubric | Instructions and word count requirements for each project were provided on a separate sheet.
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8th-grade Final Portfolio Rubric | Instructions and word count requirements for each project were provided on a separate sheet.

It might appear that the grading was intensive and time-consuming. However, since I had already seen the students’ second drafts and provided feedback on those, my main task in assessment was confirming that students followed the writing process for each project. Students turned in a two-pocket folder with their eight projects enclosed. For each project,  I looked for their first draft, their first draft responder sheet, their second draft (the draft I provided feedback on), and finally on top of the stack, their third and final draft. I did make sure that significant changes were made at each stage of revision. Points were deducted if they didn’t make any changes from draft to draft. In addition, I gave a “quality of writing  & presentation” grade and then also circled a holistic rating for their work (see arrow on the final portfolio rubric in the photo below).

In case you’re wondering, yes, we do use a lot of paper (and ink) in my classroom. Students composed mostly on their Chromebooks, but then I also required that every project is printed. I know many students share their Google Docs with each other for revision and editing purposes, but I still require that students turn in hard copies of all drafts. Here’s my post that explains my loyalty to having students submit paper copies, rather than just dropping a file into Google Classroom.

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One student’s final portfolio

Overall, WW was a great experience this year. As I graded rubrics this weekend, I came upon three main take-aways. Here they are:

  1. Require that students choose an equal number of each genre. While the variety offered in the project list usually guarantees that students will write across genres, I did notice that some students were heavy on poetry, which makes sense. Free-verse poetry (which I encourage over rhyme) seems to have (to students, anyway) fewer rules and punctuation usage can be looser. However, I would prefer that students get more practice in essay writing. Next year, I’ll make sure to enforce “genre equality!”
  2. Schedule a progress grade mid-way through the workshop schedule. I did this informally by checking with students during conferencing to ensure they were on-task throughout the six weeks, but assigning a formal grade that required the completion of four projects at the three-week point may have helped some of the students with budgeting their time.
  3. Continue the responder sheet grade. This year, I added a responder sheet grade. I asked each student to show me a responder sheet that they filled out for another student. If they followed the directions on the responder sheet, which were to choose four to six questions and answer them in writing on the back of the sheet, they would receive full points. If they answered only two questions, then half points. If they only made a few editing marks on the draft, or provided minimal answers (as in “I think it’s great!” with no suggestions for improvement), they would earn fewer points. Including this grade in the workshop this year made students more accountable for providing constructive feedback. I need to make sure I continue with this practice.

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It’s been a good semester and I’m looking forward to January. After Christmas break, seventh-graders will begin reading Chasing Lincoln’s Killer followed by an analysis of the film, The Conspirator; eighth-graders will continue work on their human rights dissertation and also begin reading Frederick Douglass’ narrative. My sixth-graders? They’ll be continuing their mastery of the beloved five-paragraph essay, the champion of academic writing. More on that in a later post!


Thanks for reading! Feel free to click like and leave a comment with your own Writer’s Workshop experiences. 

 

Here’s what Writer’s Workshop looks like in my middle school classroom

I’m so glad I didn’t give up on what is now one of my favorite activities

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Since I began teaching seven years ago, I’ve learned that sometimes it may be necessary to try a new technique, a new curriculum unit, or simply a new idea more than once in order to fairly assess its effectiveness.

Usually, the first time I try anything, it fizzles. At the conclusion of the semester, when students were turning in their final drafts of their projects, I was glad Writer’s Workshop (WW) was finally over. I didn’t like the unstructured nature of class time that the workshop encouraged. Perhaps my classroom management skills weren’t up to par, or perhaps I’ve just relaxed a little. Perhaps it’s a bit of both, but the less structured nature doesn’t concern me like it used to because…

I’m sold on Writer’s Workshop now.

Besides, my WW is fairly structured in its procedure to begin with. That built-in structure requires that kids stay on task. If I had decided to give up on WW after my first attempt, or even the second, I would have missed out on an activity that some students say is their favorite. Many students seem to like coming into class, having a short lesson, and then being able to work at their own pace on the projects of their choosing.

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Zoom in to see the Writer’s Workshop project list for 7th graders. Students choose eight projects from the list of twelve. The procedure for each assignment is on the back.  This entire procedure is based on one by K-12 teacher Corbett Harrison.

Writer’s Workshop puts these two things front and center: student choice and the writing process. Here’s what it looks like in my classroom: Every student gets a project sheet that lists about twelve possible writing projects. The list includes a mix of discourses: narrative, informational, argument, and poetry.  I usually don’t specify how many of each discourse they must do, since there’s enough of a mix to guarantee they’ll write a variety.  Kids must complete eight projects of their choice in a given time period. This fall, we started Writer’s Workshop on November 1, and their final portfolios are due Dec. 14. Here’s the rest of the basic procedure:

  • On day one of WW, as a class, we discuss the entire project list. Some of the assignments are new and don’t require that we go over them, but I introduce a few new projects each time, so we make sure to briefly discuss those. I pass out an assignment sheet to each student and we talk through each assignment, brainstorm some ideas, and talk about other details such as that assignment’s word count requirement.
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These two racks hold all the paperwork for Writer’s Workshop. On the left are the 7th and 8th grade project lists and responder sheets. On the right are the folders that contain the individual assignment sheets for each project, as well as mentor texts, and contest guidelines, if applicable.
  • After discussing each assignment, I gather up the project sheets and put them in a manila folder labelled with the project name in a rack on a book shelf at the front of the classroom for kids to reference later when they need them. (By the way, the procedures for WW are listed on the back of each project assignment sheet.)
  • Writers choose a project, read through the project’s assignment sheet, and then brainstorm, and write a first draft. The first drafts can be handwritten or typed at this point; eventually, they’ll need to be typed.
  • After completing a first draft, writers must find a classmate to be their reviewer, who will provide feedback and suggestions for revisions. This is done by attaching a narrative, informative, argument, or poetry responder sheet to the first draft. (The responder sheets are also kept in labeled manila folders in a rack next to the assignment project sheets at the front of the room.)
  • The reviewer then must answer in writing four questions listed on the responder sheet. The reviewer writes their answers on the back of the responder sheet on the lines provided. One thing I learned after my first WW attempt: If I don’t provide lines on the back of the page, students won’t write their answers down. They’ll simply jot a few very brief notes, or just tell the writer, “It was great. You don’t need to change anything. The lines on the back of the responder sheet holds students accountable to be more thorough with their feedback. I check these first draft sheets and talk with students who aren’t doing their fair share of feedback.
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Zoom in to read this responder sheet for an argument assignment. There is one of these sheets for poetry, informative, and narrative assignments, as well. Students must answer at least four questions about a classmate’s first draft on the backs of these sheets. Writers make changes to their first draft based on the answers their reviewer provides. After making their changes, writers staple their first draft and the responder sheet to their second draft and place it in my WW box for my feedback.
  • After providing their feedback, the reviewer gives the first draft and responder sheet back to the writer, who makes revisions, edits, and any other changes suggested. This creates a second draft, which the writer then places (with the first draft and responder sheet) in my second draft box. I do set a deadline for students to turn in their second drafts. At this point, that second draft deadline is one week before final portfolios are due. (I may need to reset that deadline to an earlier date.)
  • I read the second draft and fill out my own responder sheet, which has my suggestions and notes for the student. I ask that students give me a few days to return their second drafts to them.
  • After I return the second draft to the writer, they generate a third and final draft, referring to my ideas, revisions and edits that I suggest. While I don’t have time to mark every issue I notice on a paper, I do make sure that students understand what I do mark. I’ll usually talk with students when I hand their second draft back to them. This is always a good time to get in some one-on-one conferencing with each student, which, by the way, I am doing now on my phone with the help of Google Forms.  (I’ll explain this new experiment from Two Writing Teachers in a future post after I become more accustomed to it.)
  • After completing their final draft, students compile all three drafts, responder sheets, and any prewriting or brainstorming and staple their “latest greatest” final draft on top. They then keep these finished projects in a two-pocket folder in a file cabinet in my room. On December 14, these folders will be turned in. And yes, I get it, that’s a lot of work being turned in at once; however, I’ve already seen every assignment in the folders (if students put their second drafts in the box). It’s basically a matter of verifying that students used the writing process to complete the assignments.
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You’ll need to zoom in to see what’s inside my memoir assignment folder. This folder contains the instructions for the memoir, three student-written mentor texts, and two handouts with memoir topic ideas. Students use any or all of these as they need them. 

only aspect of WW I’d like to change for next time would be a more direct way for students to publish their work. Right now, I plan to post articles and stories and poetry in the hallway or in my room. Next semester, if all goes well, I will be having students choose which of their projects they would like to publish online in their Kidblog portfolio. (Again, that’s another future post.) Having an audience and a readership is crucial for motivating kids to write; I know this from my own writing experience on this blog and on Medium.com.

Here’s where I give credit where credit is due:

My Writer’s Workshop format is based on one designed and used by Corbett Harrison, a K-16 teacher with an EXTREMELY comprehensive website I located on the internet. Search his site (and its associated Northern Nevada Writing Project and WritingFix websites) for all kinds of ELA materials and ideas. (In fact, block out an hour or two if you intend to look at his site. It’s chock full of ideas and resources.)  In the past, I’ve also had success with his creative approach to vocabulary instruction that provides as much choice and accountability as his WW.

Harrison offers a free 18-page PDF that explains how he facilitates WW in his middle school classroom. This PDF also includes the responder sheets and my second draft responder sheet.  I can’t recommend Harrison’s plans enough. If you haven’t tried WW in your classes, his would be a good place to start. The plans have definitely worked for me by providing me a template to tweak here and there over the past couple of years. I’m so glad I didn’t give up on this solid, necessary, tried-and-true activity in my middle school ELA classroom.


Thanks for stopping by! Click like and follow this blog for more posts about middle school ELA. Also, feel free to leave a comment about how you approach Writer’s Workshop in your classroom. 

My one and only complaint with the Missouri Learning Standards

They just seem a little vague.

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Photo: Pexels

Last week, one of my students came across the term “hyperbole” on a vocabulary assignment. “What does hyperbole mean?” he asked.

Wow, I thought. Five years ago, my students knew that term. Why? Because I taught it to them, along with other common figurative language techniques. Why? Because they were specifically listed in the standards, which at the time were known as Grade-Level Expectations (GLEs) and were in place when I began teaching in 2011.

But hyperbole isn’t even mentioned today in the Missouri Learning Standards (MLS), the educational standards adopted by Missouri legislators in 2016 and modeled on the Common Core State Standards (CCSS).  Also not mentioned are these: simile, metaphor, alliteration, personification, onomatopoeia, and oxymoron.

And this illustrates my one and only complaint with the MLS for English Language Arts: They just seem a little vague, when compared to the old GLEs, which were clear, specific, and practically a checklist even, of the techniques and academic language terms Missouri kids were expected to know. Heck, I even remember printing out the figurative language section of the GLEs for each grade that I taught (6th, 7th, and 8th), and crossing off each device as I covered it in my classes.

In general, I’m a fan of the Missouri Learning Standards, and their progenitor, the Common Core. I can support the various standards and the modifications made.

Yes, at first, I questioned the subjugation of grammar, mechanics, and conventions (known as language standards) under various subsections of the writing standards; however, as a teacher in my third year of implementation of the MLS, I have reconciled what some may perceive as a dismissal of grammar with what I believe is a more authentic approach that 1) stresses an initial emphasis in the writing process on ideas, and 2) leaves the grammar checks and editing for later. In the words of the late writing instructor Gary Provost, “Good grammar does not guarantee good writing any more than a good referee guarantees a good basketball game.”

Still, my support for this aspect of the MLS is tempered by a desire for greater specificity within those standards, especially when those specifics include literary techniques that I know my students will be expected to know during standardized testing in the spring.

In effect, the CCSS and MLS have left it up to the educators to pinpoint the devices they will teach. And, yes, it’s excellent that educators are allowed the freedom to teach the devices they choose, but how am I supposed to help my students do well on a standardized test (that ultimately determines federal funding of my school district, by the way) if I am unaware of the items to be tested?

So, even though I support the CCSS and the MLS, holes do exist in them. I’ve attended standard setting meetings with other educators where we’ve pored over the standards line by line.  And true, one could say the standards reflect overall what educators have deemed necessary; however, those needs do not always match up with the tests that students undergo every spring.

To remedy that, my ideal standards would be a melding of the old GLEs into the MLS that would precisely include the specific skills, techniques, and terminology that students need to know not only to express themselves accurately but also to successfully complete a standardized test.


Thanks for reading my blog again this week! I’m sharing this activity below from Education.com even though I’m receiving no compensation for doing so. This puzzle, which you could use as a bell-ringer, exit ticket or simply as a discussion starter, will help your students learn the seven most common figurative language techniques: simile, hyperbole, alliteration, metaphor, personification, onomatopoeia, and oxymoron.

Click here for puzzle PDF: figurativelanguage_crossword_boat (1)

Click here for puzzle key PDF: figurativelanguage_crossword_boat_answers (1) (1)

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This figurative language crossword puzzle is perfect for students who are working toward more colorful and interesting writing assignments! Be sure to check out more reading and writing activities at Education.com!

A Poetry Project that Draws Connections Between the Fires at Triangle Waist Co. and World Trade Center

The Essential Questions: How can history inform public policy? How do people prevent past tragedies from reoccurring?

 

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My 8th-graders evaluate poetry projects on the final day to choose the six projects that most effectively met the criteria of the assignment.

Based on those essential questions (developed with help from our school’s art teacher, Joan Edgmon, by the way), I’m sure that some may think I’ve forgotten that I teach Language Arts. They may even wonder if I’m actually a history teacher in disguise. But to that, I would answer:  Actually, I just see value in using historical events for writing topics because they…

  • 1) teach kids about the world and broadens their background knowledge.
  • 2) provide relevancy to writing and connect school with the outside world.
  • 3) reveal to kids that remembering past tragedies can help prevent their reoccurrence.

Connecting the Triangle Waist Co. fire, the most tragic industrial workplace fire in U.S. history until the World Trade Center (WTC)  fires on Sept. 11, is one study we delved into again this fall like we do every year in my 8th-grade classes. However, this year, I designed this poetry project to help students creatively explore the connections between these two events. In the past, I’ve assigned a written essay to explore these connections, but this year, with the DAR American History Essay Contest right around the corner, I wanted to give the kids more variety with a non-essay genre: free verse poetry.

Read this post to get some background on my Triangle Fire & World Trade Center unit. In short, skyscraper building codes that had been developed in response to the 1911 Triangle Fire were relaxed during the early design of the World Trade Center towers in the 1960s. These building code changes (including a reduction in the required numbers of emergency stairwells, permission to cluster elevators in central areas, and the absence of brick masonry requirements, plus others) likely contributed to the death toll on Sept. 11, 2001. 

The rest of today’s post focuses on this culminating free verse poetry project I tried for the first time with students this year. The results were not perfect; I already know a few things I need to change for next year. However, I was pleased with the thinking my students engaged in, and I was also pleased with the creativity they showed in producing the visual elements of this assignment.

Here were the requirements for the poetry project:

Triangle Fire and World Trade Center Fires

POETRY PROJECT

  1. Write a free verse (non-rhyming) poem about the Triangle Fire.
  2. Write a free verse (non-rhyming) poem about the WTC fires.
  3. Juxtapose the two poems on construction paper or some other paper.
  4. Include a “gallery label.” See below for details.

Requirements for the project:

  • Each poem should be at least ten lines long.
  • Each poem should give this information: date, number of deaths, causes of death, lessons learned (Triangle reforms & WTC recommendations)
  • Each poem’s shape or appearance should remind us of the specific building the fire occurred in. Ideas: line for each floor? Arrange the lines to represent flames?
  • Each poem should also mention a lesson learned from the fire. What positive element can you add? The reforms made as a result of the fires?
  • The poems should “allude” to each other. There are a few ways one could do this…
    •  Have your Triangle poem mention somehow the World Trade Center or vice versa.
    • Make both poems share a line, i.e. the same line appears in both poems.
    • Make both poems share a line, i.e. the same line literally connects the two poems.
  • Write a gallery label that will appear alongside your juxtaposed poems.
  • The gallery card needs to explain the two fires, relate how your poems address the two fires. You may want to also explain: how the two fires are connected historically, what we can learn from the tragedies to ensure that history does not repeat itself in this way again.
  • Get creative! Need art supplies? Let me know what I need to bring.

I passed out a handout that listed all the requirements at the beginning of the project. Then we decided that when we finished it would be fun to post all the completed projects in my room in “gallery walk style” so students could vote on the top six, which would then be posted in the hallway. The gallery walk took nearly a full class period because they were so interested in doing a good job. I changed the selection of poems to post in the hallway by removing one that, while being in the students’ top six, didn’t express any lessons learned from the tragedies. Plus, I included a couple more projects that showed strong effort.

Here are some of the most effective projects. Even though the poems were the most important part of this assignment, the visual elements also had a job to do, which was to convey meaning to the poetry. Some of the photos have been cropped so the poetry can be more easily read.

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One thing I know I’ll change for next year is to require that no airplanes appear in the projects. While I’m glad that students understand what ultimately caused the disaster that took so many lives, the unit was intended to focus on how builders and developers literally forgot many of the fire-prevention lessons learned from Triangle Fire.

Finally, it’s always good to focus on the Essential Questions: How can history inform public policy? How do people prevent past tragedies from reoccurring?


Thanks for reading! Feel free to leave a comment if I’ve left out some key point— or if you spot a typo! I wrote this up fairly quickly over the weekend, and feel like there’s got to be a grammar issue or two somewhere in here. I’ll update this post as I think of other ideas or tips to include. Have a great week! 

Click here for a post about my 9/11 resources.

Click here for my main Triangle Fire unit.

Click here about a field trip we took this fall to remember 9/11.

 

Headline poetry is so much fun!

It’s already my favorite back-to-school activity

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A few lines from a headline poem created by one of my seventh-grade students.

For the first week of school, my seventh- and eighth-graders created poetry made up of words and phrases found in newspapers and magazines. I found the idea on NCTE’s website, which offers lesson plan ideas. I also accessed this site where I found this beautiful quote that captures, for me anyway, the nature of headline poetry.

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This is a picture of the words I used to make my own headline poem, which I used to show my students what a headline poem looked like. Showing kids an example of what they are making is important. I guess you could call this a “mentor headline poem.” 

Finding words and then limiting yourself to using those words in your poetry creates spontaneous word choices, unexpected metaphors, and other surprising experimentation with language. My students fully enjoyed this project. I actually had a few students rushing into class, wanting to dive right back into the project, picking up where they left off the previous day.

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Students need to use a variety of publications in which to find words. My school’s librarian gave me several copies of Motor Trend, Field & Stream, Dirt Bike magazine, Boys’ Life, and Sports Illustrated to add to the collection of women’s magazines (Vogue, Vanity Fair, Better Homes & Gardens, etc.) that I brought from home.  Variety is key.

One thing I especially liked about the project is that it capitalizes on the first few days of school. Kids naturally want to talk and visit with each other after summer break. During the first two class periods of the project, they were allowed to do just that as they searched for and cut out 75-100 words and phrases.

Then, after most of them had their words cut out, it was time to settle down a bit and start to concentrate on their poems, arranging and rearranging the pieces of paper on their desks or tables. It was truly “playtime with words,” which is a nice way to ease back into the school routine. I am definitely going to do this activity again next year.

Here’s the basic plan I used from a handout I made for students:

The Process
A headline poem uses words or phrases from newspaper and magazine headlines to craft a poem. There are several steps:

  • Make an envelope with construction paper and tape. Put your name on it. Keep your clippings in it.
  • Select some newspapers and magazines, leaf through them, and cut out interesting words and phrases from headlines. Avoid small print words because they’re too hard to keep track of and glue down later. Collect between 75 and 100 words and phrases from different sections of newspapers and magazines to gather a range of vocabulary, as well as selections of nouns, verbs, adjectives, and adverbs.
  • Don’t forget to cut out basic words such as the, a, an, and, and prepositions such as into, over, beyond, and through.
  • Use a variety of publication subject matter; don’t just use fashion magazines. For example, use fashion magazines, hunting magazines, the local paper, and a recipe magazine.
  • Scatter the words and phrases on a desk, table or the floor, and look for themes, synonyms and rhyming words. Play with the words and how they sound.
  • After you have your 75 words, avoid the temptation to go back to the magazines to search for specific words; use your clippings. Let the “found” words direct your poem; the spontaneity of headline poetry is what we’re after.
  • Arrange and rearrange the words and phrases on a page and read them aloud to check for fluency and impression. Because there is a visual quality to headline poetry, the placement of text can contribute to the presentation of ideas and meaning.
  • You may see a theme or a topic emerge as you play with words. Go with it!
  • When the desired order and placement of text is achieved, glue the words onto a blank sheet of 11″ x 17″ construction paper with a glue stick.
  • Work neatly and slow down when you’re gluing. Don’t let the project “fall apart” because you rushed.
  • Don’t forget a title. Your first line may work well as the title.
  • When you are totally finished with your poem, write your name on the back and turn it in. When we display these in the hall, I will give you a nameplate to fill out that will be placed on the front.
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Fun project!

Some of the poems are incredible with interesting word combinations and definitely higher order thinking.

When students were limited to using the words and phrases they “found,” it required that they take risks with their word choice. It required that they experiment with words.

For example, in the example at the top of this article… who would have ever described a sunset as pure iced tea?

That’s the excitement and fun of headline poetry. I definitely recommend it. Try it sometime!


Follow my blog to get an email when I post pictures of my students’ headline poems displayed in the hallway. You’ll see the variety of how kids adapted to this project. Obviously, some were comfortable experimenting with words and some weren’t. In any case, I think most, if not all, enjoyed the hands-on nature of the project. Thanks for reading! 

My students “swept” a national poetry writing contest!

I’m so excited about the recent contest that my students won! Here’s a news release that I sent to a local newspaper about it.

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Kirbyville Middle School students swept the junior (grades 6-8) poetry division of the 2018 Norm Strung Youth Writing Awards, a national contest hosted by the Outdoor Writers Association of America, Missoula, Mt. Read about the contest in this post.

Joel R., a former eighth-grader who graduated from KMS in May, placed first with his poem “The Lucky Snag”; Allyson W., also a former eighth-grader who graduated from KMS in May, placed second with her poem “Breathe.” Zach B., who will be an eighth-grader this fall, placed third with his poem “A Deer’s Morning Graze.”

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First- and second-place winners, Joel R. and Ally W.

The students each received cash prizes of $200, $100, and $50, respectively. Cash awards were sponsored by Majesty Outdoors, a nonprofit “focused on bringing awareness to the fatherless epidemic in our society,” according to the foundation’s website.

Winning entries will be printed in the December/January issue of Outdoors Unlimited, OWAA’s magazine.

Zach and Mrs. Yung
Third-place winner Zach Burton and me.

This is the second year KMS students have participated in the contest. In 2017, Elijah D. placed second in the junior prose division.

“I am so proud of KMS students. With this contest in particular, every student is able to find an outdoor-related topic to write about and then they stick with their poems or essays and work so hard on them, revising them until they are sent to Montana,” said Marilyn Yung, language arts teacher at KMS.

I’ll post the winning poems in a post later this week. Follow me to get those.

If you ever decide to have your students enter this contest, use these winning entries as mentor texts. That’s exactly what I did to prepare my kids for writing their entries.

In addition to sending out the news release, I also made a big deal out of the news on my private class Instagram account.

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I posted this meme on my class’ private Instagram account a few days before I announced it with a video.

I posted an Anchorman meme that there would be a “big announcement” coming soon. I also posted a video announcing the award.  (I should have embedded the video into this post, but I failed. Sorry about that!)

On another note… Don’t forget to let others know about your activities in the classroom. Get to know your local newspapers and other media so you can notify them when good things happen.

The editor to whom I sent the above release usually runs what I email to him in one of the two newspapers he publishes locally. Do a little research, find the names and email addresses of the local editor at your local media offices, and start communicating with them.

Get some publicity for your school and the part you play in your profession.


Thanks for reading! Click like if you found this valuable. Follow my blog for more writing contest news, and other posts about teaching middle school ELA.