The Triangle Fire and Human Rights

Triangle Fire forms the first literature unit for my 8th-graders’ human rights dissertations

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Here’s the chart that shows the progress each student has made during the school year. This goes up on my wall in early September and remains up until the project is finished in March.

This week I’ve been writing about the unit on the Triangle Waist Co. fire that my 8th-graders start the year with. For them, the last few weeks of seventh grade was an introduction, a sort of “paving the way” for the more in-depth reading and studying that we will begin in just two short weeks. Check out my Monday post on the Triangle Fire resources that I use and some of the activities that we do. Check out my post from yesterday that discussed how I connect Triangle Fire to another horrific disaster, the 9/11 attacks.

Today, I’m going to write about how the Triangle Fire study forms the first section of a project that I call the 8th-grade human rights dissertation. Human rights education is vitally important in my view.

If students don’t know what human rights are, how will they know when those rights are being violated?

There are many materials available to use in teaching human rights. Since I began this project, I used materials produced by an organization known as Youth for Human Rights International. However, since I learned last year that YHRI is a front organization for the Church of Scientology International, I have decided not to use them anymore.

Read my post, Dear Parents: The Church of Scientology Wants to Get Inside Your Child’s Classroom, about that topic. This year, I will be developing new curriculum based on materials from other organizations.

Read my other post, Dear Teachers: Avoid These So-Called Educator’s Kits from the Church of Scientology for alternative human rights education materials I’ve located.

The human rights dissertation is a project that I have done with my 8th-graders for three years now. The first year was a complete trial-by-fire and I hesitate to even let it count since we literally ran out of time toward the end of the project. The second year was a success. Students completed the dissertations in the way I foresaw the project culminating. This past school year was again a successful year, and I would say an even more successful year than the first because I modified and/or improved the project in several ways, which I will discuss later.

The human rights dissertation is actually an expanded five-paragraph essay. Throughout the year, as we read and study these texts, students determine three human rights that each text supports or are revealed in the text that need protection or upholding.

It’s really up to the student to determine how they wish to discuss the rights; as the year progresses I am aware of the direction that they are taking with respect to the human rights and the literature we read. The founding document that we study even before we write the Triangle Fire section of the dissertation is the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the 1948 document drafted by a United Nations committee led by First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, in response to the atrocities of World War II.

There are six sections to this project:

  • an introduction
    • Students write this usually after all their second drafts have been finalized, usually in mid-February. This introduces the entire scope of the paper. We spend a lot of time honing these sections and massaging them into being revelatory personal statements.
  • an explanation of  human rights
    • -Students usually write their first draft for this section in September.
  • a section that connects the Triangle Fire to three human rights
    • -Students usually write their first draft for this section in October.
  • a section that connects “Inside Out and Back Again to three human rights
    • -Students usually write their first draft for this section in November.
  • a section that connects Frederick Douglass’ Narrative to three human rights
    • -Students usually write their first draft for this section in late January/early February.
  • a conclusion
    • Students usually write their first draft for this section in February

First drafts and second drafts are assigned as homework. I have very detailed take-home packets that provide students what they need to know for their drafts. First drafts can be any length, but second drafts will have a two- to three-page length requirement.

Second drafts for each portion are written throughout the year, i.e. they are not written immediately after their first drafts. I believe in taking a break from a piece of writing so the second draft will be a homework assignment a month or two after the first draft is written.  This also gives students time to get that first draft written if they failed to do it on time initially.

Students keep paper copies of their first drafts, which have my notes and revision suggestions, in the file cabinet in the classroom.  They also have digital copies in Google Drive.

As students turn in their drafts, I put a sticker on a large chart on the wall. At any moment, students and I can see their progress.

After we write our second drafts, students must pay special attention to connecting their “essays within the essay.” They complete several rounds of revision as they attempt to make their individual sections blend from one to the next. This gets interesting and students know by this time that this is a needed task.

I’ve even had students, before we get to this point of the project, ask me in class, “Mrs. Yung, how are we gonna make this flow? It can’t just sound like individual papers.” And then to myself, I think, “Hallelujah! They figured it out on their own!”

It’s so wonderful to know that they have learned how important it is to make our ideas connect smoothly in our writing.

This paper gives me the opportunity to reinforce the concept of what I call “interpretation,” the explanation that is needed when quoting from a source or text. This is a skill we practice all year, but the human rights dissertation is the project where this skill really shines. I require at a minimum that each quote from each text be followed by four to six sentences of explanatory exposition that reveals how the quote supports the point they are making.

My go-to piece of advice for students is to make their first or second sentence after a quote begins with “In other words,…”

Last minute additions to the paper include a comprehensive Works Cited page and a title page. The details for these items are included on a final to-do list that students use as they go through the project. The title for these papers is “Humanity Revealed: Understanding Human Rights Through Literature;” however, students may use another title if they wish.

This sheet also has several editing and revision requirements listed, as well as an approximate timeline. We devote about three to four weeks to revising and finalizing these papers in class. Lastly, I provide them with a heavy-duty Avery Flexi-View report cover.

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It’s such a good feeling when students start turning in their dissertations– for them and me!

The human rights dissertation is really my “piece de resistance” of my language arts classes. By the time students finish theirs, they’ve been my students for three years, and I’ve learned so much about their abilities, their interests, their personalities, and their goals for the future.

I truly enjoy watching students wrap up their dissertations and they are always excited to see their accomplishment. Many of them will end up with a paper that is fifteen or more pages long. Some even really go “all out” and see just how much they can write. It’s always a discussion to see who has the longest paper! (And yes, I make a point to tell them that more doesn’t mean better, but for middle schoolers to be excited about writing “just one more page,” who am I to shut that down?!)

As this project kicks off in the fall, I will be posting about it and providing news and photos about any changes that I decide to make this year.  One change I may make is to allow students the choice to add a World War II text to their paper. This change is discussed in this post I recently wrote called “How to Forget the Holocaust.” I plan to eventually add the handouts, timelines, and editing checklists to my future TpT store.


Thanks for reading! Follow my blog to find out more about this project and to receive updates about changes I make to it this year! Do you do a similar project with your students or do you have any suggestions for me? Feel free to leave a comment!

Words are things that are beautiful to picture, things that glow in the world.

Today’s post: Sixth-graders reflect on their writing

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Photo by Nong Vang on Unsplash

Today, I’m posting some responses from a reflection assignment I gave to my sixth-graders the last week of school. I asked them to write a 300-word reflection of the progress they made in my language arts class this year. Read more about the assignment and my seventh-grade reflections at this link.

I love this assignment.  And to think that I almost didn’t assign it due to the “busy-ness” of the last week and its field trips, assemblies, and other end-of-year activities. Through the words of my students, I’ve learned so much about what is important to them with regards to my classes, including those areas they know they need to grow in next year.

And, by the way, this was a first-draft assignment, which meant we would not be taking the time to revise; however, students know that I expect them to polish their first drafts, making any corrections or revisions needed before turning in.

Here are a few golden lines from some of my sixth-graders, transcribed here without corrections, along with my own reflections and thoughts.

“I am so much better at punctuation that I was last year. punctuation has always been hard for me, because I always seem to be using the wrong mark.”

  • It’s nice to know this student feels progress in this area.

“I used to just say, ‘I walked to the store.’  Now I add alot more detail and say, ‘I cassually walked to the small, brightly colored store.’  So because I add in more detail the reader gets a better picture, and I won’t need to answer as many questions.”

  • Sensory language and imagery are emphasized in class and it shows. With her funny final remark, I think this student is relating that her descriptions paint a picture so clear that the reader isn’t left with questions. That’s progress!

“I feel like I explain things in all my stories instead of making it an interesting story that people would actually read.”

  • This student is beginning to understand “show don’t tell.”

“Granted, there are spell check softwares, but computers can’t fix everything, like tense and homophones.”

  • Yes! A student who sees the limits of technology!

“I can tell what transitions are I used to get them mixed up. And the same with fanboys. But now I can actually remember most of them and when I can use them and how to use them.”

  • This student is becoming adept at some of the most often used tools that writers use to express their ideas smoothly… conjunctions and transitions.

“Writing is a way that I express myself. It helps me have less stress and helps me worry less.”

  • This is a milestone in itself. This student will go far if she has this mindset in sixth grade!

“I feel Mrs. Yung makes you do a lot of writing so you get compturible it’s rough at first but by a month or two you will be find you’ll write for fun also.”

  • This student struggles with many basics, but has shown improvement over the course of the school year. He also wants to improve, which is half the battle. Goals for next year: learning to reserve enough time to polish and revise the writing.

“Mrs. Yung put writing contest so if you you get a prize or even in a book. I think writing is the easiest thing to do case you write about when you think about and it takes skill too.”

  • I know this assignment was a challenge for this student. He didn’t reach the word requirement, but did get his thoughts onto the page. Goals for next year: syntax, simple sentence structure.

“We wrote from just writing a big blob of words to dividing into paragraphs.”

  • A primary objective of elementary writing instruction is mastering the paragraph. Writing a draft of multiple paragraphs is indeed new territory and one we will continue to observe in seventh grade. I still see too many one-paragraph essays.

“Words are things that are beautiful to picture, things that glow in the world.”

  • This student obviously values words and does it with a creative flair. Score!

“I really like poems now. Last year I always thought poems had to rhyme but when I went to 6th grade I learned that they didn’t have to rhyme.”

“I have also learned that there are many types of things to write. My where I’m from poem this is a good example of something I was proud of. I put basically everything I know about myself in there.”

  • Variety is the spice of life and that goes for writing, too! While it’s good to focus on the standards, argument writing, et al, it’s important to show students the more creative side of the craft.

“Another thing is that I can put more feeling and emotion into my stories and essays, by using descriptive words and I feel like I could throw my voice into it.”

  • It’s gratifying that this student feels free to express himself on the page.

“Language arts isn’t my favorite subject actually science is but Language arts is interesting and has a lot of rules. Sadly I don’t quite understand all of them, because they are tricky and English is one of the hardest languages to understand this makes it more difficult. Also, I’ve been practicing it sense I was a little child.”

  • It’s easy to forget that English is a difficult language to master. It’s full of rules and contradictions to those rules. This response reminds me how important it is for me to provide students the writing tools and techniques they will need as they mature to more developed writing.

Thanks for reading! If you see enjoy my blog, please follow! I’m trying to find ways to make my site more valuable… more than just a place for me to “show and tell” what happens in my classroom. If you have ideas for stories or have specific questions about something you read here or about teaching in general, please leave a comment so we can share our experiences.