Welcome to My World: Boil Order at a Middle School

Ten things that happen when the water main breaks

 

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Photo by Malvestida Magazine on Unsplash

 

  1. Over the weekend, the local water protection district issues a “boil order” and ships pallets of water bottle cases to be stacked next to the water fountains on Monday morning. In any place other than a middle school, this would be a good thing.
  2. Construction paper signs are taped to fountains and faucets warning students not to drink the water. Here… have a seemingly unlimited supply of water bottles instead.
  3. Students drink two to three times as much as they usually do simply because they have water bottles. Man, water is delicious!
  4. Students make two to three times as many trips to the bathroom as they usually do simply because they have water bottles. Yes, go, just go.
  5. The fun wears off, so ingenious students use pens to punch holes in the lids of full water bottles. Squirt guns! Broken pens! (Does this count as a STEM activity?)
  6. The request to leave class to get a drink no longer applies because you, dear student, have a seemingly unlimited supply of water bottles instead. Please stay in the room and drink two to three times what you normally would.
  7. Drops of water appear on desks, turning typed words into illegible gray clouds. Look! There on the desk. It’s an essay! It’s an art project!
  8. Armloads of water bottles are tossed into the trash. Many are mostly full. So much for going green.
  9. Teachers exhibit great patience when students empty those water bottles and then squeeze them repeatedly. Here’s the sound those bottles make: crinkle-crackle- crinkle-crackle-crinkle-crackle-crinkle-crackle-crinkle-crackle. If teachers calmly wait for the sound effect to end (because this has been happening all day), it just might… but usually it doesn’t. Throw it away. Now.
  10. Tuesday morning feels like it should be Friday afternoon… for the teachers, anyway. This is gonna be one L-O-N-G week.

    Thanks for reading! Click “like” if you enjoyed this post. Feel free to leave a comment about your own middle school mayhem. Follow my blog for more posts about teaching middle school ELA, including writing contests and the unique PBL project my seventh-graders are engaged in with a local historical society. 

Here’s what happened when I submitted a student’s writing to a hunting magazine

 

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Photo by Hunter Bryant on Unsplash

Last fall, one of my seventh-grade students wrote an “Expert Advice” article, one of ten assignments in our Writer’s Workshop project list. My students seemed to like this particular assignment. They chose a topic they were familiar with and then wrote a how-to article. “Jared” wrote an article called “Four Ways Novice Hunters Can Avoid Hunting Accidents.” He wrote a first draft, received feedback from another student, and then submitted a second draft to me.

Right away, I could tell it might be a piece I could submit on his behalf to a magazine, print or online. I knew Jared had a publishable story because of the way he tackled the assignment. First, he wrote his article in steps, which always makes for a reader-friendly piece. Second, Jared’s advice indicated that, as an avid hunter, he wrote from experience and possessed some natural expertise. In addition, his writing contained his own voice with tips such as, “Hunting on legal ground is also an important law to follow. By hunting on legal ground, or government property, you can avoid trespassing and a visit from the sheriff.” I knew that, with a few more rounds of revisions and edits, Jared would have an article ready to send out.

So the next morning during my plan time,  I googled “deer hunting magazines youth” to see what I could find. A few results popped up. I visited a couple and found one in particular that seemed promising. I read what kinds of articles they typically publish and found the name of the editor. I also discovered that the magazine had a distribution of 57,000 copies!

After talking to Jared’s mother for her approval, I dashed off a short email to the editor asking if he would be interested in reviewing the article after Jared finished it. Here’s my email:

Dear (Editor’s Name):

Good morning! I’m an English teacher in Missouri and I have a student who is working on a very good how-to article for novice or  first-time hunters. I told him I would inquire about any publishing opportunities he may wish to pursue.

Does your magazine ever publish student-written articles? Would this how-to type of article be a fit for your publication? If not, do you have any advice on where he might send his piece when it is finished?

Thanks for your time in thinking about this. I appreciate it.

Marilyn Yung, Teacher

Within three hours, the editor responded. (His quick response surprised me, by the way, because in my own writing experience, editors usually require from a few days to a week or two to respond.)

The editor’s reply: Yes, he would be interested in seeing the article when Jared had it ready. He explained that while the advice may not be useful to many of the magazine’s readers, the fact that the writer is a student may be the interesting part. He added that even if it didn’t work for the print publication, it could likely be used for the website. He ended with, “Either way, I’d like to take a look and see. We are trying to provide more how-to info for beginners, and we are also interested in encouraging young hunters and writers!”

So after two or three more revisions, we emailed the final draft just before the holiday break. I’ll let you know when I hear the final word from the editor about Jared’s article. Whether it is accepted for publication or not, it’s my hope Jared has learned he has solid potential as a writer for the world beyond the school walls.


Thanks for reading! If you found this post useful, click “like” so more teachers will find it. Follow this blog for more articles and stories about teaching middle school ELA. Check out my sister blog for other writing.

Dear Teachers: Thinking about the first day back at school after break?

So are your students and some of them can’t wait to see you.

 

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Photo: Ariel Lustre on Unsplash

 

Even though you love your job, when you think about the first day back at school after Christmas break, you sigh. Ugh, right? Who wants to think about that? The kids certainly don’t. Let me clarify that. Some of the kids don’t want to think about the return to school; however, some do.

Some kids can’t wait to go back to school. They love to see their friends. They love to see their teachers. They thrive on the community of school.

On the last day of the semester as my students and I were packing up to leave for Christmas break, one student told me that she dreads being away from school for so long. She misses her friends and the social environment of school. Another agreed.

Depend on these enthusiastic kids. Let them inspire you as you think ahead to settling back into your busy teaching schedule.

True, not all students look forward to returning to school. In fact, on the last day before break, I overheard one student admit that break could last forever and it would be okay with him. As for these students who really don’t want to go back… give them a reason to return to school. Be a positive presence in their lives. Expect them to fulfill their potential, to be their best. Push them to see the positive results of their hard work. Encourage them.

So, as the holiday break dwindles away, pour yourself another cup of coffee. Read some. Write more. Learn a few new chords on your guitar, bake a loaf of bread… in short, recharge. And when your mind drifts to that moment when you re-enter your darkened, eerily quiet classroom, remember there are kids who want to see you, who want to know what you’ve been up to over the long break. Rely on those kids and smile at the possibilities the new year brings.


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“So are you calling us stupid?!”

Teaching the standards takes time; so does building trust.

 

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Photo: Autumn Goodman on Unsplash

 

“So are you calling us stupid?!” a middle school student asked me two months into my first year of teaching. Her eyes bore straight through to my heart. It was 9:15 a.m. on a Monday during my first year of teaching in a small rural school in Missouri. Friday of that week seemed as far away as the following summer.

A sickening ache throbbed in my stomach. I clutched the lesson plans I had printed out the day before at home, and took a breath.

“No, I’m calling you careless,” I retorted.  I don’t even remember exactly what we were discussing. Probably sloppy handwriting, perpetual lateness, or a general lack of responsibility that I was amazed existed to such a degree in the vast majority of the students. Sure, some students cared. Some turned in their assignments on time. With their names on their papers. With legible handwriting. With responses written in sentences, instead of one or two words.  How my observation on my students’ work could be so questioned, and in such a belligerent tone from this particular student, stupefied me.

I had not signed up for this disrespect, this arrogance, this chaos at this point in my life. Sure, I had signed up for a Master’s degree. Actually, I was still in the process of obtaining a Master’s of Art in Teaching from Missouri State University and was teaching under a provisional contract, and honestly, that may have been part of the difficulty. After all,  I had not completed any student teaching. I had jumped right into full-time teaching because the school had had an urgent need to get the position filled.

As a result, that Monday morning made me fear that my foray into education was, at the least, a huge mistake.

Now, six years later, I teach in the same classroom, albeit a slightly different subject—from reading to language arts, specifically writing. My students better understand the priorities I place on handwriting, presentation, and a degree of professionalism in their work. We are learning together about ourselves, history, literature, current events and then writing about those in various ways.

Yes, they still moan and groan when I pass out their weekly written homework assignment. And slightly more than half turn in those assignments on time. But they are learning. Their ability to convey their thoughts on paper slowly, ever so slowly, improves with each assignment.

I also take heart in knowing that several former students tell me they now appreciate that I gave them those assignments because producing a solid essay on a weekly basis built self-confidence in their writing skills, developed their writer’s voice, and helped them conquer the fear of filling up a blank page.

On that Monday morning during my first year, my students just didn’t know me well enough. Relationships, credibility, confidence, and respect all develop slowly over time. So while it does take time to organize and plan instruction to teach the learning standards, it takes more time to establish trust with your students.

Today, I’m confident my students trust me. They know I’m interested in their interpretations. They know I value their ideas. They know I believe they are capable of discussing complicated concepts, of thinking through those concepts and figuring out how to put those concepts into written pieces. They also know I give them real opportunities to be published; in fact, many of them have already been published. Some of them even win contests. Above all, they know I would never call them stupid.

 

My Seventh-Graders Told Me This: Everything’s Gonna Be Okay

The future of the country is in good — albeit small — hands.

 

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Photo by Gianandrea Villa on Unsplash

Just when you think the country is spiraling out of control due to natural disasters, political upheaval, and lone wolf violence, you read some words written by twelve- and thirteen-year-olds and you realize that kids will carry us through. In short, everything’s gonna be okay.

I  just finished reading some first drafts written by my seventh-grade students. These drafts will grow into essays they will submit in a couple of weeks to an essay contest sponsored by our local Veterans of Foreign Wars post.

Each year has a different theme and this year’s is “America’s Gift to My Generation.”  What are these gifts, as determined by my students? Here are some my students wrote about:  freedom,  the ability to make choices, security, free speech, education, medical technology, optimism, diversity, the opportunity to seek meaningful work, the Bill of Rights.

These gifts make me hopeful. My students could have written about video games and unlimited data, but they didn’t. To know that Sarah values her education, Eric treasures the freedom to speak out, and Kaila cherishes being secure, makes me realize that the future of the United States is in good — albeit small — hands.

A cynic might say, “Well, what would you expect? The kids want to win the veterans’ contest. Of course, they’re going to write about freedom, for example.”  And to the cynic, I respond, “You’re exactly right.” My students know their audience. They know what’s appropriate (most of ’em anyway). That speaks well of their judgment and foresight, and again, I am encouraged.

I’m also encouraged because my students are diverse. Some occupy the lowest rungs on the socio-economic ladder; some rest comfortably at the top. Some have the latest Smartphone; others are living the digital divide. Some ask to borrow scissors and glue-sticks to take home for a class project; others have all these supplies at home plus full bookshelves.

However, despite their various circumstances, these first drafts reveal that deep down my students know what’s important and worth writing about. They understand priorities.  They know that being an American provides advantages that millions in other parts of the world simply don’t have. More importantly, my seventh-graders — tomorrow’s leaders — know whom they should thank for those advantages: our veterans.

Next week, we’ll start revising these first drafts. They’ll become more focused, more eloquent, more concise. These short writings will blossom into hopeful messages that confirm our future is secure.

Our local VFW post will generously award three students with recognition and cash prizes during our Veteran’s Day assembly in November. When that happens, I’ll share with you the gifts the winners wrote about. Until then, no matter what happens in the meantime, trust my seventh-graders. Everything’s gonna be okay.

Thanks for reading. If you learned something from this post, click like and share it on social media. Most importantly, leave a comment so I can know your thoughts on the subject. Also, follow this blog for more ELA teaching reflections and information about writing contests for students, including the VFW contest mentioned above.

Reading about how to teach writing

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Photo by Gaelle Marcel on Unsplash

It has its ups and downs

I love reading books about the teaching of writing. It’s always so valuable to me to find ways to help kids love writing!

Right now, I’m re-reading Real Revision by Kate Messner, a text chock-full of innovative strategies that real-life published authors use when they revise their own writing. This book contains so many practical tips from Messner, who is also a seventh-grade English teacher. I have already used one of her revision strategies in my classroom this fall and I know this book will provide more ideas as I continue with it.

I’m also getting ready to write a short post on another book I recently read, Renew! Become a Better and More Authentic Writing Teacher by Shawna Coppola. This book also contains down-to-earth advice and examples from the classrooms where Coppola works as a literacy specialist. Another bonus from this book: Coppola gives me permission to literally rethink how I teach the writing process. As a result, I’ve put off posting my usual five-step writing process poster. Why? Well, I don’t really follow completely it in my own writing, so why should I force my students to?

There is one downside to all this reading, though… when I set these inspiring books aside for the moment, it’s a little disheartening because I realize that I could have taught a lesson so much better, explained a writing dilemma so much more effectively, or responded to a student in a much more powerful way than I did.

The upside, however, is that I do find concrete, implementable ways to improve my teaching, and that’s the ultimate goal, after all.

How about you? What are you reading about the teaching of writing? Any books I should check out?


Thanks for reading! Feel free to click “like” and leave a comment about any books you’re currently reading.

I’m a writer who teaches writing. Click here for my personal writing blog.

We are Off and Writing!

Three days in and students are revising submissions for a publisher. Read this for the details.

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Sixth-graders revise paragraphs into poems. We send to the publisher next week!

I decided not to discuss class rules on Wednesday, the first day of school, because who wants to hear class rules for eight different classes in one day?

Instead, we jumped right into a writing contest hosted by Creative Communication (CC). The contest (read about it here) is one aspect of CC’s summer poetry anthology, which will print and ship in December. The primary goal is to see my students published in the anthology; being designated as one of the top ten in the anthology would be a bonus.

Next week, sixth- and seventh-graders will continue revising our poems and since the deadline for CC’s summer poetry anthology was extended from August 23 to August 31, we’ll have even more opportunities to refine them before submission.

I call the poems the students are creating “Sometimes” poems. The concept is one I learned from middle grades author Kate Messner when I attended the Write to Learn Conference  in 2016.

Messner shared some teaching strategies from her book Real Revision. Her book outlines practical ways to encourage kids to revise their writing. The “one and done” mentality goes out the window when students see that revising can be how creative and fun. On top of that, these strategies have street cred because they show what professional authors like Messner do in their own writing routines. As a result, students begin to buy into the notion that “Real writing happens during rewriting.”

Students started this project by writing a few sentences about their favorite place or a place they enjoy. They described the place, the sounds of it, the fragrances, the textures. I showed them an example paragraph I had written about sitting in a swinging chair underneath a cedar tree in our yard. Then we read a poem that Messner wrote about one her favorite places: a mountain in April she had discovered while hiking one springtime day.

Students then revised their sentences into poems by adding recurring lines, stanzas, more sensory language, and imagery. At the end of class on Friday, they were still revising and working with partners, highlighting areas of strength and weakness.

It’s a fun project and results in beautiful little poems about places middle schoolers love… their bedrooms, around campfires, the woods, the beach, under Christmas trees.

 

I’ll be posting soon with more about our “Sometimes” poems. In the meantime, if you enjoyed this post, click like, leave a comment and share on social media! Follow my blog for more student writing contests and ELA teaching reflections. Thanks for reading!