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. 

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.

 

His Google Doc will “disappear”

There’s a long list of middle school distractions to get through before Eric’s story will be finished.

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Photo: Asier Astorkiza on Unsplash

Don’t buy a house in Oklahoma.

That was the first line of an essay resting on the screen of a laptop checked out to Eric, a seventh-grader in my middle school language arts classes. It stopped me in my tracks.

I whispered, “Why shouldn’t I buy a house in Oklahoma?” He proceeded to tell me, but I stopped him. “No, you gotta write that down,” I said urgently. “It’s a great opening sentence. Go!”

But he didn’t. He gave me a blank look and just sat there. I walked to the next desk to give him a minute to think. I glanced back. He was making faces at Amanda in the next row over.

Time for my little black chair, I thought. So I retrieved the chair from my closet that fits ever so nicely between the rows of desks in my classroom. It allows me to maneuver right down into the trenches alongside my students. I sat down next to Eric.

“How can I help you get started?” As I sat down, I untangled my lanyard again from my chunky stone necklace.

“I dunno,” he mumbled through auburn bangs. I stood there, thinking of an approach to take with Eric, whom educators would call a “hesitant” or “struggling” writer. He tossed his head back, his long bangs surging like a wave and then falling again to conceal freckles dotting a fair complexion.

I stared at him while he searched his binder for a pencil he wouldn’t need. I know this kid has writing talent, I thought, or he wouldn’t have no naturally jotted out that first stunner of a lead sentence. If he only had confidence in his words.

I lifted Erick’s laptop from the desk, thinking I would type as he spoke his story. And, true, maybe I should have waited a bit before doing that, but I did it anyway. As a writer, I know how important it is to strike while the fire is hot and with a line like Don’t buy a house in Oklahoma, I knew Erick had to explore it. Pronto.

I adjusted the screen. “Tell me why I shouldn’t buy house in Oklahoma.” He began to talk, and I started to type.

And then the bell rang.

The following day, we picked up where we had left off. I sat back down with him and we continued. Eric dictated for about thirty minutes, telling me the story of the tornado and the havoc it had wrought: broken windows, lost belongings, damaged cars, angry parents, minor injuries. Eager to be finished, he rattled off a makeshift ending. “There. That’s all I got,” he reported, glancing up at the clock. “Time to pack up.”

“Not so fast,” I said. “Grab this off the printer, please.” I formatted the story and pressed print so he could see on paper just how much he had produced in less than one class period. He—or we, I guess—had completed a first draft. It was the most writing he had produced in my class all year.

Eric stared at the three pages of double-spaced twelve-point Times New Roman he had created, scanning the paragraphs to the end.

“You spelled Choctaw wrong,” he said.

I smiled. “Well, circle it, Mr. Man, and we’ll fix it tomorrow. By the way, that’s an awesome story.”

Over the next few days and weeks, his narrative went no further than that first draft. Thanks to standardized testing, some end-of-the-year field trips, and the arrival of summer break, his first draft of the essay or story or whatever it will be, was put on hold again.

But not for much longer.

In a couple of weeks, Eric and I will resurrect his draft from Google Docs and see if we can find a direction for it. (He has no idea I’ve been thinking about it now and then over the past several months.)  There will be time in our class schedule to develop, revise, and otherwise polish that first draft into a piece he can submit to a publisher or a contest, or at least post to his blog.

I have no illusions. It won’t be easy to get that tornado piece finished, but eventually, he’ll arrive at a final draft and turn it in. As his teacher, I absolutely must believe that he’ll feel a sense of accomplishment, whether he’ll admit it, or even recognize it as such. An added bonus: he should gain some confidence in his words as well.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. We have a long list of middle school distractions to get through before then. Eric will be bored. He’ll need a drink. His Google Doc will “disappear.” He’ll ask me thirty times, “Is it good yet?” And then, there’s Amanda.


*The names were changed for this essay.

Thanks for reading! Follow me for more essays focused on education, and specifically, teaching English Language Arts in middle school. Click like and follow my blog for more posts. As the school year continues, it’s getting more and more difficult to post weekly, but I’m trying!  Thanks for stopping by.

When sixth-graders are asked to “Confirm Their Humanity”

Are there really robots out there writing poetry?

 

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Photo: Fernando Puente on Unsplash

It seemed like a crazy request last week when my students were uploading their poems to a publisher of youth poetry.

After writing poems about their favorite places… in a comfy chair in their bedroom, on a sturdy branch in an oak tree in their backyard, in a deer stand high above a pasture… a box popped up on the Submit page. It read: Confirm your humanity.

Didn’t they just do that, I thought? When kids write about playing with Barbie dolls, crashing a bike, sipping hot chocolate, or swooshin’ a three, aren’t they also confirming their humanity?

And yes, I get it. This is 2018. Security and privacy are tantamount. Especially in schools. But in a poetry contest? Are there really robots out there writing poetry? Maybe so.

The odd thing is that while most were asked to confirm their humanity, some weren’t. Some were immediately ushered to the Success! screen, which meant they could log off their laptops and continue on to the next activity.

However, most spent another five minutes scanning and clicking through minuscule thumbnails of traffic scenes looking for street signs.

Mrs. Yung, is a billboard a traffic sign?

Mrs. Yung, I can’t tell what’s in this picture.

Mrs. Yung, I keep getting them wrong.

I sat with a student to help him confirm his humanity through four different series of traffic-clogged urban street scenes. Writing a poem about the cattle auction at the sale barn hadn’t been enough.

And that example reveals the extra rub: in front of our school, which sits in the middle of rolling farmland, one flashing yellow light slows drivers to 45 mph. In other words, it can be difficult for some students to confirm their humanity out here by scrutinizing a series of bustling city street scenes. There are horses grazing across the road, for cryin’ out loud.

So, even though it may be difficult to relate to the technological safeguards that are intended to keep them safe from harm and fraud, those safeguards are still something my students and I must observe. Clicking on all those fuzzy photos is the price we must pay to affirm, confirm, and maintain our humanity.

Or even just write a poem.


I posted this last week on Medium.com. Technology in the classroom isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.

Last week, my 8th-graders tried a new project with me; the results were interesting and in some cases, outstanding! I’ll have a report on that next week. Follow me to get the notification! Thanks for reading.

The One-Word Summary

It’s one of the most specific and structured assignments my students do.

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Photo: Pixabay

One of my favorite activities to do in my language arts classes is to assign one-word summaries. These quick assignments are an easy way to encourage kids to think deeply about a text, including its theme or gist.

I assign one-word summaries for literature or informational text, for short articles or longer passages, or even whole books. I assigned a one-word summary to my eighth-graders about a week ago after we read an excerpt from 102 Minutes: The Unforgettable Story of the Fight to Survive Inside the Twin Towers by Jim Dwyer and Kevin Flynn. I also just assigned one on Thursday to my sixth-graders based on a short story we read from our textbook, “All Summer in a Day” by Ray Bradbury.  Some of my sixth-graders are still working on theirs and I’ll give them more time on Monday, Oct. 1 to finish it; this is the first of these exercises they’ve encountered in my classes.

The basic assignment is:

  1. Read a text.
  2. Choose one word to summarize it. (Sometimes, depending on the passage, I may have students choose their word from the text.)
  3. Write a paragraph or that explains or defends how the word summarizes the text.
  4. Here’s how I tweak the assignment to help students write more fully.

I also require that:

  • They quote the text directly by requiring that one sentence start “According to the text/article/story,… followed by the direct quote.”
  • They interpret the quote and how it summarizes by following the direct quote with a sentence that starts “In other words, …”. This prompts them to rephrase the quote, explaining it in their own words and possibly coming up with additional ideas to support their summary.
  • Adding a sentence or two after their “In other words,” sentence with more discussion of the quote and how it supports their one word.
  • They elaborate by adding somewhere in their paragraph a sentence that starts “For example, …”.
  • They use complex sentences by starting one sentence with a subordinating of their choice. I have a chart on the wall in my classroom that lists the most common ones: although, while, when, until, because, if, since. (Sometimes we call these subordinating conjunctions by the acronym AWUBIS words.)
  • Last week, to change things up with my eighth graders, I had one student choose one AWUBIS word that they would all use, and I asked them to start their summary with this word. The chosen word was “If.” Starting a sentence with “If” will automatically create a nice, flowing complex sentence. (Just to make sure they can write one of these, I usually have a few students rattle me off an example; if someone has trouble, I do some explaining and write an example on the whiteboard.)
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Here’s the rubric score sheet that kids follow along on as their friends read their one-word summaries. 

Sometimes, I’ve wondered whether having all these requirements seems a little excessive, so I will occasionally, depending on the text, adjust the rubric to fit the text or a student’s ability level. I used to feel also that I was forcing a formula into my students’ writing. However, I don’t worry about that anymore, especially when I know I offer them plenty of creative writing activities and projects

Another reason I don’t worry about forcing a formulaic style of writing onto my students is because I’ve done some reading about the benefits of providing kids with specific tools for analytical writing. I added the “ According to,” and “For example,” sentence starters based on tips outlined in The Writing Revolution: A Guide to Advancing Thinking Through Writing in All Subjects and Grades by Judith Hochman, Natalie Wexler, and Doug Lemov.

I learned about this curriculum when I read “How Self-Expression Damaged My Students”  in The Atlantic magazine, which included details about the changes in writing instruction practiced at New Dorp High School in New York City. I figured if it worked there, I should try it here. This is a super compelling article to read that stresses the importance of providing students with the exact words they’ll need to use to craft complete, fleshed-out ideas.

The idea to encourage kids to rephrase evidence with an “In other words,” sentence came directly from the book They Say, I Say: The Moves that Matter in Academic Writing by Cathy Birkenstein, Gerald Graff, and Tony Craine, and Cyndy Maxwell. One chapter in this book discusses how to “interpret” texts with the goal of not being a “hit and run” quoter, but instead to stay on the scene of the quote and explore it, discuss it, and relate it to the point of the paragraph.

About every other time my students write one-word summaries, I’ll have them present these to the class. I’ve found it works best to let them know from the beginning that they’ll eventually be presenting these in class. They try a little harder that way.

To start with, I make a rubric score sheet that the listening students fill out. The sheet is customized for the specific summary we’ve written, since I change up the requirements from one summary to the next.

As students read their summaries out loud at a podium at the front of the class, those listening really have to pay close attention. First, they must write down the chosen one word. Then when they hear the “According to,…” sentence, they check it off. When they hear the “For example,” or “In other words,” sentences, they check those off, too. I also have them rate the summary on its “clarity”, i.e. how easy it was to understand and follow.

I also ask presenters to make eye contact and use a hand gesture or two or to step out from behind the podium. Some kids will go out of their way to make googly-eyed contact  with me or a friend in the audience. I don’t mind that. It’s all part of learning to be comfortable up in front of a crowd.

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After they present, kids get candy, a Brave Buck, and stickers.

Presenting our one-word summaries usually ends up being a fun activity (I usually schedule it for a Friday), even though kids may be a little nervous at first. I don’t feel comfortable up in front of big crowds, either, so I understand how they may feel. I’ll even stand up next to a student if it helps them. I don’t want this to be an overly stressful part of the assignment.

And then when they’re done presenting their summary, if they’ve included all of the requirements in the rubric, or at least made a good, honest effort to, they receive lots of fabulous merchandise: three Brave Bucks (our school’s incentive coupon they can spend in the “store” on Fridays), a piece of candy, and a sticker of their choice from the stockpile in my desk.

Oh, one other thing: they also get to draw the next number for the next presenter… the next lucky member of our studio audience. The rubric score sheet has enough spaces for everyone, but drawing names makes it more fun. We applaud after each person speaks because everyone at least tried.

The one-word summary, while being one of the most specific and structured assignments we do, is also one of the most fun. I honestly believe it has helped my students think more deeply, better use and interpret the evidence they choose from their texts, and write more fully.


Thanks for reading! Let me know if you’ve tried this activity with your class and what “tweaks” you’ve made to make it work for you and your students. Have a great week!

Our field trip to a local 9/11 memorial

Plus: a few things my students didn’t know about 9/11

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On Wednesday, Sept. 12, I took my eighth-grade students to a local college to view the 9/11 memorial there. I have wanted to do this for a couple of years and finally, this year the stars aligned: my lesson planning fell into place, a few phone calls were made, permission slips were returned, and it happened.

My co-teacher next door and I both share classes, and as a result, we have a possible 100 minutes available to take short outings around our town. Local field trips are actually something we should take more advantage of because I think it really helps kids to get out into the community and experience what it offers.

Viewing the local memorial’ actual steel column from a building destroyed on Sept. 11, 2001 is important and helps to make the terror attacks a tangible reality for kids. Since they weren’t even born yet in 2001, I get the feeling from talking with them that 9/11 is an event relegated to the distant past, (as hard as that might be for older adults to believe!).

Fortunately, middle school kids are VERY interested in the attacks, however. They want to learn about them and understand the gravity of the event.  Read this post to see how I cover 9/11 in my language arts classes.

Here are a few things my students didn’t know about 9/11 prior to our discussions:

  • One student thought that only one plane was involved.
  • They didn’t know the hijacked planes were carrying passengers; they thought the hijackers were flying their own empty planes.
  • A few didn’t know that radical Islam was the religion observed by the hijackers.
  • They didn’t know that people from all over the world worked in the World Trade Center towers.
  • They didn’t know about the bombing of the Pentagon or Flight 93 in Pennsylvania.
  • They had no idea the cleanup lasted for nine months.
  • They didn’t know that buildings in addition to the Twin Towers were damaged and/or required demolition.
  • They didn’t know anything about the World Trade Center bombing in 1993.
  • They didn’t know who Osama bin Laden was.

This week, kids will continue to read about the 9/11 attacks and apply what they learn to a few writing projects. I’ll update you on those activities soon.


Thanks for reading! Leave a comment with your own 9/11 teaching ideas and projects. I’d love to hear what you do in your classroom.

The Candy Memoir: A Sweet Assignment

This candy-themed essay is a great intro to the genre of memoir

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I made this image using Canva.com and included it on my Instagram account, @elabraveandtrue.

My second writing project with sixth-graders (after the Sometimes Poem) is memoir writing. We dip our toes into memoir writing by documenting memories that involve candy. If kids can’t think of anything or don’t really like candy, they can write about a favorite food instead.

Memoir is usually a new genre for sixth-graders, so we first learn what a memoir is. To do that, I start with what they know… a story about something that’s happened to them. It can be a happy time or a sad time, but it just has to be a true story. This is called the personal narrative, and this year, when I asked who could tell me what a personal narrative is, several hands shot up. That’s an awesome sign! I so appreciate the teachers these kids had in their elementary years. They have established such a firm foundation to build on!

After discussing the features of a personal narrative, I passed out a memoir to everyone. This one was called “Whatchmacallits and Me” and had been written by Hunter, a former student who is now in high school. Several of the kids knew this student and were curious to see his writing.

I turned on my document camera, and asked kids to draw a line on their copy of the memoir. This line was just above the last paragraph, which contained a reflection or observation written by the student about the memory. I then asked the kids to crease the paper on the line, folding the last paragraph under the sheet of paper. I made a point to call the part they were now looking at a personal narrative.

I read aloud the narrative from the beginning to the line that we had drawn. As I finished reading, I told them, “That was the personal narrative.” Then we briefly discussed the strongest moment in the narrative, the weakest moment, and other things we noticed.

Then I asked the kids to unfold their paper After everyone had unfolded their paper, I announced, “Presto! Abracadabra! Just like magic, Hunter’s narrative has turned into a memoir!” By folding down the final paragraph, which contained the reflection, we revealed the memoir. I explained it this way so they could see that a memoir contains everything that a narrative does, but that it also includes a moment of reflection.

I also show a Powerpoint slide that shows the differences between the personal narrative and the memoir. I leave this up on the Smartboard for the duration of class. See below for these lists:

Here are the features of a personal narrative, as listed in my Powerpoint:

  • A story based on a memory or experience
  • Uses 1st-person point-of-view (I, me, we, us, our…)
  • Has an interesting lead that “hooks” the reader
  • Has a beginning, middle, and end
  • Uses sensory language (sights, sounds, smells, tastes, texture)

Here are the features of a memoir, as listed in my Powerpoint:

  • A story based on a memory or experience
  • Uses 1st-person point-of-view (I, me, we, us, our…)
  • Has an interesting lead that “hooks” the reader
  • Has a beginning, middle and end
  • Uses sensory language (sights, sounds, smells, tastes, texture)
  • BUT ALSO: Has a reflection… a “lesson learned”, a realization, or an explanation of why the memory is important to you
  • BUT ALSO: May contain exaggeration, and made-up details, if necessary.

We repeated this same procedure for another former student’s memoir about chocolate-covered graham crackers. For good measure, we did this one more time with an essay titled “Ice Cream” from the book, Candy and Me: A Love Story by Hilary Liftin. I searched on Amazon.com for it and its current edition’s title is Candy and Me: A Girl’s Tale of Life, Love, and Sugar.

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Liftin’s book contains several (around 30-40) memoir essays about specific candies. I especially like the chapters on Bottle Caps, Ice Cream, Tootsie Rolls, the Bubble Burger, Sugar, Candy Corn, and Conversation Hearts. (There are a few essays with passages not suitable for middle school, so plan ahead for that.) However, this book provides enough texts to share with students to help them get ideas for their own.

Following all of these read-alouds, we did quite a bit of sharing. We talked about our favorite candy, why we like it so much, and then we tried to narrow our ideas to a specific memory with that candy.

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Memories with our favorite candy don’t have to be life-changing to make a good memoir; if sitting around the campfire eating s’mores just reminds one of being happy, then that’s a special enough memory for the assignment. It’s okay for the reflection to simply acknowledge that a s’more reminds you of good times.

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This is the table of contents from the Liftin book, Candy and Me. It’s full of fun chapters.

At this point,  I had students get out a sheet of notebook paper and asked them to do some free-writing about their favorite candy. Getting thoughts down about their candy was the main objective. They could start by simply describing their candy… flavors, texture, appearance, or what the

Many started bringing me short paragraphs about how great their candy was and that was okay. However, at this time, I asked them to record a memory with the candy. It could be as basic as just riding home from the grocery story in the back seat of the car, slowly peeling back the wrapper and inhaling the white chocolate aroma of a Zero bar. This usually prompted students to get a little more down on paper.

Sixth-graders love to write a few lines and then come up to you and ask, “Is this good?” They really want to do well.

As a usual practice, I like for kids to do their initial writing by hand on paper. When they have filled up the front of a sheet of paper, I allow them to get out a laptop and type it up, making any changes they need to as they go. One page of writing is a lot to a sixth-grader, so I offer to give them ideas if they get stuck and can’t fill up the page.

Probably the best thing about these candy memoirs is they allow me to talk with each student individually and get to know them a little better. It’s fun to find out that we like the same candy, for example. Sometimes we find out that someone’s favorite is someone else’s least favorite.

It is difficult for some kids to add reflective moments into their narratives. Many will simply not add them until I prompt them with a phrase such as, “Looking back on it now, …” or “Eating Skittles showed me that…”

The candy memoir is an entry point into the genre of memoir. In fact, we follow up this sweet assignment by writing a memoir that isn’t based on candy, but on a memory of a special moment from their young lives. As we get into this part of the unit, I’ll fill you in on those details.


Thanks for reading! Check back with me next week for a continuation of this post. I’ll write about the next step… venturing out into writing a memoir about a special or memorable moment.