Don’t dis formulaic writing prompts

Use structure to develop ideas and writer’s voice

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I’m pretty proud of the written response in the picture above. It’s written by a seventh-grade student who, while being a strong writer, struggles with turning in work, whether assigned as homework or completed during class.

He is not doing well in my class “grade-wise”; however, this paragraph shows the higher level of thinking he is able to record in writing.  (Yes, there are problems with this response, such as misspelled words and run-ons, but this student’s idea development is strong and that’s more important to me. We can always fix the editing later.)

Some of the paragraph may be hard to discern, so I’ve transcribed it below without corrections:

“In the book, Chasing Lincoln’s Killer, we learn/learned more than most people would normally know. Most people just know Lincoln was shot watching a play but there is more. I learned for the first time their was a twelve-day manhunt. Acorrding to the novel James Swanson authorther of Chasing Lincoln’s Killer, “There was a plan.” In other words, Booth had it all figured out. Close to the end after Booth was shot, and paralized he asked someone to hold up his hands whe they did he spoke useless, useless. I think when Booth says this he is saying that all his efforts, his plans, and evan his completed task was useless cause he felled to live on, he felled to tell his story, he felled to fight on for the south.”

This paragraph was written in response to the prompt below. Here’s what I love about this response:

  • it builds up to and introduces the evidence in a satisfying way
  • it interprets the evidence with two sentences, including that final golden one
  • it uses repetition effectively (and I made sure to tell him that when I spoke with him about it)
  • the writer put his own “spin” on the material… it feels original and fresh

Here’s that prompt:

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I realize that there are quite a few “requirements” in this prompt. Sometimes I feel that I’m overly prescriptive with my prompts.

And then I receive a response back like this that reminds me that many kids thrive with the guidelines. They’re able to combine the guidelines with their own ideas and voice to create accurate, effective communication that also possesses a distinct style.


Thanks for reading! I use similar prompts like this throughout the year. Sometimes I’ll add other items for kids to use such as sentences that begin “For example, …”. What do your writing prompts look like? Feel free to leave a comment!

When students don’t “follow along” in the book

“Following along” may not work for every student

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Yeah, there are a few misspelled words. Oh, well. He was paying attention and that’s a big deal. 

I’ve been reading Chasing Lincoln’s Killer by James Swanson to my seventh-graders and we just finished it on Friday.

About every two chapters or so, they’ve written a response to a question I’ve posed to help them comprehend the text as well as think critically about some of the questions and topics it raises.

Because our students have plenty of independent reading time in their Humanities class, I have chosen to read-aloud this book. I also think it’s important to model reading, so from cover to cover, the students follow along while I read. Well, nearly all of them.

About a week ago, I noticed that whenever I glanced up from reading to check the class, one boy who sits at the back of the room was quietly looking back at me as I read.  Apparently, he was listening. He was also making connections. The next day his father gave him permission to bring some actual Confederate States of America bills to school. Arranging the money on my desk for the photo below, there was no doubt that he had been paying attention even though he wasn’t “following along.”

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This is the Confederate money a student brought. He wasn’t following along in the traditional sense, but he was paying attention!

Another student—I’ll call him Joe– was drawing on a sheet of copy paper as I read during the course of three or four class periods. Early on, I asked him to follow along once or twice, and finally decided that I wouldn’t ask again, especially when I looked at the drawing that Joe dropped into the seventh-grade basket at the end of class each day.

He was working on a portrait of John Wilkes Booth from a photo in the book. He surrounded the portrait with words posed as questions. It was interesting and thought-provoking and showed that he was indeed paying attention during the reading. He may not have been  “following along,” but he was definitely engaged.

So just because a student isn’t following along, don’t assume they aren’t paying attention and learning. In fact, Joe and his drawing has caused me to consider how other kids may better show their understanding (and misunderstanding, too–let’s be real) through drawing or sketching. Recording their thoughts and thinking must not always equate to producing a written response, after all. 


Thanks for reading! Our next step in the unit is to watch a movie called The Conspirator, which focuses on the trial of Booth’s conspirators, including Mary Surratt, the owner of the boarding house where the assassination was purportedly planned. The end result?  An essay that argues Surratt’s innocence or guilt. Follow my blog for more posts about middle school ELA.

 

My number one most effective writing assignment: Gallagher’s AOW

Nothing works better to build writing stamina.

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Here’s a screenshot of the handout for a recent AOW I created for my classes. I found the article on Motherwell.com.

If there’s one assignment I would never give up it would be the AOW, the Article of the Week. Gotta have it. Gotta do it. I can’t imagine teaching without it.

You may have heard of AOWs. They’re pretty well-known among English teachers. They were developed by Kelly Gallagher, a high school language arts teacher in Anaheim, Calif. He’s written books such as Teaching Adolescent Writers, Write Like This, and Readicide.

Gallagher developed the Article of the Week assignment to help students gain more background knowledge about politics, history, current events… in short, the world around them.

When I took Gallagher’s cue and began assigning AOWs in my own classroom, I chose to do so because I agree that kids need to expand their background knowledge. Many can’t relate to the literature we teach because they don’t possess the personal prior knowledge to connect to that literature.

I also like the idea of kids writing to reflect or give their take on a particular topic. Plus, reading and responding to nonfiction texts takes a different set of skills than reading literature: identifying central ideas, finding evidence to support those central ideas, noticing patterns and sequences in the content of the articles, and more. AOWs would surely help my students develop or at least practice those skills.

Gallagher’s AOWs are concise. His handout consists of a reprinted article, with a box at the top of the page that asks students to do three things: 1) mark their confusion, 2) show evidence of a close reading, and 3) write a 1+ page reflection.

How I tweaked Gallagher’s AOW to make it work for me

However, the steps outlined by Gallagher are too open-ended for my middle school students. The expectations for their writing are not focused in a way that my students (most of them anyway) would appreciate. Instructions so brief would only lead to confusion for many of them.

For that reason, I’ve provided more specific instructions and I’ve used each assignment to teach two specific skills I am focusing on this year that actually go hand-in-hand: interpretation and idea development.

Here’s a photo of the rubric for the AOW shown in the photo at the top of this post:

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Here’s a recent AOW. The “Needed Items” may change occasionally; however, a direct quotation is always required. This year, I’ve begun requiring students to follow up those direct quotes with a sentence that begins “In other words, …” to help them develop the habit of interpreting every time they quote an author. In addition, the rubrics often help students practice using a specific kind of punctuation. This rubric asks students to use a semi-colon; another recent AOW required students to use an em dash.

Another important aspect that I feel makes these assignments essential is their frequency. I assign these once a week. (The AOWs are in addition to in-class writing activities, such as writing prompts and essays.) Every Monday morning, students are given a new AOW that is due the following Monday. Writing a thorough response on a weekly basis outside of class gets my students in the habit of writing regularly.

I assign these responses weekly to help students develop writing stamina and to help them learn to write on demand.  My own daughter was required in her eighth-grade classes (at another district) to write weekly and I know it was invaluable in helping her develop the confidence to write consistently.

Kids need narrative practice, too

One change I have made over the past year, however, is to alternate AOWs with what I call EOWs (Essays of the Week).  EOWs focus on narrative writing skills and include a list of twenty or so prompts around a certain theme. Recent themes included style and health, politics and power, and food.  I decided to create EOWs after I determined that kids needed more practice writing in a narrative style. These essays allow kids to inject more of their personal voice into their writing.

Kids tell me they enjoy writing the EOWs much more than they do the AOWs; they like the increased creativity involved. Another difference: the rubric obviously doesn’t require annotating, but may require that students open their essay with dialogue, for example. The EOWs also have a longer length requirement: they must be two pages typed instead of the usual one page for AOWs.

I pull my prompt topics from a list of 650 writing prompts published by the New York Times.  One good thing about these EOWs: they can be reused from year to year.  However, make sure you don’t just “cut and paste” a swath of topics from the list, since some are definitely geared to older students.

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Here’s a recent EOW I assigned.

One downside

One downside to using AOWs is that for them to be topical, I must spend time every other week to find an article to use. I have used several from Newsela.com, modifying them for a printed handout. I have also found many elsewhere. I keep my eyes and ears open for the current week’s news so I can provide a really up-to-the-minute assignment.

Introducing an AOW usually takes the better part of our 53-minute class periods. After I pass out the handout, we briefly talk about the article’s subject, then we’ll look at the prompt and the rubric to see what they require. Following this introduction, I’ll often read aloud the article,  using a document camera while I read, all the while demonstrating annotation.

This is how we do it

After we finish reading the article, I’ll show the kids a related video from Youtube or a similar video source. For example, for one AOW on football head injuries, we watched one to three short clips of players who suffer from concussion injuries.

The EOWs don’t require as much time to introduce. We just skim through the list, discuss a few that look especially interesting to some students, and move on. They know what to do beyond that, which is to put their things away so we can carry on with whatever else I have planned for the day. AOWs and EOWs are homework assignments.

I put a lot of thought and time into creating these weekly assignments, which I consider my number one most effective writing assignment. However, I know these assignments help my students conquer their fear and hesitation with writing. Writing on a regular basis is a great skill that I know will benefit them immensely in high school and beyond.


Thanks for reading again this week! Let me know how you’ve tweaked Gallagher’s AOW concept for your students. 

 

 

Use this totally free source for movie and TV transcripts

Every so often, this website comes in really handy.

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Photo by Denise Jans on Unsplash

Ever need to know exactly what a character said in a movie? Ever want to show your students how dialogue is done for film?

I recently found a free —I repeat, FREE—source for any and every movie transcript. At the time, my class had just finished watching The Conspirator, a 2010 movie directed by Robert Redford about the trial of Mary Surratt, the first woman executed by the U.S. government for her involvement in the assassination of Abraham Lincoln.  I was helping a student find the lines spoken by a Civil War general during Surratt’s trial.

Here’s a link to this incredible websiteSpringfield! Springfield!

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This is a screenshot from the movie, The Conspirator, which shows how the scripts are provided: just line by line, without character names, directions, or setting details.

This website gives you the entire script for a movie from start to finish. While the site doesn’t show which character speaks which line, it does contain the entire spoken dialogue for films. You’ll need to scroll through the script for the particular scene you may need; therefore, you’ll need to already be familiar with the movie.

That being said, this site is invaluable.

In addition to thousands of movie scripts, the site also offers scripts for thousands of TV episodes for current and past series. The movie database contains scripts ranging from current releases to the oldies. Go here now to surf around and see what you may find or bookmark the site for later. Your students will thank you when they’re needing to cite  a movie for a paper or for research.

***


Thanks for reading! Check out last week’s post about how not to feel guilty for showing videos or movies before a holiday break.

One road-tested way to connect with your students

Put a “lotion station” on your desk

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This is the “lotion station” on my desk. 

 

If you’re wanting another way to connect with your students, try adding a small box of lotions to your desk or wherever it might fit best in your classroom. Male English teachers (all five of you out there) can try this, too! Find a couple of macho-scented moisturizers you like, buy those, toss in a few women’s versions, and jump in!

I’ve always been a big fan of hand creams and lotions. Some of them can be a real pick-me-up throughout the day, especially when they have an aromatherapeutic fragrance. In the past, I kept my hand creams to myself, but this year I decided to stock a small collection in a recycled red box on my desk. Bath & Bodyworks is a favorite source.

I cycle new bottles and tubes in occasionally, and I added some holiday “flavors” for the Christmas season. Although it’s difficult to find men’s lotions or moisturizers, I did discover Vaseline Men’s Healing Moisture at Target and threw that one into the mix as well.

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 I bought these new lotions after Christmas to add to the box when school resumes next week.

Having my lotion station has been a positive in my room this year for this reason: it gives students and me something to connect around other than school.

At the beginning of class, as kids are settling in for the hour, a couple of them will go to my desk to try a new lotion after they turn in their bell work. That’s when I’ll hear comments such as…

“Mrs. Yung, you should get more Wild Madagascar Vanilla. It’s almost out!”

“This one smells so good, Mrs. Yung.”

“See, Mrs. Yung… try this one.”

Trying on and talking about the lotions also provides a tiny little time to talk. That’s helpful during a tightly scheduled school day. For instance, kids have about fifteen minutes to eat breakfast and socialize before their eight classes begin each day. Lunch lasts for 25 minutes,  which also includes an eight-minute recess.

At the end of the day, our buses depart as soon as the kids leave last hour and exit the building. There is little opportunity to talk with any student during a normal day.

And because my class periods are usually fairly structured, time to talk one-on-one with students during class is limited. Having a lotion station gives students a reason to mingle and talk briefly with me or others nearby. Obviously, if the extra talking becomes a problem, I simply say, “Okay, make it quick and have a seat.”

So far, the lotion station has not been a problem or a distraction at all. In fact, I will definitely continue keeping my lotion box stocked and would recommend it to anyone who needs a quick, easy way to foster better relationships with your students.


Thanks for reading! What ways have you found to connect better with your kids on a personal level? Feel free to leave a comment! See you soon.

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. 

 

NCTE’s Promising Young Writer’s 2019 Contest Prompt has been released

A writing contest just for 8th-graders!

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Photo: Justin Luebke on Unsplash

The long-awaited 2019 prompt for NCTE’s Promising Young Writer’s contest has been released. This year, NCTE invites students to write about instances in their lives when they “made a conscious choice to welcome or show hospitality to an experience, feeling, or person.” Click this link for more information.

This contest’s purpose is to, in the words of NCTE’s contest description, “1) To stimulate and recognize the writing talents of eighth-grade students and 2) to emphasize the importance of writing skills among eighth-grade students.”

I am glad there’s a contest specifically for eighth-grade writers. It seems this grade, the final grade before high school, can often be overlooked in the grand scheme of a student’s schooling. It’s the final year of middle school, and while a student’s formative years are far in the past, their all-important high school career has yet to begin.

If you’re unfamiliar with this contest, click here for my entire blog post about it. Check out the comments for special insight from a fellow teacher who has experience with this contest. She offers some especially good tips and thoughts.

One comment she makes: “What I love most about this contest is that there is no set number of winners. Everyone who meets the criteria will receive an award, and even though that is usually a very select few, it’s still nice that it’s not really a ‘competition.’ Students are measured against the criteria, not against each other.”


Thanks for reading! I hope this post provides you the information you need about this contest so you can investigate it further for your students. While this is a new contest for my students, I do plan to assign it after the Christmas break. Have a great week!