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.
It’s one of the most specific and structured assignments my students do.
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:
Read a text.
Choose one word to summarize it. (Sometimes, depending on the passage, I may have students choose their word from the text.)
Write a paragraph or that explains or defends how the word summarizes the text.
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.)
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
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.
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!
Plus: a few things my students didn’t know about 9/11
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.
This candy-themed essay is a great intro to the genre of memoir
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
This year, we wrote out an exploded moment instead of just watching one be narrated in a video.
Last Tuesday, I planned an activity for my seventh- and eighth-grade classes that worked so well, I knew I had to share. We exploded a baseball moment.
“Exploding a moment “ is what writing teacher Barry Lane calls it when writers take an important moment from a narrative and approach it like a filmmaker treats an important movie in a film… in slow motion. When we visualize the moment in slow motion and then describe the moment in slow motion, we automatically describe it in such detail that the reader views the event with the same intensity and importance that the writer does.
In the past, I have always shown one of Lane’s videos where he replaces the sentence, “I poured the milk over my cousin’s head and it made a huge mess and milk went everywhere,” with a thoroughly engaging and highly detailed “mind movie” of the milk incident that explodes across a full page or two. We visualize the milk running in rivers down the cousin’s face. We visualize the milk dripping onto the table and then puddling on the floor. We visualize the horrified expression on the cousin’s face as she blinks to keep the milk out of her eyes. Here’s that video, which we watch only to 2:40.
This year, I decided to show another of Lane’s videos where he hits a baseball out of the ballpark. It’s a three-second moment and then it’s over. But then he follows that clip with the same scene in a slow-motion sequence that extends for about one minute.
As I previewed the video, I got the idea to play the slo-mo part in class and stop the video about every five to ten seconds so students could describe what they saw in each snippet.
With a short talk where we recalled the spilled milk video to review what we already knew about “exploding a moment,” we reacquainted ourselves with the concept to use in our “slice of life” essays that students had started the previous day.
Then I played the “baseball video where Lane introduces and discusses using the “explode a moment” technique to describe especially important moments during decisive events in our lives, such as hitting a home run in a championship game.
After the introduction, we watch the slow-mo part and then I ask students to get out a sheet of notebook paper and a pencil or pen. I explain that I will play a short segment of the slow motion portion and then stop it. At that time, they’ll write about what they just saw. And that’s exactly what we did last week.
After about every third snippet, I asked a few kids to share the last two to three sentences they had written. They had fun doing that, plus it was fun to see how different kids described the exact same video.
When we finished the activity (at the 1:39 point), several students shared their writing, which filled the front and back of a sheet of notebook paper. Only a few kids had less than a page. Most of the students couldn’t believe how much they had written.
We discussed how “exploding a moment” in slow-motion helps the readers visualize the story and how sometimes that kind of visualization involves a lot of writing.
Watching the video five to ten seconds at a time takes quite a bit of time. In fact, when I do this again, I’ll adjust my bell-ringer activity at the beginning of class so we end the activity with about twenty minutes left of class so kids actually have time to get out their laptops and work on their drafts.
Last week, when we finished, there was about eight minutes of class left… not quite enough time to get out their slice-of-life drafts in order to apply the technique.
That last eight-minutes of class last week would have been a prime time to share a handout I made the next morning called, “Explode the Right Moment.” I used parts of a book by Gary Provost called 100 Ways to Improve Your Writing.
My handout basically suggests using the “explode a moment” technique judiciously. In other words, choose the right moment to explode.
In any story, there will be only one to two key moments to explode in this way. For example, don’t explode your character’s walk to his car if the walk isn’t important to the story.
Find an important moment and explode that moment only.
Some kids have trouble finding such moments. I let students know I can help them find “explodable” moments if they need help.
Three more key tips I remember from last week:
Let kids know that, although Lane suggests exploding the big moments of our lives, this technique works equally well with the small, yet important, ordinary moments of our lives. That’s why I think it applies to “slice-of-life” writing especially well.
Don’t play the video segments over again and again. Perhaps once is fine, but any more than that and kids get the idea that they don’t have to be watching carefully.
Make sure kids stay “in the moment” for now. Some will be tempted to write about, for example, Aunt Julie watching the home run from the stadium bleachers and dreaming of her former baseball playing days. Encourage students to stay on the field and not to over-invent for now. The point is to describe the hitting of the ball, the build-up before the hit where the pitcher and batter are eyeing each other up, stepping back and forth, taking a few test swings, and all the other tiny worthy details that create a vivid, fleshed-out version of the hit.
I heard probably one or two “That was kinda fun!” comments in each class and I thought about how neat it would be to have other one-minute videos available of some activity done in slow motion. These could be a band walking onto a stage at a concert, the first time seeing a baby sibling, opening a special Christmas present.
Using videos such as these would allow this to be a recurring activity where we could continue to build our skills in seeing the intricacies of a moment in order to write about them fully and completely.
I may even do this activity with my sixth-graders in a couple of weeks as they continue to work on their memoirs. I’ll share about how it works with them when I write about that unit soon.
Thanks for reading! Let me know how you use Barry Lane’s materials in your classes. I have the entire “Barry in a Box” set, but frankly, the DVD set was somewhat disappointing in quality and navigation. I just use what videos I can (such as the two mentioned in this post) by searching for them on Youtube. Follow me for more news from my middle school ELA classroom.
Each year for the past three years, I have assigned an argument essay contest to my eighth-graders. The contest is sponsored by Stossel in the Classroom (SITC), an educational website hosted by John Stossel, former consumer reporter and correspondent for ABC’s 20/20, and current Fox News contributor. According to the SITC website’s About page, the “program is sponsored by the Center for Independent Thought, an IRS 501(c)3 tax-exempt non-profit educational foundation, funded entirely by private donations.”
SITC offers teachers several teaching resources, including free DVDs featuring Stossel’s news segments with accompanying lesson plans and teacher guides, as well as its annual essay contest and its new video contest. The themes of many of the lessons and DVDs “challenge conventional wisdom” about many current issues, according to this explanation on the Center for Independent Thought’s website.
Here are some details about the essay contest.
Age Range for the Contest: Ages 12-18.
Odds of Winning: For the 2018 contest, 87 essays were awarded a prize out of 2,200 submitted. That’s about a one-in-25 chance. That’s not bad, I tell my kids. A couple of years ago, I remember the odds being about one in forty.
Topic or Prompt: Each year features a different prompt. The 2018 contest, which has concluded, was:
Natural disasters often bring people together, as they undertake rescue operations and work to rebuild their communities. People outside the affected communities usually offer additional support. But what about those that see a disaster as a way to make money? Watch John Stossel’s video about “price gouging” and write a 500-1000 word essay, arguing for or against laws that prohibit price “gouging” during an emergency. How do such laws affect disaster victims? How do they change the incentives of potential suppliers?
The video mentioned in the prompt appears on the website and is easily accessible by students. I usually show students the video up to two or three times so we can discuss it thoroughly. Our discussions usually require that we listen to the video again so we can catch exactly what was said and/or what was not said. My students are usually engaged with the prompts, which always have a current events theme, which can often veer into the political. Regardless, the topics always give students something new and complex to think about.
This past spring, my students couldn’t believe the controversy surrounding price gouging. They had never considered the nuances present during times of a disaster when people are in desperate need of crucial supplies.
Best Thing (to me) About This Contest: I would say that the best aspect of this contest is the multi-media approach that it provides. There are not many times during the school year when students must watch and listen to videos in order to develop a viewpoint, write a corresponding thesis, and then complete an argument.
In the Missouri Learning Standards, students are required to utilize technology, including the Internet, to write and publish their work. The SITC essay contest, because of its reliance on the Stossel videos, heavily involve technology. Students may also research on their own to gain the information needed for their essays; I also provide related articles and copies of Stossel’s book No, They Can’t: Why Government Fails–But Individuals Succeed. I have ten copies of this book in my room. One year, the contest rules stated that students were required to quote the book at least once, so I ordered a handful from Amazon.
Students must also provide a Works Cited page that lists their sources. The DAR American History Essay Contest also requires this. I also require it on several of our class assignments; I think it’s a good thing for students to get into the habit of providing their sources in a consistent format. It gets them ready for high school.
Length: 500-1,000 words. I like that the contest has a minimum as well as a maximum word count, since some of my students will want to write as little as possible if there is no minimum provided.
Deadline: Mid-February of each year. Check the rules page for exact dates for 2019. to submit these essays, teachers are encouraged to electronically submit their students’ essay en masse. This is a little cumbersome, but I know in the past, I have found time to do this at home.
Prizes: A total of $9,500 in cash prizes are awarded. First place receives $1,500 plus an expenses-paid summer trip with a teacher and/or guardian to New York City and lunch with Stossel; second $1,000. There are ten finalists who win $200 each; 25 semi-finals who win $100 each; and fifty honorable mention winners who receive $50 each.
Unexpected Bonus: Easily found mentor texts! Winning entries for the most recent contest and previous years’ contests are easily found on the website. These are super helpful to show students the level of quality this contest requires.
For More Info: Browse the SITC website, which has all the information you need to have your students enter the contest. I like how students can direct their ideas however they choose to make their argument. While there is a specific prompt, students are free to approach it as they desire.
My students have never placed in this contest. I believe we have entered it for the past three or four years. We spend about two weeks of class time working on it. Apparently, we should spend more!
Happening during the spring right before we begin preparing for state testing, this essay contest provides a good review of the most difficult type of expository writing: the argument.
Thanks for reading! Leave a comment with your thoughts or, if you’ve tried this contest in the past, let me know how your students fared. Follow my blog for more contest information.
Joel R., a former eighth-grader who graduated from KMS in May, placed first with his poem “The Lucky Snag”; Allyson W., also a former eighth-grader who graduated from KMS in May, placed second with her poem “Breathe.” Zach B., who will be an eighth-grader this fall, placed third with his poem “A Deer’s Morning Graze.”
The students each received cash prizes of $200, $100, and $50, respectively. Cash awards were sponsored by Majesty Outdoors, a nonprofit “focused on bringing awareness to the fatherless epidemic in our society,” according to the foundation’s website.
Winning entries will be printed in the December/January issue of Outdoors Unlimited, OWAA’s magazine.
This is the second year KMS students have participated in the contest. In 2017, Elijah D. placed second in the junior prose division.
“I am so proud of KMS students. With this contest in particular, every student is able to find an outdoor-related topic to write about and then they stick with their poems or essays and work so hard on them, revising them until they are sent to Montana,” said Marilyn Yung, language arts teacher at KMS.
I’ll post the winning poems in a post later this week. Follow me to get those.
If you ever decide to have your students enter this contest, use these winning entries as mentor texts. That’s exactly what I did to prepare my kids for writing their entries.
In addition to sending out the news release, I also made a big deal out of the news on my private class Instagram account.
I posted an Anchorman meme that there would be a “big announcement” coming soon. I also posted a video announcing the award. (I should have embedded the video into this post, but I failed. Sorry about that!)
On another note… Don’t forget to let others know about your activities in the classroom. Get to know your local newspapers and other media so you can notify them when good things happen.
The editor to whom I sent the above release usually runs what I email to him in one of the two newspapers he publishes locally. Do a little research, find the names and email addresses of the local editor at your local media offices, and start communicating with them.
Get some publicity for your school and the part you play in your profession.
Thanks for reading! Click like if you found this valuable. Follow my blog for more writing contest news, and other posts about teaching middle school ELA.