Understanding Laura Ingalls Wilder through historical context

There’s a standard for that, and students are mastering it.

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Students get it. They are learning to appreciate the historical and cultural contexts of literature. Photo by João Silas on Unsplash

There are two reading standards contained in the Missouri Learning Standards that address the historical and cultural contexts of the literature that students in grades 6-12 read during their education. One standard, coded RL3C, specifically requires students to be able to explain how a story’s plot and conflict reflect historical and/or cultural contexts. The other standard, coded RI3C, requires students to explain, more generally, how a nonfiction text reflects historical and/or cultural contexts.

Both standards reveal educators’ and legislators’ expectations that student readers recognize the era or timeframe in which a narrative or article is written. It could also be said that students are expected to take into account the prevailing attitudes of that era when evaluating, discussing, and even merely appreciating the work.

At an English education conference last week, I noticed how applicable these two standards are to the discussion regarding the removal in June of Laura Ingalls Wilder‘s name from a prestigious annual authors’ award given by the Association for Library Service to Children (ALSC), an arm of the American Library Association.

According to an ALA press release, “This award honors an author or illustrator whose books, published in the United States, have made, over a period of years, a significant and lasting contribution to children’s literature.” Formerly called the Laura Ingalls Wilder Award, the prize is now named the Children’s Literature Legacy Award.

In effect, the removal of Wilder’s name from the ALSC’s award ignores two things: 1) the values these standards support and 2) the work of teachers (in Missouri, at least) who are actively teaching their students to:

  • recognize and explain the historical contexts of the literature that they read.
  • consider how texts reflect the history of the era in which they were written.
  • appreciate a historical author’s work, including its prejudices and biases, without feeling it necessary to denigrate the author.
    • For example, students are prepared to read Little House on the Prairie and understand that Laura’s descriptions of the Osage Indians reflect her biases and prejudices.  Students can also do this with Huckleberry Finn, To Kill A Mockingbird or any other text they may read.

Let’s give students some credit, ALSC. Thanks to these two standards, students get it. They understand how a piece of literature can be biased, show prejudice, and perpetuate stereotypes, but at the same time, be considered an important record of a specific time in history.


Thanks for reading! Click like so others can more easily find this post. Follow my blog for more essays on education and, more specifically, middle school ELA.

Sweet! Instagram for Your Class!

Three Reasons to Add Instagram to Your Teaching

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Photo by Courtney Prather on Unsplash

A year ago, I attended an educational technology conference hosted by Branson School District in Branson, Mo. At one session, I learned about the possibilities of opening a private Instagram account with my classes. The presenter used a private account with her own classes and encouraged the attendees to consider it for our own classes. Using an Instagram account could be a way that we as teachers could communicate with students in an additional way that would be engaging and topical. It’s important to meet kids at their level with regards to technology, she suggested.

I did just that, and decided at the beginning of the school year to give it a try.  The first thing I needed to do was communicate with parents about the new account. This would involve sending home, to interested students only, a form that parents could sign that would inform them of the account and also provide me with the assurance that they were aware of the account and either did or did not permit their child to follow the account.

I plan to use the same flyer again next month. It explains that:

  • the account is private, which means that I, as the account’s administrator, am the only one who can allow followers; the public cannot automatically follow the account.
  • I will not follow any students in return; this can be confirmed by looking at the account profile.
  • their child may possibly appear in posts and if this isn’t allowed, they need to let me know. Again, with a private account, this shouldn’t be an issue, but I want parents to know that I respect their wishes if they don’t want their child appearing in the account. I keep track of permissions and other notes on a roster in my room. Last year, there were only two students whose pictures I was not allowed to post.
  • I need to know their child’s Instagram username since many don’t use their actual name. This goes for parents, too. There was space on the form for usernames to be included.

I distributed the Instagram flyers at our open house and then had a stack available for kids to take home during the year. I now have fifty followers on the site, which is roughly half of my total students. I also have about four parents who follow and about four teachers who follow it also.

I do have two students who have requested to follow the account but haven’t turned in their permission slips. Those kids know that they must return the form before I will acknowledge their follow request.

I love my private class Instagram. It has been a real plus for my classes and I’m glad I started it. Here are three reasons why:

  1. It shows parents at any time exactly what we do in my classes. For example, I had a new student in sixth grade last year. Her mother noticed her daughter in a photo working on an assignment in a post and commented, “Love seeing pictures! Thank you so much!”
  2. It provides another means of communication with students. I can post reminders or just notify them of upcoming activities. I have even posted some class news over the summer! However, no one is at a disadvantage if they don’t participate or follow the account. There is no grade-related advantage to following. Last year, if there was an interesting post that I wanted to share with everyone, I just showed the post on my phone to interested students in class.
  3. It provides a record of the year and a record of my teaching. On too many occasions to count, I’ve scrolled back through posts to see exactly when we did a particular activity.  It also is an incredibly convenient way to share my work with others.

If you’ve ever thought about using Instagram in your own classes, I would definitely give it a try. It will undoubtedly add an exciting, new dimension to the dynamics of your classroom for the new school year!


Thanks for reading! Click like so others may find this post more easily. Leave a comment if you have a question or need to know more about starting an Instagram account for your classes.  Feel free to follow my blog for more posts about middle school ELA!

New book for my classroom!

Flying Lessons & Other Stories | Edited by Ellen Oh

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New book! Yay!

Last week I ordered Flying Lessons & Other Stories from Amazon for my classroom library. I had learned about the book by visiting the American Indians in Children’s Literature (AICL) blog a couple of weeks ago as I was researching and reading for two posts I wrote, Punishing Laura Ingalls Wilder and A Source for Native American Lit.

Flying Lessons was included in a list on the AICL blog of Best Books for 2017 by native writers or illustrators. It was the only book listed under the heading “For Middle Grades.” The specific Best Book status was for the short story entitled “Choctaw Bigfoot, Midnight in the Mountains.” The author, Tim Tingle, is a member of the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma. Like other authors mentioned on the blog, Tingle’s story is honored for its accurate portrayal of native people, their traditions, cultures, and beliefs.

Flying Lessons & Other Stories contains ten short stories and poetry by ten diverse writers, including Kwame Alexander, Grace Lin, Walter Dean Myers, and Jaqueline Woodson, among others.

Ellen Oh,  co-founder and president of We Need Diverse Books, edited the collection of stories. This organization, according to its website, exists to advocate “essential changes in the publishing industry to produce and promote literature that reflects and honors the lives of all young people.”  In the words of Walter Dean Myers, as quoted in a section of the book entitled “Why We Need Diverse Books,” young people need to see themselves reflected in the pages of the books they rea.d

So far, I’ve read only a few selections from the book: Tingle’s story, Tim Federle’s “Secret Samantha,” Jacqueline Woodson’s “Main Street,” and the collection’s namesake, “Flying Lessons” by Soman Chainani. I feel that the book will be good for reading aloud during class, and also a source of mentor texts that contain effective examples of realistic dialogue, descriptive settings, and captivating opening lines. I’ll be reading more stories from the book over the next week.

I struggle to find engaging short stories for middle school students. Since I usually start the school year off with memoir writing, I feel that this book will provide relevant, contemporary storylines and characters that my students can identify with.

One regret: I do wish the book had a more interesting cover. Because of its text-only design, I already know I’ll have to really talk up the book to get my students to check it out. Books with photographs or colorful pictures or illustrations always get more attention.

As I work more with the book in my classroom, I’ll relay to you how my students receive it. In fact, having a few of them write a short review will be beneficial for them and you.


It’s fun to add new books over the summer when I actually have more time to read. Thanks for checking out this post. Follow my blog for more book reviews as I discover new reads!

 

When my class is your class’ punishment

Since when should writing be a form of punishment?

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Photo by Charles Deluvio 🇵🇭🇨🇦 on Unsplash

This happens every so often: I’ll be talking to other teachers about some discipline issue they experienced during the day where they had to dole out some kind of punishment. More times than I want to remember, they’ll say something like, “So I made him write an essay about…”

Then I’ll think to myself: Great. Here I am trying to teach kids in my middle school language arts class to love writing, to need writing, and to see its value in their lives, and this teacher is using it as a punishment.

And no, this doesn’t happen frequently, but it still happens often enough.

Thankfully, the National Council of Teachers of English took a formal position on the issue as long ago as 1984. Its “Resolution on Condemning the Use of Writing as Punishment” warns that the practice “defeats the purposes of instruction in this important life skill and causes students to dislike an activity necessary to their intellectual development and career success.”

In other words, punishing students with writing assignments—whether those assignments are paragraphs, full essays, or even merely copying sentences over and over a la Bart Simpson—creates students who associate writing with drudgery.

However, writing should not be a punishment.

Writing should be seen as a diversion where students can express themselves and their ideas in creative and unique ways.

Writing should be seen as the literary art that it is, no matter if students are writing an essay for class, a novel for Wattpad, a screenplay for a contest, or even an entry in their own journal.

Writing should be seen as an intensely personal endeavor that can serve them well as they continue through life.

So punishing a student with a writing assignment does not sit well with me. After all, does punishing a student with the task of writing an essay actually curb the unwanted behavior? Or does it just compound the notion that writing is something to avoid, something no one would ever want or need to do?

When should the act of writing—and, in a broader sense, the act of learning (since writing is one way we learn)—be a form of punishment?

Never.


Click like if you can relate. Also, leave a comment with your own experiences with “writing as punishment.” Follow my blog for more writing about ELA middle school teaching.

Writing Contest #10: Holocaust Museum & Learning Center’s Student Writing Contest

Our kids need this contest.

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Here’s a winning art entry from last year’s Holocaust Museum & Learning Center’s Student Art & Writing Contest. No student name provided. Darn.

I’ve discovered another writing contest: Holocaust Museum & Learning Center’s Student Art & Writing Contest. I stumbled upon this contest as I was researching for a recent post on Medium.com about the lack of Holocaust literature in Expeditionary Learning’s curriculum. I have reblogged that post here.

According to the St. Louis-based museum’s website, “The Art & Writing Contest is a wonderful opportunity for young people who have visited the Museum or studied the Holocaust in their classrooms to respond creatively to what they have learned.” The contest is considered an “important outreach program” that is “dedicated to the memory of the 1.5 million children who perished during the Holocaust.”

Age: There are two divisions for both the art and writing portions of the contest. Students may enter one entry in each category.  Division 1 includes grades 6-8; Division 2 includes grades 9-12.

Topic:  Students are asked to write about the difficult and inspiring lessons of the Holocaust. Topics may include: acts of courage and heroism; resistance and rescue; indifference and its consequences; persecution, intolerance and injustice; preserving humanity in situations of great adversity; history and lessons of the Holocaust.

Skills Addressed:  Students must exhibit Research, Creativity, and original and accurate Interpretation of Sources. Judges are looking for: content, originality, and quality of expression and accuracy.

Mentor Texts: I called the organizers of the contest and at this time, I was told that student writing is not available. Perhaps it will be in the future, though, so keep your fingers crossed.

However, there are some excellent links on the sidebar of this page that provide a Holocaust timeline, nearly forty Holocaust-related terms, common questions, and recommended readings (a solid list plus links to useful websites). Click on Classroom Activities to see a list of documentaries the museum recommends students see before visiting the museum. These would also provide prior knowledge before writing an essay or narrative.

Length: Entries may not exceed 1,000 words. Works must be double-spaced. Use paper clips, not staples.

Deadline: Per the contest contact person, there is no firm date set for the 2019 contest, but it will be in mid-April. I would suggest that you check back with the website in February or make a call then to confirm the exact dates.

Prizes:  There are cash prizes and certificates awarded. The organizers also display winning entries in the museum theater. Last year, first through third place in the middle school division won $300, $200, and $100 respectively. Two honorable mentions were awarded $25 each.

How to enter: Submit three copies of your paper-clipped entry. Do not exceed 1,000 words. Mail entries to: Holocaust Museum and Learning Center, 12 Millstone Campus Drive, St. Louis, MO 63146.

For more information: Here’s a phone number for the museum is (314) 442-3711. A contact name for Dan Reich is posted on the website also with this email address: DReich@JFedSTL.org. A phone number for Mr. Reich is also posted: 314-442-3714.

I’m excited to have a Holocaust-themed essay contest.  Writing about this time in history will be a plus for my students’ banks of knowledge about world history. Many students are not learning about the Holocaust today. See this post for more on that issue, including an important new study released in March.


Thanks for reading! Follow my blog to receive those updates on this post, which will include the new deadlines and/or timeframe for the next contest, and also whether or not there will be past winning entries to use as mentor texts with your kids. Have a great day!

Here’s the prompt for the 2018-19 VFW Patriot’s Pen Essay Contest

This contest is a winner for middle schoolers!

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Photo by Fernando @cferdo on Unsplash

The Patriot’s Pen essay contest for grades 6-8 is getting started for the 2018-19 school year. The first step: learning the theme. And (drumroll please!)…here it is: Why I Honor the American Flag.

This year’s theme will resonate with students as it recalls the national conversation about patriotism and specifically how we show patriotism toward our national flag during sports activities (think NFL kneelers) and other public events.  However, don’t limit your students to that angle. Your kids will get creative with the topic, so allow them that freedom to interpret the prompt how they see fit.

The deadline for this year’s contest is October 31 and while that sounds like a distant point in the future, once school starts, it rolls around pretty quickly.

Here’s my checklist for how I go about introducing the contest each year:

  • Announce the theme the first or second week of school just to let it brew in students’ minds.
  • Facilitate a class discussion where we discuss prior knowledge relating to the prompt.
  • Brainstorm some possible angles for the essay.  (If kids have a hard time coming up with ideas, that’s okay. We still have a month before we attack the contest in earnest, usually around the first of October.)
  • Set a day where the work will really begin. This is usually one month before the due date. This allows plenty of time for drafting, protocol peer review, revising, and editing. It also gives us plenty of time to send drafts home for parents to read objectively. Students often become so close to their material that they need someone totally new to the project with whom to share it. I have students attach a note that says “Fresh Eyes Needed” to explain the project to parents.

I also usually make a phone call to our local VFW chapter just to let them know that my students will be participating again and to confirm the due dates. The post commander usually comes in person to pick up the entries, so the phone call helps to solidify that pick-up date.

I assign this essay as an activity that only my seventh graders do to increase the students’ incentive to win.  And since our local VFW recognizes three of them with cash awards, their chances of winning are high!

First through third place winners receive $100, $75, and $50 each, respectively, as well as a nice medallion and certificate. Our local chapter is so generous and I appreciate their sponsorship of the contest. Check with your local chapter to learn how they are able to support your students.

The three winning entries from my class then advance to the next level for judging. Unfortunately, my first-place winner last year missed progressing to the next level by only one point! Nationwide, 132,000 students entered last year’s contest where the grand prize national winner receives $5,000.

So there you have it. The 2018-19 VFW Patriot’s Pen Essay Contest theme and a few details. For much more about this contest, including information about mentor texts and what the judges look for,  click here. If you haven’t had your students compete in many contests before, click here for my post about how motivating writing contests can really be.

I’m a believer in writing contests and I’m always on the lookout for new ones. In fact, tomorrow I’ll be posting about a Holocaust-related contest you might be interested in. I hope you’ll click follow to learn about it.


Thanks for reading! Click like if this contest is one you’d like to try. For high schoolers, click here to learn about the Voice of Democracy essay competition, where next year’s theme is Why My Vote Matters.

If you have a question or need more information, please respond below and I’ll get right to you with an answer. 

New mini-lesson resource: 100 Ways to Improve Your Writing

This “new to me” book will be fun to try this fall

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A year or two ago, I found an effective paragraph that explained sentence variety perfectly. Read the post about it here.  I dug a little deeper about the author and eventually made my way to this book, 100 Ways to Improve Your Writing, by Gary Provost.  Gary Provost was an author and writing instructor who died in 1995 right in the middle of his career.  In addition to his own books and articles, he produced a series of how-to writing books and seminars.

I ordered 100 Ways from Amazon last week and, after skimming through it, know I’ll be able to use several chapters in my language arts classes next year. I hope these short readings and the discussions they spark will make great mini-lessons to kick off a writing work day.

The book is divided into eleven chapters. Here are a few of them followed by one or two points discussed within each:

  • Five Ways to Write a Strong Beginning (Find a Slant, Set a Tone and Maintain It)
  • Twelve Ways to Give Your Words Power (Use Active Verbs, Be Specific, Use Statistics)
  • Ten Ways to Avoid Grammatical Errors (Do Not Change Tenses, Avoid Dangling Modifiers)
  • Six Ways to Avoid Punctuation Errors (How to Use Colons, Semicolons, Quotation Marks)
  • Twelve Ways to Avoid Making Your Reader Hate You (Avoid Clichés, Avoid Parentheses)
  • Seven Ways to Edit Yourself (Read Your Work Out Loud, Use Common Sense)
  • Nine Ways to Save Time and Energy (Use Transitions, Avoid Wordiness)

While the 158-page book deals with more technical topics, such as punctuation and grammar, the author also discusses the finer, more esoteric qualities of good writing. For example, in “Stop Writing When You Get to the End,” Provost writes,

When you have done what you came to do, stop. Do not linger at the door saying good-bye sixteen times.

How do you know when you have finished? Look at the last sentence and ask yourself, “What does the reader lose if I cross it out?” If the answer is “nothing” or “I don’t know,” then cross it out. Do the same thing with the next to last sentence, and so forth. When you get to the sentence  that you  must have, read it out loud. Is it a good closing sentence? Does it sound final? Is it pleasant to the ear? Does it leave the reader in the mood you intended? If so, you are done. If not, rewrite it so that it does. Then stop writing.

I like the tone of Provost’s writing. Concise. Clear. Practical. Warm. It’s an easy, friendly read, and has its share of funny writing snippets.

In addition, many chapters contain side-by-side examples of ineffective and effective writing. For instance, in the chapter entitled “Be Specific,” several examples of general and vague writing appear on the left-hand side across from their more specific counterpart on the right-hand side. Here’s one: The general “Various ethnic groups have settled in Worcester,” is shown alongside its more specific “Greeks, Italians, and Puerto Ricans have settled in Worcester.”

The book has a copyright date of 1972, so some of the examples used are outdated. I’ll just explain this to the kids, or pause while we read to explain obsolete terms. One I noticed was “word processing.” That term just isn’t used much anymore.

Some of the chapters overlap with existing lessons I already use; however, it never hurts to review the same concepts in different ways. This book will enable me to do that.

Check out this book by buying a single copy. I purchased a used copy on Amazon for about five dollars. That’s an inexpensive price for a potentially valuable new resource. Maybe a class set will be in my future.


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