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.


Thanks for reading! Click like to help other readers find this post. Follow me for more similar articles on teaching middle school language arts.

 

 

Top Resources that I Use to Teach 9/11

It’s never too early to plan to “never forget.”

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The new One World Trade Center stands tall in lower Manhattan. While remembering the tragedy and the memories of those lives lost, it’s also important to  focus on the resiliency of the United States and New York City, in particular. Photo by Dean Rose on Unsplash

I get it. The school year has just ended and the last thing you may want to think about right now is what you will be doing in September in your classes. However, discussing 9/11 effectively deserves forethought and preparation to match the motivation and curiosity that students bring to the table.

Despite this motivation, for many students  9/11 is as remote for them as Kennedy’s assassination was to me (I was born two years later JFK was killed).  Students may not be aware that 9/11 was an international event with numerous long-lasting effects: changes in security, warfare, immigration, architecture, travel. So it’s a given that 9/11 should be covered, but let’s be honest, the anniversary of the horrible event arrives so quickly after the school year starts that one really needs to have one’s plan in place to present and discuss the terror attacks adequately.

That being said, please know this: I am no expert on September 11 or how to present it to students. However, I thought I’d share with you a few resources I keep in my classroom.

Books:

Understanding September 11 by Mitch Frank, is arranged into chapters entitled with questions such as Who were the hijackers? and Why did we go after Afghanistan? understandingPublished in 2002, the book has become outdated in some ways; it was published before bin Laden was killed, for example. Its frank discussions about the most basic aspects of the attacks and terrorism in general are still important.

With Their Eyes: The View from a High School at Ground Zero edited by Annie Thoms, is a collection of monologues written by students who attended nearby Stuyvesant High School at the time of the tragedy. eyesNote: some poems contain profanity, so read accordingly.

A Place of Remembrance, The Official Book of the National September 11 Memorial by Allison Blais and Lynn Rasic, focuses on the memorial and museum complex built to commemorate the tragedy. placePublished by National Geographic, the book contains many photos of artifacts, profiles of those involved with the museum project, and information about the memorial plaza design as well. I only have two copies of the 2011 edition of the book in my room. It is mainly used individually by students who want to know more. Also: an updated 2015 edition is available, but I have not used it.

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The Building of Manhattan by Donald Mackay has a section about the World Trade Center’s history, including construction challenges, size, and its occupants. Mackay’s distinctive pen and ink illustrations give this book broad appeal

 

 

102 Minutes: The Unforgettable Story of the Fight to Survive Inside the Twin Towers by Jim Dwyer and Kevin Flynn.

102Choose carefully what you would like to read to your students as this book includes first-person accounts from survivors. Excerpts of this book reveal the terror of those who survived the tower attacks.

“Doomed to Re-Repeat History: The Triangle Fire, The World Trade Center Attack, and the Importance of Strong Building Codes.” This is actually a book review by Gregory Stein of two books, David Von Drehle’s Triangle: The Fire That Changed America, and 102 Minutes. The review discusses the two books individually, connects them with a discussion on “The Ebb and Flow of Building Codes,” and concludes with a discussion of safety and security and their costs and risks. “It is up to us to decide how much we are willing to pay to live in a sensibly safer world,” Stein writes. This book review prompts some meaty discussions with my students. By invoking the Triangle Fire, it brings up the idea of how the passage of time causes us to forget what we have learned from our previous mistakes.

To Engineer is Human by Henry Petroski: I’ve used bits and pieces of this book on numerous occasions and it ties in with my 9/11 unit because it contains excerpts from The Hammurabi Code, which is discussed in the above book review.

DVDs:

The Walk: The Triumphant True Story  directed by Robert Zemeckis, this feature film stars Joseph Gordon-Levitt and tells the story of Philippe Petit, the high wire artist who walked between the two towers in 1974. Just as Petit helped New Yorkers appreciate and grow to love the towers, this movie helps students connect to the towers and the tragedy that later happened.

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What I value about this film is that it enables students to experience and personally connect with the towers — and the people who lived and worked there — through shots of the exteriors, lobbies, offices, elevators, receiving areas, the North Tower observation deck, and Austin Tobin Plaza.

My kids LOVE this movie. I show it to my sixth-graders at the end of the year. It’s a good way to introduce students to the Twin Towers and city without the context of 9/11.  You cannot go wrong with showing this film. My students always ask to watch it again! The film is rated PG; there are three to four uses of profanity. Length: 123 minutes.

“The Center of the World,” Episode 8 of New York: The Documentary: Every year, we watch a 100-minute excerpt from “The Center of the World,” the last disc in the eight-DVD series “New York: The Documentary.” It’s directed by Ric Burns of Steeplechase Films. Burns is the brother of the famed documentarian Ken Burns.

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My eighth-graders are riveted to every minute of this important film. The documentary eloquently conveys the horror of the day, including the responses of New York City, the nation, and the world.  Even though it has a TV-PG rating (and therefore doesn’t require a permission slip, per my school’s policy), I send a permission slip home anyway for parents to sign. The movie has some disturbing scenes, including people jumping from the towers.

The film also recognizes that, although our collective soul was irrevocably altered in the span of a few hours, the United States of America will prevail. It’s my hope that this excellent film relates better than I can that September 11 is relevant and important, not merely “historical”… in the distant past of my students’ minds. Read this post from my sister blog for more on this idea.

There you have it. These are the various materials I use to engage my students in writing about 9/11. Even though I use these every year, I am always on the lookout for new resources. If and when I find any additional ideas, I’ll write another post to let you know.

With each passing year, I feel that the memories of this horrible day are fading more and more into the distant past. It’s important that we keep alive the memory of what was lost on that day.


Thanks for reading. If you have a minute, leave a comment to share your own ideas and resources.

 

 

A good thing: Weekly in-class awards

I enjoy recognizing students for their on-time, on-target writing

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Students like to check the board each week to see if their writing earned one of these awards. I recognize them in class and give them five “brave bucks,” an incentive used by our school to recognize students for being respectful, responsible and safe. They can spend these bucks on Fridays in the school store.

Last year, sometime during the second quarter, I decided to start awarding students for their hard work on their weekly written homework assignments. I came up with four awards to recognize students for being on-time and for doing a good job. The awards and the skills they address follow:

  • The Annotator Award for their annotating of the nonfiction article that was assigned
  • The Most Interesting Lead in the World for the lead they wrote to begin the response to the prompt of the assignment
  • The Voice Award for using their unique writer’s voice and not being afraid to take a risk by showing that voice
  • The Extra Award for their proficiency in some other area

Using memegenerator.net, I created some memes to put on a bulletin board in my classroom. The bulletin board is shown above.

This weekly recognition has had good results. Students like to check the board when they enter my classroom on Mondays to see who won the awards in the previous week’s assignment.

I post the student’s work next to their award’s sign, and make sure to write feedback and notes in the margins. Sometimes I highlight the “golden lines” that really stood out to me as I reviewed their writing.

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Weekly Class Awards!

I’ll write more about these particular weekly assignments in a separate post coming soon, but with today’s post, I wanted to relate the importance and positive outcomes of providing these weekly awards.

I figured that if students found motivation and agency when they completed their submissions for the various contests we entered, they would do the same if I treated these weekly assignments like mini-contests. That’s exactly what’s happened.

It’s been a good thing and one I plan to continue for the 2018-19 year.


Follow my blog for more ideas and notes about my experiences teaching middle school English Language Arts. Thanks for reading and click like if you found this useful or leave a comment. It’s good to know what kinds of posts are resonating with my readers.

Contest #8: Cursive is Cool

It’s a cursive handwriting contest!

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Photo: pxhere

I stumbled upon this cursive contest online a few days ago sponsored by Campaign for Cursive (C4C).  This organization is a committee of the American Handwriting Analysis Foundation (AHAF) and is an all-volunteer non-profit that began in 2012 in the Southern California chapter of the AHAF. Its goal is to “bring public recognition and awareness to the importance of teaching cursive writing to all kids, and even adults,” according to its website.

In the spring, C4C hosts a cursive writing contest called “Cursive is Cool” for students in grades 1-6. Visit this page to see the winning entries. The contest is offered in three versions: American English, Canadian English, and Canadian French.

To enter, students use this form and write five sentences that answer one of three questions:

  • Why is cursive cool?
  • Why do you like signing your name?
  • What do you think is fun about writing in cursive?

According to the PDF form, students’ cursive writing is judged on neatness, legibility, consistency, and creativity. The following awards are given: 1st, 2nd, and 3rd place awards in each grade, and one award for creativity in each grade.

In 2018, entries were due March 4; plan for the same timeframe for 2019. Make sure to download the PDF entry form for additional guidelines and requirements. Take note that students will need a parent’s signature on the entry form, so allow extra time for those entries to go home for a signature.

I hope you’ll consider having some of your students enter the Cursive is Cool 2019 Contest. I plan to try it out. I like that the contest will provide some extra motivation for my students to continue to learn and practice their cursive throughout the upcoming school year. It helps when a national contest places emphasis on a skill that I also encourage my students to hone.

To read my other posts about how I teach cursive writing in my classroom, as well as how I convey the importance of cursive writing to my students, check out these two posts: “Why do we have to write in cursive?” and “Five Reasons I Teach Cursive” and “How I Add Cursive Writing to My Class.” 


Thanks for reading! Leave a comment if you plan to try this contest in 2019 and make sure to share your thoughts and experiences with it later with other readers!