Breakthrough moment: How to teach what “be specific” means

I think I’m finally on to something

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Photo: Pixabay

Be specific!

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve written that on my students’ essays, poems, and narratives. They know the importance of adding relevant details and crystal clear descriptions to their writing. We talk about it all the time, after all. In fact, “add more detail” and “be more descriptive” are the top two comments I hear them saying to each other during peer review groups. However, for some reason, kids still often neglect to be specific.

Maybe they don’t recognize “vagueness” in their own writing. Maybe they’re in a rush and don’t see the value in taking the extra time that being specific takes. Maybe it’s late the night before their essay is due and, as a result, they’ve lowered their standards. The loosey-goosey thoughts that make it into their first drafts—however general and lackluster— are good enough to turn in at the last minute. Whatever.

Last fall, I came upon a chapter in Bill Roorbach’s Writing Life Stories and discovered a helpful section on the merits of being specific in writing. By “being specific” Roorbach means putting a name to the objects, things and people in our writing.

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This is an awesome book that I’ve found helpful (like REALLY helpful) in my classroom.

For example, if one mentions a tree, Roorbach suggests being exact. Is it an oak? maple? pine? If possible, he suggests going further. Is it a chinquapin oak? silver-leaf maple? lodgepole pine? If one mentions Dad’s car, Roorbach suggests identifying the exact car: Dad’s brown 1995 Subaru Forester or his sleek, brand-new silver Prius.

Roorbach stresses that “naming is knowing.” Putting a clear and precise label to the objects in our writing lends credibility and a subtle authenticism to our writing. (He also discusses how determining the exact name of something—a particular flower, for example—may help writers discover unexpected revelations about their pasts. Seriously, check out this book!)

I notice that in my own writing I will often add the specific labels to things on the later drafts of a piece. I often do this work intentionally, taking care to notice generalities as I read and re-read, and re-read again. It’s amazing how much richer and concrete and visible my writing is when I follow Roorbach’s advice and specifically name things in my writing.

So with Roorbach’s book in hand, I created a mini-lesson for class. Maybe this time, I thought, with the help of Roorbach’s down-to-earth and eloquent text, students will understand what I mean when I write “Be specific” in the margins of their papers.

For the mini-lesson, I decided to read aloud from Roorbach’s “Naming is Knowing” exercise. Everyone agreed that the specific examples given in the text were effective revisions of the more general originals. I asked the kids to keep this in mind as they wrote that day… “Don’t just say that you put on your clothes; be specific. Name the clothes. Say you put on your bright white NASA hoodie and a faded pair of jeans. ”

About two days later, a student named Jacob dropped a poem into my second drafts box during writer’s workshop. I read it, noticing that it was about a trip to Florida he took last summer with his family. The poem mentioned finding “a coin,” “finding “a food,” and visiting “the museum” and finding “something” there.

Here we go again, I thought. More vague writing.

I asked Jacob, “Remember when we talked a couple of days ago about how it makes sense to be as specific as possible and put a name to things when we write so readers can visualize our stories better?” He nodded. I inquired what kind of coin he found; he replied “a Spanish medallion.” I asked him what exactly he found at the museum; he said “a Honus Wagner baseball card.” I asked him about the food mentioned in the poem; he replied “chicken Alfredo.”

Try naming those things in your poem, I suggested. He returned several minutes later with another draft, this one much more specific, much more visual, and much more effective.

“Yes! You did it!” I told him after reading his revision. “This is what we were talking about!”

I asked him if I could use his drafts in class the next day to show everyone how much more visual his second draft was. He agreed and printed copies of his poem’s “before and after” versions.

I placed them side by side on a sheet of paper and ran off copies for everyone. The following day we revisited our “naming” lesson and with Jacob’s poems in front of them, everyone readily was able to see the difference between vague writing and specific writing: it all has to do with naming things.

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The next day, I asked Jacob to read both poems aloud. After that, we all discussed how effective the changes were and the consensus was that the “after” version was definitely the draft we all preferred. Why? Because we could visualize the Spanish medallion (someone said it was probably all crusty and gross) much more clearly than we could visualize a coin. We could taste the chicken Alfredo. And of course, we all knew that a Lamborghini is the ultimate fancy car.

Of course, being seventh-graders, the added details spurred conversations about coins that kids had found or lost. Practically every kid in the room said they loved chicken Alfredo. I guess all that conversation proves that specific writing resonates. Being specific helps readers connect better with the writing and, in the end, that’s what it’s all about.

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I made this slide on my Smartboard using a quote from the exercise on “Naming is Knowing” in Bill Roorbach’s book, Writing Life Stories.

One student asked,  “What if the extra detail seems distracting?” I acknowledged her smart observation and advised her to play around with being specific. Yes, it’s entirely possible to have misplaced detail, I told her. If that’s the case, she as the writer then has a decision to make. For example, if it seems distracting and irrelevant to know that you wore a bright white NASA hoodie, then leave it out and go general. But try naming and being specific first, I told her because you never know until you try. Plus, you can always change it back later, I added.

I feel as if I’ve finally hit on something when it comes to teaching kids to write specifically: it’s about naming things. Since teaching this “Naming is Knowing” mini-lesson—with the help of Roorbach and Jacob’s examples— my students better understand how to add relevant, visual details and names to the people and objects in their writing. It’s nice to know that they finally understand what “Be specific” really means.


Thanks for reading again this week! Click “like” if you learned something with this post and feel free to follow my blog for more news from my classroom. How do you teach your students to be specific in their writing?

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.

I’m still using and really, really liking Planbook

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This is my desk one morning in early November. As you can see, I am very paper-based.

Here’s my follow-up post about my online lesson planning

I’m still using Planbook! Every day, I can enter my lesson plans for the next day, the next week, the next month, and even the next year. If I like how I did something, I just copy it into the future and voila! it’s done. (Click here for my earlier post written the first day I started using Planbook.)

I’m following a year-long plan that I have outlined in my spiral planner that I keep on my desk on top of another binder where I keep printed copies of my Planbook plans. As you can see, I’m a very paper-based person.

So even switching to entering my lesson plans online was a huge step; however, it’s going well. I like how I can skip around to the next week quickly, or bounce back to the previous week or month to see exactly what I did during each class.

In addition, the search function is priceless. For example, I can enter “run-on sentences” into the search bar and a list of lessons pop up that show me exactly when run-on sentences were taught or discussed. In the past, I had to manually page through my binder and search.

Planbook’s $15 annual subscription fee is worth it. Before jumping into the subscription, however, I investigated Planboard, another online lesson planning tool. (Planboard is free of charge, by the way.) To set up Planboard, it required several details about times of classes, duration of terms, and other aspects of scheduling. At the time, I wasn’t able to devote that much thought to it, so I reverted back to Planbook because it is so straightforward and simple to begin. I bet no more than five minutes passed between when I initially logged in to when I began entering plans.

So, bottom line: Planbook is working. Planbook is simple. If you haven’t started using an online lesson planning tool, I would definitely recommend Planbook. It has completely changed the way I plan lessons.


Thanks for stopping by! How do you plan your lessons? Planbook? Planboard? Do you use good ol’ binders? Comment away with your experiences with lesson planning. See you next week.

Back-to-School with 8th-graders: A Unit on Triangle Fire

Resources for teaching about the event that put a fire alarm in your classroom

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Taken on March 25, 1911 | The New York World, Mar. 26, 1911

On August 15, my 8th-graders will pick up where we left off in May—with a prelude to our study of the 1911 Triangle Waist Co. factory fire and its societal effects.

During the last few days of school, we watched a portion of New York City: The Documentary. It’s usually available at no charge if you have an Amazon Prime account. It is an excellent film that fills eight DVDs, and is directed by Ric Burns, the brother of award-winning documentarian Ken Burns. Interspersing historical photography with contemporary interview clips, including one of Donald Trump commenting on New York City architecture and geology, the film discusses the first wave of immigration of the early 1900s and its effects on our nation’s cultural heritage and economic strength.

The film helps students build the prior knowledge they will need to study the Triangle Fire tragedy next month when school starts. This disaster, noted as being the worst workplace fire in our nation’s history prior to 9/11, resulted in the death of 114 mostly female immigrant workers of Eastern European descent.

This website adds to what students learn in the film with an extensive selection of files. Check out this website from Cornell University to see profiles of survivors, obituaries of those who perished, timelines, newspaper accounts and other historical artifacts to complement the film, and the books that are discussed later in this post. This site is a a true treasure trove.

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We will begin reading portions of Flesh and Blood So Cheap  by Albert Marrin immediately when school starts. I read part of this text aloud and then I assign a chapter or two to students to read in groups at the four tables spread throughout my classroom. At the tables, students read the text jigsaw style, answering questions regarding their respective chapters. After reading their chapter, each student reports back to their “home” group to brief their group members on the particular chapters they read.

Doing this jigsaw activity is a good way for students to capture the gist of the chapters within the book. Working in groups is beneficial and helps students understand the big picture of what I would like students to learn about this time in history: our national response to this disaster and how our society ultimately learned from its failure.

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Our reading activities for Triangle Fire are interspersed with text-based questions that students answer in writing. The style and format of these short text-based question activities are a mainstay of my teaching. I was inspired to create these prompts by this article about New Dorp High School in The Atlantic magazine.

These exercises are a prompt of sorts with some student choice built in. And while I realize the prompts are very formulaic, I’m okay with that, since I believe students need guidance in using the specific tools writers use to express their ideas clearly.

Note: I’ll be writing a post next week with more details about these text-based question exercises, so follow my blog to get a notification if you’re interested in learning more.

Additional short readings are introduced as well in the Triangle Fire unit. We read from a pivotal text, called Triangle: The Fire that Changed America, written by David Von Drehle.  It’s a fascinating book with exciting narrative passages that perfectly illustrate how writers blend narrative into a nonfiction text. Von Drehle’s book explores the causes of the disaster and the outcomes of it. One chief result from the Triangle Fire are the better working conditions that came out of the Factory Investigating Commission, which was established in the fire’s aftermath.

Those better working conditions are something all students can relate to: fire drills. In fact, at the beginning of the unit, I ask students:

  • Why do we have fire drills?
  • When did these fire drills start?
  • Who decided that fire drills are necessary?

These discussions about the positives that came out of the tragedy are important. In fact, focusing on the good that resulted from such a horrifying tragic event —where scores of women jumped to their deaths to escape the factory flames— is about the only way I can see to present this topic. (After all, I’m not out to depress anyone or to add to anyone’s anxiety.)

I must focus on the positive take-away from Triangle Fire: to show students that we can learn from our mistakes. We can take the horrible events of life and turn them around for good. Yes, so many precious lives were lost… but ultimately not in vain.

  • Triangle Fire resulted in those red fire alarms that are placed in every classroom.
  • Triangle Fire resulted in outward hinged doors in places of business.
  • Triangle Fire resulted in fire drills, sprinklers, and other precautions that businesses and public spaces are required to provide for workers and the public.

Learning about Triangle Fire, reflecting, and writing about it will give my students greater understanding of the forces that have shaped our society. It will also make them more empathetic and well-rounded with their world knowledge. We complete the following writing activities to gain a better understanding of Triangle Fire:

  • Text-based question prompts
  • Student’s choice of an essay that may be either
    • informational (as in writing a survivor profile)
    • argumentative essay  (arguing any number of topics, such as the justice in the final acquittal of the negligent factory owners)
    • or narrative (as in writing a letter written by a survivor or surviving family member)
  • An essay that discusses three human rights found in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights that were not protected and/or were violated in the time leading up to the Triangle Fire.

So this is where I will begin the new school year with my eighth-graders. While Triangle Fire is a devastating subject to teach, it is also inspiring and ultimately a testament to the resilience and innovation of our great nation.


Thanks for reading! Click like if this resonated with you. Feel free to leave a comment or questions and to follow my blog!

In tomorrow’s post, I’ll be writing about how I connect Triangle Fire to the events of Sept. 11, 2001. In the meantime, read my post of 9/11 resources. Also this week, I’ll be sharing about the human rights dissertation that eighth-graders complete in the spring. The last essay bulleted above provides one part of this dissertation.

 

My closet can wait

I’m ready to take full advantage of the final two weeks of summer

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“I pulled the door open and perused the possessions of my teaching life.”

Two days ago, I drove to school and made my first entrance into the 2018-2019 year. Three eighth-grade girls were there waving at me from the front door as I loaded up my arms with bags from the back seat of my car. The girls were there for basketball practice, which would start in about an hour. Guess they’re excited for things to get rolling, I thought.

As I approached the front door, the girls made a tunnel with their arms. I jogged below their waving hands and we all cheered. It was a reverse, of sorts, of the final day of the school year two months earlier.

That’s when the teachers and staff at my small, rural middle school had formed a tunnel, like we always do, at the front door and cheered and showered the kids with hand sparkles as they made that final trip of the year to the waiting bus.

It was a fun and final moment… the culmination of nine months of planning, teaching, listening, cheering, testing, playing, working, and encouraging. Passing back through the girls’ tunnel into the school yesterday was a reminder that another fun and productive nine months is about to begin.

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Photo by Kari Shea on Unsplash

Once inside, I caught up on summer news with the girls and then made my way down the hall to my classroom. Two other teachers were there, I noticed. One nearly had her room prepared; the other, I learned later, was just getting started.

I dug the key to my room from the zippered pouch inside my purse, and unlocked my room… the first of hundreds of times I will do this over the next several months, I thought.

I clicked on the lights. Every piece of furniture had been moved to one side of the room by the maintenance staff to make room for floor waxing. Chairs were stacked on tables. Desks were stacked on other desks. My kidney bean table– that I used to abhor, but now love, and I’ll tell you why later—was wedged behind the chipped, decrepit black bookshelves left by a teacher who had moved away two years earlier.

Boxes of items I requisitioned last spring were angled on top of the second-hand coffee table that normally holds bins of headphones and clipboards. Floor lamps teetered awkwardly between desks. A giant black trash bag hovered under a table, stuffed with the silk and plastic English ivy I will later use to dress up the bookshelves.

The room echoed as I strode across the tile. I set down my bags, opened a few of the boxes, and looked over at my closet. The right-hand door bulged open a half-inch and I remembered being unable to close it fully on the last day of school. It seemed only moments had passed since that final day when I had tried to rearrange the things inside so the door would fully close.  I had eventually given up; the prospect of two months of summer freedom enticed me to just walk away.

I pulled the door open and perused the possessions  of my teaching life— books, binders, trinkets from students, folders, a milk crate, rolled up posters, a skein of red yarn, hand sanitizer, Lysol wipes, my golden “good luck” cat that waves from my desk during the year, DVDs, a glue gun, leftover soda from club meetings.

I snapped the picture you see above and decided to leave.  For while I’m excited for the school year to start, I’m also ready to take full advantage of the final two weeks of summer. I still have blog posts to write, a book or two I want to read, a short story I want to hash out, a daytrip to take with my daughter, and a guitar to strum around on.

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Photo by Denisse Leon on Unsplash

I read somewhere recently that the end of July is the Sunday night of every teacher’s weekend during the school year, when we maximize those last lingering moments of “me” time. It’s time to do just that, I said to myself. I  pressed against the door and closed it.

My closet can wait.


Thanks for reading! Leave a comment if you have the same thoughts about the last days of summer. Follow my blog for more writing about teaching middle school ELA, including that post about why I love my heavy, awkward kidney bean table.

Follow me on Instagram!

Find me at elabraveandtrue

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Photo: pxhere.com

I just returned from a professional development conference and the teachers I met there are like me: we’re gradually starting to make the mental shift in anticipation of in-service days and the first day of school, which in my district is August 16.

So, as the summer winds down and school approaches, I’ve decided to start a new Instagram account that ties in directly with this blog. It contains posts about articles here, classroom photos, and other fun stuff. Over the next few weeks, also plan to find before-and-after photos of my room as it transforms for the new school year.

Then, as the school year takes off, stick around for more posts about the day-to-day routine in my 6-8 ELA classroom… including posts where I share about my successes and my epic fails.

The whole point of this blog is to share what works and what doesn’t, and occasionally Instagram allows me to share about that information in a more spontaneous way.

I envision that both social venues–this blog and my new Instagram— will work in tandem to keep us in touch with one another. Follow me on Instagram at elabraveandtrue.


Thanks for reading! Click like so others may find this post more easily, then follow me to receive more news about my experiences with middle school ELA. Have a great day!

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.