I’ve been reading Chasing Lincoln’s Killer by James Swanson to my seventh-graders and we just finished it on Friday.
About every two chapters or so, they’ve written a response to a question I’ve posed to help them comprehend the text as well as think critically about some of the questions and topics it raises.
Because our students have plenty of independent reading time in their Humanities class, I have chosen to read-aloud this book. I also think it’s important to model reading, so from cover to cover, the students follow along while I read. Well, nearly all of them.
About a week ago, I noticed that whenever I glanced up from reading to check the class, one boy who sits at the back of the room was quietly looking back at me as I read. Apparently, he was listening. He was also making connections. The next day his father gave him permission to bring some actual Confederate States of America bills to school. Arranging the money on my desk for the photo below, there was no doubt that he had been paying attention even though he wasn’t “following along.”
Another student—I’ll call him Joe– was drawing on a sheet of copy paper as I read during the course of three or four class periods. Early on, I asked him to follow along once or twice, and finally decided that I wouldn’t ask again, especially when I looked at the drawing that Joe dropped into the seventh-grade basket at the end of class each day.
He was working on a portrait of John Wilkes Booth from a photo in the book. He surrounded the portrait with words posed as questions. It was interesting and thought-provoking and showed that he was indeed paying attention during the reading. He may not have been “following along,” but he was definitely engaged.
So just because a student isn’t following along, don’t assume they aren’t paying attention and learning. In fact, Joe and his drawing has caused me to consider how other kids may better show their understanding (and misunderstanding, too–let’s be real) through drawing or sketching. Recording their thoughts and thinking must not always equate to producing a written response, after all.
Thanks for reading! Our next step in the unit is to watch a movie called The Conspirator, which focuses on the trial of Booth’s conspirators, including Mary Surratt, the owner of the boarding house where the assassination was purportedly planned. The end result? An essay that argues Surratt’s innocence or guilt. Follow my blog for more posts about middle school ELA.
Gallagher developed the Article of the Week assignment to help students gain more background knowledge about politics, history, current events… in short, the world around them.
When I took Gallagher’s cue and began assigning AOWs in my own classroom, I chose to do so because I agree that kids need to expand their background knowledge. Many can’t relate to the literature we teach because they don’t possess the personal prior knowledge to connect to that literature.
I also like the idea of kids writing to reflect or give their take on a particular topic. Plus, reading and responding to nonfiction texts takes a different set of skills than reading literature: identifying central ideas, finding evidence to support those central ideas, noticing patterns and sequences in the content of the articles, and more. AOWs would surely help my students develop or at least practice those skills.
Gallagher’s AOWs are concise. His handout consists of a reprinted article, with a box at the top of the page that asks students to do three things: 1) mark their confusion, 2) show evidence of a close reading, and 3) write a 1+ page reflection.
How I tweaked Gallagher’s AOW to make it work for me
However, the steps outlined by Gallagher are too open-ended for my middle school students. The expectations for their writing are not focused in a way that my students (most of them anyway) would appreciate. Instructions so brief would only lead to confusion for many of them.
For that reason, I’ve provided more specific instructions and I’ve used each assignment to teach two specific skills I am focusing on this year that actually go hand-in-hand: interpretation and idea development.
Here’s a photo of the rubric for the AOW shown in the photo at the top of this post:
Another important aspect that I feel makes these assignments essential is their frequency. I assign these once a week. (The AOWs are in addition to in-class writing activities, such as writing prompts and essays.) Every Monday morning, students are given a new AOW that is due the following Monday. Writing a thorough response on a weekly basis outside of class gets my students in the habit of writing regularly.
I assign these responses weekly to help students develop writing stamina and to help them learn to write on demand. My own daughter was required in her eighth-grade classes (at another district) to write weekly and I know it was invaluable in helping her develop the confidence to write consistently.
Kids need narrative practice, too
One change I have made over the past year, however, is to alternate AOWs with what I call EOWs (Essays of the Week). EOWs focus on narrative writing skills and include a list of twenty or so prompts around a certain theme. Recent themes included style and health, politics and power, and food. I decided to create EOWs after I determined that kids needed more practice writing in a narrative style. These essays allow kids to inject more of their personal voice into their writing.
Kids tell me they enjoy writing the EOWs much more than they do the AOWs; they like the increased creativity involved. Another difference: the rubric obviously doesn’t require annotating, but may require that students open their essay with dialogue, for example. The EOWs also have a longer length requirement: they must be two pages typed instead of the usual one page for AOWs.
I pull my prompt topics from a list of 650 writing prompts published by the New York Times. One good thing about these EOWs: they can be reused from year to year. However, make sure you don’t just “cut and paste” a swath of topics from the list, since some are definitely geared to older students.
One downside to using AOWs is that for them to be topical, I must spend time every other week to find an article to use. I have used several from Newsela.com, modifying them for a printed handout. I have also found many elsewhere. I keep my eyes and ears open for the current week’s news so I can provide a really up-to-the-minute assignment.
Introducing an AOW usually takes the better part of our 53-minute class periods. After I pass out the handout, we briefly talk about the article’s subject, then we’ll look at the prompt and the rubric to see what they require. Following this introduction, I’ll often read aloud the article, using a document camera while I read, all the while demonstrating annotation.
This is how we do it
After we finish reading the article, I’ll show the kids a related video from Youtube or a similar video source. For example, for one AOW on football head injuries, we watched one to three short clips of players who suffer from concussion injuries.
The EOWs don’t require as much time to introduce. We just skim through the list, discuss a few that look especially interesting to some students, and move on. They know what to do beyond that, which is to put their things away so we can carry on with whatever else I have planned for the day. AOWs and EOWs are homework assignments.
I put a lot of thought and time into creating these weekly assignments, which I consider my number one most effective writing assignment. However, I know these assignments help my students conquer their fear and hesitation with writing. Writing on a regular basis is a great skill that I know will benefit them immensely in high school and beyond.
Thanks for reading again this week! Let me know how you’ve tweaked Gallagher’s AOW concept for your students.
Plus: the movies we watched the final two days before Christmas break
Every teacher knows the feeling. You’re in the final week of school before Christmas break. There’s no point in starting something new, and often, you’re finishing up a project or unit and you need a couple of extra days for the late work to pour in, so you have time to grade and update the school’s system before submitting them for the end of quarter. Those couple of extra days you need require some type of activity to keep the kids busy. And for many of us, that means a movie.
If you’re like me, you feel a wave of guilt when you even think about showing a movie when there’s no real point to showing it other than as a time-filler.
But here’s the thing: as long as a movie has educational value for your students, meaning that it teaches them something they don’t already know, you should feel good about showing it.
I keep my eyes open for valuable movies with at least one of these two characteristics:
1) a strong, life-affirming theme
I’m not going to show movies that don’t end on a positive note. There must be a “moral to the story” that’s worth knowing. Kids are exposed to so many negative
2) a wealth of information about a historical or news-worthy event or an important person on the world stage.
Kids need background knowledge about national and global affairs i order to progress through school. How will they connect with Chasing Lincoln’s Killer if they don’t have adequate prior knowledge about the Civil War, for example?
Of course, the movies must also be rated G, PG, or PG-13. For PG-13 movies, my district requires a signed parent permission slip, so if I plan to show one of those, I must have the permission slip ready to go home about a week before I plan to show the movie.
So, what videos did we watch two days before Christmas break?
In seventh grade, we watched the History Channel drama miniseries America: The Story of Us episodes 4 and half of episode 5, which focus on the years leading up to the Civil War and also the Civil War itself. Watching these helped us prep for our reading in January of James Swanson’s Chasing Lincoln’s Killer, one of my favorite seventh-grade units.
I was unfamiliar with the series when I found it on YouTube (it’s also available on History Channel’s website). I consulted Common Sense Media, and it rated the series suitable for kids ages twelve and up. One caution: episode 5 gets grisly with scenes of battlefield medical care. It’s bloody and graphic, but doesn’t show actual surgeries; it leaves much to the imagination. If your kids have watched Grey’s Anatomy, (which by the way, Common Sense rates for ages 15+), they’ve seen worse.
On Tuesday, Jan. 8, we’ll finish episode 5 and review what we learned about the Civil War by watching these two videos.
What I like about these documentaries is that they contain live-action scenes with the quality of a feature film that kids might see at a theater. The episodes also contain “talking heads” commentary by historians and authors, but also by popular celebrities many of the kids recognize: Sean Combs, Michael Strahan, Tom Brokaw, and others.
The scenes are interspersed with arresting images such as an extreme slow-motion of a minie ball bullet spiraling down the barrel of a rifle and then hurtling through the air. The boys really paid attention to that. In fact, episode 5 opens by introducing the minie ball and asserts that the minie ball —and the bloodshed it caused— is just one example of how the Civil War contributed to and was a reflection of the rise of industrial technology, especially in warfare.
The series contains twelve episodes. Look through the episodes and find those that may provide your kids with the background that will help them connect better to your literature units.
In eighth grade, we watched Sully, starring Tom Hanks and Aaron Eckhart. It’s “The story of Chesley Sullenberger, an American pilot who became a hero (in 2009) after landing his damaged plane on the Hudson River in order to save the flight’s passengers and crew,” according to IMDb. We watched this movie because it riffs on what defines humanity and therefore ties in with our human rights dissertations we are currently building.
Near the end of film, Sully says to his critics at a hearing of the cockpit voice recordings, “You still have not taken into account the human factor. You’ve allowed no time for analysis or decision making. In these simulations, you’re taking all of the humanity out of the cockpit.” We’ll discuss the crucial point Sullenberger was making when we return from break. In fact, students will copy this quote from the movie into cursive on Monday, Jan. 7 and then we’ll discuss how Sully’s point may find a place in our human rights dissertations that we’re building throughout the year.
We didn’t discuss Sully in depth after we watched it. Frankly, we ran out of time and few students were in the mood to analyze it in-depth since it was the last time eight-graders would be in my class before break. That’s okay. At least they’ve gained some background knowledge about an important national event. Plus, we’ll get to have an interesting discussion about what this movie says about humanity, the human spirit, and the essence of being human.
So to conclude, choose the right movies to show your students and avoid the teacher-guilt. Focus on worthwhile movies with rich, life-affirming themes that are full of historical and cultural knowledge. Movies shouldn’t be used to merely fill up time!
I’ll be posting near the end of the year about my favorite end-of-year movies to show. I typically show Walter Mitty to my departing eighth-graders and The Walk to sixth-graders. Seventh-graders watch New York: The Documentary to build background knowledge they’ll need the following fall. Follow my blog to catch that post!
Students presented their writing contest entries for an end-of-semester critique
The last week before Christmas break was super productive. Oh, don’t get me wrong… we still watched videos late in the week, but we ACCOMPLISHED SO MUCH early in the week with our contest entry presentations that my self-inflicted and totally undeserved teacher guilt over watching videos instantly evaporated when I pressed the play button.
By the way, teachers shouldn’t feel guilty about showing videos right before Christmas IF they find movies that have real value that they can connect to their curriculum. Also, avoid Elf, Remember the Titans, or any other movie that kids have already seen at least six times. (You’ll find out what we watched in my classes in a post later this week.)
And now, back to my regularly scheduled article:
We had a goal; more specifically, we had a writing contest deadline. On Friday, December 21, the last half-day of school before Christmas break, I planned to mail in the submission forms for ten students, a mix of both seventh- and eighth-graders, who had written entries to the Scholastic Writing Awards.
On the Monday and Tuesday before that Friday, I had asked students to choose their favorite pieces of writing from their Writer’s Workshop portfolios to present to the class. For the ten students who were submitting contest entries to Scholastic, I specifically asked them to read those entries. We could use the presentations as a final check before sending them off.
Reading the pieces aloud to students might reveal any areas of confusion and editing issues that remained. True, the pieces had been through at least three drafts, some four or more; however, there’s nothing like reading your writing aloud to someone who’s never heard it before to find areas for improvement.
We started with the students with Scholastic entries. I had given each student a rubric form to fill out as they listened to the Scholastic entries aloud. This form was based on the rubric students use when they listen to their classmates present their One-Word Summaries. This version was less involved, however, since it mainly was asking students to listen for confusion. In other words, if something didn’t make sense, it needed to be addressed.
Let me say this: I was so impressed with how seriously the students took this activity. Despite it being the last few days before Christmas break, and despite having turned in the final project of the semester (their Writer’s Workshop Portfolios), students approached this last “Speaking & Listening” activity in a constructive, critical, and professional manner.
Their discussions were focused, direct, and helpful. The rubric contained a blank for them to circle “Yes” or “No,” in response to the question: “At all times, I was able to follow the writing without becoming confused.” This part of the rubric was crucial and helped spur effective conversations. I prompted students to raise their hands if they noticed any confusing areas from the writing to discuss. For example, one student’s poem contained a line that caused confusion. It was a line that defined happiness as the feeling one has when you throw your playing cards down in anger after losing a game.
Some students expressed confusion with how anger could be used to define happiness. These students asked the writer to repeat the poem, including the confusing line. These students listened carefully. They offered these questions:
Would frustration be a more accurate word than anger?
Does using frustration really solve the issue, though?
Would adding the word “playful” before anger or frustration provide the tone needed and eliminate the confusion?
Consensus decided that using “playful” would indeed help. At the conclusion of that student’s turn, before she sat down, I made sure to let her know that it was strictly her decision whether or not to use the word “playful.” It was her poem, after all. The main point for her to remember, I reminded her, was that the line caused confusion in the mind of the reader. When readers are confused, they lose interest, unless the material is something they intrinsically need to understand.
It’s the writer’s job to make the reading experience as smooth as possible, so the reader doesn’t become confused, and therefore, lose interest.
Word choice was a significant part of our discussions during these end-of-semester presentations. It was fun watching students suggest better, stronger, more precise words in a group setting. Some students even left their desks to offer help, making notes on or looking at the copy of the writer’s essay or poem.
Another important change was suggested with another student’s (let’s call her Susan) essay. This suggestion was made after several students expressed confusion over the main character in Susan’s short story. Students didn’t understand if the main character was, in fact, a bird or a human. Susan relayed to us that the character was indeed a bird, a creature of reverence to Crow Tribal members.
To help clear up the cryptic nature of Susan’s writing, I asked students, “Without Susan there to answer questions, how will the Scholastic judges understand the story?” Students came up with their own idea for Susan: provide a prologue, a paragraph or two of background at the beginning of the essay that explains the connection to the Crow. It was an excellent and practical idea and one students arrived at on their own.
These are just two examples of how my students took the writing critique seriously. Even more, one boy who is usually very disinterested in group work made the comment that he wished we had done these presentations earlier in the Writer’s Workshop process. I told him that I agreed and made a mental note that we definitely should conduct these critiques sometime during the Writer’s Workshop, when it has more relevance.
Since there was still time for the Scholastic Award entrants to make changes to their entries, the activity was indeed relevant. For those other students, who were actually reading completed final drafts with no additional opportunity to make further changes (since I had already entered grades due to our schedule), there wasn’t much point to suggesting changes.
However, some of the writing will be worked on next semester for upcoming contests. In March, students who chose to enter the Outdoor Writers of America Norm Strung Youth Writing Awards, will revise their poems from their portfolios and submit those. (I plan to have students present their entries for that contest in March.)
Finally, it’s good to discover another new activity that proves effective for my classes. (And to think we did this valuable activity in the final days of the semester amazes me!)
In addition, I’m always looking for easy ways to provide opportunities that address the Missouri Learning Standards’ “Speaking and Listening” components. Having kids present their work at semester’s end was perfect for that task. Plus, it allowed those Scholastic Writing Award writers another opportunity to further revise and check their work. It was a positive and beneficial way to end the semester!
Thanks for reading! Click “like” if you found this article helpful and then leave a quick comment about the ideas you found most beneficial. Don’t forget: follow this blog to catch my next post on how not to feel guilty about showing videos right before a break.
Students turned in their final portfolios on Friday, and just like that, the semester is nearly over.
On Friday, my seventh- and eighth-graders turned in their final Writer’s Workshop portfolios. In early November, students began choosing eight writing projects from a list of twelve. The list offered a range of projects ranging from poetry to arguments to narratives to informational works. The focus of WW was the writing process. The procedure required that they complete three drafts and share their work with their peers and me for feedback and revision suggestions.
Click here to read my post from three weeks ago that outlines how WW works in my classroom.
By the way, I didn’t include a list of the various writing projects in that earlier post. Here are two photos of the final portfolio rubric I used this year, which lists the projects students could choose from.
It might appear that the grading was intensive and time-consuming. However, since I had already seen the students’ second drafts and provided feedback on those, my main task in assessment was confirming that students followed the writing process for each project. Students turned in a two-pocket folder with their eight projects enclosed. For each project, I looked for their first draft, their first draft responder sheet, their second draft (the draft I provided feedback on), and finally on top of the stack, their third and final draft. I did make sure that significant changes were made at each stage of revision. Points were deducted if they didn’t make any changes from draft to draft. In addition, I gave a “quality of writing & presentation” grade and then also circled a holistic rating for their work (see arrow on the final portfolio rubric in the photo below).
In case you’re wondering, yes, we do use a lot of paper (and ink) in my classroom. Students composed mostly on their Chromebooks, but then I also required that every project is printed. I know many students share their Google Docs with each other for revision and editing purposes, but I still require that students turn in hard copies of all drafts. Here’s my post that explains my loyalty to having students submit paper copies, rather than just dropping a file into Google Classroom.
Overall, WW was a great experience this year. As I graded rubrics this weekend, I came upon three main take-aways. Here they are:
Require that students choose an equal number of each genre. While the variety offered in the project list usually guarantees that students will write across genres, I did notice that some students were heavy on poetry, which makes sense. Free-verse poetry (which I encourage over rhyme) seems to have (to students, anyway) fewer rules and punctuation usage can be looser. However, I would prefer that students get more practice in essay writing. Next year, I’ll make sure to enforce “genre equality!”
Schedule a progress grade mid-way through the workshop schedule. I did this informally by checking with students during conferencing to ensure they were on-task throughout the six weeks, but assigning a formal grade that required the completion of four projects at the three-week point may have helped some of the students with budgeting their time.
Continue the responder sheet grade. This year, I added a responder sheet grade. I asked each student to show me a responder sheet that they filled out for another student. If they followed the directions on the responder sheet, which were to choose four to six questions and answer them in writing on the back of the sheet, they would receive full points. If they answered only two questions, then half points. If they only made a few editing marks on the draft, or provided minimal answers (as in “I think it’s great!” with no suggestions for improvement), they would earn fewer points. Including this grade in the workshop this year made students more accountable for providing constructive feedback. I need to make sure I continue with this practice.
It’s been a good semester and I’m looking forward to January. After Christmas break, seventh-graders will begin reading Chasing Lincoln’s Killer followed by an analysis of the film, The Conspirator; eighth-graders will continue work on their human rights dissertation and also begin reading Frederick Douglass’ narrative. My sixth-graders? They’ll be continuing their mastery of the beloved five-paragraph essay, the champion of academic writing. More on that in a later post!
Thanks for reading! Feel free to click like and leave a comment with your own Writer’s Workshop experiences.
The long-awaited 2019 prompt for NCTE’s Promising Young Writer’s contest has been released. This year, NCTE invites students to write about instances in their lives when they “made a conscious choice to welcome or show hospitality to an experience, feeling, or person.” Click this link for more information.
This contest’s purpose is to, in the words of NCTE’s contest description, “1) To stimulate and recognize the writing talents of eighth-grade students and 2) to emphasize the importance of writing skills among eighth-grade students.”
I am glad there’s a contest specifically for eighth-grade writers. It seems this grade, the final grade before high school, can often be overlooked in the grand scheme of a student’s schooling. It’s the final year of middle school, and while a student’s formative years are far in the past, their all-important high school career has yet to begin.
If you’re unfamiliar with this contest, click here for my entire blog post about it. Check out the comments for special insight from a fellow teacher who has experience with this contest. She offers some especially good tips and thoughts.
One comment she makes: “What I love most about this contest is that there is no set number of winners. Everyone who meets the criteria will receive an award, and even though that is usually a very select few, it’s still nice that it’s not really a ‘competition.’ Students are measured against the criteria, not against each other.”
Thanks for reading! I hope this post provides you the information you need about this contest so you can investigate it further for your students. While this is a new contest for my students, I do plan to assign it after the Christmas break. Have a great week!
There’s a long list of middle school distractions to get through before Eric’s story will be finished.
Don’t buy a house in Oklahoma.
That was the first line of an essay resting on the screen of a laptop checked out to Eric, a seventh-grader in my middle school language arts classes. It stopped me in my tracks.
I whispered, “Why shouldn’t I buy a house in Oklahoma?” He proceeded to tell me, but I stopped him. “No, you gotta write that down,” I said urgently. “It’s a great opening sentence. Go!”
But he didn’t. He gave me a blank look and just sat there. I walked to the next desk to give him a minute to think. I glanced back. He was making faces at Amanda in the next row over.
Time for my little black chair, I thought. So I retrieved the chair from my closet that fits ever so nicely between the rows of desks in my classroom. It allows me to maneuver right down into the trenches alongside my students. I sat down next to Eric.
“How can I help you get started?” As I sat down, I untangled my lanyard again from my chunky stone necklace.
“I dunno,” he mumbled through auburn bangs. I stood there, thinking of an approach to take with Eric, whom educators would call a “hesitant” or “struggling” writer. He tossed his head back, his long bangs surging like a wave and then falling again to conceal freckles dotting a fair complexion.
I stared at him while he searched his binder for a pencil he wouldn’t need. I know this kid has writing talent, I thought, or he wouldn’t have no naturally jotted out that first stunner of a lead sentence. If he only had confidence in his words.
I lifted Erick’s laptop from the desk, thinking I would type as he spoke his story. And, true, maybe I should have waited a bit before doing that, but I did it anyway. As a writer, I know how important it is to strike while the fire is hot and with a line like Don’t buy a house in Oklahoma, I knew Erick had to explore it. Pronto.
I adjusted the screen. “Tell me why I shouldn’t buy house in Oklahoma.” He began to talk, and I started to type.
And then the bell rang.
The following day, we picked up where we had left off. I sat back down with him and we continued. Eric dictated for about thirty minutes, telling me the story of the tornado and the havoc it had wrought: broken windows, lost belongings, damaged cars, angry parents, minor injuries. Eager to be finished, he rattled off a makeshift ending. “There. That’s all I got,” he reported, glancing up at the clock. “Time to pack up.”
“Not so fast,” I said. “Grab this off the printer, please.” I formatted the story and pressed print so he could see on paper just how much he had produced in less than one class period. He—or we, I guess—had completed a first draft. It was the most writing he had produced in my class all year.
Eric stared at the three pages of double-spaced twelve-point Times New Roman he had created, scanning the paragraphs to the end.
“You spelled Choctaw wrong,” he said.
I smiled. “Well, circle it, Mr. Man, and we’ll fix it tomorrow. By the way, that’s an awesome story.”
Over the next few days and weeks, his narrative went no further than that first draft. Thanks to standardized testing, some end-of-the-year field trips, and the arrival of summer break, his first draft of the essay or story or whatever it will be, was put on hold again.
But not for much longer.
In a couple of weeks, Eric and I will resurrect his draft from Google Docs and see if we can find a direction for it. (He has no idea I’ve been thinking about it now and then over the past several months.) There will be time in our class schedule to develop, revise, and otherwise polish that first draft into a piece he can submit to a publisher or a contest, or at least post to his blog.
I have no illusions. It won’t be easy to get that tornado piece finished, but eventually, he’ll arrive at a final draft and turn it in. As his teacher, I absolutely must believe that he’ll feel a sense of accomplishment, whether he’ll admit it, or even recognize it as such. An added bonus: he should gain some confidence in his words as well.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. We have a long list of middle school distractions to get through before then. Eric will be bored. He’ll need a drink. His Google Doc will “disappear.” He’ll ask me thirty times, “Is it good yet?” And then, there’s Amanda.
*The names were changed for this essay.
Thanks for reading! Follow me for more essays focused on education, and specifically, teaching English Language Arts in middle school. Click like and follow my blog for more posts. As the school year continues, it’s getting more and more difficult to post weekly, but I’m trying! Thanks for stopping by.