Save time. Always be planning.

I started this Triangle Fire bulletin board in May. I’m not usually that organized.

 

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I finished this bulletin board today. I started planning it before school released in May. 

At the end of the school year last May, my seventh-graders started our Triangle Fire unit, a study of the 1911 tragedy in New York City that killed 146 young, mostly female immigrants. The fire had unknown origins, but rickety fire escapes, locked doors, and empty water buckets resulted in the worst workplace disaster by fire in our nation’s history until 9/11.  The owners of the factory were eventually exonerated.

 

The positive of this horrible tragedy? The New York Factory Investigating Committee, which was established to enforce regulations throughout the metropolis.

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 Here’s a full straight-on shot of the bulletin board. I wrote the students’ summary words on pink sticky notes and placed them randomly among the photos and pictures.

We study this unit at the beginning of my students’ eighth-grade year and then transition into a study of 9/11… its own workplace fire tragedy. Even though the catalyst for 9/11 was terrorism, it’s arguable that some lives that were lost could have been saved if Triangle Fire-era building codes had not been relaxed during the planning stages and design of the towers.

Last spring, my seventh-graders (now my incoming eighth-graders) watched portions of New York: The Documentary that dealt with the era of first wave immigration, the early 1900s. Watching this doc set the stage for the study we will continue in a couple of weeks.

As we watched the documentary in May, I asked the students to choose one word to summarize the excerpt we viewed. While we discussed their words, and as students defended their word choices, it occurred to me that I should keep track of these words for fall. I quickly started jotting the words down on a sheet of notebook paper.

Hallelujah! For once, I had my act together!

In addition, I knew I had some previously printed photos of New York immigrants, which were primarily of Eastern and Southern European descent.  I had printed and saved these photos from the DAR American History essay contest of 2015.

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I photocopied our textbook’s cover and decided the black-and-white copies made more sense for this bulletin board than if I had printed them in color.

I also knew I had a packet of postcards that my daughter had purchased for me when she toured Ellis Island a few years ago with a group from college.

I compiled the list of words, the printed photos, and the postcards and placed them in a folder and left it on top of the pile of binders and books in my closet over the summer. I wanted to leave it someplace where I would easily find it this week, which I did (score!).

I also had made a mental note in May to order some kind of New York City street map poster. I found this subway map that looks vintage, but actually shows the current layout of today. This poster was purchased for around $6 on Amazon. I love it!

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I stapled some of the pictures and posters so they extended beyond the edges. I like how the twinkle lights, which are actually behind the NYC poster, make it glow!

So over the past few days, I assembled all these pieces together and designed the board as I went, adding in some black paper positioned diagonally as a background. Just this morning, I decided to photocopy the front and back covers of two texts that we use during the unit, as well as an article, and a poster of pre-9/11 NYC that I already owned. I arranged all the pieces together and then encircled the board with white lights.

I think it turned out pretty good. It’s a lot to look at, a lot to take in. That’s probably my only concern, but overall, I think it tells a story AND builds on my students’ knowledge from May.

I also like using the very last days of the school year to build prior knowledge for fall. It sends the message to students that even though school’s almost out for the summer, they’re still going to learn and I’m still going to “always be planning.”

It saves so much time during the hectic days before school begins to know how I’ll decorate the first thing students see when they enter my classroom.


Thanks for reading! Follow my blog for more articles about teaching middle school ELA.

Three Points I Pull from “They Say I Say” in My 7th & 8th Grade ELA Classes

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They Say I Say (Third Edition, 2015)

 

I came across this book, They Say I Say (Third Edition, 2015), when my son’s college English composition instructor required it for his freshman-level course. I thumbed through it, read a few chapters, and found some very concise passages written to help students solve probably the number one problem that I see in their academic writing: a lack of idea development.

While this is a college-level text, I use three points from it with my middle school students because of how easily accessible the explanations are. I’ll be honest. It’s hard for me to explain how to interpret a quote, how to elaborate, etc. It’s really a skill learned with practice. Still, kids need an introduction to it before they can practice.

This text puts into words these difficult concepts and how to master them. I usually use a combination where I read-aloud from copies of the text and then all-class discussion during and after reading.

Here are the three areas that I have pulled from this book and use with my seventh- and eighth-graders to teach them 1) how to quote sources, 2) how to write a counter-argument, and 3) how to make their writing flow. Here are the parts of the book that help me teach these three things:

  • The Art of Quoting (Chapter 3) gives great advice for how to adequately introduce evidence into expository writing. For example, writers should:
    • quote only relevant passages
    • frame or introduce every quotation with a little background that builds up to the quote and provides context
    • don’t be a hit-and-run quoter… after presenting the quotation, writers should stay “on the scene” and explain how the quote supports the point being made
    • try the templates in the chapter that can be used for both introducing quotations and explaining quotations
    • blend the author’s points with the writer’s
  • Putting a Naysayer in Your Text (Chapter 6) offers students good ideas for adding counter-arguments and rebuttals to their arguments. For example, writers should:
    • anticipate objections. Here’s a passage I read aloud and then we discuss as a class:

“But wait, you say. Isn’t the advice to incorporate critical views a recipe for destroying your credibility and undermining your argument? Here you are, trying to say something that will hold up, and we want you to tell readers all the negative things someone might try against you? Exactly. We are urging you to tell readers what others might say against you, but our point is that doing so will actually enhance your credibility, not undermine it. As we argue throughout this book, writing well does not mean piling up uncontroversial truths in a vacuum; it means engaging others in a dialogue or debate– not only by opening your text with a summary of what others have said,… but also by imagining what others might say against your argument as it unfolds. Once you see writing as an act of entering a conversation, you should also see how opposing arguments can work for you rather than against you.”

    • use the provided templates for entertaining objections
      • Example: Of course, many will probably disagree because…
    • use the templates for informally introducing objections
      • Here’s one: However, does the evidence I’ve cited prove that…
    • use the templates for making concessions while still standing their ground
      1. Here’s one: On the one hand, I agree with X that _____. But on the other hand, I still insist that___.
  • Connecting the Parts (Chapter 8) is actually the first of the three areas I use from the book with my students.  Outside of argument writing, showing students how to connect their sentences, how to make their ideas flow from the beginning of their essay to the very end, is something that students struggly with greatly. Templates provide a concrete way to learn a skill, and while there are no templates for connecting the parts, there are transitions and a few key moves that writers make to create writing that flows.
    • The book provides a variety of transitions for elaboration, example giving, contrasting, conceding, and others.
    • It suggests using pointing words, but carefully. These are words such as this, those, and other demonstrative pronouns. (For me personally, I don’t spend much time on this tip because I also know that students struggle with vague pronoun references. Skilled writers only would be able to distinguish”and skillfully use pointing words without inadvertently creating vague pronoun references.)
    • It suggests using key terms and phrases. I use this a lot in my own writing. Repeating a specific word here and there can uphold the ideas I’m writing about.
    • It also suggests “repeating yourself, but with a difference.” In other words, writers should always figure out different ways to express the same idea in order to flesh out or develop them. That builds clarity. I require students often to begin sentences with “In other words,…” where appropriate. “In other words,” is hugely important and helpful. I’ve had one high school student come back to my classroom who told me that using that one simple phrase helped them greatly with developing  their essays.

Another bonus: They Say I Say includes “readings” in each chapter, mentor texts that show the methods being explained in the chapter. These are super valuable, even though some are too advanced. Choose carefully.

Check out Amazon.com and see if you can find a used copy of They Say I Say. It has some real teaching gems that have helped me in conveying clearly some very important methods that students can employ to better develop their writing. And again, I don’t use the whole book, but just the three chapters above (and only excerpts of those chapters, actually).

Idea development, including elaboration and interpretation, is probably the most difficult concept to teach and this book, although a college-level text, has really helped me in my teaching.


Thanks for reading! Click like and leave a comment if you have a question or have any other resources for teaching elaboration and interpretation in academic writing.  Follow my blog for more about middle school ELA teaching.

It never hurts to ask

…for  chocolate and caffeine.

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Here’s a photo of the summer to-do list that the maintenance staff at my school taped to my door over the summer. It contains a list of the chores that were scheduled to be completed over the two and half months that are quickly coming to a close.

One day over the break, I visited the school to check my in-box in the workroom. My students had entered a contest that last March and I knew that correspondence about the contest would arrive sometime over the summer. Read yesterday’s post for that exciting news!

After checking my inbox, I dashed down the hall to my room just to make sure it was there. If you’re a teacher, you know the feeling!

For the majority of the year, those rooms are our domains. As such, our classrooms are not so much our workspaces, as our homes, albeit our second ones. It’s nice to check in at least once during the summer to see where things have been moved since we left, or to pick up a book to read from our classroom shelves, or to find some papers we need for planning.

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Photo by Mike Marquez on Unsplash

I approached the door to my room and noticed the to-do list. I read through all the mundane, simple cleaning tasks that were to be completed. Most of them were finished, but I decided to add a couple just for fun. I added “chocolate fountain” and “espresso machine” to the bottom because, well… chocolate and caffeine (hello).

Last week, when I dropped back in, I noticed my two requests remained untouched. No line had been crossed through them on the list. Were my requests over budget? Deemed unnecessary? Recognized for the joke they were? Oh, well. Maybe next year.

As I always tell my students when they desire something: “It never hurts to ask.”


Thanks for reading! Follow my blog for more tales from my middle school ELA classroom. Leave a comment about your BTS thoughts. 

I love this back-to-school poetry project for 6th-graders from YA author Kate Messner

It combines poetry and revision (and publication!)

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“Sometimes on the beach, I see balloons floating and people walking.” Photo by Gabriel Baranski on Unsplash

“The Sometimes Poem” is one of my favorite ways to start the school year with my sixth-graders. I’ve used this project for two years running and I plan to use it again in August. It includes three skills: poetry techniques, revision, and submitting for publication. I credit children’s and YA author, Kate Messner, for her inspiration and ideas for this project.

In 2016, I attended the Write To Learn Conference and sat in on Messner’s presentation on revision strategies.  Her presentation allowed the teachers in attendance to create and revise their own “Sometimes” poems.

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This book contains real-life strategies real authors use when they revise their novels, articles, and short stories.

Here’s how I present this lesson that’s based on Messner’s slideshow and her excellent book, Real Revision. (My copy, shown at right, is old, but awesome.)  I’ve tweaked Messner’s slideshow for my own use over the past two years. First, download the Google slideshow. Then, skim through the slideshow to become familiar with the project. Notice that I have hidden some of the slides for this project. As you skim, you may decide to modify my changes to fit your needs and students.

  1. Ask students to write for three minutes to describe a place that they love. We use pencils and paper for this to get fresher ideas and more thoughtful writing. Laptops can be used later after revision and before submitting to the publisher.
  2. Before students begin, I share a paragraph I’ve written about my favorite place, which is on a swing in my yard. My paragraph serves as a mentor text.
  3. After three minutes, ask if students would like two or three more minutes, extend the time. usually, in my experience, students need a few minutes more.
  4. Students may share their writing about their favorite places.
  5. Have students listen as you read aloud from Messner’s own poem, “Sometimes On a Mountain in April.” Messner’s poem can also serve as a mentor text, but in addition, it shows students how their paragraph will soon be transformed into a poem.
  6. Show students your attempt at turning your paragraph into a poem. Read aloud one more time your paragraph, and then read to them your poem. Discuss with students how to pull details from the paragraph to create lines for a poem that are filled with imagery.
  7. Also show students at this point how to use repetition in their poem, just like Messner did. She added the words “Sometime on a mountain in April” about every three lines. This creates a poetic structure and rhythm to their writing.
  8. For me, this step is usually when students really begin to like what they’ve written. Have students transform their paragraph into poetry. You’ll need about five to eight minutes for this step, but allow more if students need it. For those who struggle, help them locate one detail that they can craft into a line of a poem.  After helping them do this one line, it’s their turn to find another.
  9. After students have six lines for their poem, tell them that it’s time to revise.
  10. Go deep with a quick discussion of theme… what the poem is REALLY about. On the surface, my poem is about sitting in a swing in my yard. However, it’s REALLY about appreciating the little things in life. In a word, contentment. I learned to spend a small amount of time on theme with this project, but not too much. If students can end up telling you what their poem is about on the surface AND what it’s really about, then you’re good. Let revision be the focus for this project.
  11. To revise, ask students to add more imagery and sensory language. To do this, have students add one fragrance to their poem. It should be a new line of poetry. Show them yours. It’s good to have your original six lines on the board. Then add the new fragrance line(s) below. Students may add as many lines as they would like, but one helps them see how sensory language enriches their writing.
  12.  Keep revising! Have students add one more of the five senses to their poem. They definitely have sight if they’ve written anything at all, and they’ve also added in a fragrance. Students should be adding a sound, a taste, or a texture to their poem now. Show them yours again, if needed, as a mentor text. With this step, students see that adding details is one way to revise.
  13. Revise some more! Have students scan their poem for these overused words: very, really, just. With this step, students see that removing unnecessary words is another way to revise.
  14. Keep at it! Have students remove five more unnecessary words. Tell students to look for the least important words. If kids struggle to find five, require that they at least remove three.
  15. Now revise with a partner! Put slide 95 on your screen and leave it there for the partner work. Have one student pass out a pink, green, yellow, and pink highlighter to each student. Note: Use any four different colors, but everyone needs to have the same colors. Read aloud this slide first with your students after they pair up.
  16. Students will use the pink highlighter to indicate areas that should be removed. They’ll use green to indicate confusing areas. Blue indicates areas that should be more precise or more detailed. Yellow indicates that a line or area is effective as is.
  17. Before students begin highlighting, pass out one sticky note to each student. Tell students that they are to write notes for your partner that explain your highlighting (if needed)  and to offer suggestions.
  18. When students are finished highlighting and writing notes on the sticky note, show them the “When your partner is done” slide. Have students rework their own poem again, considering their partner’s suggestions.
  19. Use this moment to revisit theme. Have students ask themselves “What is my poem about? What is my poem REALLY about? Is that theme clear in my poem?” You may need to help students think of words and phrases that will help them convey their theme. This is tough. Don’t stress it with your sixth-graders. It’s good that they are putting effort into this higher-level skill.

So that’s the basic framework for this exciting poetry project. I have used it for two years with both sixth- and seventh-graders each August. It’s a great way to get back into the “writing zone” and it helps me get to know my students and their personalities. In fact, here’s a poem written by one of my students last year:

Sometimes in a Tree Stand

by Alex J.

Sometimes when I’m sitting in my tree stand,

early in the morning,

I can hear dogs barking through the hills

and can see the birds fly above us.

Sometimes when I’m sitting in my tree stand,

I can hear the leaves crunching when animals walk,

and sometimes smell the pine trees.

Sometimes in the tree stand,

I can feel the morning breeze.

Then time goes on.

The dogs go quiet,

and the birds settle down.

The leaves stop crunching.

And the smell of the pine trees

are replaced by the smell of the day.

The morning breeze dies down,

and I know it’s time to leave,

but I’ll come back tomorrow.

The heavy emphasis on revision subtly shows students challenging and fun ways to add sensory language and delete unnecessary verbiage from their poems. What’s more, it exposes students to theme and guides them in seeking elements of deeper meaning in their work.

But that’s not all! Have your students enter their “Sometimes” poem in Creative Communication’s Poetry Anthology contest. Their work just might be published in a hardcover book! Alex J’s. poem (above) was published and showed Alex that he has real potential as a writer. Read this post for more information about the anthologies.

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Creative Communication’s Poetry Anthology Collection includes volumes for 6th-graders (not shown).

I can’t tell you how great it is when students realize they’re sending their poems to a publisher. They will definitely step up their effort and take greater care with their work once they know their poems are going places! In fact, you may want to tell them at the beginning of the project that they will eventually submit their poems to a publisher. I assure you that it will set the stage for more engagement.

Thanks for reading! Try this project. I really think you’ll enjoy using it as a BTS project. Thanks to Kate Messner for her inspiration and materials!

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.

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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!

Dear Teachers: Share your work with the world.

Let others know what you’re doing in your classroom.

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A card I received back from the director of the Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage in Washington, DC. 

A colleague of mine, Dr. Keri Franklin, founding director of the Ozarks Writing Project, a site of the National Writing Project, and also director of assessment at Missouri State University, recommended that I send some issues of my seventh-graders’ Whippersnappers newsletter,  to the director of the Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage in Washington, DC. My students create this newsletter in partnership with the White River Valley Historical Society, a local research organization. It might be a good idea, Franklin suggested, to let the Smithsonian know about the history-based writing that my students are involved in.

So, the week after school ended (Does school ever really end???), I wrote a letter, enclosed it with some newsletter copies, and sent the package off to the center mentioned above.

Yesterday, I received a nice, handwritten note from the director, Dr. Michael Atwood Mason, thanking me for letting him know about my class’ activities.

I plan to display the card from the Smithsonian in my classroom in the fall. My students will be impressed that their words are reaching out even further than they ever expected with this project.

That short note got me thinking about how I’m thankful that my colleague gave me this suggestion to reach out. I think that often as teachers we become so involved in the cocoon of our classes that we forget that people out in “the real world” want and need to know what we’re doing inside the schools. It’s easy to become isolated in our work… with our main contacts on a daily basis being our students, administrators, other teachers, and parents.

This experience has reminded me to make the effort to branch out a little and communicate with those beyond the walls of my classroom. Not only does it give me a boost in the everyday routine when I hear back from a contact I’ve made, but it also reminds me to be open to the possibilities and future opportunities that may occur as a result of my sharing.


Thanks for reading! Have you shared any of your classroom activities with those outside of academia? Share your experiences in the comments below and follow my blog for more writing about my “brave and true” ELA classroom experiences.