Slice of life writing: here’s a mentor text for high school students

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Slice of life essays written by elementary students are everywhere; high school slices are harder to find. Here’s one.

Last fall, near the beginning of the school year, I introduced my high school juniors and seniors to slice of life writing. Slices are short narratives that celebrate the ordinary moments in our lives that we may often overlook as worthy of documenting.

To read my post from September about how my students approached Slice of Life writing, click here.

By the way, I learned about slice-of-life writing from this inspirational group of writer-teachers. Teachers write and post their own slices on Tuesdays at this site. For information about this group’s Slice of Life Writing Challenge for classrooms, visit here.

Slice of life writing has few guidelines. Writing a slice is largely a way for students to merge narrative writing with autobiography. Writing slices helps students, especially those who don’t enjoy writing, experience some success within the confines of an essay that runs around 250 words.

Here are the main guidelines that I use when introducing high school students to slice of life writing:

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If your students need a word count,

ask them to shoot for 250-300 words.

I also provide mentor texts so students can read examples of the moments that slice of life writing is intended to document. Because this is my first year teaching at the high school level, I didn’t have any examples written by secondary students; all my examples were written by students at my previous middle school position.

And let’s face it, middle school is middle school.

High school students definitely have more mature concerns, goals, and preoccupations. After all, college and career is on the horizon, social relationships deepen, and many students have jobs.

As a result, I decided to share with you a slice written by Kenna, one of my high school juniors. Feel free to use this as an example when you introduce your own older students to slicing. I especially like this slice because it’s very visual and takes its own sweet time to record an activity that many, if not most, girls can identify with. Curling one’s hair is an oft-repeated task that, while mundane, can come alive when approached creatively.

By the way, this was a third draft that she completed during our Writer’s Workshop weeks last fall. It was nice to see her slice improve gradually over three drafts.

Golden Perfection by Kenna D.

“My hair is long, golden and shiny. It flows through my fingers like the flow of a summer breeze. My hair is flat, and fairly straight. It almost looks like it would be stiff…until you run your fingers through it, and until I decide to style it. When you see it, you can already imagine without touching it, that it is soft and silky like a fleece blanket. 

As the curling iron heats up on the bathroom counter, I look in the mirror to see how all of the lights are aiming down on my hair. They are making it shine like a star in the night sky.

I begin to curl my hair. The beautiful, golden caramel colors, heating up and twisting around and around the hot iron. As the iron gets close to my head, I can feel the heat, beaming off of the iron. It reminds me of the warmth of a fireplace on a cold, snowy winter morning. 

 Ten seconds, twenty seconds, I hold the golden swirl of hair around the iron, and wait for it to give the golden swirl that perfect spiral shape. Thirty seconds pass by and it’s time to release  the hair. I gently let it unravel itself from the iron. Almost as if it’s in slow motion, my hair falls. For a moment I wonder: Is it really going to curl? Will I have to redo this piece of hair?

Fortunately, the golden spiral coils. I stare back at myself in the mirror to see this beautiful, golden swirl of perfection.

I repeat this over and over again. Little pieces of hair at a time. Until every single piece of my hair is curled into a perfect, bouncy coil.

But wait, here’s the plot twist, I’m not a very “girly” girl. After all that work, I end up putting it up into a ponytail of golden, caramel swirls.”

Wasn’t that an awesome slice of life? For a link to a Google Doc file of this slice, click here: Golden Perfection Slice of Life.

I sat up in my chair as I read it, mesmerized by how Kenna zoomed in on a seemingly boring activity and made it come alive with sensory imagery. I loved seeing the “mind movie” as I read.

In addition, Kenna gave us a glimpse into her personality.

Who of us hasn’t put on our best clothes, or spent a lot of time on our hair, only to abandon it all to throw on a pair of jeans or opt for a ponytail instead?


Thanks for reading again this week! I’ll be adding more high school slice of life essays to my blog over the next few weeks. Follow my blog to catch those mentor texts!

New Year, New Units: Beowulf and The Old Man and the Sea

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The British Lit textbook my school uses alongside Hemingway’s book.

Lots of planning comin’ up!

Now that the new year has started, I thought I would write a short post about the units I’m starting with my juniors and seniors next week.

My junior classes will begin Ernest Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea on Wednesday  and my senior classes will start Beowulf on the same day. (In addition, my Composition class will begin brainstorming ideas for their I-Search papers on the same day, while my Novels classes begin their independent reading books.)

 

These lit units are the first ones of the school year for both grades. Last fall, we wrote memoirs, poetry, short story analysis essays, and a variety of pieces for Writer’s Workshop.  We also wrote poetry and entered writing contests, such as the Scholastic Art and Writing Awards.

Of course, we also read. Between nonfiction articles for Article of the Week assignments and various books we “tasted” on First Chapter Fridays, we did expose ourselves to new reading. Still, in-depth and extended study of selected literature was not on the menu.

Until now.

I’m excited to experience these literature studies with my students. I’ve read The Old Man and the Sea before, but not Beowulf. And to be honest, I’m a little embarrassed that I haven’t read this foundational text before. In fact, I’m not sure how I missed reading it until now.

I’m fairly well prepared to get started with these new units, but at the same time, I know that teaching them will be challenging and probably dominate my planning time.

For me, tackling anything new in teaching requires patience, planning, and an expectation that for these first attempts, I’ll be learning right alongside my students. I’ll be…

  • exploring new vocabulary
  • answering study questions
  • designing writing projects
  • creating summative assessments, and
  • planning cumulative activities.

It’s quite a handful to create daily lessons for two new texts. Compound that with the fact that at my small rural high school, I’m the only English teacher for juniors and seniors.  That has its positives (I have autonomy and choice when planning), but it also has its negatives. For example, while I do have a general curriculum to follow, I do not have unit specific materials beyond the textbooks and novels.

As such, I’ll be creating and designing lessons as I go. Thank goodness for ready-made unit plans, which provide me a basic framework that I can tweak and adjust for the future.

I’ll update you on how these new units progress in some future posts.


Thanks for reading again this week! What are you gearing up for now that the holidays are over? Feel free to leave a comment and follow my blog to catch those follow-up posts.

 

Teaching transitions in writing, part 2

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Photo by Sam Carter on Unsplash

This student-written essay illustrates transition ideas

A few weeks ago, I wrote a post about how the nonfiction author James Swanson’ transitions from paragraph and from chapter to chapter in his nonfiction narrative Chasing Lincoln’s Killer. The post discussed transitions words (such as therefore, however, in contrast, nonetheless, and others) that we all know and love and teach. However, the post also discussed a more subtle form of transition… transition ideas. Read that post here. 

Below, I’ve shown a student-written example of  the same primary technique, repetition, that Swanson used to carry the reader from one paragraph of her text to the next.

This student’s term that she chose to guide the reader through her essay was “moving on.” In the photo below, I’ve underlined the five times that the writer repeated the words “moving on” or “move on.”

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In the photo above, I’ve underlined in red the repetition of key words a student used in her personal essay about how she learned resilience and perseverance amid negative circumstances. 

The student told me that she didn’t realize she was using repetition to create her transition ideas. Once I called her attention to it, however, she could see how using those words could help a reader navigate her argument’s reasoning and follow her ideas from one paragraph to the next.

We also discussed how repetition can backfire because it’s possible to overuse words and phrases in a piece of writing.

How to tell the difference?

It’s often a judgment call… a judgment call that requires lots of reading and re-reading (especially aloud!) to determine whether the repetition connects ideas and builds the argument, forming a continuous thread through the piece or merely distracts the reader, pulling them away from the argument.

It’s fun to see students making effective moves in their writing, especially when it comes to writing transitions and working hard to make their ideas carry through a piece smoothly, seamlessly, and unobtrusively.

I’ll have a few more examples to show you in a future post or two. Become a follower to catch that post!


Thanks for reading! How do you teach transitions? It’s one of the more challenging aspects of the craft. Feel free to leave a comment with your experiences and thoughts on the subject.

 

Dear Teachers: The Church of Scientology is one click away from your students

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My laptop screen that shows the Youth for Human Rights curriculum sign-up form.

Be careful: the church’s Youth for Human Rights lessons are now available online.

 

A lot can happen in two years.

Two years ago, I wrote on Medium.com about a variety of educational materials offered by Youth for Human Rights International, a Los Angeles, Calif.-based human rights advocacy group. Back then, after doing some quick online research, I discovered that Youth for Human Rights International is actually a front organization of the Church of Scientology.

Note: In this story, I have intentionally omitted links to websites owned by the Church of Scientology or its front organization; however, here’s the link to the article I wrote two years ago: Dear Parents: Scientology Wants to Get Inside Your Child’s Classroom

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Read this story on Medium.com here.

Recently, I checked back on the Youth for Human Rights website to see if it was still there, and if so, I wondered if it still offered the same materials and other propaganda extolling the virtues of the organization and its questionable humanitarian work.

What did I find?

A full online course. An app. A teacher dashboard so teachers can monitor student progress in the course.

Instead of sending away for the printed materials I wrote about two years ago, teachers can now instantly open an account, register as a teacher, and enroll their students to deliver human rights content from the Church of Scientology.

But don’t.

And don’t order the printed materials either.

Despite lots of United Nations name-dropping, the Church of Scientology has no business proclaiming itself as a human rights leader.

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United Nations, New York City | Photo: Pixabay

After all, there are several human rights that the Church of Scientology policies violate, which discredit its claim of being a leader in the field. I’m not an expert on the Church of Scientology, but if one reads even a moderate amount on this so-called religion, you’ll discover many questionable, unethical activities.

For now, here are three that I’m aware of: 1) the cult’s Rehabilitation Project Force, a forced-labor camp where cult followers are imprisoned to perform hard labor to compensate for violations they have allegedly committed; 2) the cult’s disconnection policy, which requires followers to separate themselves from friends and family members who criticize the Church of Scientology, and 3) the documented charges of physical violence and assault by David Miscavige, the church’s “ecclesiastical leader,” and other higher-ups.

Teachers beware: The Church of Scientology doesn’t make it obvious that it’s the force behind Youth for Human Rights International. Visit the YHRI website and you’ll find no connection to Scientology; however, visit Scientology.org and you’ll find numerous mentions of YHRI, its partner front United for Human Rights, and a heavy dose of grandiose language extolling the progress being made globally to advance human rights.

To be honest, human rights violations or not, when a cult is making inroads into American schools – even to promote an innocuous and noble cause – it’s unacceptable and dangerous.

In addition, providing a way for students to sign up for a Church of Scientology online human rights course is even more disturbing.

Despite negative publicity accrued over a few seasons of Scientology and The Aftermath, the Church of Scientology and its myriad front organizations are still operating.

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The Church of Scientology’s attempts – including its new online course – to provide a curriculum to schools and to sign up students online is underhanded and dishonest… not qualities I would expect from an organization supposedly dedicated to the advancement of human rights around the world.


I keep tabs on the Church of Scientology and how it attempts to connect with classrooms. Thanks for reading again this week. And please let me know via email (marilynyung@gmail.com) if you are ever contacted by the Church of Scientology or its front organizations. I still receive emails from their offices regularly regarding their human rights curriculum.

 

 

Four-day weeks are the worst… said no teacher ever

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Photo by Radu Florin on Unsplash

What a four-day school week means to me

Last summer, my husband and I moved to a new city. Since we had learned about our upcoming move way back in January, I began searching for a new position about a month later. The local school district in our new hometown didn’t have any positions available. As a result, I decided to explore the many small rural school districts in the surrounding area.

One of the very first openings I noticed was at a school district about forty minutes away from our new home. I noticed the listing and checked out the school’s website. It looked like a promising possibility, but the forty-minute commute gave me pause. Still, I made a mental note to keep it in mind as I continued my search.

A couple more openings soon showed up in other schools. One was about thirty minutes away. Another was a tempting fifteen minutes away. Of course, a few more with forty-minute commutes similar to that first listing popped up in my search results as well.

I continued to prepare my resumé, samples of student work, and other materials that I knew I’d need when I would eventually start interviewing. And just about everyday, I logged on the job search website provided by my state’s department of education and looked for openings in the area.

One day about two weeks later, the listing at that first school I noticed was flagged as being recently revised. Hmmm… I wonder what’s changed, I thought.

I clicked the listing. A significant change had been made: the district’s school board had, a few days earlier, approved a four-day week for the 2019-2020 school year.

The four-day week is a relatively new concept that more than 500 districts across the country are exploring. Small schools, especially those in rural areas, can reduce operating costs and, in lieu of higher salaries, better attract and retain teachers by offering a shorter work week instead.

Well, that definitely changes things, I thought.

Without looking further on the site, I quickly assembled a resumé and emailed it to the school’s principal. Within a week, I had an interview scheduled. About an hour after my interview, I received an offer, which I accepted the next morning.

That four-day week stopped my search cold. Yes, it would mean school days that run about thirty minutes longer, but it would also mean one fewer day of making that forty-minute drive each way, which was the main drawback for me since I was transferring from another rural district with a comparable salary schedule. And now, with the prospect of a four-day week, saving time and gas were just the beginning.

After all, what teacher doesn’t fantasize about what an entire extra day each week would mean for their life? 

  • That extra day means I can schedule a doctor or dental appointment without taking time off from work (and, by the way, costing the school the wages for a sub).
  • It means I can do my grocery shopping on a quiet Monday morning instead of a hectic Saturday afternoon when everyone else is roaming the aisles, too.
  • It means I can hang around the house and redo that cabinet I’ve been needing to paint, but just haven’t found the three or four solid hour it requires.
  • It means I can burn a pile of leaves if I feel like it.
  • Or bake a loaf of bread.
  • Or read a book.
  • Or write a blog post.
  • Or exercise.
  • Or volunteer.
  • Or yes, even do some grading and lesson planning. (Yeah, it happens.)

And think about what an extra day means to younger teachers with small children. That’s one fewer day of childcare to pay for and one more precious day to spend with their infant or preschooler. As a mother (my kids are grown now), that extra day would have meant the world to me.

And yes, logistically, I understand how difficult it might be to schedule childcare on a four-day calendar. However, after-school clubs and other community programs have been known to revise their hours and services to accommodate the change.

And mind you, I don’t have every Monday off at my new school. Of about forty Mondays in the school year, twenty-two are actual “no school” days where both students and teachers stay home. On the remaining sixteen Mondays, only teachers attend school to plan and take part in professional development (PD) activities, such as first aid workshops, a suicide prevention session, and technology training.

Fortunately, my district doesn’t pack these Mondays with PD sessions; I usually have four to five hours of time to spend in my classroom preparing for the weeks ahead. I accomplish so much on those days completing work that I would normally just take home in a bag anyway.

I love the four-day week my new school district voted to adopt last spring. The district plans to evaluate  the change next semester to learn how it’s working for students, parents, and school personnel. Everyone’s needs must be considered, for sure, but we must remember that educating students must remain the number one priority.

For me, however, the four-day week means my weekends are long, luxurious, and wonderfully rejuvenating. Yes, I could earn more in a larger, better resourced suburban district closer to my home, but my smaller paycheck is more than offset by that one glorious extra day.


Thanks for reading! Have you heard of any districts in your area considering the switch to a four-day week? What are your thoughts? Let me know with a comment. And don’t forget to become a follower for more ELA posts. Here’s a link to a recent post

 

 

Ditch the Dictionary

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Photo by Skitterphoto from Pexels

I’m trying these four short vocabulary bell-work tasks to help kids better learn new words

I recently signed up to receive weekly email updates from the Sadlier School. As part of the email, I receive a free “Power Word of the Week” email from the Vocab Gal’s blog. I’ve been using these “slides” in my classes as a vocabulary bell-work activity.  I’m trying four different activities with each new Power Word, so for each day of our week, we can spend a few more minutes to learn the word better. (Yes, you read that right. This year, our district has switched to a four-day week. I’ll let you know how that’s going in an upcoming post.)

The Power Word of the Week slide defines the word, uses it in a sentence, and then asks students to write their own sentence using the word.

Here’s an example of the slides:

One way teachers can build a word-rich environment in the classroom is by spotlighting a weekly vocabulary word. Use my vocabulary Power Word of the Week to ensure vocabulary instruction occurs daily in your classroom!
This is one of the Power Word of the Week slides provided by the Vocab Gal at Sadlier.

Activity 1:

We follow the slide exactly and students write a sentence using the new word. Sometimes, depending on the new word, I’ll ask a volunteer to think of a random word (popsicle? frog? hockey?) to throw into the sentence, so the sentences they write will contain both the new word and the random word. It adds more interest to the standard “write a sentence” activity.

Activity 2:

The next day, I put the same slide back on the screen and ask students to review the definition and then use it in another sentence. However, this time they must use the word in a sentence about a topic covered in a recent Article of the Week assignment. We recently used the word “gossamer” in a sentence about California’s Fair Pay to Play Act; we also used the word “paragon” in a sentence about robotic bee engineering in the Netherlands.

Here are some student-written examples:

California’s reasons for paying athlete’s for endorsement deals were like gossamer in the eyes of the NCAA.

Scientists from Delft University are working to engineer robotic bees that, if forced to do the work of real bees, will be paragons of nature

I’ve also asked students to write sentences using the Power Word plus a Power Word from a previous week. This keep the new words in our working vocabularies and increases the chances that these new words will be retained.

Activity 3:

On this day, I ask students to make more connections. We take the Power Word and invent an app that is called the word. For example, imagine there’s an app called “Paragon,” then…

  • Write two to three sentences that describe the features of the app. What would an app called Paragon do?
  • Write a user review of the app that shows knowledge of the word.
  • If you have time, ask students to create a logo for the app. This is key if you do this add-on: ask students to make sure the logo illustrates in some way the word’s meaning.
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This is an example of the Create-an-App activity that explores the word “cantilever.” I show this students when we do it the first time. This example is more elaborate than what students create during these bell-work activities, since we have only five to ten minutes to complete the activity.

The Create-An-App idea is one I borrowed from retired writing teacher Corbett Harrison of Writing Fix and the Nevada Writing Project. Visit Harrison’s comprehensive website for a treasure trove of lessons and resources.

Here are two examples of the Create-an-App activity completed as bell-work:

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Two other student examples:

The Perpetuate App… This app helps you find out who your ancestors are. It does that so you can perpetuate their customs.

Use the app Perpetuate… to make any moment in life permanent or long-lasting. Make great life moments last forever.

Activity 4:

On this day, I ask students to write a haiku poem. (Many students tell me they haven’t written a haiku since third or fourth grade!) I write one of my own as an example and post it on the board. Students then get started on their own. The requirements: 1) their haiku must be three lines long and contain five syllables in the first and last lines and seven in the second; 2) The poem must contain the Power Word; 3) The poem must be nature-related, in keeping with traditional haiku poetry.

Here’s an example I recently used in class with “fend” as the Power Word:

Canadian geese

Soar above, pointing south to

Fend off winter’s wrath

I love words, but I’ve always been perplexed by the best way to increase students’ vocabularies. Rote memorization doesn’t work. Neither does working with a new word every day for that day only. On the other hand, spending five to ten minutes over the course of four days to explore a new word seems, so far anyway, to be a viable option… at least one worth testing out.

When we’ve covered ten or so new Power Words, I’ll assess students to see how well they’ve retained knowledge of the words. I’ll let you know how that goes.


Thanks for reading again this week! In my previous teaching position, my students practiced their cursive writing everyday for bell-work. Since my new students haven’t written in cursive in years, I decided to not fight the cursive battle, and have them learn some new vocabulary instead. So far, I think it’s working.

Stay tuned (in other words, follow my blog!) to receive the follow-up post where I’ll report on a summative assessment.

 

Mini-lesson idea: use this compelling lead sentence example as a mentor text

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A lead shouldn’t ask a question, but raise one instead

I discovered this awesome lead sentence in the July 8-21 issue of New York magazine. The article, “The Battle of Grace Church,” is written by Jessica Pressler, who opens her story with this doozy of a lead sentence.

This sentence shows precisely how engaging a lead can be when it begs a question from the reader.

Here’s the sentence: “When you buy a home in Brooklyn Heights, you aren’t just purchasing real estate.” This sentence begs the reader to ask…

If I’m not purchasing real estate, then exactly what am I buying?

Notice the writer did not ask a question; rather, she raised one… within the mind of the reader, that is. That’s an important distinction.

The “Ask a question” lead is a tired trope. After all, people are reading to get answers, not questions.

However, a lead that raises a question is a different matter entirely. And Pressler’s writing reveals this technique.

But how exactly does one raise a question?

First, I would suggest having students emulate the structure of Pressler’s sentence. Have students write a complex sentence that starts with  When you…. Of course, you may need to show them how to finish that dependent clause, and then follow it with a comma and an independent clause.

Showing this sentence to my students, discussing what we notice about it, and then imitating it will make for a quick and effective mini-lesson prior to writer’s studio time in my high school English classes.

The key take-away for my students:

Don’t ask a question in your lead… raise one instead.


Helping students find the best way to open an essay–whether it’s an argument, an informative, or even a narrative–is hard.  When I see something in print out there in the real world that may help provide you a mentor text for a mini-lesson, I’ll be posting it.