When sixth-graders are asked to “Confirm Their Humanity”

Are there really robots out there writing poetry?

 

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Photo: Fernando Puente on Unsplash

It seemed like a crazy request last week when my students were uploading their poems to a publisher of youth poetry.

After writing poems about their favorite places… in a comfy chair in their bedroom, on a sturdy branch in an oak tree in their backyard, in a deer stand high above a pasture… a box popped up on the Submit page. It read: Confirm your humanity.

Didn’t they just do that, I thought? When kids write about playing with Barbie dolls, crashing a bike, sipping hot chocolate, or swooshin’ a three, aren’t they also confirming their humanity?

And yes, I get it. This is 2018. Security and privacy are tantamount. Especially in schools. But in a poetry contest? Are there really robots out there writing poetry? Maybe so.

The odd thing is that while most were asked to confirm their humanity, some weren’t. Some were immediately ushered to the Success! screen, which meant they could log off their laptops and continue on to the next activity.

However, most spent another five minutes scanning and clicking through minuscule thumbnails of traffic scenes looking for street signs.

Mrs. Yung, is a billboard a traffic sign?

Mrs. Yung, I can’t tell what’s in this picture.

Mrs. Yung, I keep getting them wrong.

I sat with a student to help him confirm his humanity through four different series of traffic-clogged urban street scenes. Writing a poem about the cattle auction at the sale barn hadn’t been enough.

And that example reveals the extra rub: in front of our school, which sits in the middle of rolling farmland, one flashing yellow light slows drivers to 45 mph. In other words, it can be difficult for some students to confirm their humanity out here by scrutinizing a series of bustling city street scenes. There are horses grazing across the road, for cryin’ out loud.

So, even though it may be difficult to relate to the technological safeguards that are intended to keep them safe from harm and fraud, those safeguards are still something my students and I must observe. Clicking on all those fuzzy photos is the price we must pay to affirm, confirm, and maintain our humanity.

Or even just write a poem.


I posted this last week on Medium.com. Technology in the classroom isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.

Last week, my 8th-graders tried a new project with me; the results were interesting and in some cases, outstanding! I’ll have a report on that next week. Follow me to get the notification! Thanks for reading.

Our field trip to a local 9/11 memorial

Plus: a few things my students didn’t know about 9/11

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On Wednesday, Sept. 12, I took my eighth-grade students to a local college to view the 9/11 memorial there. I have wanted to do this for a couple of years and finally, this year the stars aligned: my lesson planning fell into place, a few phone calls were made, permission slips were returned, and it happened.

My co-teacher next door and I both share classes, and as a result, we have a possible 100 minutes available to take short outings around our town. Local field trips are actually something we should take more advantage of because I think it really helps kids to get out into the community and experience what it offers.

Viewing the local memorial’ actual steel column from a building destroyed on Sept. 11, 2001 is important and helps to make the terror attacks a tangible reality for kids. Since they weren’t even born yet in 2001, I get the feeling from talking with them that 9/11 is an event relegated to the distant past, (as hard as that might be for older adults to believe!).

Fortunately, middle school kids are VERY interested in the attacks, however. They want to learn about them and understand the gravity of the event.  Read this post to see how I cover 9/11 in my language arts classes.

Here are a few things my students didn’t know about 9/11 prior to our discussions:

  • One student thought that only one plane was involved.
  • They didn’t know the hijacked planes were carrying passengers; they thought the hijackers were flying their own empty planes.
  • A few didn’t know that radical Islam was the religion observed by the hijackers.
  • They didn’t know that people from all over the world worked in the World Trade Center towers.
  • They didn’t know about the bombing of the Pentagon or Flight 93 in Pennsylvania.
  • They had no idea the cleanup lasted for nine months.
  • They didn’t know that buildings in addition to the Twin Towers were damaged and/or required demolition.
  • They didn’t know anything about the World Trade Center bombing in 1993.
  • They didn’t know who Osama bin Laden was.

This week, kids will continue to read about the 9/11 attacks and apply what they learn to a few writing projects. I’ll update you on those activities soon.


Thanks for reading! Leave a comment with your own 9/11 teaching ideas and projects. I’d love to hear what you do in your classroom.

I’m finally trying out Planbook for my lesson planning

I’ll let you know how it goes.

 

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Photo by Marten Bjork on Unsplash

Late last week (Thursday night?), I began experimenting with Planbook, the online lesson planning program. I had heard about it from a teacher-friend of mine who is in her second year of teaching. Obviously, all these new apps for teachers don’t always get discovered by veteran teachers who are just slogging it out in the classroom day in and day out.

Anyway, about a year ago, I remember looking at Andrea’s lesson plans. I remember thinking how nice it was that her plans were available online at any time. In addition, she could access them at home on her personal laptop, on her phone using the Planbook app. She could also maintain these plans year after year and easily access them.

I am using the program’s 30-day free trial right now. The full version apparently costs $15 per year. I’m guessing I’ll be contacted to upgrade in about a month.

My current system is very “old school.” I write my daily plans out on sheets of paper in a three-ring binder. You can see an old binder from 2014 in this photo. When I fill up the binder, I put a little label on the spine of the binder and then store it either on the table behind my desk or in my closet.  When I need to find out what I did in my sixth-grade classes last year when we were starting to learn how to write five-paragraph essays, for example, I have to find the binder and then dig through the daily sheets, assuming I know approximately what time of the year to look for.

It’s time-consuming. My notes are there, but sometimes during the quick rush of the day, I might have scribbled an abbreviated note that made sense at the time, but definitely doesn’t now.

I also use a spiral datebook planner in tandem with the daily sheets in the binder. The planner helps me plan for long periods of time and inform how I plan when I fill out the daily sheets. Using these both works… kinda. It seems like my system could be so much more streamlined.

At least it’s better than it used to be. During my first few years of teaching, I filled up a binder each quarter. Then for a couple of years, I only filled up two binders… one binder for each semester. Finally, over the past two years, I’ve been able to fit the entire year into one binder.

Regardless, it just isn’t efficient.

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This is my old planning method used on the first day of school this year. Don’t laugh. 🙂 It worked for seven years.

So, last Thursday, I decided to finally give Planbook a try. I had contemplated using it several times but didn’t take the plunge until Thursday, the second day of school. I was filling out my daily sheets, thinking to myself This needs to change, and then I just googled Planbook and dug in.

It wasn’t hard to figure out Planbook. I would call it intuitive, even. There are various “levels” of planning you can do. I chose the middle level of complexity, but so far have filled out the template in a minimal way. There are spaces to add standards for each lesson, for example, and I can go in and do that later, but for now, just knowing I have a neatly typed template for my day-to-day planning is great. I’ll print my plans out for now so I can read them on paper throughout the day. I really don’t like doing everything on a screen. The best part of this switch is knowing that these plans will be easily accessible in the future.

That’s really all I know about Planbook at the moment. I know very little about what more is available if I were to purchase the $15 upgraded version. It’s also worth noting that the program isn’t just for teachers to use. There are ways for students to access the program, as well as administrators. As I continue to use it and explore its features, I’ll let you know what I learn. And if I decide to ditch it all together for some unforeseen reason, I’ll let you know that, too!


Thanks for reading! Do you use Planbook? Got any advice or ideas to share? Feel free to leave a comment about your experience.

 

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!