How I actually accomplished something in my classes the week before Christmas break

Students presented their writing contest entries for an end-of-semester critique

 

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Students listen to a classmate read her personal narrative essay during one of the last classes of the semester. Students took these presentations seriously and provided relevant and helpful feedback. It was so productive!

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.

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I took a photo of the rubric sheet on my laptop screen. This sheet helped students organize their thoughts and notice any confusing parts of their classmates’ writing. Filling out these sheets also made students accountable for their listening. (By the way, I collected these sheets, but did not take a grade on them since it was just a few days before semester’s end.)

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.

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Photo: Unsplash

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.)

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Check out this contest for your students! Read this post first.

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.

It’s a Wrap! Three Take-Aways from Writer’s Workshop

Students turned in their final portfolios on Friday, and just like that, the semester is nearly over.

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A 7th-grader assembles his final Writer’s Workshop portfolio.

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.

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7th-Grade Final Portfolio Rubric | Instructions and word count requirements for each project were provided on a separate sheet.
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8th-grade Final Portfolio Rubric | Instructions and word count requirements for each project were provided on a separate sheet.

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.

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One student’s final portfolio

Overall, WW was a great experience this year. As I graded rubrics this weekend, I came upon three main take-aways. Here they are:

  1. 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!”
  2. 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.
  3. 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.

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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. 

 

NCTE’s Promising Young Writer’s 2019 Contest Prompt has been released

A writing contest just for 8th-graders!

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Photo: Justin Luebke on Unsplash

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!

 

 

His Google Doc will “disappear”

There’s a long list of middle school distractions to get through before Eric’s story will be finished.

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Photo: Asier Astorkiza on Unsplash

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.

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.