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.
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
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.
A year ago, I attended an educational technology conference hosted by Branson School District in Branson, Mo. At one session, I learned about the possibilities of opening a private Instagram account with my classes. The presenter used a private account with her own classes and encouraged the attendees to consider it for our own classes. Using an Instagram account could be a way that we as teachers could communicate with students in an additional way that would be engaging and topical. It’s important to meet kids at their level with regards to technology, she suggested.
I did just that, and decided at the beginning of the school year to give it a try. The first thing I needed to do was communicate with parents about the new account. This would involve sending home, to interested students only, a form that parents could sign that would inform them of the account and also provide me with the assurance that they were aware of the account and either did or did not permit their child to follow the account.
I plan to use the same flyer again next month. It explains that:
the account is private, which means that I, as the account’s administrator, am the only one who can allow followers; the public cannot automatically follow the account.
I will not follow any students in return; this can be confirmed by looking at the account profile.
their child may possibly appear in posts and if this isn’t allowed, they need to let me know. Again, with a private account, this shouldn’t be an issue, but I want parents to know that I respect their wishes if they don’t want their child appearing in the account. I keep track of permissions and other notes on a roster in my room. Last year, there were only two students whose pictures I was not allowed to post.
I need to know their child’s Instagram username since many don’t use their actual name. This goes for parents, too. There was space on the form for usernames to be included.
I distributed the Instagram flyers at our open house and then had a stack available for kids to take home during the year. I now have fifty followers on the site, which is roughly half of my total students. I also have about four parents who follow and about four teachers who follow it also.
I do have two students who have requested to follow the account but haven’t turned in their permission slips. Those kids know that they must return the form before I will acknowledge their follow request.
I love my private class Instagram. It has been a real plus for my classes and I’m glad I started it. Here are three reasons why:
It shows parents at any time exactly what we do in my classes. For example, I had a new student in sixth grade last year. Her mother noticed her daughter in a photo working on an assignment in a post and commented, “Love seeing pictures! Thank you so much!”
It provides another means of communication with students. I can post reminders or just notify them of upcoming activities. I have even posted some class news over the summer! However, no one is at a disadvantage if they don’t participate or follow the account. There is no grade-related advantage to following. Last year, if there was an interesting post that I wanted to share with everyone, I just showed the post on my phone to interested students in class.
It provides a record of the year and a record of my teaching. On too many occasions to count, I’ve scrolled back through posts to see exactly when we did a particular activity. It also is an incredibly convenient way to share my work with others.
If you’ve ever thought about using Instagram in your own classes, I would definitely give it a try. It will undoubtedly add an exciting, new dimension to the dynamics of your classroom for the new school year!
Thanks for reading! Click like so others may find this post more easily. Leave a comment if you have a question or need to know more about starting an Instagram account for your classes. Feel free to follow my blog for more posts about middle school ELA!
Since when should writing be a form of punishment?
This happens every so often: I’ll be talking to other teachers about some discipline issue they experienced during the day where they had to dole out some kind of punishment. More times than I want to remember, they’ll say something like, “So I made him write an essay about…”
Then I’ll think to myself: Great. Here I am trying to teach kids in my middle school language arts class to love writing, to need writing, and to see its value in their lives, and this teacher is using it as a punishment.
And no, this doesn’t happen frequently, but it still happens often enough.
In other words, punishing students with writing assignments—whether those assignments are paragraphs, full essays, or even merely copying sentences over and over a la Bart Simpson—creates students who associate writing with drudgery.
However, writing should not be a punishment.
Writing should be seen as a diversion where students can express themselves and their ideas in creative and unique ways.
Writing should be seen as the literary art that it is, no matter if students are writing an essay for class, a novel for Wattpad, a screenplay for a contest, or even an entry in their own journal.
Writing should be seen as an intensely personal endeavor that can serve them well as they continue through life.
So punishing a student with a writing assignment does not sit well with me. After all, does punishing a student with the task of writing an essay actually curb the unwanted behavior? Or does it just compound the notion that writing is something to avoid, something no one would ever want or need to do?
When should the act of writing—and, in a broader sense, the act of learning (since writing is one way we learn)—be a form of punishment?
Click like if you can relate. Also, leave a comment with your own experiences with “writing as punishment.” Follow my blog for more writing about ELA middle school teaching.
I don’t have a paperless classroom and it will always be this way. I like the transaction that occurs when students actually turn things in.
When students turn in assignments, they walk over to the three stacked baskets (one for each grade that I teach) that stand at the corner of my desk. At times, if I’m standing or sitting there, I’ll notice when they walk up and I’ll take their assignment, skim through it and then drop it in the basket for them. It’s fun to see what they’ve been working on.
Sometimes they drop it in the basket before I get a chance to look at it. Then I’ll grab it right back out and take a look-see. Sometimes they say, “Here ya’ go!” Sometimes they say nothing. Sometimes, they’ll say:
I don’t know what you’ll think of this…
This isn’t very good, but…
I really like how this turned out, and…
This was hard…
This was fun…
This little transaction gives me an opportunity to chat. To comment. To smile. To roll my eyes, even, and hand it right back. (Yes, that happened once… from a talented writer who had knowingly done a lackluster job and said as much when she handed it to me.)
This little transaction gives me the opportunity to read their first few lines, see that fresh and unexpected word they chose, and acknowledge it with “Interesting choice!” or “Wow. I can’t wait to read this later when I can concentrate better on it.”
However, when students submit assignments via Google Drive or in my Google Classroom account, I miss those little, yet significant interactions that are personal, encouraging, and necessary.
True, digital documents have their merits. It’s handy– at times, but only at times– to write comments in the margins of a student’s Google doc. That sometimes works. For example, in my seventh-graders’ PBL project, “Whippersnappers,” it’s useful when we’re on deadline because I can quickly type in my responses faster than when I handwrite them.
I can also type more comments on a Google doc than I can when I get carried away handwriting notes that tumble down the side margins and puddle at the bottom in a clump, where I draw a teeny little arrow directing them to the back for more. (I can’t help it.)
Also, I’m learning about alternatives to handwriting comments in the margins of a Google doc. Supposedly, there are some app extensions out there that allow teachers to speak their responses directly into the student’s file. That sounds interesting and worth looking into further. That might restore “conversation” to the process.
So, while I am open to technology in my writing classroom, I still value the transaction that occurs when kids actually hand papers in.
Thanks for reading! Leave a comment with how you feel on this topic. How “paperless” is your classroom? Is it working? Know of any new apps for spoken commenting? Please let me know.
I attended an ed-tech conference over the summer. One of the sessions, Social Media in the Classroom, was taught by a middle school teacher from another district in my area who admins a private Instagram account for her ELA classes.
The idea intrigued me. I already knew Instagram was fun, based on my experience with my own personal account. For me, Instagram is an expressive way to curate a portfolio of imagery and writing that represents and records my personality and experiences. In addition, Instagram reveals the power of the visual… something my students are immersed in daily. So I decided to jump in and create one private account for the two periods each of sixth-, seventh-, and eighth-graders that I see throughout the day.
Since then, I’ve posted thirty-six times about every three days or so. I thought my enthusiasm might wane as the school year settled in, but it’s been the opposite. I find more and more reasons to post on the account and bring class activities into the social media lives of my students. I plan to continue my Instagram experiment through May to get a clear, definitive impression of the role Instagram can potentially play in my classroom.
In the meantime, here’s what I’ve figured out so far about using Instagram:
Having an Instagram account is merely another way to connect with some of my students and parents. I have thirty-four followers right now out of nearly one-hundred students total. (Yes, it’s a really small district.) Right now, only a handful of parents follow the account.
Having an Instagram account lets parents see what’s really happening in my classroom. My class page on the district website has grip-and-grin shots of essay contest winners, short articles about students who’ve been published, and other public announcements. However, on my class Instagram, things are more spontaneous. Most of the pictures I take are snapped quickly with very little posing. When kids are reading, working quietly, collaborating with others, or discussing things… that’s when I grab my phone.
Having an Instagram account is beneficial for the parents of the new kids at school. One new sixth-grader’s mother commented how nice it was to see a photo of her child having fun, fitting in, and getting accustomed to the new surroundings.
Having an Instagram account gives me a fun way to reinforce the basics, such as grammar and spelling, that I teach in the classroom. Grumpy Cat memes go a long way. Read this Edutopia post to see how another teacher uses Instagram to augment classroom lessons.
Having an Instagram account adds accountability to class work and simultaneously boosts the confidence of my students. I like to post photos of a well-turned phrase, an especially astute essay, or some beautiful cursive handwriting. It’s fun to showcase student work in this way.
Having an Instagram account adds another level of purpose to my students’ writing because they know their work may appear in a post to our small audience of followers
True, hosting the account means that some kids take part and some don’t. Most of my students have Smartphones and internet access, but not all do. And some parents just don’t want their kids to participate for whatever reason, and I understand. Therefore, I make sure students know that following the account won’t benefit their grade. And honestly, the account doesn’t come up in class discussions very often. It’s an extra avenue, another way to connect, another type of conversation to have with my students.
Yes, hosting the class Instagram also means more time that I spend at my job. Without fail, I tend to post from home. I don’t mind, though. When you enjoy your job and find purpose in it on a daily basis, working when you’re not “at work” doesn’t matter.
To sum it all up, my class Instagram account has added another dimension to my teaching. This “work-in-progress” allows me to share with students their learning, their writing successes, and — assuming they remain a follower after they’ve moved on to high school — some treasured middle school memories.
Thanks for reading! If you learned something from this post, click like and share it on social media. Most importantly, leave a comment so I can know your thoughts on the subject. Also, follow my blog for more ELA teaching reflections and information about writing contests for students.
I attended Branson Tech Institute, an educational technology conference, July 17-18 at Branson High School. The Branson School District extended invitations to attend the conference to area schools, including my district, Kirbyville R-VI. (Thanks to my district for paying my registration fee!)
About a dozen different classes were offered during each of nine sessions. Classes were categorized into grade level and subject areas. The district also provided a single link on Google drive for the presentation materials, handouts and links from all the sessions. A gold mine! Here’s a list and brief description of the sessions I chose to attend.
Chromebook Cart Management: This was a refresher course presented by Branson faculty member Kim Good. It showed me ways to keep my own computer cart organized in my classroom. Good news! My school already does what she recommended!
Google Forms: Quizzes, Data Collection & More: Presenter and Branson teacher Courtney Brown taught the basics of Google Forms. Even though I have attended other classes on Forms, I still don’t use it regularly in my classroom. However, I feel that this will change this year. I will be having students complete one on the first or second day of school this year. I’ll use it to give me an update on students’ writing style and interests, and home Internet access.
Curating Great Resources for ELA: Presenter Melody Alms taught this course on internet resources specifically for teaching ELA. My biggest take-away: CommonLit.org, a fantastic site for fiction and nonfiction literacy resources. So much to discover!
Twitter for Beginners: Even though I have started to more actively use Twitter this summer, this session taught by Katie Kensinger taught me some basics that I just didn’t know. By the way, I only have one Twitter account (many teachers have both personal and professional accounts). My Twitter account includes shares from this blog and my personal writing blog; my profile includes links to both blogs. I only tweet about topics related to my writing and teaching.
Social Media in the Classroom: This course focused on the use of Instagram in the classroom. Branson teacher Sarah Yocum shared her private class Instagram account and procedures. Very interesting. I had toyed with this idea previously this summer based on an Instagram post made by a former student. Read about that here. As a result, I have started my own private account for my ELA classes at Kirbyville Middle School. You can see my first four posts in the sidebar of this blog. I envision posting photos for writing prompts, writing tips, class photos (with parent permission, of course).
Parents, students, and my Kirbyville colleagues may request to follow the account; however, I don’t follow anyone in return. Students must have a parental permission form signed before they can follow the account.
Because not all students have Instagram (especially in middle school), students won’t “have to have” access for assignments; the class Instagram will be supplemental. Posts that must be seen for an assignment will be on the smartboard in class or given on a handout. This will be just a new way to interact with students in a medium they are comfortable with.
EdPuzzle: This class taught about a free interactive site that allows the teacher to select a video and then edit it, thereby tailoring it to their instruction. The program also contains analytical tools to evaluate student progress and mastery. While I found this very valuable, it seemed to require more time to learn than I am willing to invest at this time.
ESL — Modified and Meaningful Instructions with Technology: This class was focused for literacy coaches and provided a wealth of information and resources that I need occasionally as I interact and teach students for whom English is their second language. I wish I had learned this material about two years ago when a Spanish-speaking student who knew no English entered my classroom. Biggest takeaway: We must provide our ESL students with the common speech alternatives to academic terms, even going so far as providing them English vocab tip sheets for them to access when doing assignments and tests. For example, there are many synonyms that are helpful to know when we talk about addition in math class. Some of these are how many altogether, sum, plus, add it up, and others.
GoFormative: This session discussed the use of this tool that evaluates learning of all students. Found at goformative.com, this site lets teachers create instant quizzes over videos and material you select to teach. I could possibly use this for reading comprehension checks and vocabulary lessons.
Green Screen and Stop Motion: Taught by Paula Bronn and Kari Houston, this class gave teachers the basics of incorporating dynamic and exciting presentation options for kids. I can see kids producing professional presentations from exotic locales (based on the images they find to project on the screen). The possibilities are really endless and it’s hard to wrap my mind around all that could be achieved with this tool. Added bonus of this session: I learned I don’t actually need a green screen. Green paper will suffice. The only hardware I would need would be an Ipad and a tripod. They even showed us how to make stop-motion videos with claymation and Lego figures. Here’s the main site I would check out first: Doink.
Poster Sessions: On Tuesday morning of the event, all sessions hosted a table in the commons area. Each attendee was given a card to have initialed by the presenter at each table. One goal of the poster sessions was to get the initials of 15 presenters to win a door prize (I won a drawstring backpack). However, the biggest goal of the poster sessions was simply to give attendees a chance to gather information on sessions that they didn’t actually take a class for, due to time constraints. Smart idea and very beneficial!
To conclude, my greatest takeaway from the entire conference is to make sure that technology propels a student’s education forward. Technology is an incredible gift, IF teachers use it intelligently, effectively and efficiently.
In other words, technology doesn’t always win against tried-and-true tools such as pen and paper, but being informed about technology’s benefits and potential uses does help me connect better with my students who have lived their entire lives surrounded by it.