Use Article of the Week assignments to build relevant mini-lessons

Photo by Javier Sierra on Unsplash

The AOW can help you design targeted instruction in specific problem areas of writing

Don’t you love it when a classroom activity teaches something not only to your students, but to you as well? That’s the case with my most effective writing assignment, the Article of the Week (AOW). Not only do Article of the Week assignments teach my students to produce informed, structured writing in response to texts on current events, but these babies also teach me what specific problem areas of writing my students need targeted instruction in.

The AOW is a win for students and a win for me.

Here’s my Google Slides presentation. It’s nothing fancy, but gets the job done.

Modeled after the assignment developed by author and English educator Kelly Gallagher, AOWs can also be used to teach and reinforce lessons in grammar, usage, and mechanics… if I approach them as learning tools for me about the writing skills of my students.

Stay attuned to the ten percent

With my AOWs, I’ve learned that I must make a conscious effort to do more than just mark each paper when I grade them. When I’m reading students’ essays, I consciously stay attuned to the “ten percent,” the errors that I see ten percent of my students making.

Approximately 45 students were on the rosters in my junior classes this past school year. When, for example, I noticed the same error or style problem in the writing of four or five students, it was a signal that I needed to discuss that error in a mini-lesson.

This slide shows passages from two students’ essays. Even though they began their interpretations with the transition, “In other words,” several students had trouble actually putting those quotes into other words. In class, we also discussed how the second passage doesn’t contain enough of the direct quote to make sense for the reader. Honestly, I was surprised how difficult this was for students to grasp.

Knowing that I can address errors in future mini-lessons gives greater purpose to my grading. Beyond assigning points to student writing, I search for common areas of confusion that exist among the highest and lowest skilled students. For example, it surprised me this past winter when one of my strongest writers, who could pass a college-level class with flying colors right now, told me he struggled with the difference between then and than.

During this past school year, I gave these mini-lessons on Tuesdays right after I passed back essays from the previous week and before passing out the next one.

Again, this slide shows how important it is that when writers begin a sentence with “In other words,…,” they actually put the quote into other words, and not bring up new information.

When I notice a recurring grammar, usage, or mechanical error, I quickly mark the error on the student’s paper (I have students hand in assignments on paper, in general), and write a quick comment nearby in the margin. For example, I might draw a star and write, “use different words than those in the quote.”

Then I make a Google Slides presentation that addresses the error. I retype the sentence or paragraph that contains the writing error the student made either from their handwritten or printed paper onto a slide. As the year progresses, I add a slide to the presentation each time I feel the need to present a mini-lesson.

When I project the presentation, which I titled “AOW Noticings,” I make a point to ensure that students know they are looking at the writing of their peers. They seem to pay better attention when they know they are looking at writing from class, as opposed to an unrelated text.

Elaborative sentences that start with phrase such as “For example,…” must actually provide information that is an example of the information that came before.

And of course, the writer’s name isn’t identified, but I know students recognize their work. When they do, some readily raise their hands and say, “Yep, that’s mine!” Rest assured, I make sure they know I’m not in any way putting them on the spot. In fact, I mention to the entire class to check their papers for my comments in the margins to see if they also made the error.

In other words, we’re all learning.

Then we spend a few minutes discussing the error, figuring out revisions and edits, and otherwise clearing up any confusion that exists in the writing.

Whether we’re talking about…

  • accuracy in paraphrasing,
  • punctuation,
  • the use of transitions,
  • or really any writing topic…

…the goal is to notice and repair areas of confusion within the writing.

Many kids don’t know how to handle someone’s name in an article, so I made this slide to address that. Many students want to refer to well-known people by their first name.

When we’re finished, I encourage students to revise and/or edit their AOW writing to earn a higher grade. True, only a handful will make those corrections, but it’s still worthwhile to make the extra effort.

And now it’s confession time.

Don’t tell anyone, but I’m not always faithful to adding to my AOW Noticings slides. At times during the school year — and especially when things get really busy — I do little more than mark up the essays, enter the grades, and move on. Yes, it’s always good when I do provide that targeted feedback (including accolades for the many things they do right!), but it can’t always be done. In other words, #endteacherguilt.

In closing, for all those times when I do manage to keep all the balls in the air, it’s nice to know that I can learn as much about my students and their writing — and then apply that to a relevant mini-lesson — as my students do from my AOW assignments.


Thanks for reading again this week! AOWs are a mainstay in my high school (junior and seniors) English classes. They definitely provide the most bang for the learning buck. Do you use AOWs in your teaching practice? What tips do you have for me? Leave a like, make a comment, and become a follower for more posts like this one.

I’m trying out Padlet during distance learning

Photo by Tirachard Kumtanom from Pexels

Six assignments I’m using to test-drive Padlet

Since so many aspects of teaching right now are new due to school closings amid COVID-19, what’s one more? As long as we’re entering unchartered territory, let’s not only learn how to Zoom, but let’s try Padlet as well.

Padlet is basically an online discussion board application that offers several ways for students to contribute their writing, media, or other content to a board that I create and customize. According to the Padlet.com website, the app will help users “Make beautiful boards, documents, and webpages that are easy to read and fun to contribute to.”

I would agree based on my use of the app so far.

This is my dashboard on Padlet.

When one creates a Padlet, a link is created for users or teachers to share with students. Students follow the link and can write a post onto the Padlet board. Depending on the type of Padlet template chosen, students may also upload other content, such as videos, photographs, or audio clips.

Users can try Padlet for free, which allows them to create three Padlet “boards.” Because I knew I would need more than that and because the app seemed to be easy and intuitive to use, I went ahead and purchased the $10/month subscription so I could make unlimited Padlets whenever I needed to while our school is closed through the end of the year.

In addition, I’ve added Padlet to my iPhone so I can check in and see student activity when I’m not at my desk. I can also edit existing Padlets or create new Padlets from my phone.

This clip shows me scrolling through my seniors’ “Barbara Allan” poetry assignment. I’ve included links in the assignment post that students click in order to watch another performance of the ballad. Students return to discuss the performance they watched and compare it to the original Medieval poem.

To the extent that I’ve used Padlet so far, I see great potential in using it for my reading and writing classes.

Right now, I’ve created six Padlet assignments while students learn from home. Here’s a description of each:

  • Padlet Title: Robert Frost Favorite Line(s) Reflections… My junior students started a unit on Robert Frost’s poetry in mid-March. I created a Padlet and assigned students to reflect in writing on their favorite line(s) from one of these three poems we read: “Mending Wall,” “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening,” and “Birches.” A day or so later, I asked students to read and write a comment on someone else’s Padlet post.
  • Padlet Title: “Mending Wall” Analysis… I also asked my juniors to watch a video that offered one analysis of “Mending Wall” and then give their perspective on that analysis, including their own personal views as well. Later, students added their thoughts to the opinions of at least one other student.
  • Padlet Title: The Ballad of “Barbara Allan” by Different Artists… After assigning students to read the Medieval British ballad, “Barbara Allan,” I made a Padlet that included several links to YouTube videos by musicians singing different adaptations of the poem. (This is an age-old ballad that has been “covered” over the centuries up to contemporary artists.) I asked students to post a comment on my original post to indicate which adaptation they wanted to listen to and then explain in their own post on the Padlet.
  • Padlet Title: Alt Title for A River Runs Through It Students were to think of an alternative title for the novel by Norman Maclean, and then describe why they would choose this title instead.
  • Padlet Title: A River Runs Through It Playlists… With this Padlet I asked students to post a music playlist for one of the two main characters in the novel.
  • Padlet Title: Tim O’Brien Interview Reflection… After watching a 25-minute video of an interview of author Tim O’Brien, students were to reflect in writing on the video addressing some key ideas discussed by O’Brien about his novel The Things They Carried.
This screen is where users choose the type of Padlet they want to create. At this point, I have used only the “Wall” template, shown first in the photo. I can see the “Timeline” template (lower right in photo) being useful for having students contribute key events in the history of a certain era, for example.

I envision projecting a Padlet as students work so they can publish immediately.

I can envision projecting a Padlet as students work so they can see their comments publish immediately, as well as those of others. Using Padlet in this way would add an immediacy to classroom writing.

Seeing other students thinking and writing in real time in response to a prompt or an ongoing class discussion could be really fun and interesting.

Not that my experience with Padlet has been problem-free. I’ll give you more details about that in my next post, “Pros and Cons of Padlet.”


Thanks for reading! My next post will list several pros of Padlet and a few really big cons that I’ve noticed. Do you have any experience with Padlet or another app you’ve tried out lately? Leave a comment to share your experience.

Use this Alphabet Brainstorming Chart

IMG_2649
Teachers stack idea cards into like piles at one of the sessions I attended at Write-to-Learn 2020. This was part of another critical literacy activity that I’ll share with you soon.

This classic organizer worked for me at the 2020 Write-to-Learn Conference

I traveled to the 2020 Write-to-Learn Conference sponsored by the Missouri State Council of the Int’. Literacy Association, The Missouri Writing Projects Network, and the Missouri Council of Teachers of English. Even though I attended only one day of the three-day conference, I’m happy with the handful of tools I’ll be using in my classroom soon.

One of those tools is the Alphabet Brainstorming Chart shown below. Here’s a link to a similar handout that’s ready to use.

IMG_2672

How to use this organizer:

  1. Find a new topic you need your students to explore. “Critical literacy” was the new topic used to demonstrate how to use this chart in the classroom by our presenters, Dr. Lara Dieckmann, a teacher at Harrisburg (Mo.) R-VIII School District and Dr. Christy Goldsmith, assistant director of the Campus Writing Program at the University of Missouri. Critical literacy was a term I knew nothing about; however, it was still a topic I could still ponder, as in “I don’t know what critical literacy is, but I think I know what it might be about.”
  2. Divide students into groups. Choose group size based on your needs.
  3. Tell students to think about their topic and write a word or phrase that they can connect with the topic — one for each letter of the alphabet. You can see the words I connected to critical literacy in the photo above.
  4. This activity encourages students to evaluate what they already know or think they know and enter their thinking into the squares.
  5. Let students talk among their groups and share their ideas or words. This activity is about more than prior knowledge. It’s also about sharing ideas and getting kids talking about the topic at hand.
  6. When students and groups are finished filling in the chart, go around the room and share out and discuss what students know about the new topic.

I like this chart much better than KWL charts, which have always seemed so boring to me. It has a game-like feel to it. And besides, with a KWL chart it’s really hard to come up with things you want to know about a new topic.

If I had been given a KWL chart to fill out about critical literacy, I would have been lost. With this ABC chart, I was able to come up with more ideas to discuss than I thought I could. I can see how it can be a confidence-booster with kids. It was also good to hear other ideas from my group members.

And finally, the best thing about this ABC Chart is you can make it a game!

Switch it up by…

  • Giving a prize (or just designating a winner) to the first group that fills in all the squares.
  • Giving a prize to the group that fills in the most squares in a designated number of minutes.
  • Giving a prize to the group that fills in “X” with the best phrase that fits the topic.

Sort It! Map It! Exploring Critical Literacy

I received this handout during a session called “Sort It! Map It! Exploring Critical Literacy, Pedagogy, & Writing Process” taught by Dieckmann and Goldsmith.

The presenters readily acknowledged the original source of this classic organizer.

It was adapted from The Key to Know “PAINE” Know Gain, a 1998 paper presented by  G. Ricci and C. Wahlgren at the 43rd annual convention of the International Reading Association.

I’m looking forward to using this organizer with my seniors in a few weeks when we begin our Medieval Age unit in British Literature. I’ll let you know how that goes in an upcoming post.


Thanks for reading again this week! Have you ever used this chart? Do tell! Feel free to share your experience in the comments. Follow my blog to catch my follow-up post on how the chart works in my classroom. Here’s a link to another post inspired by a session at last year’s Write to Learn conference.

Mentor text: Slice of life writing for high school students

victoire-joncheray-yJI-zO8ctys-unsplash

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:

IMG_1498

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!

The One-Word Summary

It’s one of the most specific and structured assignments my students do.

study-1231396_1920
Photo: Pixabay

One of my favorite activities to do in my language arts classes is to assign one-word summaries. These quick assignments are an easy way to encourage kids to think deeply about a text, including its theme or gist.

I assign one-word summaries for literature or informational text, for short articles or longer passages, or even whole books. I assigned a one-word summary to my eighth-graders about a week ago after we read an excerpt from 102 Minutes: The Unforgettable Story of the Fight to Survive Inside the Twin Towers by Jim Dwyer and Kevin Flynn. I also just assigned one on Thursday to my sixth-graders based on a short story we read from our textbook, “All Summer in a Day” by Ray Bradbury.  Some of my sixth-graders are still working on theirs and I’ll give them more time on Monday, Oct. 1 to finish it; this is the first of these exercises they’ve encountered in my classes.

The basic assignment is:

  1. Read a text.
  2. Choose one word to summarize it. I tell students that their word doesn’t have to appear in the text, but it may.
  3. Write a paragraph or two that explains or defends how the word summarizes the text.
  4. Here’s how I tweak the assignment to help students write more fully.

I also require that:

  • They quote the text directly by requiring that one sentence start “According to the text/article/story,… followed by the direct quote.”
  • They interpret the quote and how it summarizes by following the direct quote with a sentence that starts “In other words, …”. This prompts them to rephrase the quote, explaining it in their own words and possibly coming up with additional ideas to support their summary.
  • Adding a sentence or two after their “In other words,” sentence with more discussion of the quote and how it supports their one word.
  • They elaborate by adding somewhere in their paragraph a sentence that starts “For example, …”.
  • They use complex sentences by starting one sentence with a subordinating of their choice. I have a chart on the wall in my classroom that lists the most common ones: although, while, when, until, because, if, since. (Sometimes we call these subordinating conjunctions by the acronym AWUBIS words.)
  • Last week, to change things up with my eighth graders, I had one student choose one AWUBIS word that they would all use, and I asked them to start their summary with this word. The chosen word was “If.” Starting a sentence with “If” will automatically create a nice, flowing complex sentence. (Just to make sure they can write one of these, I usually have a few students rattle me off an example; if someone has trouble, I do some explaining and write an example on the whiteboard.)

IMG_7402
Here’s the rubric score sheet that kids follow along on as their friends read their one-word summaries.

Sometimes, I’ve wondered whether having all these requirements seems a little excessive, so I will occasionally, depending on the text, adjust the rubric to fit the text or a student’s ability level. I used to feel also that I was forcing a formula into my students’ writing. However, I don’t worry about that anymore, especially when I know I offer them plenty of creative writing activities and projects throughout the year.

Another reason I don’t worry about forcing a formulaic style of writing onto my students is because I’ve done some reading about the benefits of providing kids with specific tools for analytical writing. I added the “ According to,” and “For example,” sentence starters based on tips outlined in The Writing Revolution: A Guide to Advancing Thinking Through Writing in All Subjects and Grades by Judith Hochman, Natalie Wexler, and Doug Lemov.

I learned about this curriculum when I read “How Self-Expression Damaged My Students”  in The Atlantic magazine, which included details about the changes in writing instruction practiced at New Dorp High School in New York City. I figured if it worked there, I should try it here. This is a super compelling article to read that stresses the importance of providing students with the exact words they’ll need to use to craft complete, fleshed-out ideas.

The idea to encourage kids to rephrase evidence with an “In other words,” sentence came directly from the book They Say, I Say: The Moves that Matter in Academic Writing by Cathy Birkenstein, Gerald Graff, and Tony Craine, and Cyndy Maxwell. One chapter in this book discusses how to “interpret” texts with the goal of not being a “hit and run” quoter, but instead to stay on the scene of the quote and explore it, discuss it, and relate it to the point of the paragraph.

About every other time my students write one-word summaries, I’ll have them present these to the class. I’ve found it works best to let them know from the beginning that they’ll eventually be presenting these in class. They try a little harder that way.

To start with, I make a rubric score sheet that the listening students fill out. The sheet is customized for the specific summary we’ve written, since I change up the requirements from one summary to the next.

As students read their summaries out loud at a podium at the front of the class, those listening really have to pay close attention. First, they must write down the chosen one word. Then when they hear the “According to,…” sentence, they check it off. When they hear the “For example,” or “In other words,” sentences, they check those off, too. I also have them rate the summary on its “clarity,” i.e. how easy it was to understand and follow.

I also ask presenters to make eye contact and use a hand gesture or two or to step out from behind the podium. Some kids will go out of their way to make googly-eyed contact  with me or a friend in the audience. I don’t mind that. It’s all part of learning to be comfortable up in front of a crowd.

IMG_7405
After they present, kids get candy, a Brave Buck, and stickers.

Presenting our one-word summaries usually ends up being a fun activity (I usually schedule it for a Friday), even though kids may be a little nervous at first. I don’t feel comfortable up in front of big crowds, either, so I understand how they may feel. I’ll even stand up next to a student if it helps them. I don’t want this to be an overly stressful part of the assignment.

And then when they’re done presenting their summary, if they’ve included all of the requirements in the rubric, or at least made a good, honest effort to, they receive lots of fabulous merchandise: three Brave Bucks (our school’s incentive coupon they can spend in the “store” on Fridays), a piece of candy, and a sticker of their choice from the stockpile in my desk.

Oh, one other thing: they also get to draw the next number for the next presenter… the next lucky member of our studio audience. The rubric score sheet has enough spaces for everyone, but drawing names makes it more fun. We applaud after each person speaks because everyone at least tried.

The one-word summary, while being one of the most specific and structured assignments we do, is also one of the most fun. I honestly believe it has helped my students think more deeply, better use and interpret the evidence they choose from their texts, and write more fully.


Thanks for reading! Let me know if you’ve tried this activity with your class and what “tweaks” you’ve made to make it work for you and your students. Have a great week!

Here’s what happened when I submitted a student’s writing to a hunting magazine

 

hunter-bryant-110214
Photo by Hunter Bryant on Unsplash

 

Last fall, one of my seventh-grade students wrote an “Expert Advice” article, one of ten assignments in our Writer’s Workshop project list. My students seemed to like this particular assignment. They chose a topic they were familiar with and then wrote a how-to article. “Jared” wrote an article called “Four Ways Novice Hunters Can Avoid Hunting Accidents.” He wrote a first draft, received feedback from another student, and then submitted a second draft to me.

Right away, I could tell it might be a piece I could submit on his behalf to a magazine, print or online. I knew Jared had a publishable story because of the way he tackled the assignment. First, he wrote his article in steps, which always makes for a reader-friendly piece. Second, Jared’s advice indicated that, as an avid hunter, he wrote from experience and possessed some natural expertise. In addition, his writing contained his own voice with tips such as, “Hunting on legal ground is also an important law to follow. By hunting on legal ground, or government property, you can avoid trespassing and a visit from the sheriff.” I knew that, with a few more rounds of revisions and edits, Jared would have an article ready to send out.

So the next morning during my plan time,  I googled “deer hunting magazines youth” to see what I could find. A few results popped up. I visited a couple and found one in particular that seemed promising. I read what kinds of articles they typically publish and found the name of the editor. I also discovered that the magazine had a distribution of 57,000 copies!

After talking to Jared’s mother for her approval, I dashed off a short email to the editor asking if he would be interested in reviewing the article after Jared finished it. Here’s my email:

Dear (Editor’s Name):

Good morning! I’m an English teacher in Missouri and I have a student who is working on a very good how-to article for novice or  first-time hunters. I told him I would inquire about any publishing opportunities he may wish to pursue.

Does your magazine ever publish student-written articles? Would this how-to type of article be a fit for your publication? If not, do you have any advice on where he might send his piece when it is finished?

Thanks for your time in thinking about this. I appreciate it.

Marilyn Yung, Teacher

Within three hours, the editor responded. (His quick response surprised me, by the way, because in my own writing experience, editors usually require from a few days to a week or two to respond.)

The editor’s reply: Yes, he would be interested in seeing the article when Jared had it ready. He explained that while the advice may not be useful to many of the magazine’s readers, the fact that the writer is a student may be the interesting part. He added that even if it didn’t work for the print publication, it could likely be used for the website. He ended with, “Either way, I’d like to take a look and see. We are trying to provide more how-to info for beginners, and we are also interested in encouraging young hunters and writers!”

So after two or three more revisions, we emailed the final draft just before the holiday break. I’ll let you know when I hear the final word from the editor about Jared’s article. Whether it is accepted for publication or not, it’s my hope Jared has learned he has solid potential as a writer for the world beyond the school walls.


Thanks for reading! If you found this post useful, click “like” so more teachers will find it. Follow this blog for more articles and stories about teaching middle school ELA. Check out my sister blog for other writing.