Three printable templates for Where I’m From poems

Photo by Santi Vedrí on Unsplash

Plus photos and links to help you plan

Where I’m From poems from the author and poet George Ella Lyons… you just can’t write enough good things about them. That’s why this week I’ve decided to post twice about these poems that were a mainstay in my middle school ELA classes a few years ago. (Click here for Tuesday’s post that featured links to student-written mentor texts.)

And even though I now teach juniors and seniors in high school, I still look back on Where I’m From poems with fond memories. These poems were always one of my students’ favorite activities because of the personalized portrait they would paint of each student.

Parents loved them, too!

In fact, several parents told me the poems would be a treasured keepsake. (At my current school, freshmen students write Where I’m From poems to kick off the school year; my juniors explore headline poetry, a found poetry technique.)

Even so, below you’ll find three templates (plus the links!) that you may want to use with your classes whenever you decide to give Where I’m From poems a try. The templates will guide your students through selecting memories, family sayings, names, and all the other imagery-inducing details that make these poems so personal and enlightening.

All of these templates have merit; however, after experimenting with these, the first one has worked best for me.

And here’s the big caveat:

Any of these templates work best with lots of one-to-one conferencing. You may need to help students recall memories or name things. For example, a student may not know the “clicking thing” on Grandma’s piano is called a “metronome.”

Get in the trenches with your kids and help them unlock the magic of where they’re from.

Template and Link No. 1:

Freeology.com offers this template. Get it by clicking here. Sometimes I must edit or make a few changes to ready-made templates and handouts to make them work for my teaching. After all, why reinvent the wheel, right?

However, with this template, I made no changes. After reading several examples (Lyons’ poem, one that I demo for them on the fly, and a few student-written mentors), students can take this template and run with it.

The only detail some kids have trouble with on the template is the “natural item.” To solve that, we just brainstorm what a natural item could be if it wasn’t a plant or tree, as suggested on the same line.

Also, some students don’t have many religious phrases or memories. And that’s okay. I just suggest focusing on another regular activity they remember… a family reunion or Christmas morning, for example.

Template and Link No. 2:

Try this template from Scholastic if you think it might work for your students. Get it by clicking here.

As for me, I found that this Scholastic template wasn’t specific enough. Simply listing sensory experiences didn’t spur a sufficient number of specific memories and ideas to craft the poem. My students needed more direct prompting and a structure that more directly mirrored Lyons’ original poem. Template no. 1 did the trick.

Template and Link No. 3:

This template, which I found in a Google search late at night during a mad rush of lesson planning (LOL!), combines the poem with a visual project.

While I’ve never asked students to create an accompanying visual to complement their poems, it might make an interesting project for your back-to-school open house, a Mother’s Day gift, or merely an extension activity.

As for the actual poem template, I like how it calls out specific parts of speech. This format is also very specific with regard to the words students are to write into the blanks. In my experience, middle schoolers will find the line in the template below that reads “It tasted / sounded / looked / felt – choose one)_________” too stifling and possibly confusing.

I do, however, like that this poem is part of a larger project that allows kids to draw, gather mementos, and show some added creativity.

There. Those three templates should get you started.

If you haven’t tried Where I’m From poems, consider adding them to your lesson planning for fall. Support your young writers with some student-written mentor texts (click here for those links), George Ella Lyons’ original poem, and your own Where I’m From verse and I’m sure you’ll love it just as much as I and many other ELA teachers do!


Thanks for reading! If you’ve tried George Ella Lyons’ Where I’m From poems, let me know your thoughts and experiences. Click like, share a comment, and become a follower for more ELA posts like this one! Here’s a link to another recent post on acrostic poems and distance learning.

Corona virus acrostic poems perk up distance learning

Students create acrostic poems to document the pandemic

My students learned from home since March 17 until yesterday when the school year officially ended. As part of their distance learning, I asked students to write a couple of paragraphs every other day or so for a “Life in the Time of Corona” journal.

This journal, which we will finish in the fall, will document their personal experience during the global pandemic.

I got the idea for students to create these journals thanks to a tweet from Kelly Gallagher in March. Here’s the assignment sheet I created to guide students through the journal assignment.

To add variety to their journals, I suggested that students illustrate life during the pandemic by creating an acrostic poem… a poem where certain letters in each line spell out a word or phrase. In this case, students used terms such as corona virus, COVID-19, or pandemic, and so on.

As you can see, the acrostic poems below exhibit varying levels of quality. That seems to be a common by-product of distance learning. Several factors affect the amounts of effort students spend on a distance learning assignment.

These factors include:

  • Internet access (especially having strong, reliable service)
  • Support from parents (who may have to continue to work jobs outside the home)
  • Jobs (part-time or other that a student works)
  • Family responsibilities (such as students having to care for younger siblings during the day)

Regardless, I’m glad some students chose to make an acrostic poem to add some variety to their journals. It’s interesting to see how word choice and ideas reveal the concerns and individual personalities of my students. Enjoy!







Thanks for reading! As of yesterday, school is now officially out for the summer. I made it through my first year teaching high school with new curriculum, new students, new co-workers, and new experiences dealing with COVID-19 and distance learning. I plan to continue to post during the summer. Feel free to leave a like, share a comment or become a follower!

Mini-lesson idea: Avoiding first-person point of view in academic essays

Photo by Christina Morillo from Pexels

For the most part, it’s an easy fix.

It’s nice when a common issue you know your students have with writing can be easily remedied. This is one of them: avoiding unintentional and unnecessary first-person point of view in academic writing.

For the most part, the first-person words can simply be removed with… wait for it… NO ADDITIONAL CHANGES.

Easy-peasy.

In the “before” photo below (from a literary analysis of The Old Man and the Sea), I’ve underlined the first-person verbiage that needs to be removed for three reasons: 1) it doesn’t accomplish anything, 2) it’s not intentional (meaning it’s not used for any desired effect), and 3) it has no purpose.

Project these examples in a mini-lesson to show a student-written mentor text:

In the “after” photo below, the student had to merely remove those first- person references to infuse his writing with more authority and credibility.

Here are those changes again, but now removed from their context:

  • “…and I think they are right;…”
  • “Instead, I believe the religious aspect doesn’t change…”
  • “We have one story in which…” changes to “There is one story in which…”

But to back up a bit… why is first-person point of view so objectionable in the first place?

I usually take the traditional view that using unintentional and inappropriate first-person point of view in academic writing lends an air of opinion to the writing… and therefore, some bias… and therefore, some weakness to the argument. When the first-person references are removed, the message is more direct and convincing.

At the same time, first-person point of view does have its place, even in academic writing. Above all, first-person point of view should be used with a sense of purpose, especially with regard to the intended audience of the piece.

And that’s the problem. With the example in the photos above, this student didn’t foresee the effect of using the first-person.

She just plopped those words into the text without thought or intention.

Purpose and intention are key. As this handout from Duke University advises:

Finally, academic writers should consider their audience and message when employing the first person and/or the personal voice.

What is an appropriate tone to take with regard to a certain topic? What is one’s own relationship to the subject at hand? For example, if one is writing about the Holocaust or a natural disaster, it may not be appropriate to cite personal material unless it is directly relevant and can be included in a respectful manner. On the other hand, when writing about topics such as race or gender, one’s own experience(s) of living in a racialized/gendered society may be not only appropriate but even necessary to include. Academic writers must decide whether, when, and where first-person references and the personal voice are appropriate to their message and their audience.

“The First Person in Academic Writing”; Thompson Writing Program at Duke University

In other words, writers must be intentional and weigh their options with point of view, try out different perspectives, revise, and make the needed changes… often only to go back to the original version after all.

Basically, choosing point of view in any written piece is a judgment call.

And that’s why teaching writing is so hard. It’s full of judgment calls,…

and it takes time to make them… more time than kids want to invest, unless they genuinely care about the assignment. (Learning how to create assignments that kids genuinely care about is another blog post entirely.)

Then and only then will students be willing to take the time to get the perspective intentionally and purposefully right.

Until that time, though, know that removing first person POV — when it’s unintentional and unnecessary — can be as easy as deleting a few words and leaving the rest as is.

Ahhhh. Like I said, easy-peasy.


Thanks for reading! Do you grapple with this common, hard-to-explain issue with your students? Tell me your approach by leaving a comment. While this post shows my best effort to help kids with this, I’m open to your suggestions, as always. Check out this recent post and become a follower for more.

Check out The Hero’s Journey podcast

Photo by Joey Nicotra on Unsplash

A great supplement to teaching the hero’s journey

Have you discovered “The Hero’s Journey” podcast? Subtitled “Books & Films Through a Mythical Lens,” this is a fantastically interesting podcast I used in February to supplement my hero’s journey lessons.

Use the monthly show to introduce students to Joseph Campbell’s hero’s journey in popular movies, some lesser known movies, older films, or even in movies you wouldn’t think (at first glance anyway) contain a hero’s journey.

The Hero’s Journey podcast features author Jeff Garvin and book blogger Dan Zarzana who dissect films into the distinct stages of Joseph Campbell’s hero’s journey. You’ll find this short description on their website’s “About” page:

Pioneered by renowned mythologist and teacher Joseph Campbell, and refined for the context of modern storytelling by Disney veteran Christopher Vogler, The Hero’s Journey is a series of motifs and archetypes that pervade myths, folklore, and stories across all cultures and eras.

The Hero’s Journey: Books & Films Through a Mythical Lens

In each episode, the hosts spend about an hour to an hour-and-a-half parsing the movies out scene by scene to show precisely how the hero’s journey, and all its myriad steps, permeates the storyline.

Movie clips are used to illustrate key hero’s journey points in each podcast episode.

Here’s a sampling of movies covered on the show:

  • 3:10 to Yuma (In February, my classes listened to the podcast for this movie up to the “departure scene.” Listening to the hosts explain the various parts of the introductory movie scenes helped students to continue to follow the journey in the movie. It was an interesting way to help students realize that the hero’s journey is ubiquitous in narrative… even in this award-winning modern Western based on a short story by Elmore Leonard.
  • The Princess Bride
  • Field of Dreams
  • The Shawshank Redemption
  • The Dark Knight
  • The Nightmare Before Christmas
  • Say Anything
  • Alien
  • The Handmaid’s Tale
  • A Christmas Story
  • Gangs of New York
  • Braveheart
  • Plus about seventeen more!

Take note that a good chunk of each episode devolves into discussions of microbreweries, after dinner drinks, and other alcoholic endeavors. Save time and keep students from objectionable content by skipping these portions.

Give this podcast a listen.

It offers another way for students, and auditory learners in particular, to find engagement with the hero’s journey. The series will reveal to students the influence of Campbell’s formula in popular culture and show them how vitally important the hero’s journey is to narrative traditions.


Thanks for reading! Have you already stumbled upon this podcast? How did you use it in your classroom? Feel free to click like, make a comment or become a follower for more posts about teaching ELA at the high school level.

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.

How to get middle schoolers to write 16-page essays

It’s always a fun moment when the eighth-grade dissertation is finally finished!

Try “The 8th-Grade Human Rights Dissertation

Want to be impressed by your middle school ELA students? Want to see them rise to the writing occasion? Try this extended writing assignment that I call in my classroom the 8th-Grade Human Rights Dissertation.

Sidenote: Obviously, this is not an assignment for distance learning. It's designed for a normal full-time schedule with in-class teacher support available at each stage of the assignment.

Pick three books, choose an overarching theme or topic those books all relate to (in my case that’s human rights) and write about it over the course of a school year.

And don’t let the word dissertation scare you because while this assignment might sound complicated, it’s not.

In fact, the only reason I call this extended writing project a dissertation is so kids understand the distinction between a regular essay and this particular assignment, which is actually a compilation of four individual five-paragraph essays.

As for length, each individual five-paragraph essay is three to four pages long. When the essays are combined, the resulting dissertation ranges from 15-17 pages, not including the title page, Works Cited page, and the Appendix.

The official title of the dissertation, when it’s all said and done, is “Humanity Revealed: Understanding Human Rights Through Literature.”

My eighth-graders completed this stamina-building project in my previous teaching position. After a couple of years, the dissertation turned into a sort of Language Arts rite of passage for students before they graduated from the K-8 school district.

But believe me, most kids weren’t too enthusiastic about it at first. In fact, at the beginning of the year, when I told my eighth-graders they would be writing a sixteen-page (or more) essay, they couldn’t believe how mean Mrs. Yung could be! (Haha)

However, after I explained that the paper would break down into manageable “bite-size” pieces over the next several months, they relaxed and ever so gradually seemed to look forward to tackling each part of the process and seeing the paper come together bit by bit.

Now that I’ve moved on to another English position at an area high school, I’ve decided to adapt it for my junior and senior English classes and plan to incorporate it for 2020-21. Sure, I’ll make a few changes for the older students. For example, they won’t be required to write traditional five-paragraph essays, and if they want to substitute another text they’ve read that fits with our overarching theme, that’s fine.

I developed this project over the course of four years, adjusting it from year to year to arrive at its current form, which I’ve tried my best to describe below.

There are three goals for this writing project:

1) to read and write about literature and non-fiction texts

2) to synthesize those readings into a study on human rights (or whatever overarching theme you choose to apply to your chosen texts)

3) to build students’ organizational and time management skills

Students essays stack up in March! I purchase these Avery folders for students because I like that they present the papers professionally.

To complete the dissertation, throughout the year students read various texts as a class, and write a five-paragraph essay about how each text connects to human rights. For example, for our study of New York City’s 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire, we read a book called Flesh & Blood So Cheap by Albert Marrin.

This historical account tells the story of the 146 garment workers who perished inside locked doors inside a factory without properly maintained fire escapes or other precautions. When we finish reading the book, we think about the human rights that the workers were denied, using the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR).

In case you’re unfamiliar with the UDHR, it’s an internationally recognized document created by the United Nations in 1948 in response to the atrocities committed in World War Two. The UDHR designates and describes thirty non-negotiable rights granted freely to all humans. Students choose three human rights from the thirty listed that the young factory workers were denied (had the UDHR been in existence) and then discuss those three human rights in a five-paragraph essay. For example, a student might choose these three UDHR articles: 23, 20, and 12. Respectively, these human rights are: Workers’ Rights, Right to Public Assembly, and Right to Privacy.

Students follow this basic process for each of three different texts that they read in class from roughly September (right after my 9/11 unit) through February. Each text’s “human rights connection” essay eventually forms one portion of the dissertation.


Here’s a basic outline of the complete dissertation:

Introduction

1. Human Rights Explained

2. Literature Connections: Flesh & Blood So Cheap

3. Literature Connections: To Kill A Mockingbird -or- Inside Out & Back Again

4. Literature Connections: Frederick Douglass’ Narrative

Conclusion

For my high school students next year, we will obviously read different texts. In addition, the topic we connect with those texts will likely not be human rights. I’m still working out the details on that and as my plans shape up, I will for sure keep you informed.


This photo shows the class handouts for the four individual essays that are eventually compiled and merged to create the human rights dissertation.

Here’s a more in-depth description of the individual essays that make up the dissertation with a brief explanation of each essay:

  1. Human Rights Dissertation Part 1, otherwise known as HR1
    • Students write a first draft of an informative essay about the history and origins of the concept of human rights. I supply students with some basic articles from the United Nations website to use to support a thesis statement for this essay, which we work on together as a class.
    • This is the thesis statement we developed together a year ago: An explanation of human rights, including their history and evolution, as well as the thirty provisions of the UDHR provides a foundation of human rights knowledge.
    • Students also digest some informative materials, including videos, that I find online from various sources, including the United Nations. One important note: Avoid the very professional materials available from the Church of Scientology’s front organization, Youth for Human Rights International. Here’s an article I wrote that discusses how Scientology influences classrooms by aligning itself with human rights, despite its own human rights violations. To find alternative human rights materials, read this post.
  2. Human Rights Dissertation Part 2, otherwise known as HR2
    • HR2 follows the same basic procedure for HR1 except students write an essay that connects three articles from the UDHR with the book, Flesh & Blood So Cheap by Albert Marrin (see above for more about the book).
  3. Human Rights Dissertation Part 3, otherwise known as HR3
    • HR3 follows the same basic procedure for HR2 except the text changes. Students write an essay that connects the UDHR to their choice of one of the following texts: To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee or Inside Out & Back Again by Thannha Lai. They again choose three human rights addressed in the book and explain how the characters are deprived (or not) of those rights during the course of the narrative.
  4. Human Rights Dissertation Part 4, otherwise known as HR4
    • HR4 follows the same basic procedure for HR2 and HR3 except the text changes again. Students write an essay that connects the UDHR with my favorite book of all time, The Narrative of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave.
  5. The Remaining Essential Components
    • These include important additions necessary to combine and weave the individual HR essays into one cohesive essay. These include the following:
    • a title page (Even though MLA style doesn’t require a separate title page, we make one anyway so the finished product looks better.)
    • a Works Cited page
    • an introduction that leads the entire paper and precedes HR1
    • a conclusion that follows HR4 and brings the entire paper to a close, and
    • transitional sentences and paragraphs at the end of HR1-4 that cause the individual essays to flow together conceptually or hold hands, if you will.
    • an appendix that’s actually a PDF of the UDHR simply inserted into the paper
I’ve underlined in red an area where a former student worked to join her HR 1 to her HR 4 on Frederick Douglass. (And by the way, students can arrange their essays however they wish. This student chose to discuss Douglass’ narrative immediately after the human rights background essay instead of the essay on the Triangle Fire.)

In fact, these transitional sentences and paragraphs are one of my favorite instructional aspects of this assignment.

I think it’s important to teach kids that their sentences need to “hold hands.” This metaphor, which I discovered while reading the college text They Say, I Say, illustrates how each sentence’s meaning should flow from sentence to sentence, i.e. each sentence should grow conceptually out of the preceding sentence.

Yes, transition words will help with linking to some extent, but adding transition ideas (such as repeated words or ideas from one essay to the next) will link the individual essays together even more solidly to build a cohesive dissertation. After all, for the dissertation to achieve cohesion, each essay within it must grow out of the one before it.

And fortunately, kids usually understand the need for transitions words and ideas between the individual essays. In fact, by the time that March rolls around, they often bring up this topic themselves. At this stage of the dissertation game, various kids have asked me over the years,

“Don’t we have to do something so all these essays fit together?”

When middle schoolers ask this, I praise them for noticing the need for these transitions. It’s such a good feeling to know that they have figured out — on their own — that they need to make the essays “hold hands.”

Students complete these final essential components at their own pace during the final two to three weeks of revision, editing, and assembly of the dissertations. I provide a final “To Do Checklist” that they work on for two to three weeks as they finish up.

Here I’ve included photos of a Works Cited Page guide, a final TO DO EDITING CHECKLIST, and an example of the title page structure that students use.

Here are the materials I supply to students:

—an instruction sheet for each individual essay (HR 1-4)

—a five-paragraph essay outline that I require students to fill out prior to starting their first drafts

—paper copies of the articles that they will cite in their essay

—timelines and To-Do checklists

this Avery presentation folder

—All these materials are provided on paper and in Google Classroom.

Here’s a variety of materials I provide for students. The sheet in the front is an article from the United Nations for those students without internet access at home. Students include a copy of the Declaration of Human Rights page in their dissertations as an Appendix These are available from the National Center for Civil and Human Rights in Atlanta, GA. The Human Rights Toolkit is available from the The Advocates for Human Rights in Minneapolis, MN.

How I grade the individual essays:

After students turn in their first and second drafts, I methodically read each essay word for word. As I read, I ask myself: Does the essay have a clear thesis statement? Does the paper stay focused on that thesis? Do the ideas ramble? Is the paper backed up with the textual evidence?

Those first drafts mainly contain my notes and suggestions for better idea development. At this point, it’s not about commas and punctuation, it’s about ideas. And to be honest, I don’t focus on editing in any first draft of any assignment actually. (Well, okay, I do hand back work that contains a three or more K-6 errors… y’know, those silly mistakes, such as basic capitalization rules and the dreaded lower case i that students should know about by the time they reach middle school.)

It seems that I’m still deciding exactly how I want to assess this project. This is a simple rubric I used a year ago. I have used more involved versions, including one where students filled out their own grades before me, but that one didn’t work as well as I hoped. I’ll probably go with this simple approach again. Of course, I write comments on these sheets off to the side.

Because those first drafts are just that—first drafts—they are evaluated with a grade that’s akin to a participation grade. As long as the student fills out and turns in their outline, plus a first draft (either typed or handwritten) that contains a beginning, middle, and end (and, therefore, the major parts of a five-paragraph essay) students receive a successful grade.

Still, many co-workers often see the student’s final dissertations and lament to me how time-consuming it must be to grade all those 16-page and longer essays. But really, because I limit my “grading” to the first draft that I mark up, a second draft that I compare to the first draft (to confirm that students made the needed changes), and a final draft that I skim just before binding, this project doesn’t require an unreasonable amount of time to assess.

And since the project extends throughout the year, I get my eyes on their individual essays frequently enough that we revise and repair it as we go multiple times during conferencing. As a result, by the time March rolls around, I am thoroughly familiar with each student’s essay.

In addition, after students compile and merge their essays into one document and add the essential components, they assemble into four-person groups to peer review. This allows another yet stage of revision. When all is said and done, most students’ essays undergo three to four drafts, and maybe even five.

How my students stay on track during the year with this project:

This is a long project and I know that. And yes, it might seem daunting for middle school students to stay organized with an assignment that stretches across several months.

Here are two vital tricks:

1) Students store their drafts in a classroom file cabinet. In fact, I write KEEP in big letters across the top of every draft that needs to be filed. I even tell those who are really disorganized, “See the word KEEP at the top of the page? That means don’t lose it. File it away right now.” Middle school kids are fun, but they sometimes just need me to be as direct as possible.

2) Students put stickers on the giant progress chart posted at the front of the room. Each essay in the dissertation has spaces for two stickers, one for the first draft and one for the second draft, which is generated at least a month after the first draft. (I think it’s important for a good amount of time to pass between these two drafts so kids can look at it with fresh eyes.) The giant sticker chart is actually a big deal to students; it keeps them aware of their progress.

I jokingly tell kids that our progress chart might be the last time, sadly, that they ever get stickers in school.

Plus, the chart is a quick way for me to see who I need to help on any essay they may be struggling with. I do my best to help kids manage their time and stay on track as the project is just too big to complete all at once at the last minute.

And that time management idea brings me to the last reason I like these the eighth-grade dissertation:

Students learn that they can be successful with any big project, in school or in life, if they break it into manageable steps.

I think this is such an important lesson for eighth-graders to learn as they approach high school. It should carry that same message next year for my high school students as they look ahead to college or their career.

This is a schedule or “tentative timeline” I give students as we near the time to compile and merge the various essays they have completed over the school year. This also shows a slip that provides directions for adding page numbers in Google Docs in MLA style.

Disclaimer: Yes, I realize that in the eyes of many in academia and in more progressive high schools, the five-paragraph essay is being disregarded and shunned even for its formulaic and staid structure and style. And while I agree to some point with this thinking, I also know that students — especially those in middle school and some in high school — need the structure of a five-paragraph essay to achieve cohesion in the organization of their thoughts. That’s why I believe the five-paragraph essay definitely has a place in my writing instruction.

However, I am also an advocate for more creative approaches to writing. I feel that when teachers focus too much on academic writing, they stifle the student’s personal expression and originality and actually turn kids off to writing. Balance is needed.

The dissertation gives me that balance. It allows me to teach students academic writing and its more formal organization and structure on an on-going basis throughout the year. This then frees up more time for creative writing pursuits such as poetry, presentations, memoir writing, creative contests, blogging, graphic essays, and headline poetry.

Another dissertation is completed! Happy day!

In closing, next year I plan to adapt the dissertation project for both my high school juniors (who read American Literature) and my seniors (who read British Literature). I’m excited to return to this project!

I know that I definitely missed including it in my curriculum this year.


Thanks for reading again this week! Just so you know, I plan to upload materials pictured in this post to my new Teachers Pay Teachers store, where you can download for free a Google doc with five simplified AOW rubrics. See this post for more about those rubrics.

What kinds of extended writing projects do you tackle with your students? Let me know in the comments and make sure to become a follower to catch more posts from my high school ELA classroom.

Photo Friday: Graphic Essays

I like how graphic essays, in many cases, help students hone their skills with the most crucial parts of a thematic analysis essay.

Graphic essays break down theme into bite-size chunks

Graphic essays break down theme into bite-size chunks of textual evidence, interpretation, and symbolism. Read this post to see how my juniors creatively demonstrated their knowledge of various themes found in Ernest Hemingway’s short story “In Another Country.”


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