I’m pretty proud of the written response in the picture above. It’s written by a seventh-grade student who, while being a strong writer, struggles with turning in work, whether assigned as homework or completed during class.
He is not doing well in my class “grade-wise”; however, this paragraph shows the higher level of thinking he is able to record in writing. (Yes, there are problems with this response, such as misspelled words and run-ons, but this student’s idea development is strong and that’s more important to me. We can always fix the editing later.)
Some of the paragraph may be hard to discern, so I’ve transcribed it below without corrections:
“In the book, Chasing Lincoln’s Killer, we learn/learned more than most people would normally know. Most people just know Lincoln was shot watching a play but there is more. I learned for the first time their was a twelve-day manhunt. Acorrding to the novel James Swanson authorther of Chasing Lincoln’s Killer, “There was a plan.” In other words, Booth had it all figured out. Close to the end after Booth was shot, and paralized he asked someone to hold up his hands whe they did he spoke useless, useless. I think when Booth says this he is saying that all his efforts, his plans, and evan his completed task was useless cause he felled to live on, he felled to tell his story, he felled to fight on for the south.”
This paragraph was written in response to the prompt below. Here’s what I love about this response:
it builds up to and introduces the evidence in a satisfying way
it interprets the evidence with two sentences, including that final golden one
it uses repetition effectively (and I made sure to tell him that when I spoke with him about it)
the writer put his own “spin” on the material… it feels original and fresh
Here’s that prompt:
I realize that there are quite a few “requirements” in this prompt. Sometimes I feel that I’m overly prescriptive with my prompts.
And then I receive a response back like this that reminds me that many kids thrive with the guidelines. They’re able to combine the guidelines with their own ideas and voice to create accurate, effective communication that also possesses a distinct style.
Thanks for reading! I use similar prompts like this throughout the year. Sometimes I’ll add other items for kids to use such as sentences that begin “For example, …”. What do your writing prompts look like? Feel free to leave a comment!
I’ve been reading Chasing Lincoln’s Killer by James Swanson to my seventh-graders and we just finished it on Friday.
About every two chapters or so, they’ve written a response to a question I’ve posed to help them comprehend the text as well as think critically about some of the questions and topics it raises.
Because our students have plenty of independent reading time in their Humanities class, I have chosen to read-aloud this book. I also think it’s important to model reading, so from cover to cover, the students follow along while I read. Well, nearly all of them.
About a week ago, I noticed that whenever I glanced up from reading to check the class, one boy who sits at the back of the room was quietly looking back at me as I read. Apparently, he was listening. He was also making connections. The next day his father gave him permission to bring some actual Confederate States of America bills to school. Arranging the money on my desk for the photo below, there was no doubt that he had been paying attention even though he wasn’t “following along.”
Another student—I’ll call him Joe– was drawing on a sheet of copy paper as I read during the course of three or four class periods. Early on, I asked him to follow along once or twice, and finally decided that I wouldn’t ask again, especially when I looked at the drawing that Joe dropped into the seventh-grade basket at the end of class each day.
He was working on a portrait of John Wilkes Booth from a photo in the book. He surrounded the portrait with words posed as questions. It was interesting and thought-provoking and showed that he was indeed paying attention during the reading. He may not have been “following along,” but he was definitely engaged.
So just because a student isn’t following along, don’t assume they aren’t paying attention and learning. In fact, Joe and his drawing has caused me to consider how other kids may better show their understanding (and misunderstanding, too–let’s be real) through drawing or sketching. Recording their thoughts and thinking must not always equate to producing a written response, after all.
Thanks for reading! Our next step in the unit is to watch a movie called The Conspirator, which focuses on the trial of Booth’s conspirators, including Mary Surratt, the owner of the boarding house where the assassination was purportedly planned. The end result? An essay that argues Surratt’s innocence or guilt. Follow my blog for more posts about middle school ELA.
Gallagher developed the Article of the Week assignment to help students gain more background knowledge about politics, history, current events… in short, the world around them.
When I took Gallagher’s cue and began assigning AOWs in my own classroom, I chose to do so because I agree that kids need to expand their background knowledge. Many can’t relate to the literature we teach because they don’t possess the personal prior knowledge to connect to that literature.
I also like the idea of kids writing to reflect or give their take on a particular topic. Plus, reading and responding to nonfiction texts takes a different set of skills than reading literature: identifying central ideas, finding evidence to support those central ideas, noticing patterns and sequences in the content of the articles, and more. AOWs would surely help my students develop or at least practice those skills.
Gallagher’s AOWs are concise. His handout consists of a reprinted article, with a box at the top of the page that asks students to do three things: 1) mark their confusion, 2) show evidence of a close reading, and 3) write a 1+ page reflection.
How I tweaked Gallagher’s AOW to make it work for me
However, the steps outlined by Gallagher are too open-ended for my middle school students. The expectations for their writing are not focused in a way that my students (most of them anyway) would appreciate. Instructions so brief would only lead to confusion for many of them.
For that reason, I’ve provided more specific instructions and I’ve used each assignment to teach two specific skills I am focusing on this year that actually go hand-in-hand: interpretation and idea development.
Here’s a photo of the rubric for the AOW shown in the photo at the top of this post:
Another important aspect that I feel makes these assignments essential is their frequency. I assign these once a week. (The AOWs are in addition to in-class writing activities, such as writing prompts and essays.) Every Monday morning, students are given a new AOW that is due the following Monday. Writing a thorough response on a weekly basis outside of class gets my students in the habit of writing regularly.
I assign these responses weekly to help students develop writing stamina and to help them learn to write on demand. My own daughter was required in her eighth-grade classes (at another district) to write weekly and I know it was invaluable in helping her develop the confidence to write consistently.
Kids need narrative practice, too
One change I have made over the past year, however, is to alternate AOWs with what I call EOWs (Essays of the Week). EOWs focus on narrative writing skills and include a list of twenty or so prompts around a certain theme. Recent themes included style and health, politics and power, and food. I decided to create EOWs after I determined that kids needed more practice writing in a narrative style. These essays allow kids to inject more of their personal voice into their writing.
Kids tell me they enjoy writing the EOWs much more than they do the AOWs; they like the increased creativity involved. Another difference: the rubric obviously doesn’t require annotating, but may require that students open their essay with dialogue, for example. The EOWs also have a longer length requirement: they must be two pages typed instead of the usual one page for AOWs.
I pull my prompt topics from a list of 650 writing prompts published by the New York Times. One good thing about these EOWs: they can be reused from year to year. However, make sure you don’t just “cut and paste” a swath of topics from the list, since some are definitely geared to older students.
One downside to using AOWs is that for them to be topical, I must spend time every other week to find an article to use. I have used several from Newsela.com, modifying them for a printed handout. I have also found many elsewhere. I keep my eyes and ears open for the current week’s news so I can provide a really up-to-the-minute assignment.
Introducing an AOW usually takes the better part of our 53-minute class periods. After I pass out the handout, we briefly talk about the article’s subject, then we’ll look at the prompt and the rubric to see what they require. Following this introduction, I’ll often read aloud the article, using a document camera while I read, all the while demonstrating annotation.
This is how we do it
After we finish reading the article, I’ll show the kids a related video from Youtube or a similar video source. For example, for one AOW on football head injuries, we watched one to three short clips of players who suffer from concussion injuries.
The EOWs don’t require as much time to introduce. We just skim through the list, discuss a few that look especially interesting to some students, and move on. They know what to do beyond that, which is to put their things away so we can carry on with whatever else I have planned for the day. AOWs and EOWs are homework assignments.
I put a lot of thought and time into creating these weekly assignments, which I consider my number one most effective writing assignment. However, I know these assignments help my students conquer their fear and hesitation with writing. Writing on a regular basis is a great skill that I know will benefit them immensely in high school and beyond.
Thanks for reading again this week! Let me know how you’ve tweaked Gallagher’s AOW concept for your students.
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve written that on my students’ essays, poems, and narratives. They know the importance of adding relevant details and crystal clear descriptions to their writing. We talk about it all the time, after all. In fact, “add more detail” and “be more descriptive” are the top two comments I hear them saying to each other during peer review groups. However, for some reason, kids still often neglect to be specific.
Maybe they don’t recognize “vagueness” in their own writing. Maybe they’re in a rush and don’t see the value in taking the extra time that being specific takes. Maybe it’s late the night before their essay is due and, as a result, they’ve lowered their standards. The loosey-goosey thoughts that make it into their first drafts—however general and lackluster— are good enough to turn in at the last minute. Whatever.
Last fall, I came upon a chapter in Bill Roorbach’s Writing Life Stories and discovered a helpful section on the merits of being specific in writing. By “being specific” Roorbach means putting a name to the objects, things and people in our writing.
For example, if one mentions a tree, Roorbach suggests being exact. Is it an oak? maple? pine? If possible, he suggests going further. Is it a chinquapin oak? silver-leaf maple? lodgepole pine? If one mentions Dad’s car, Roorbach suggests identifying the exact car: Dad’s brown 1995 Subaru Forester or his sleek, brand-new silver Prius.
Roorbach stresses that “naming is knowing.” Putting a clear and precise label to the objects in our writing lends credibility and a subtle authenticism to our writing. (He also discusses how determining the exact name of something—a particular flower, for example—may help writers discover unexpected revelations about their pasts. Seriously, check out this book!)
I notice that in my own writing I will often add the specific labels to things on the later drafts of a piece. I often do this work intentionally, taking care to notice generalities as I read and re-read, and re-read again. It’s amazing how much richer and concrete and visible my writing is when I follow Roorbach’s advice and specifically name things in my writing.
So with Roorbach’s book in hand, I created a mini-lesson for class. Maybe this time, I thought, with the help of Roorbach’s down-to-earth and eloquent text, students will understand what I mean when I write “Be specific” in the margins of their papers.
For the mini-lesson, I decided to read aloud from Roorbach’s “Naming is Knowing” exercise. Everyone agreed that the specific examples given in the text were effective revisions of the more general originals. I asked the kids to keep this in mind as they wrote that day… “Don’t just say that you put on your clothes; be specific. Name the clothes. Say you put on your bright white NASA hoodie and a faded pair of jeans. ”
About two days later, a student named Jacob dropped a poem into my second drafts box during writer’s workshop. I read it, noticing that it was about a trip to Florida he took last summer with his family. The poem mentioned finding “a coin,” “finding “a food,” and visiting “the museum” and finding “something” there.
Here we go again, I thought. More vague writing.
I asked Jacob, “Remember when we talked a couple of days ago about how it makes sense to be as specific as possible and put a name to things when we write so readers can visualize our stories better?” He nodded. I inquired what kind of coin he found; he replied “a Spanish medallion.” I asked him what exactly he found at the museum; he said “a Honus Wagner baseball card.” I asked him about the food mentioned in the poem; he replied “chicken Alfredo.”
Try naming those things in your poem, I suggested. He returned several minutes later with another draft, this one much more specific, much more visual, and much more effective.
“Yes! You did it!” I told him after reading his revision. “This is what we were talking about!”
I asked him if I could use his drafts in class the next day to show everyone how much more visual his second draft was. He agreed and printed copies of his poem’s “before and after” versions.
I placed them side by side on a sheet of paper and ran off copies for everyone. The following day we revisited our “naming” lesson and with Jacob’s poems in front of them, everyone readily was able to see the difference between vague writing and specific writing: it all has to do with naming things.
The next day, I asked Jacob to read both poems aloud. After that, we all discussed how effective the changes were and the consensus was that the “after” version was definitely the draft we all preferred. Why? Because we could visualize the Spanish medallion (someone said it was probably all crusty and gross) much more clearly than we could visualize a coin. We could taste the chicken Alfredo. And of course, we all knew that a Lamborghini is the ultimate fancy car.
Of course, being seventh-graders, the added details spurred conversations about coins that kids had found or lost. Practically every kid in the room said they loved chicken Alfredo. I guess all that conversation proves that specific writing resonates. Being specific helps readers connect better with the writing and, in the end, that’s what it’s all about.
One student asked, “What if the extra detail seems distracting?” I acknowledged her smart observation and advised her to play around with being specific. Yes, it’s entirely possible to have misplaced detail, I told her. If that’s the case, she as the writer then has a decision to make. For example, if it seems distracting and irrelevant to know that you wore a bright white NASA hoodie, then leave it out and go general. But try naming and being specific first, I told her because you never know until you try. Plus, you can always change it back later, I added.
I feel as if I’ve finally hit on something when it comes to teaching kids to write specifically: it’s about naming things. Since teaching this “Naming is Knowing” mini-lesson—with the help of Roorbach and Jacob’s examples— my students better understand how to add relevant, visual details and names to the people and objects in their writing. It’s nice to know that they finally understand what “Be specific” really means.
Thanks for reading again this week! Click “like” if you learned something with this post and feel free to follow my blog for more news from my classroom. How do you teach your students to be specific in their writing?
Every so often, this website comes in really handy.
Ever need to know exactly what a character said in a movie? Ever want to show your students how dialogue is done for film?
I recently found a free —I repeat, FREE—source for any and every movie transcript. At the time, my class had just finished watching The Conspirator, a 2010 movie directed by Robert Redford about the trial of Mary Surratt, the first woman executed by the U.S. government for her involvement in the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. I was helping a student find the lines spoken by a Civil War general during Surratt’s trial.
This website gives you the entire script for a movie from start to finish. While the site doesn’t show which character speaks which line, it does contain the entire spoken dialogue for films. You’ll need to scroll through the script for the particular scene you may need; therefore, you’ll need to already be familiar with the movie.
That being said, this site is invaluable.
In addition to thousands of movie scripts, the site also offers scripts for thousands of TV episodes for current and past series. The movie database contains scripts ranging from current releases to the oldies. Go here now to surf around and see what you may find or bookmark the site for later. Your students will thank you when they’re needing to cite a movie for a paper or for research.
Thanks for reading! Check out last week’s post about how not to feel guilty for showing videos or movies before a holiday break.
Students presented their writing contest entries for an end-of-semester critique
The last week before Christmas break was super productive. Oh, don’t get me wrong… we still watched videos late in the week, but we ACCOMPLISHED SO MUCH early in the week with our contest entry presentations that my self-inflicted and totally undeserved teacher guilt over watching videos instantly evaporated when I pressed the play button.
By the way, teachers shouldn’t feel guilty about showing videos right before Christmas IF they find movies that have real value that they can connect to their curriculum. Also, avoid Elf, Remember the Titans, or any other movie that kids have already seen at least six times. (You’ll find out what we watched in my classes in a post later this week.)
And now, back to my regularly scheduled article:
We had a goal; more specifically, we had a writing contest deadline. On Friday, December 21, the last half-day of school before Christmas break, I planned to mail in the submission forms for ten students, a mix of both seventh- and eighth-graders, who had written entries to the Scholastic Writing Awards.
On the Monday and Tuesday before that Friday, I had asked students to choose their favorite pieces of writing from their Writer’s Workshop portfolios to present to the class. For the ten students who were submitting contest entries to Scholastic, I specifically asked them to read those entries. We could use the presentations as a final check before sending them off.
Reading the pieces aloud to students might reveal any areas of confusion and editing issues that remained. True, the pieces had been through at least three drafts, some four or more; however, there’s nothing like reading your writing aloud to someone who’s never heard it before to find areas for improvement.
We started with the students with Scholastic entries. I had given each student a rubric form to fill out as they listened to the Scholastic entries aloud. This form was based on the rubric students use when they listen to their classmates present their One-Word Summaries. This version was less involved, however, since it mainly was asking students to listen for confusion. In other words, if something didn’t make sense, it needed to be addressed.
Let me say this: I was so impressed with how seriously the students took this activity. Despite it being the last few days before Christmas break, and despite having turned in the final project of the semester (their Writer’s Workshop Portfolios), students approached this last “Speaking & Listening” activity in a constructive, critical, and professional manner.
Their discussions were focused, direct, and helpful. The rubric contained a blank for them to circle “Yes” or “No,” in response to the question: “At all times, I was able to follow the writing without becoming confused.” This part of the rubric was crucial and helped spur effective conversations. I prompted students to raise their hands if they noticed any confusing areas from the writing to discuss. For example, one student’s poem contained a line that caused confusion. It was a line that defined happiness as the feeling one has when you throw your playing cards down in anger after losing a game.
Some students expressed confusion with how anger could be used to define happiness. These students asked the writer to repeat the poem, including the confusing line. These students listened carefully. They offered these questions:
Would frustration be a more accurate word than anger?
Does using frustration really solve the issue, though?
Would adding the word “playful” before anger or frustration provide the tone needed and eliminate the confusion?
Consensus decided that using “playful” would indeed help. At the conclusion of that student’s turn, before she sat down, I made sure to let her know that it was strictly her decision whether or not to use the word “playful.” It was her poem, after all. The main point for her to remember, I reminded her, was that the line caused confusion in the mind of the reader. When readers are confused, they lose interest, unless the material is something they intrinsically need to understand.
It’s the writer’s job to make the reading experience as smooth as possible, so the reader doesn’t become confused, and therefore, lose interest.
Word choice was a significant part of our discussions during these end-of-semester presentations. It was fun watching students suggest better, stronger, more precise words in a group setting. Some students even left their desks to offer help, making notes on or looking at the copy of the writer’s essay or poem.
Another important change was suggested with another student’s (let’s call her Susan) essay. This suggestion was made after several students expressed confusion over the main character in Susan’s short story. Students didn’t understand if the main character was, in fact, a bird or a human. Susan relayed to us that the character was indeed a bird, a creature of reverence to Crow Tribal members.
To help clear up the cryptic nature of Susan’s writing, I asked students, “Without Susan there to answer questions, how will the Scholastic judges understand the story?” Students came up with their own idea for Susan: provide a prologue, a paragraph or two of background at the beginning of the essay that explains the connection to the Crow. It was an excellent and practical idea and one students arrived at on their own.
These are just two examples of how my students took the writing critique seriously. Even more, one boy who is usually very disinterested in group work made the comment that he wished we had done these presentations earlier in the Writer’s Workshop process. I told him that I agreed and made a mental note that we definitely should conduct these critiques sometime during the Writer’s Workshop, when it has more relevance.
Since there was still time for the Scholastic Award entrants to make changes to their entries, the activity was indeed relevant. For those other students, who were actually reading completed final drafts with no additional opportunity to make further changes (since I had already entered grades due to our schedule), there wasn’t much point to suggesting changes.
However, some of the writing will be worked on next semester for upcoming contests. In March, students who chose to enter the Outdoor Writers of America Norm Strung Youth Writing Awards, will revise their poems from their portfolios and submit those. (I plan to have students present their entries for that contest in March.)
Finally, it’s good to discover another new activity that proves effective for my classes. (And to think we did this valuable activity in the final days of the semester amazes me!)
In addition, I’m always looking for easy ways to provide opportunities that address the Missouri Learning Standards’ “Speaking and Listening” components. Having kids present their work at semester’s end was perfect for that task. Plus, it allowed those Scholastic Writing Award writers another opportunity to further revise and check their work. It was a positive and beneficial way to end the semester!
Thanks for reading! Click “like” if you found this article helpful and then leave a quick comment about the ideas you found most beneficial. Don’t forget: follow this blog to catch my next post on how not to feel guilty about showing videos right before a break.
Students turned in their final portfolios on Friday, and just like that, the semester is nearly over.
On Friday, my seventh- and eighth-graders turned in their final Writer’s Workshop portfolios. In early November, students began choosing eight writing projects from a list of twelve. The list offered a range of projects ranging from poetry to arguments to narratives to informational works. The focus of WW was the writing process. The procedure required that they complete three drafts and share their work with their peers and me for feedback and revision suggestions.
Click here to read my post from three weeks ago that outlines how WW works in my classroom.
By the way, I didn’t include a list of the various writing projects in that earlier post. Here are two photos of the final portfolio rubric I used this year, which lists the projects students could choose from.
It might appear that the grading was intensive and time-consuming. However, since I had already seen the students’ second drafts and provided feedback on those, my main task in assessment was confirming that students followed the writing process for each project. Students turned in a two-pocket folder with their eight projects enclosed. For each project, I looked for their first draft, their first draft responder sheet, their second draft (the draft I provided feedback on), and finally on top of the stack, their third and final draft. I did make sure that significant changes were made at each stage of revision. Points were deducted if they didn’t make any changes from draft to draft. In addition, I gave a “quality of writing & presentation” grade and then also circled a holistic rating for their work (see arrow on the final portfolio rubric in the photo below).
In case you’re wondering, yes, we do use a lot of paper (and ink) in my classroom. Students composed mostly on their Chromebooks, but then I also required that every project is printed. I know many students share their Google Docs with each other for revision and editing purposes, but I still require that students turn in hard copies of all drafts. Here’s my post that explains my loyalty to having students submit paper copies, rather than just dropping a file into Google Classroom.
Overall, WW was a great experience this year. As I graded rubrics this weekend, I came upon three main take-aways. Here they are:
Require that students choose an equal number of each genre. While the variety offered in the project list usually guarantees that students will write across genres, I did notice that some students were heavy on poetry, which makes sense. Free-verse poetry (which I encourage over rhyme) seems to have (to students, anyway) fewer rules and punctuation usage can be looser. However, I would prefer that students get more practice in essay writing. Next year, I’ll make sure to enforce “genre equality!”
Schedule a progress grade mid-way through the workshop schedule. I did this informally by checking with students during conferencing to ensure they were on-task throughout the six weeks, but assigning a formal grade that required the completion of four projects at the three-week point may have helped some of the students with budgeting their time.
Continue the responder sheet grade. This year, I added a responder sheet grade. I asked each student to show me a responder sheet that they filled out for another student. If they followed the directions on the responder sheet, which were to choose four to six questions and answer them in writing on the back of the sheet, they would receive full points. If they answered only two questions, then half points. If they only made a few editing marks on the draft, or provided minimal answers (as in “I think it’s great!” with no suggestions for improvement), they would earn fewer points. Including this grade in the workshop this year made students more accountable for providing constructive feedback. I need to make sure I continue with this practice.
It’s been a good semester and I’m looking forward to January. After Christmas break, seventh-graders will begin reading Chasing Lincoln’s Killer followed by an analysis of the film, The Conspirator; eighth-graders will continue work on their human rights dissertation and also begin reading Frederick Douglass’ narrative. My sixth-graders? They’ll be continuing their mastery of the beloved five-paragraph essay, the champion of academic writing. More on that in a later post!
Thanks for reading! Feel free to click like and leave a comment with your own Writer’s Workshop experiences.