Memoir Mentor Text: Something I Wrote that I Now Use as a Mentor Text

It’s hard to find mentor texts sometimes, and occasionally I just write one myself when the need arises, or I scroll through my sister blog to find stories I’ve already written.

For my students, I define “memoir” as a personal narrative that contains a beginning, middle, and end, plus a lesson learned from the situation. That lesson learned can also be simply a realization or understanding of the writer’s place in the world, or how the world, (or more generally, life) works. For younger or struggling writers, the lessons learned can be overtly stated in the concluding paragraphs, as in “From this experience, I learned…” However, for more skilled writers, the lessons learned can be implied and woven into the piece in a more unexpected or creative way.  Here’s my memoir. Feel free to use for educational purposes.

Exactly Why You Should Be Aware of Your Surroundings

 

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Photo by Jiafeng Wang on Unsplash

During my growing-up years, I had always been taught by good parents to be aware of my surroundings — whether at home or out on my own. And while I heeded that advice, I needed my parents to complete the thought. I needed to hear why: because bad things really do happen to unsuspecting women and if you don’t pay attention to your surroundings, someone might take you away from us.

I finally figured that out after college when I was living on my own and running daily near my apartment in Topeka, Kansas and had a “close call” with a stranger in a car. My route, which I ran alone and required about thirty minutes to complete, took me through a recreational complex across the street that contained what was known then as The Gage Park Zoo and a well-landscaped public park.

My route then continued on into an adjacent neighborhood clustered with middle-class homes, and finally back to my apartment community. Every day without fail, I would get up at 6 a.m., walk through the zoo and park, run through the neighborhood, have some breakfast, shower and get ready for my 8-to-5 job at the Kansas Press Association, which was a short five-minute drive away.

One fresh, quiet morning as I entered the park, I noticed a car in a parking space near the front edge of the zoo. As I walked by, I saw that a man was sitting inside the car. Strange, I thought, for six in the morning. Suspicious. It was light out, but barely. A humid haze hovered over the park grounds and the only sounds you could hear were the whir of traffic on the distant freeway, the chirps from a few songbirds, and the drowsy mumblings  of teenagers catching up on the previous night’s news at the park’s swimming pool.

I continued to make my round-about way through the park: past the central square lawn, right at the rose garden, then another right back down the other side of the square lawn. When I rounded this last corner, I noticed the car again. It was backing out of its space. Good, I thought. It’s leaving.

But then, instead of turning toward the way out, the car turned into the park, and made a right onto the lower edge of the square lawn. Our paths would intersect, I knew,  if he made a left at the corner of the square lawn. Which he did.  Now it was inevitable: we would meet. He was up to something. Was he going to stare at me? Was he going to kidnap me? Would this be an abduction?

Keep in mind that this was in 1989. Before cell phones. Before pagers. If there was trouble, there was no way to contact someone. These were the days of the pay phone, but I was unaware of any pay phones in the  park.

With the car approaching, I glanced over at the pool and knew I could cut across the lawn and find refuge there. But my independence didn’t allow that.  I stayed on the paved road and continued heading straight toward the car, which was now approaching me. I eyed the car. I told myself to make eye contact with the man. Make good, solid eye contact when he gets here, I thought. Even though I was terribly afraid, I was not going to appear to be that way. So I would maintain my stride, look him in the eye, and keep walking. I would walk strongly, confidently, quickly. This is what I do every day of my life, mister, and you aren’t going to stop me, I grumbled under my breath.

Soon, the car was upon me. Driving slowly. Five miles per hour, if that. The muffler on the older, metallic, olive green sedan hummed and coughed. All too quickly, he was upon me. We made eye contact. I looked at him clearly, intently, and held my stare. He was white, unshaven, sun-tanned, with hazel eyes. His gaze met mine for a long, tense moment, all the while driving slowly, window rolled down, his left arm lazily resting along the top of the door. He drove on by. I had previously decided that I would not turn and watch him continue through the park. Didn’t want to provoke him. Didn’t want to make him suspicious of what I might do. So I kept walking and heard the car gradually accelerate behind me. And he was gone.

I never saw the man again, but I did change my routine. I started running in the evenings around six o’clock when there were more people out and about. Before the incident, I had known that keeping to a set workout routine (same route, same time every day) was ill-advised for a woman, but I obviously didn’t take that advice seriously enough either. At least not seriously enough to change my all-too-predictable behavior.  Again, perhaps I wasn’t told exactly why I should vary my schedule. After all, it’s hard to do, and in my opinion, an unreasonable expectation for women.

Wasn’t it enough to just be aware of my surroundings? Apparently not. Because even though my parents had already taught me that, my Gage Park “close call” taught me the point of that advice: because bad things really do happen to unsuspecting women and if you don’t pay attention to your surroundings, someone might take you away from us.


Follow this blog for writing contests, more mentor texts, reflections and other observations about teaching middle school ELA. I plan to post more mentor texts soon, and if you follow this blog, you’ll receive an email when those are added. Check out my sister blog for more writing.  Thanks for reading!

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

 

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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.

My Seventh-Graders Told Me This: Everything’s Gonna Be Okay

The future of the country is in good — albeit small — hands.

 

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Photo by Gianandrea Villa on Unsplash

Just when you think the country is spiraling out of control due to natural disasters, political upheaval, and lone wolf violence, you read some words written by twelve- and thirteen-year-olds and you realize that kids will carry us through. In short, everything’s gonna be okay.

I  just finished reading some first drafts written by my seventh-grade students. These drafts will grow into essays they will submit in a couple of weeks to an essay contest sponsored by our local Veterans of Foreign Wars post.

Each year has a different theme and this year’s is “America’s Gift to My Generation.”  What are these gifts, as determined by my students? Here are some my students wrote about:  freedom,  the ability to make choices, security, free speech, education, medical technology, optimism, diversity, the opportunity to seek meaningful work, the Bill of Rights.

These gifts make me hopeful. My students could have written about video games and unlimited data, but they didn’t. To know that Sarah values her education, Eric treasures the freedom to speak out, and Kaila cherishes being secure, makes me realize that the future of the United States is in good — albeit small — hands.

A cynic might say, “Well, what would you expect? The kids want to win the veterans’ contest. Of course, they’re going to write about freedom, for example.”  And to the cynic, I respond, “You’re exactly right.” My students know their audience. They know what’s appropriate (most of ’em anyway). That speaks well of their judgment and foresight, and again, I am encouraged.

I’m also encouraged because my students are diverse. Some occupy the lowest rungs on the socio-economic ladder; some rest comfortably at the top. Some have the latest Smartphone; others are living the digital divide. Some ask to borrow scissors and glue-sticks to take home for a class project; others have all these supplies at home plus full bookshelves.

However, despite their various circumstances, these first drafts reveal that deep down my students know what’s important and worth writing about. They understand priorities.  They know that being an American provides advantages that millions in other parts of the world simply don’t have. More importantly, my seventh-graders — tomorrow’s leaders — know whom they should thank for those advantages: our veterans.

Next week, we’ll start revising these first drafts. They’ll become more focused, more eloquent, more concise. These short writings will blossom into hopeful messages that confirm our future is secure.

Our local VFW post will generously award three students with recognition and cash prizes during our Veteran’s Day assembly in November. When that happens, I’ll share with you the gifts the winners wrote about. Until then, no matter what happens in the meantime, trust my seventh-graders. Everything’s gonna be okay.

Thanks for reading. If you learned something from this post, click like and share it on social media. Most importantly, leave a comment so I can know your thoughts on the subject. Also, follow this blog for more ELA teaching reflections and information about writing contests for students, including the VFW contest mentioned above.

Six Things I’ve Learned So Far from Using Instagram in My ELA Classes

#workinprogress #experiment  #askmeagaininMay

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I attended an ed-tech conference over the summer. One of the sessions, Social Media in the Classroom, was taught by a middle school teacher from another district in my area who admins a private Instagram account for her ELA classes.

The idea intrigued me. I already knew Instagram was fun, based on my experience with my own personal account. For me, Instagram is an expressive way to curate a portfolio of imagery and writing that represents and records my personality and experiences. In addition, Instagram reveals the power of the visual… something my students are immersed in daily.  So I decided to jump in and create one private account for the two periods each of sixth-, seventh-, and eighth-graders that I see throughout the day.

Since then, I’ve posted thirty-six times about every three days or so. I thought my enthusiasm might wane as the school year settled in, but it’s been the opposite. I find more and more reasons to post on the account and bring class activities into the social media lives of my students. I plan to continue my Instagram experiment through May to get a clear, definitive impression of the role Instagram can potentially play in my classroom.

In the meantime, here’s what I’ve figured out so far about using Instagram:

  1. Having an Instagram account is merely another way to connect with some of my students and parents. I have thirty-four followers right now out of nearly one-hundred students total. (Yes, it’s a really small district.) Right now, only a handful of parents follow the account.
  2. Having an Instagram account lets parents see what’s really happening in my classroom. My class page on the district website has grip-and-grin shots of essay contest winners, short articles about students who’ve been published, and other public announcements. However, on my class Instagram, things are more spontaneous. Most of the pictures I take are snapped quickly with very little posing. When kids are reading, working quietly, collaborating with others, or discussing things… that’s when I grab my phone.
  3. Having an Instagram account is beneficial for the parents of the new kids at school. One new sixth-grader’s mother commented how nice it was to see a photo of her child having fun, fitting in, and getting accustomed to the new surroundings.
  4. Having an Instagram account gives me a fun way to reinforce the basics, such as grammar and spelling, that I teach in the classroom. Grumpy Cat memes go a long way.  Read this Edutopia post to see how another teacher uses Instagram to augment classroom lessons.
  5. Having an Instagram account adds accountability to class work and simultaneously boosts the confidence of my students. I like to post photos of a well-turned phrase, an especially astute essay, or some beautiful cursive handwriting. It’s fun to showcase student work in this way.
  6. Having an Instagram account adds another level of purpose to my students’ writing because they know their work may appear in a post to our small audience of followers

True, hosting the account means that some kids take part and some don’t. Most of my students have Smartphones and internet access, but not all do. And some parents just don’t want their kids to participate for whatever reason, and I understand. Therefore, I make sure students know that following the account won’t benefit their grade. And honestly, the account doesn’t come up in class discussions very often.  It’s an extra avenue, another way to connect, another type of conversation to have with my students.

Yes, hosting the class Instagram also means more time that I spend at my job. Without fail, I tend to post from home. I don’t mind, though. When you enjoy your job and find purpose in it on a daily basis, working when you’re not “at work” doesn’t matter.

To sum it all up, my class Instagram account has added another dimension to my teaching. This “work-in-progress” allows me to share with students their learning, their writing successes, and — assuming they remain a follower after they’ve moved on to high school — some treasured middle school memories.

Thanks for reading! If you learned something from this post, click like and share it on social media. Most importantly, leave a comment so I can know your thoughts on the subject. Also, follow my blog for more ELA teaching reflections and information about writing contests for students.

It’s hard to teach middle schoolers this: grammar rules exist to bring readers on your journey

Part 4 of 4

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Photo by Alejandro Escamilla on Unsplash

 

In my classroom, I stress that writing is so much more than just knowing a bunch of grammar and punctuation rules.

Writing is really about expressing oneself, your dreams, your beliefs, your hopes, your imagination.  Writers don’t write to show off to readers that they know how to avoid vague pronouns; instead, writers use the rules to capture readers and take them on their journey through, as examples, the logic of their argument against homework, the plot of their sci-fi fantasy, or their description of the TRAPPIST-1 solar system.

When students understand that they have a vested interest in learning the rules — to keep the reader engaged — their desire to get the rules right increases.

So how does a teacher help middle schoolers understand that all these rules they hear in my class mini-lessons are there solely to help the reader stay on their journey?  I’ve tried my hand at  having small discussions that go something like this:

“When you forget about the rules and goof up — like if you misspell a word, leave out an important comma, write a run-on, or use a vague pronoun  —  you distract your reader.  If you spell a word wrong, they’ll lose their concentration and think stuff like That word looks funny. I think it’s wrong… or is it?  At this point, you know what? You’ve lost your reader. Now they’re thinking about that word you misspelled, and not about your ideas.”

“Or say you have a run-on sentence in your writing. Your reader stumbles through your sentence or paragraph and then they stop. They think, Wait. What?? That didn’t make sense. Then they re-read it, trying to figure out your sentence. At this point, guess what? You’ve lost ’em. Now they’re trying to piece together what you wrote to figure out what you really meant to write. Basically, your run-on sentence pulled your reader’s mind away from your once-riveting story, and now you just have to hope they have the patience to keep reading.”

Sometimes, I give them an example from the movies:

“Have you ever been absorbed in a really good movie and notice that an actor’s once-rumpled hair suddenly appears perfectly in place? Or you notice a glass perched on a tabletop that wasn’t there before? What happened when you noticed that glass? You were pulled out of the movie. You missed some dialogue. You got lost for a bit. You missed out on something, maybe something important.”

“If the editors had noticed and fixed that mistake, they wouldn’t have caused you to become distracted. It’s the same with writing. We have to keep our readers interested in our ideas, not distract them with our mistakes.”

“This is the reason we learn capitalization, how to use commas, how to spell, how to link our sentences correctly… to keep the reader thinking about your story or article, and not the silly comma you forgot to include.”

So that’s how the discussion goes when I help my middle schoolers learn that there are real reasons to understand grammar and conventions. Sometimes they get it; sometimes they don’t. Either way, we keep working on it when we conference. How do you help your students care about editing? Leave a comment. I really want to know.

 

 

 

Reading about how to teach writing

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Photo by Gaelle Marcel on Unsplash

It has its ups and downs

I love reading books about the teaching of writing. It’s always so valuable to me to find ways to help kids love writing!

Right now, I’m re-reading Real Revision by Kate Messner, a text chock-full of innovative strategies that real-life published authors use when they revise their own writing. This book contains so many practical tips from Messner, who is also a seventh-grade English teacher. I have already used one of her revision strategies in my classroom this fall and I know this book will provide more ideas as I continue with it.

I’m also getting ready to write a short post on another book I recently read, Renew! Become a Better and More Authentic Writing Teacher by Shawna Coppola. This book also contains down-to-earth advice and examples from the classrooms where Coppola works as a literacy specialist. Another bonus from this book: Coppola gives me permission to literally rethink how I teach the writing process. As a result, I’ve put off posting my usual five-step writing process poster. Why? Well, I don’t really follow completely it in my own writing, so why should I force my students to?

There is one downside to all this reading, though… when I set these inspiring books aside for the moment, it’s a little disheartening because I realize that I could have taught a lesson so much better, explained a writing dilemma so much more effectively, or responded to a student in a much more powerful way than I did.

The upside, however, is that I do find concrete, implementable ways to improve my teaching, and that’s the ultimate goal, after all.

How about you? What are you reading about the teaching of writing? Any books I should check out?


Thanks for reading! Feel free to click “like” and leave a comment about any books you’re currently reading.

I’m a writer who teaches writing. Click here for my personal writing blog.

We are Off and Writing!

Three days in and students are revising submissions for a publisher. Read this for the details.

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Sixth-graders revise paragraphs into poems. We send to the publisher next week!

I decided not to discuss class rules on Wednesday, the first day of school, because who wants to hear class rules for eight different classes in one day?

Instead, we jumped right into a writing contest hosted by Creative Communication (CC). The contest (read about it here) is one aspect of CC’s summer poetry anthology, which will print and ship in December. The primary goal is to see my students published in the anthology; being designated as one of the top ten in the anthology would be a bonus.

Next week, sixth- and seventh-graders will continue revising our poems and since the deadline for CC’s summer poetry anthology was extended from August 23 to August 31, we’ll have even more opportunities to refine them before submission.

I call the poems the students are creating “Sometimes” poems. The concept is one I learned from middle grades author Kate Messner when I attended the Write to Learn Conference  in 2016.

Messner shared some teaching strategies from her book Real Revision. Her book outlines practical ways to encourage kids to revise their writing. The “one and done” mentality goes out the window when students see that revising can be how creative and fun. On top of that, these strategies have street cred because they show what professional authors like Messner do in their own writing routines. As a result, students begin to buy into the notion that “Real writing happens during rewriting.”

Students started this project by writing a few sentences about their favorite place or a place they enjoy. They described the place, the sounds of it, the fragrances, the textures. I showed them an example paragraph I had written about sitting in a swinging chair underneath a cedar tree in our yard. Then we read a poem that Messner wrote about one her favorite places: a mountain in April she had discovered while hiking one springtime day.

Students then revised their sentences into poems by adding recurring lines, stanzas, more sensory language, and imagery. At the end of class on Friday, they were still revising and working with partners, highlighting areas of strength and weakness.

It’s a fun project and results in beautiful little poems about places middle schoolers love… their bedrooms, around campfires, the woods, the beach, under Christmas trees.

 

I’ll be posting soon with more about our “Sometimes” poems. In the meantime, if you enjoyed this post, click like, leave a comment and share on social media! Follow my blog for more student writing contests and ELA teaching reflections. Thanks for reading!