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 5

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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!

 

 

 

 

Let Students Talk, Think, and Think Some More

Here’s what else I do to help students find writing topics they care about and then start writing

part 2 of 5

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Photo by Anton Darius | Sollers on Unsplash

I know from teaching middle school (6-8) ELA for a few years that, in order for students to be passionate about their writing, they must first have a topic that they care about. When they care, they won’t mind taking the time to struggle to get their ideas expressed effectively. They’ll  persevere through the thinking and writing (and rethinking and rewriting) that inevitably happens when they are truly engaged and committed to their ideas. In a previous post, I listed three ways I help my students find topics they care about. Here they are:

1) I give them lots of choices. If they don’t like any of the fifty or more prompts I offer, they can write about their own idea.

2) I regularly assign slice-of-life essays about the ordinary moments of life that, while small, reveal our humanity and common experiences.

3) I simply give students time to think.

The fourth thing I do to help students find a good topic is this: I let them talk.

Nothing builds enthusiasm as much as inviting students to share their ideas, connections, and memories. Writing ideas bubble up around the room as others share their experiences. I carry a dry erase marker on me at all times so I can rush over to the whiteboard and jot down a random idea like “snowboard life lesson thing” for Gwen or “spaghetti disaster” for Casey.

Usually, after they’ve talked for a while (about 15-25 minutes), I’ll notice students here and there pulling out pen and paper to start writing. I use that as my guide. I make a quick announcement that it’s time to start writing. I invite them to grab a clipboard and find a spot on the floor around the room or at a table where they can be productive. Many choose to stay at their desks. If they sit with a buddy, they must still be productive.

Then I turn off the fluorescent lights and flip on the white Christmas lights hanging from the ceiling. It creates an inviting glow that signals it’s time to settle in for writing.

Those kids who pulled out their paper first to write will usually be my star students. Because I know those kids can easily dive right into writing, I make sure to keep an eye on those who may need help getting started. I let everyone know it’s okay if nothing gets written down that day, but the goal for the next is to have a semblance of an idea at the beginning of class. And then I let those strugglers stare at the wall some more. I pour out the patience.

One of the most introspective pieces ever composed in my classes was written by a student who stared at the wall for most of the class period. At first, I thought Joe was just biding his time, but when I checked with him, he told me he just couldn’t think of anything. So I let him stare.

The next day, he rushed into class with a sheet of notebook paper covered on both sides with some wonderful personal thinking about being young, making choices, and about how it can actually feel bewildering to have so many options in life. A truly interesting piece with ideas I never expected this student to harbor. In fact, I still keep a copy in my “Why I Teach” binder. Rereading it reminds me that I should be patient when discussion doesn’t ignite everyone’s imagination right away.  Some kids just need more time to think.

The next steps I take with my students will be discussed in an upcoming post. I’ll be finishing that soon. Click the “like” button and share on social media if this has been helpful to you. Feel free to leave a comment and don’t forget to follow me to catch that post! Thanks for reading!

 

I’m Imagining the Possibilities of Project-Based Learning

 

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The Spring 2017 issue of the WRVHS magazine

 

Yesterday I met for about an hour with Leslie Wyman, the managing director of the White River Valley Historical Society based in Forsyth, Missouri. I had contacted her last week by email to inquire whether there were any projects for which my students could provide basic research and/or writing.

I really didn’t know what I would find out, or even if there would be any opportunities for my students. In her reply email, however,  she told me that several ideas came to mind! Wow, I thought, this is exciting!

So we met and talked about one idea in particular, which sounds very promising. I’m pondering the idea a bit further and hope to meet with her again next week to ask her a few more questions so we can, together, design a “real world” project for my seventh-graders.