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 6

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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.

Heads up! Student poetry contest deadline August 18

 

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Photo: Pixabay

If you’re planning to incorporate contests into your ELA classes and/or writers workshops, you can get started as early as Friday, August 18! That’s the deadline for the summer poetry hardcover anthology to be printed and published by Creative Communication. The books will ship in December. Teachers who have five or more students accepted for publication receive one free copy. Click here to visit their website. Read my recent blog post that outlines how the contests work.

My school’s first day is Wednesday, August 16.  Hmmmm… not sure how we can make that deadline, but I’m gonna try! (And based on past experience with this publisher, deadlines are often extended by a week or two,  so I’m crossing my fingers that will happen again.)

If you need poetry ideas, the CC website offers poem templates that will get your students crafting verse in no time. I’ll probably try those templates to get up and running ASAP.

I can’t think of a better way to start the year than with jumping right into an authentic writing assignment. It will be so fun all fall to look forward to that moment in December when my students hold their anthologies in their hands and become published writers!

If this post has helped you, click the like button and follow my blog to keep up-to-date on more contests and writing ideas!

 

 

 

Dear English teachers who have stumbled upon Medium during your summer break,

Originally published here July 19, 2017 on Medium.com in From a Teacher.

 

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Photo: Tran Mau Tri Tam on Unsplash

 

Congratulations! You found Medium. You should stick around and see what this site offers English Language Arts teachers.

Wander aimlessly throughout this platform and its writers and publications. It won’t take long before you’ll unearth some very cool stories (btw, everything is called a story on Medium) about an unending supply of topics: from coding to human rights, from motivational thinking to tacos. Get lost in the good stuff on Medium and then plan to share this goldmine of writing with your students in the fall.

One way I share Medium with my middle school language arts students is by finding a story to use as a mentor text. If we’re writing, for example, how-to articles, I search in my Medium network for an age-appropriate one I think will intrigue my middle schoolers. Then I print, make copies and we read them in class.

Then we’ll do a straight-through “cold” read. Sometimes I read aloud; sometimes I have students do that on their own. After that first read, students are often surprised at the original, sometimes quirky, always engaging writer’s voices found on Medium. They can’t believe, for example, that someone actually wrote this. They also can’t believe the variety. Research-driven studies and silly listicles… it’s all here. Medium stories are a fresh change from the made-for-school reading they get so much of.

Then we pass around the highlighter bucket and we read the story again, marking it up and keeping track of the ideas it presents and the questions it poses. And then we talk. Here are the questions we throw around:

  • Do you like this story? Do you find it enlightening? Does it speak to you? How?
  • How does it begin? How does it end?
  • Where is the strongest moment in this story? Weakest?
  • What do we notice about how it’s built?
  • How many paragraphs? How many sentences in a paragraph?
  • What techniques does the author use? Repetition? Alliteration?
  • Does it have a topic sentence or a main idea? What is it?
  • How does the author develop and explore this idea?
  • Does the author use evidence? How is it presented? Is it effective?
  • If you had written this article, how would you have tagged it?
  • What techniques could you pull from this mentor text as you write your own how-to?

I know that looks like a lot of discussion questions. In fact, you may be thinking, Wow. Way to take a perfectly good story and ruin it with over-analysis.However, our discussions are casual and organic; we ask the questions that make sense for the story we happen to be reading. Everybody is free to contribute, of course, and they do because the stories on Medium are accessible, relevant and created by real, living and breathing, connected writers who blog about the world that exists beyond the concrete block walls of school.

So now that you’ve found Medium, delve deeper. Find a handful of stories that you’re enthusiastic about. Restock your highlighter bucket. Get lots of colors. Plan to read, talk about, and imitate some Medium stories with your students this fall.

Click like if: a) you liked this, or b) know some teachers who need to find Medium. Could that be you??? Follow this blog to stay in touch. I’ll be posting more Medium resources for teachers soon. Thanks for reading!

Because bored students care about commas… and little else

Here’s what I do to spark passion in my students for writing

part 1 of 6

 

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Photo by Jamie Street on Unsplash

 

And let’s get this straight right from the start: I am no expert. I repeat, I am no expert. I have a meager six years of teaching under my belt. However, I am more excited than ever to be doing this job at age 51. (gulp) That’s why I want to reflect on and share what works for me in my classroom… and what doesn’t. I truly hope you’ll follow my blog and start a conversation so we can learn from each other. It’s good for teachers to do that. And now, back to our regularly scheduled programming…

Writing means knowing a bunch of rules, right? Comma rules. Spelling rules. Fragment rules. Capitalization rules. All these rules are very important to middle school students who are bored with writing. In fact, some students think writing is only about “the rules.” And the sooner they can get “the rules” right in their crummy, boring assignment, the sooner they can turn it in and move on with life.

Students are bored when they don’t care about their writing topic. Conversely, when students care about their topic, they don’t mind struggling to get it right.

Picture this: one of your students turns in a cleanly edited, yet incredibly boring and lifeless story. It’s another story about their dog, for example. Not one comma is out of place, not one word is misspelled. Everything looks great, but it’s just so… dull. That same day, another student turns in a poorly edited, yet thought-provoking and fresh essay. It’s a piece about self-image and social media. Yes, there was a run-on here, a capitalization error there, but you stumbled through it because the ideas were compelling and intriguing.

Besides subject matter, there’s one big difference between the dog story and social media essay. The essay can be revised, edited, and polished and still be engaging and original; however, the story, even though it needs no editing, will still require a major overhaul to garner interest from a reader. The commas are all there, but the ideas aren’t. In other words, just because the editing rules have been followed does not mean the writing is interesting.

So why did the student turn in the boring story? Because she didn’t care about it. She didn’t like the topic, the character she had created, who knows. However, the social media essay captured the heart of its author. This student had found a way to connect to the topic and, more importantly, discovered he had an opinion that needed and deserved to be expressed.

In order to get the freshest, most original, most thoroughly developed writing from my students, I must figure out ways to spark passion in my students for their writing topics. It’s my job to make them care about what they’re writing. It’s on me to send boredom out the door and down the hall.

Here are three  things I do in my 6-8 ELA classes to help my students find topics they’re passionate about:

  1. I give them lots of choices. Like gobs of choices.
    • I use this list of 401 argument topics from The New York Times. So many ideas! In fact, I often narrow the list down to fifty or so. Sometimes too many options are overwhelming. I also like to skim through the list to make sure the prompts I give my kids are age-appropriate since some of the prompts are for high school students and older.
    • I also use this lists like this one of 365 writing prompts from thinkwritten.com.
    • I keep digging to find more and more prompts. Here’s another site. Again, if too many options are just too many, provide fewer.
  2. I assign slice-of-life essays about the mundane, yet worthwhile, quiet moments of living. For ideas and plans from Two Writing Teachers, click here.
  3. Sometimes I simply give students time to think. Often, kids just aren’t used to sitting quietly and thinking. With smartphones and other devices, there’s always something else to do besides think. Let students stare at the wall and allow ideas to surface.

 

This is the first installment in a series of six on this blog about helping kids find writing topics that they’ll feel passionate about. And if they’re passionate, they won’t be bored; instead, they will care. As a result, they’ll spend enough time on their writing so it’s fleshed-out, fully developed, fresh, provocative, and true.

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!

#Engagement: Instagram is for Writing

 

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Used with permission. Credit: Audrey

 

A few weeks ago, Audrey, one of my former middle school students who’ll be a senior next year, posted on Instagram a photo of an essay she had handwritten. The essay showed Audrey’s ideas about adolescence, the validity of teenage relationships, finding one’s soulmate. The essay expressed her thoughts, and exhibited the kind of “thinking on paper” that teachers encourage in their students. It was a heartfelt and personal record of Audrey’s beliefs.

In the endless feed of landscape shots, selfies, and artistic images that compose Instagram, Audrey’s photo of her handwriting on a sheet of notebook paper stood out to me. It seemed to convey much more than her ruminations on soulmates.

It revealed…

  • that Instagram is being used by young writers to create and develop an audience for their written work. It’s not just for beautiful photos anymore.
  • that students are finding ways to blend traditional media with the new.
  • an unexpected juxtaposition of digital imagery and handwritten expression.
  • a surprising use of social media to work through and analyze one’s personal perspective on a topic

In ongoing discussions about the appropriate use of social media to educate, it’s good to keep in mind that when a student uses social media, they are often demonstrating the skills they have learned in school. I don’t know about you, but seeing confident young writers using Instagram makes me optimistic about the potential for social media in my middle school language arts classroom.

Of course, social media accounts must be administrated responsibly, using a district’s privacy and safety protocols. (Click here for a link to resources regarding using social media in schools and at home.) However, with best practices in place, social media sites such as Instagram hold promise because they provide an audience and generate feedback. Engagement abounds.

I’m considering a private classroom Instagram account next year. What suggestions, observations, or tips can you share? Feel free to post a comment or follow this blog for more ideas.