First things first! Teaching writing is hard. It just is. Over the years, I've racked my brain and the web to find ways to help my students write with depth...to thicken their ideas with age-appropriate details that matter instead of "juvenile" ideas that even preschoolers can easily grasp. When I say thick, I don't mean quantity. I mean word choice and sentences that are so beautifully sculpted and connected that they're unforgettable. My students ask me all the time, "Is this enough or do I need more?" I always respond with, "It's not about how much you write. It's about whether or not you've effectively answered the writing prompt." A full page doesn't equal good writing. Anyway! Thanks to 2ndaryELA, an English teacher support group on Facebook, I finally found a strategy that works for my seventh graders! It's called the 4E Body Paragraph Frame, but I tweaked it to fit my students' needs. It's designed for beginning writers to incorporate the components necessary for building a strong paragraph. We've not quite accomplished the depth that I'm looking for! I've learned that it takes practice, maturity, experience! But my students now understand the "parts" that are needed, so they write with purpose instead of rambling.
As expressed earlier, the name of the technique is the 4E body paragraph. If you look closely, I eliminated 2 E's from the original, so only two remain: Example and Elaborate. This past week, I introduced the idea to my kids. I think it worked! And I believe they enjoyed writing because they knew what they were doing...finally! I required them to complete the organizer based on the provided topic. To help students remember what part of an essay we were practicing, I required them to copy their paragraphs onto notebook paper as a visualization of where body paragraphs belong in an essay. I thought it was cool for them to see that when writing essays, you don't always have to start with the introduction!
Compared to last semester, the growth is evident and amazing! Last week while teaching body paragraphs was the best I've felt since school started. I succeeded! Thanks to the group on Facebook (that you need to join very quickly if you're a language arts teacher), I was able to find exactly what my kids needed and implement it in the classroom. One of my students performed very poorly on an essay assigned last semester due to poorly developed paragraphs. She had no clue what she was doing despite the effort put into it. She was so negative and felt that she'd never learn to write well. After about two days of practice using the new method and one-on-one time with her, she feels better as a writer. Recently on a quiz, she managed to write a paragraph demonstrating satisfactory when before her writing reflected very limited writing skills. Her writing isn't perfect, but she's far from where she used to be. That's progress, and I couldn't be happier for her! She went from "I can't" to "I can." There are so many more success stories, but I can't share them all! Just know that in my classroom we can write body paragraphs!
Frozen Treats! Glow Bracelets! And Books! Lots of Books! Book tasting was a hit with my seventh graders! You may be wondering, "What on earth is book tasting?" In a nutshell, it's a quick, fun way to introduce students to new books. The ultimate purpose is for students to leave with a book in their hand. Due to time constraints, I hosted a book tasting for students to explore different genres without checking out a book the same day. Instead, they left class with a sense of what they could read in the future. They left with a stronger awareness of their favorite and least favorite genres. Students were pushed a bit beyond their comfort zones which in many cases is realistic fiction. Through book tasting, they previewed (or tasted) poetry, fantasy, science fiction, nonfiction, and literary nonfiction. There were six stations set up in my classroom. Each station was labeled a different genre. Students were timed 6 minutes per station to preview books and reflect. At the end of class. I handed out cute napkins for students to reflect on their overall book tasting experience. I'll share a few comments below.
Testing season is officially underway, so I've been preparing my students for the upcoming STAAR Writing exam. Thank goodness for Teachers Pay Teachers (TPT)! I stumbled across a middle school Escape Room for Revising and Editing. It mimics the adventurous game where you solve riddles and puzzles using hints and clues. In this particular activity, revising and editing questions are the puzzles that students worked through to solve. As they answered the questions, certain students were responsible for recording responses on answer sheets while others were responsible for entering correct codes into iPads to be granted access to other stations. Students whose answers were incorrect weren't able to move forward. The activity required students to work together in teams. The first group that solved all 4 stations first won and was rewarded.
This activity required organization and preparation. I stayed after school the day before to get everything ready. I had to cut out task cards, label envelopes, set up the stations, and gather materials for each group. I wanted my classroom to be ready when students arrived. I purchased clipboards and baskets from Dollar Tree. Lanyards with student roles (Techie, Facilitator, Recorder, and Time Keeper) were provided. As mentioned earlier, each group was provided an iPad for entering codes. My students really enjoyed the activity as I anticipated. They asked if they could do it again. They most certainly will for the Reading STAAR in May! It's no surprise how engaged the kids were. I told them the day before what they'd be doing. The following morning, a student walked in and asked another girl, "What are we doing today?" She thought about it and said, "Oh yeah! We're doing the escape room! This is going to be so much fun!"
I'm grateful for online resources such as TPT and especially thankful for educators who take the time to design lessons for students. It's because of them, I'm able to provide my students with quality activities that they enjoy.
I absolutely loved basketball growing up. I can remember playing in the scorching heat during the summer with my brother. We'd sneak in the backyard while mom was at work. I can even remember my brother and I using dozens of wire hangers as hoops when we were kids. We'd shape them into circles and jam them at the top of our wooden bedroom door hoping mom wouldn't notice the horrible scratches and chipping that developed over time. Then, we'd use all of mom's foil to make a ball or just grab one of the plastic oranges or apples from the fancy bowl on the dining table. Tightly folded socks were good, too! Whatever we could get our hands on! I watched basketball on television. I can remember crying when my favorite team lost. I played basketball on video games. I played in middle and high school! Basketball was life! Today, I decided to bring my love of the game into the classroom.
We've been studying appositive phrases in language arts this week. My students are getting the hang of identifying them in text, and I couldn't be prouder. As a review for an upcoming test, we played what's normally referred to as Trashketball. I really wanted my students to get the feel of playing basketball, so one of my students volunteered to let me borrow her basketball hoop from home! Very sweet kid! Truth is, we didn't actually play...play. But, at least a hoop and basketball were involved. The game was basketball-themed! That's better. Before we started, I displayed the presentation via Google Slides. We reviewed appositive phrases and discussed the rules of the game. I passed out necessary materials, and we started!
My students had...a...blast! They worked together! They were engaged! And they were loud! Loud is good when fun is happening! I mean, who wouldn't enjoy such a cool way to study for a test? Today was a good day!
"The Hate U Give" by Angie Thomas. "20,000 Leagues Under the Sea" by Jules Verne. "The Hunger Games" by Suzanne Collins" These are a few of the works my Pre-AP students read for our latest novel project. Last month, I assigned a Book Float Project. Students were required to read a fiction novel, write a book report, design a book float, and present the finished product. The assignment was an independent one. Students chose a book of their choice. It had to be over 300 pages with a Lexile of 700 or above. The project was completed outside the classroom. On the due date, they submitted their floats and projects. We took 2-3 days to present. Some of the best ones are below for your viewing.
At the end of each year, our school hosts what's known as Showcase. It's when our very own students present the work that they completed throughout the school year. It occurs one evening after school, and parents come out to see what they're children accomplished. What makes it better is that this event is student-led. The kids are responsible for not only completing projects, but they're also responsible for explaining purpose behind the work. It's amazing to sit back and watch them skillfully articulate what they learned.
Unless you've been living under a rock, you're more than likely aware that Drake's "In My Feelings" track was and still is the most popular song of the year. The song debuted over the summer and became popular when a well-known comedian's choreography to the song went viral. This led to thousands of "In My Feelings" challenge videos. So...if you didn't know, now you know! I posted a video below for you latecomers:
One thing I love about teaching is that it "keeps me young." If it weren't for my middle schoolers, I'd probably still be living in the early 2000s. Because of them, I stay up to date on the latest music, technology, fashion, video games, and so much more. As a result, I have the luxury of connecting with them through my lessons. This year, I'm trying my best to make sure that students have fun while learning. There is no better way to accomplish this than to consider what they like during the lesson planning process. I can recall lesson planning in the past and designing lessons I personally felt were 'cool' or 'interesting,' but sometimes, an adult's "cool" or "interesting" doesn't exactly align with a kid's "cool" or "interesting" You get what I'm saying? This is when you step out of your grown-up shoes and into the shoes of a 12-year-old.
This year, I decided to allow students to review prepositions by writing a song to the tune of Drake's "In My Feelings." The requirements were to include the definition and examples of prepositions in their song. They worked in groups to complete the task. Materials included the planning sheet that you see below, writing utensils, and of course the instrumental. While students wrote their lyrics, I played the music through the classroom speakers. This lasted for a day and a half. After completion of the assignment, I gave students the opportunity to present. Many groups were incredibly shy. However, 1 group gave it a shot. They did a GREAT job! See the video below! I've also included finished songs from my students for your viewing.
Overall, I believe my students had fun! Some students were far away from their comfort zone, but that's a good thing! I think we'll never discover who we truly are and what we're capable of until we learn to try things that make us feel a bit uncomfortable. As Nelson Mandela once said, "It seems impossible until it's done."
Over the summer, students were required to read Lois Lowery's The Giver. When school started, they were told that they'd participate in a number of activities related to the book. They were mainly concerned about testing. I told them that they would be assessed but in a different and more fun way. They expected maybe an essay assignment or multiple-choice exam. However, what was in store for them challenged them in a way that a traditional "sit-down" test could not. They were given the opportunity to collaborate on some activities. Even more, they were engaged and enjoyed themselves!
One activity that students liked was the Silent Discussion. Unlike normal whole-group discussions, students were not allowed to talk. The class had to be completely quiet. I started by assigning each student a question. There were 8 questions altogether, so I numbered the papers and required students to copy the question that corresponded to the number on their sheet. The questions were projected on the board. After everyone successfully copied their question on their paper, I projected a 3 1/2 minute timer on the board. For that amount of time, students answered their own question. When time ran out, they were required to move to another student's seat to answer their question. This activity allowed them to not only demonstrate their understanding of the novel but to also be exposed to their peers' thoughts as well. After 7-8 rounds of responding and moving, students read their papers, circled two noteworthy answers, and shared with the class.
Another activity that students completed was the One-Pager. This was 3-day in-class group project. This project allowed students to respond to The Giver in a more condensed and creative way. The project was designed to center on the literary term theme. Students had to identify a theme from the book. They had to choose 2 quotes (and properly cite them) from the book to support their theme. In addition, they had to explain each quote. Furthermore, students had to identify a man versus society conflict from the novel and connect it to a similar conflict in real life. They had to also draw pictures that corresponded to their theme. Lastly, students had to write an open-response question related to theme and answer it. Each group used 1 white poster board, markers/map pencils, pencils, and of course the book. The day before the project actually started, all students completed a planning sheet. This sheet helped me assess students' individual knowledge of the book. The next day, they were assigned to groups and asked to discuss their ideas. Some students were surprised to learn that their ideas were similar. Students combined their ideas to complete the One-Pager. Take a look at the finished products below! Students did an excellent collaborating throughout this activity. It warmed my heart to witness students working together to achieve a goal! It's going to be a great year!
This past week, my students delved into the writing process in hopes of composing a quality essay about the importance of having a good friend. When I revealed the writing prompt, they immediately started to huff and puff and complain. "Ms. Merrick, why are the prompts always so cheesy? one boy asked. I replied, "Well, it's all about your ability to answer the prompt exceptionally well. It's about delivering original ideas that are well-thought out and deep." Not sure that he understood my response, but it's the best I could do.
Throughout this post, I'll be sharing my way of teaching the writing process. I've not mastered the skill of getting students to value each step, but I'm closer compared to last year and the year before that...and the couple of years before that. I can say that I've learned to love teaching the writing process. It's usually daunting each year when it's time to write, but this year I could not wait.
The difference between teaching the writing process this year and the years before is that I've loosened the reins tremendously! Hopefully, this will eliminate writing that's formulaic. Formulaic writing strips the creativity out of writing. It takes power away from students, and they're left with the burden of trying to satisfy the teacher as opposed to writing a paper that reflects their individual beliefs. I don't want my voice to be heard as I read their essays; I want to hear their voices. I want them to leave traces of their personalities in their writing.
To begin, we started with a whole-group discussion. I posed the question: Why do we write? I allowed students to respond out loud. In each class period, it was determined that the ultimate reason for writing is communication. Next, I used Google Slides to present a lesson on the writing process, and students took notes in their notebooks. The lesson covered the meaning of each step as well as the purpose of each step. In the past, I've always taught the writing process as students wrote, but this year, I did it separately. Writing process first...essay second, not simultaneously.
The following day, we started planning. Students chose a graphic organizer or web and sketched it on their paper. In retrospect, I always controlled their planning. After a while, I discovered that my way just didn't work for every child. Allowing them to choose their own way of planning is one example of me loosening the reins. I'm glad that I did it, too. Next, I instructed them to brainstorm a hook and controlling idea (thesis) for their introduction. This took an entire class period. The next day, they brainstormed ideas for their body paragraphs and wrote the conclusion. I teach my students that the conclusion is very similar to the introduction, but it's a lot stronger. The conclusion seals the deal for the reader. To write their conclusion, I taught them to read their introduction again. Then, restate those same ideas in a way that will move the reader. Some students struggled, so of course I did some modeling!
After planning, students flipped their paper over and started their rough drafts (sloppy copies). This took two class period. I stressed that they refer to their planning sheets to guide them as they write. Strangely, students will plan then completely forget about it. They'll slip their hands up and say, "Ms. Merrick, I don't know what to write about." I'll slowly flip their paper over to their planning and point. "Ohhh!" is the response that usually follows. Drafting days are mostly laid back and quiet (in some classes). For classes that are less docile, it's a good idea to set a timer and display it on the board. It's also a good idea to have students seated in areas where they'll focus better on their writing.
REVISING AND EDITING
Students revised one day and edited the next. We used blue colored pencils to make improvements. Last semester, they learned about ARMS (Add, Remove, Move, and Substitute). This helps in guiding them through the revision process. In addition to ARMS, I provided students with a checklist to help them with their sentence structure. The checklist included a list of the different ways they've learned to write sentences this year. I explained that I wanted to see an assortment of sentences in their essays. The list helped. I required them to identify the sentences and label them. In the end, they could see whether or not they succeeded in varying their sentence structure. This activity was difficult for some students because some of them haven't completely mastered sentences (simple, compound, and complex). Thus, searching for them in their own writing frustrated them because they weren't quite aware of what to look for and what to label. For these students, I simply guided them through the first half of their writing. Then, I assigned them the second half, so they could practice independently.
In one class period, I had enough time for an exit ticket. I wanted them to write about whether or not they varied their sentence structure in their writing. Over half said that they had not while the remaining students wrote that the did include different types of sentences. It was enlightening for both my students and myself.
Editing went well! Students used red colored pencils to get the job done. Not only did they learn about ARMS for revising, but they learned about CUPS (Capitalization, Usage, Punctuation, and Spelling) for editing. For each class, they edited their own essay for 10 minutes. Then, they switched with a partner and edited their essay for 10 minutes. After peer editing, I instructed them to leave feedback (1 like, 1 dislike, and 1 suggestion). After leaving feedback, they conferenced with each other about their essays. It was a wonderful experience watching them; they all did a great job and took it seriously.
We spent a whole class period writing final drafts. The goal was to use teacher and student feedback to revise final drafts. Students were given two sticky notes to leave feedback. I set my timer for 25 minutes so that we could have enough time to accomplish this goal. While they wrote, I stressed that their final drafts should not be identical to their rough drafts. If new ideas came to mind, it was perfectly okay for them to apply these changes if they felt that the ideas would strengthen their paper. When they finished, I instructed them to read over their essay before submitting it. Many times in class, I've asked, "You don't send a text unless you read over it right? You don't post a status on Facebook unless you read over it right? You don't leave the house in the morning unless you check out your hair and outfit in the mirror right?" Those principles apply when writing essays as well. Don't submit it until you look over it first. For the first two questions, I got blank stares. They responded more to the last one because we all know how arrogant middle school kids can be!
When the timer went off, I explained to everyone that they'd be reading 2 other final drafts. After reading each essay, they were required to leave feedback (e.g. "Great essay!" or "Fun and interesting hook!" or "Check spelling in the 2nd paragraph!"). This worked best with my last group of students because I'd worked out all the kinks from the first 3 classes. Initially, I allowed the kids to read 2 essays and leave feedback within a certain amount of time. This didn't work at all. In 6th period, I gave them 10 seconds to find an essay and sit down. Then, I set a timer for 5 minutes for them to read the paper and leave feedback. When time was up, they had 10 seconds to find the second essay and to sit down. I set my timer for 5 minutes to read and leave feedback. Students weren't allowed to read essays in which feedback was left on both sticky notes. They had to find an essay with a blank sticky note. By the time we finished, we had close to 5 minutes left, so students were able to read their feedback quickly and apply last minute changes. This activity was engaging, effective, and fun! Check out the photos below!
All in all, my hope is that my students realize that there's a process to everything including writing. It's not about the end result but the journey. I can't say that each student submitted perfectly written essays, but I can say that a majority handed in papers that they worked hard on. I witnessed it first hand.
We've been studying informational text in my English class. Each year, students struggle with this type of nonfiction. They struggle for two reasons: poor comprehension skills and a lack of interest in the genre. Informational text is challenging and boring, which isn't a good combination at all for struggling, inattentive readers! Diving into reading passages with multiple-choice questions isn't going to help. What I've discovered is that students know what informational text is. They know the purpose of it as well. But how in the world do we as educators get them to read and understand it?
After introducing the genre, we focused a lot on the text features and organizational patterns of informational text. Once students understood the parts and different structures, I figured that they were ready to start reading! Instead of full length passages, we started with short ones. Last week, they created an overview (visual summary) of a passage they were assigned. These topics varied. Some of them read about bicycles, while others read about the history of french fries. Other topics included tsunamis, bears, and the Olympics. They read the passages and identified the organizational patterns. I even had them choose a text feature they felt was relevant and add it to the overview. In addition, students were instructed to write an interesting detail they learned from the text. They presented these overviews to the class by themselves. It went well, and the students enjoyed sharing their thought processes with the class.
Overviews with a Group
Group overviews are very similar to the individual ones. Kids just work in a group! You assign each group a short passage, a poster board, colored pencils/markers, and whatever else you think they need to be successful. My requirements were for them to read the passage, identify the organizational pattern making sure to underline the key words, summarize the passage using the correct organizer (Venn diagram, web, etc.), and include an interesting detail. I give each group 20 minutes, and they work until I call time! Each group takes turns presenting. The audiences watches as each group presents their overview of the passage they were assigned.
These activities help increase kids' enjoyment of reading. It also helps them focus on the text instead of worrying about multiple-choice questions and grades. I love informational text because it teaches you. I express this to my students constantly! The more nonfiction you read, the more you learn. It packs our brains with knowledge!
After several days of exploring short informational passages and how they're structured, then it's safe to pull out lengthier texts and questions. Students should be ready to read and analyze the text. They'll fill comfortable making attempts to interpret the meaning of the text features. It may take a little longer for them to determine the organizational pattern, but that's alright. I've always believed that learning happens in the struggle! Provide them with the scaffolding they need and keep moving forward. Teaching informational text does have to be difficult!
Almost every middle school child will cringe at the thought of poetry. They hate it! Each year, I ask the question: Who's a fan of poetry? And every year at least 2-3 hands slowly float into the air. As a teacher, it's extremely challenging to get them to like this particular genre. The truth is kids despise poetry mainly because they don't appreciate or understand it. "It's too hard," they say. In their minds, poetry is obsolete.
To better understand poetry, students were introduced to the SIFT (Symbol, Imagery, Figurative Language, Theme & Tone) Method. It's a technique used to analyze literature. To get my students to understand the word 'analyze,' I tell them to picture puzzle pieces scattered on a table. I explain that each individual piece has to be examined closely before the whole puzzle is assembled. The 'S' is a puzzle piece as well the the 'I,' 'F,' and 'T.' Once those pieces are understood, the puzzle (poem) can finally be put together. When that happens, the big idea is revealed. To understand poetry or any other type of writing, it's necessary to break it into parts first before attempting to grasp what it all means at once.
To teach poetry this year, I used the poem "International News" by an anonymous poet. It's a poem about the true story of 33 Chilean miners who were trapped 2,000 feet (200 stories) beneath the earth after the mine they were working in collapsed. They were stuck for 69 days before a miraculous rescue that stunned the world. Before reading the poem, I showed my students the movie trailer ("The 33") to get them interesting. Some students had heard of this occurrence while others hadn't. The goal was to make sure that they had some knowledge about what happened before studying the poem. The trailer helped set the mood. It enabled students to feel sympathetic. As a result, they were ready to read!
We read the poem twice. The students read it silently first. Then, I asked a student to read the poem out loud. In each class, I chose Hispanic students because 2 lines of the poem were written in Spanish, so it was important to me that other students whose first language wasn't Spanish to hear exactly how the words were supposed to be pronounced. This made a huge difference! After reading, we started to sift the poem as a class. The process can be tedious but for good reasons. I like to take it slow because I want students to really understand all parts. We discuss the elements of the poem while spilling our thoughts onto the paper with pencils and highlighters. Apart from the SIFT Method, we look closely at mood, tone, and graphical elements. It took two class sessions to fully analyze the poem correctly and thoroughly. After studying the poem, students were given multiple-choice questions to demonstrate their comprehension of the text.
After analyzing "International News" together, students were required to sift another poem on their own. I placed them in groups of 3, and they read and analyzed "In Time of Silver Rain" by Langston Hughes. Before starting, I shared with them some things about Hughes. I displayed his picture on the board and talked about his life and important historical events that occurred during his lifetime. I felt that it was important for them to know a little about the poet so that they could make connections as they analyzed the poem. They learned that his parents divorced when he was young and that he started writing poetry in middle school. Furthermore, they learned that he also wrote short stories, plays, and novels. Overall, they learned that he was an ordinary person with an extraordinary gift. Just knowing a little about Hughes allowed them to read with a purpose and sense of gratitude.
After reading exit tickets about the purpose of the SIFT Method, it's evident that a good amount of students grasped the whole concept of sifting a poem in order to understand it better. There is no guarantee that their love has grown for this underrated genre, but at least they have a new skill to add to their toolbox. In the end, we have to teach our students that even if they aren't interested or fond of a certain type of writing, it can still be read and understood. There are many genres that I dislike, but my students will never know because of the energy and enthusiasm that I display in my classroom. I can't control what they like or teach them to love poetry or any other genre, but I can show them or model what it's like to have an inquisitive mind.