30
Sep

#lowtech #notech One-Pagers Make Fun Assessments

There is nothing I enjoy more than learning from other teachers. Teachers by nature are most giving of all people, and love to pass along their best tried and true lessons to others.

While in search of new, creative ways to engage students of all ages in Language Arts, I stumbled upon a wonderful Facebook Group called “2ndaryELA”. The group is made up of Middle School and High School English Language Arts teachers who generously share their experiences (positive and negative)  and lessons with others.  This is where I first learned about an activity called a “One Pager”.  The appeal to me is it gives those students who are visual and creative a way to show what they know. Being a visual person myself, I jumped all over this activity.  I also love that it is low-tech/no-tech!  Sometimes our best ideas don’t require technology, but paper and colored pencils.

An advantage to this activity is it can be applicable across just about any discipline.  Math or science concepts, periods of history, drama, music - no matter what you want to assess, you can use this to do it.

The idea is to use one sheet of paper (we used 8.5x11) to relay a concept (or two or three) using illustrations, color, artistic fonts, or other media.  The first time I introduced it was in a fifth grade classroom where they’ve  just completed the novel “Rules” by Cynthia Lord.  I visit the class twice a week on rotation to introduce writing workshop and literacy instruction.

My rubric for this assignment was simple: the One-Pager must include 2 questions and answers, at least one full-sentence theme statement, one song title related to the theme of the story and an explanation of why it was chosen, 2 important quotes from the book explained,  at least one relevant illustration, and the title and author of the book. I also added that the whole paper should be utilized. The student either met, or didn’t meet each requirement. 

The steps I took:

I did a quick slide presentation to review the idea of themes and quotes, then talked a little bit  about what “relevant illustrations” meant.

Then, a few quick brainstorming ideas were recorded on the board to get them thinking about how they might present their work.

My sample "Rules" One-Pager

I also did my own One-Pager to show them what I was looking for. I showed them how each element was represented in the rubric. I told them again how each will look different because we all connect differently to the book. I reminded them that we don’t have to be artists to create One-Pagers.

Then, we were off and running.

The results were incredible. The teachers loved the idea as well, and went on to incorporate them in other subject areas. I’m adding some of our creations below, but just google “One Pagers”, and check out Pinterest for other applications for them. Here are some "Rules" and "Frindle" One-Pagers:

    

 

I recently presented the idea of "One-Pagers" at an Edcamp which was geared toward incorporating technology and tech-based assessments into the classroom. I strongly believe that #notech/#lowtech teaching can be just as effective and engaging as tech-based teaching, and this activity is a perfect example. Sometimes a piece of paper, some colored pencils or markers and a student's imagination is all you need to show that learning happens.  Besides, you can't hang a computer in the school's hallways. 🙂

24
Jul

The Importance of Joining a PLN (Personal Learning Network)

I'd have to say that one of the greatest things I've done for myself as both a teacher, and a writer, has been joining a Personal Learning Network (PLN).  Being able to converse regularly with like-minded professionals has really inspired me to become a better writer, teacher, and learner.

I've found my Teacher PLNs on Twitter.  Yes, folks, it's not just for chasing the Kardashians. There are actually well-educated and very dedicated teachers on Twitter every day sharing ideas, teaching philosophies, lesson plans, insight, and not to mention opportunities for jobs!  I've learned more from my "tweachers" than attending any other professional development through my own district.  One of the things I most love is that ideas are exchanged in 140 characters or less, and the pace is very dynamic. Unlike traditional learning where one person talks and others just try to absorb, Twitter allows for a pure learning experience where ideas are exchanged rapidly and succinctly, and this dynamic allows for much more information to flow in a more natural way. It's like having a conversation at a cocktail party!

One of my PLNs meet at 5:30am each weekday (#bfc530).  I attend with a cup of coffee, and wearing my pajamas. A question is thrown out to all, and we have 15 minutes to discuss it before everyone needs to move on to begin their work day.  It's a great way to engage, get your head into "school mode", and feel energized to give students your best.

On the weekends, #satchat at 7:30am on Saturdays, and #sunchat at 9:00am on Sundays, keeps the topics flowing.  These half-hour chats give a bit more time to explore different topics and engage with teachers more in-depth.  The teachers on the chats live and teach all over the globe, and exchanging ideas and philosophies with them is so inspiring. I feel as close to them as I do the teachers I see daily in my own faculty room!

On Twitter, you can find chats for all disciplines, from Language Arts and Writing to Classroom Management and Field Trips. Hashtags make it easy to find the chats, and following these wonderful educators ensures that your stream of tweets will be filled with wonderful ideas and inspiration 24/7.

One of the teachers I've been conversing with is a Canadian transplant who opened a school in the Dominican Republic over 25 years ago, Carla Meyrink.  She wanted her own children to have more than the DR public school system would offer, so she decided to do it herself. Her school has grown into a wonderful community of caring teachers who bring hope and love to the students who attend. On a recent trip there, I was able to meet her in person, and it felt as if I'd known her for years. Her school is a true success story, and gives the students of the DR so much love, support and opportunity!  If you want to truly be inspired, follow her (@carlameyrink).  Her blog is filled with great information and insight. Truly a wonderful educator and role model.

I've also found a great group of Language Arts teachers on Facebook (Yes, Facebook is more than just seeing what restaurant your neighbor is eating at tonight).  There is a wonderful group to follow called "2ndaryELA" which is over 8000 members strong, sharing everything from book recommendations to writing activities and classroom ideas.  This world-wide group discusses all types of topics, and if you need anything, they're willing and able to help you find it.

As a writer, I've found just as much support. Both Twitter and Facebook are filled with author, editor and illustrator groups willing to lend support to any project. Stuck on a word, a scene, a character?  Just put the word out and they are there to make suggestions, point to resources, or help with a rewrite.

It's been said we've lost the art of face to face communication due to the digital age. I don't see it that way, though. I see it as an opportunity to expand our communication with those we would never have the chance to meet, or exchange ideas with. We lived in a bubble in the past, but now, we have access to so many more people with great ideas, so many new resources, so many more opportunities due to this digital age.

The best part, though, is when the curtain is lifted and you meet these folks face to face at conferences, or chance meetings. There is nothing like shaking the hand or giving a hug to someone you've conversed with for years. Looking into their eyes and seeing how alike you are and realizing that had it not been for joining that PLN, you never would have known this amazing person?  Cool, huh?

Here are just a few of the best teachers and writers I've ever met, thanks to my PLN!:

 

 

 

 

 

12
Apr

Why Read?

     If you haven't yet heard my speech on the importance of reading, it's time. I am a BIG proponent of making sure students are reading to improve their skills and comprehensionincrease their vocabularymake life connections, and enjoy the pleasures of getting lost in an adventure or traveling to another place or time without ever leaving their seat!  Reading is a skill that will benefit us in any job market and any profession.  And, reading makes us better writers! You wouldn't try to play a sport without watching it a few times to see what the game looks like, right? Well, when we read, we are training our brain to see what good writing looks like.  And, reading for pleasure is a hobby we'll enjoy for the rest of our lives.
     Reading also builds a student's "background knowledge", or schema. This is important so that students can connect concepts to experiences, words and events that are already part of their "mental filing cabinet".  A large part of reading comprehension is due to a student being able to relate to, or understand a concept by digging into that filing cabinet. Students with limited background information to draw on may struggle with making the connections needed to fully comprehend a passage they've read. The quickest way to build that background knowledge is not by experiencing it, but by reading about it.
     What many people may not realize is that reading fiction (novels, children's books, classic literature) teaches empathy. According to Keith Oatley, Cognitive Psychologist at the University of Toronto, engaging with stories about people "can improve empathy." He says when we read about other people, we begin to "imagine ourselves in their position (what the kids in school call "making connections"), which enables us to better understand people." How does this happen? "It is because readers are experiencing a lot of situations in a short amount of time as they read, far more than if we spent our lives waiting for those situations to come to us." So, bottom line is that reading is good for more than just academics.
     According to the Global Language Monitor, the English language has over one million wordsBut a typical adult will have a usable vocabulary of only 10,000 to 20,000 words. That leaves a lot of words in our language that aren't being used.   Exposing young children to new words helps them to not only learn the word, but to see the word in action, specifically how the word is used. That's a great thing, especially as our students will be exposed to "higher level" words through standardized testing.
     Remember that reading and reading comprehension spans all subjects - even math!  Imagine struggling to read through a math word problem and not understanding what math calculations need to be done to solve it.  Many students struggle with the literacy of math, understanding the meaning of the vocabulary associated with it. These domain-specific words should continue to be used daily so that they become a part of the student's vernacular.
An easy way to look at vocabulary taught in school is to bucket it into the groupings outlined in the Common Core curriculum:
  • Tier 1 words are basic words that commonly appear in spoken language. These would be common words in our vocabulary. Students are already familiar with these words. For example, "house", "they", and "equal".
  • Tier 2 words are high frequency words used by mature language users across several content areas. These would be words such as "establish" , "obtain",and "verify". As you can tell, these words would be extemely useful for students to be able to use and understand, as they woud be used in many different subject areas ("cross-curricular").
  • Tier 3 words are low-frequency words that are domain-specific.These would be words associated with a particular content area, such as medical terms, music terms, or words associated with a particular occupation.  For example, "mitosis" in science, "civil" in social studies, "personification" in language arts.
 
     In the classroom, the focus on vocabulary in the middle grades and middle school will be on the Tier 2 and Tier 3 words, to help the students expand their understanding of these higher-level words. One way is through repetition. Using the word when speaking will help the student begin to associate the word with it's domain and usage. At home, a way to help students is to review these Tier 2 and Tier 3 words and use them in discussions.  Using the words in conversation will help students understand both meaning and usage. An easy way to see the words in action is by reading different types of material. Both fiction and non-fiction will expose the students to many Tier 2 and Tier 3 words.
 I truly believe that reading is the answer to succeeding in school and in life!
27
Mar

Motivation Cards

Whenever I come across a new way to motivate students, I hold onto it like a lost treasure. I haven't yet found the silver bullet of motivation that works for all students, but I've found something discreet that works for me across multiple age groups.

One day, I wrote a note on a 7th grade student's paper commending him for being such an active participant in a previous day's discussion. The note was so well-received by this student ("I'm going to put this on the refrigerator tonight so my Dad will see it!") that it got me thinking about I should really be giving more positive reinforcement to students for all those wonderful things they do throughout the day, and make sure that the message gets home to parents as well.  Having lived through the teenage years of dinner-time-talking (grunts, groans, eye-rolling and a lot of "I don't know"s), I wanted to come up with a way for information to flow home once in a while. Parents love hearing those message from teachers, but middle school students aren't very good at delivering them.

I decided to get business cards made up with a simple message that I could attach to a paper, or toss on a student's desk during the course of the class without much fuss.  While there are many places to have business cards made, I found great deals through an online company called Vistaprint.  I had 500 cards made for under $10. Here is what they looked like:

The 7th and 8th graders enjoyed getting them tossed onto their desk during our class discussions. It made me want to expand my idea to other areas. I began commending them for taking out a book and reading, for keeping their journals up to date, and even for kind acts that I caught them doing.  When I took on a new role that brought me into classrooms of younger students as well for writing lessons, I tried them out. They were a hit there, too.

    

Now I have all types of cards that I carry with me, to use no matter what the occasion.  When I walk into a second grade classroom, I'll see the kids taking their pleasure reading books out in hopes I'll give them a card for being caught reading.  They seem to collect them now, and I'm fine with that. I'll continue to get different cards made up, and I'll continue to hand them out for as long as they work....

Let me know if you have a great motivational tip. I'd love to hear about it!

 

 

24
Mar

Happy Birthday, Dr. Seuss!

I had an opportunity to spend time celebrating Dr. Seuss Day with a class of second graders.  It's amazing how timeless Dr. Seuss books are - and how timely. We read The Lorax, which brings a strong message to light regarding how we all need to take care of our natural resources. The students are always entertained by his rhymes and whimsical drawings, but Dr. Seuss really hit a note with this particular group of second graders. They were not happy at all that the Onceler was cutting down all of the Truffula trees!  But most notably was the sadness expressed for the animals who would suffer because of it.  Empathy. For animals. Wow.

I had to pause when I realized it. They wrote letters to the Onceler stating why he should stop cutting the trees down. Over and over the sentences mentioned how the animals would be affected because  the trees provided food and shelter for them.  It was wonderful to see how the students connected to the characters and understood the importance of taking care of were we live, not just for us humans, but for the animals. A great message by Dr. Seuss!

After reading and writing, we took the time to crate a Lorax to accompany our writing.  A quick, easy project that nicely complemented our Dr. Seuss celebration.

        

 

9
Mar

Launching Our First Literacy Fair

Over the summer break, our district toyed with the idea of holding a Literacy Fair during the school year. Much like a Science Fair, the event would consist of each classroom (Grades Kindergarten through 8th) showing off their writing process and samples of their work.  Seemed pretty straightforward. Now we just had to break the news to the teachers that yet one more thing had been added to their plates. (Just what teachers want to hear when they come back to school on Day 1!)

The first thing we did was pull together a small core team of organizers. I was one, along with our Technology teacher, and our Spanish teacher. After some quick Google and Pinterest searches, we seemed confident that we'd be able to share some ideas with the teachers at all grade levels to help them understand what was being asked of them. (I have to say, I'm not sure how teachers survived in the years before Pinterest!) We began a Pinterest page of our own, asking teachers to share any ideas they came across to help each other out.

We did stress to the teachers that the display could easily focus on the great work that we knew would be happening in everyone's classroom, and didn't require the classrooms to do anything additional just for this event.  But, knowing how teachers are perfectionists who LOVE to show off their student's work, we expected that everyone would throw their heart and soul into it. And they did not disappoint.

We acquired funding to purchase enough tri-fold boards for each classroom to have at least one display. The boards were given to the classrooms about a month prior to the event.  We also began reaching out to educational corporations such as GoNoodle, National Geographic and Makey Makey to request donations to be used in some free raffles for those who attended the evening event.  Newsela, that great online resource of non-fiction and current event articles that one can gear towards different leveled readers, graciously donated a one-year subscription to their service which we raffled to our teaching staff.  That was a very welcomed gift.

I'd have to say that the teachers and classes really stepped up to the challenge of the displays. Because literacy plays a role in all subjects, it was wonderful to see that the Middle School Math, Social Studies and Science classrooms also had displays highlighting key domain-specific terminology.  There was a Spanish class display, and the Technology classes showed off their blogs and other technology driven literacy projects. Having chromebooks displaying the tech projects made that table display very interactive for parents and guests.

One other display that turned out to be very popular was the projection of GoNoodle onto a wall at the back of the gym. We set aside an area free of tables in hopes of showing the parents how the kids get a chance to clear their minds and transition using quick GoNoodle activities.  Amanda was able to keep many of the kids entertained, much to their parent's amusement, by playing the short stretching videos and silly songs that the kids enjoy during their school day. The best part of this display was watching the kindergarten kids up through 8th graders all doing the dances together.

The "Project Academically Talented" kids volunteered to do a "wax museum" display. You may have heard of this: kids dress up like their favorite characters and stand like wax figures. A small bell is placed on the floor in front of each display. When someone rings the bell, the characters go through a quick 10-15 second skit or speech about themselves, then freeze again. It's interactive, and the little kids get a kick out of seeing the older ones "acting".

We invited our local county library to host a table to promote their wonderful events and sign families up for library cards. They also brought along their mascot, Sparks, to pose for photos with the children in attendance.  A former student-author, who self-published two books on the history of the town, was also given a table to display and sign his books. Connecting back to the community is important, and we will be sure to always make sure we bring in community diplays in the future.

Our local teacher's union donated cookies which were a big hit (refreshments are welcome at any event!) with both the kids and the parents. We handed out bookmarks that featured a picture of our school mascot as well.

To help spread the word about our event, I printed small labels with the time, date, and "Come see our work on display" colorfully written on them.  The younger teachers put them in the student's homework planners the day before the event to remind parents to attend.

Well, I have to say that we never expected to see a line of families waiting at the door for us to open that night. For the weeks prior, we struggled with predictions of how many families we might see at the event. We were thrilled that night to see our expectations exceeded threefold!

I know that this will be an event that we'll repeat next year, and we'll find ways to grow it.  Enjoy some pictures of our displays from our school's first Literacy Fair!

5
Mar

Working with Young Writers

One of the things I look forward to each year is my after-school Writing Club.  For 10 weeks, middle school students (aged 12-14) sign up to spend an hour after school with me just...writing.  Luckily, my district recognized that not all students are involved in sports so they agreed to allow me to host a club that focused on creativity and writing skills. It's not STEM, it's not homework, it's not chess.  It is just a keyboard, an idea, and a bag of pretzels.  We talk while we write. We talk about ideas, about characters, about showing and not telling, about really cool names for antagonists and protagonists, about plots and conflict and appropriate topics and inappropriate ones.  And we write. We laugh, too, and build relationships and trust.  We need to trust each other since we rely on one another to offer true constructive feedback on our writing pieces.

This is the fourth year we've had our Writing Club.  I'm hoping to expand it next year to include a second session for younger students who have reached out asking to participate. In that group, I'd focus more on writing skills as we write, as opposed to content.

I'd love to hear your thoughts on working with young writers. Feel free to comment!

19
Feb

Novel Study: My Experience with THE GIVER

Every year I revisit the novels I want to read with the 7th and 8th grade classes I teach. There are so many new novels out there that middle school students can relate to that cover topics that they are dealing with right now in their lives: bullying, relationships, family dysfunction (or their perception of it). All of these are legitimate in their lives, and allow for great text-to-self connections. But somehow I always gravitate back to THE GIVER by Lois Lowry.  Decades old now, but still a winner with the students once they realize how wonderful it is.

I admit, it's sometimes a hard sell as they make their way through the first few chapters. They don't get the idea of a community with so many rules and expectations. I point out to them, jokingly, that they think they have it bad in school with the rules we enforce, but the students can't seem to get past the idea that Jonas stays there. "Why doesn't he just leave?" "Why don't the people fight for more rights and choices?"  Because they can't. They don't know any better. And that in itself is a great lesson.

THE GIVER is a great kickoff to so many discussions about human rights, and current events. Why don't victims of domestic abuse flee? Why don't people move out of Communist countries? Why do women not leave Saudi Arabia and marry whom they choose? Why? Why?  Wow, once they get going, I wish I had more than 40 minutes a day with them to spend on the questions and comments they have about the world we live in.

By the time they get to the point in the book when Father decides that the smaller of the two identical twins is "no longer needed" in the community, they are so involved in the story that they complain when class is over and they need to move on. As a teacher of Language Arts, I live for those moments, and they are often few and far between. But every year when the next class reads THE GIVER, I am almost assured that I'll hear the same comments again from a different group of students.

We read the book as a class, and we jot down notes in our journals after each chapter. Capturing the nuances of what the characters are feeling and experiencing is key later when we write about our connections and understanding of what this community goes through. And then, we get to the ending. Or what the students refer to as the "lack of ending."

"What? That's it? Did he die? Did he find Elsewhere? Is Elsewhere Heaven? Is Gabriel dead?"  The questions come hard and fast, and I wish I could capture their faces as they look up from the page in disbelief that there are no hard and fast answers. It's up to interpretation, and they feel as it they've been duped. But we work on it, together, to establish different scenarios and possibilities to what might have happened. Another life lesson: experiences are not always cut and dried.

I applaud Lois Lowry for writing a book for Young Adults that covers topics such as Euthanasia, Corporal Punishment, Human Rights, Diversity, and everything else that appears in those pages. The book allows me to pull out some current news articles on the same topics, and the students get to have a taste of how close fiction can mimic real life. One of the themes that resonate with my students is "sacrificing for the greater good". I laugh when a student points out a school rule and explains it by saying "we sacrificed for the greater good." I hope they remember that when they become parents.
I think it's a good motto for today's kids to have. Something that we as adults should be teaching to our kids more often. And, at a younger age.

22
Oct

November Writing Challenge - K-8 (modified NaNoWriMo challenge)

If you haven't heard of it, November is National Novel Writing Month, or NaNoWriMo. It's a time for buckling down, setting some word count writing goals, and spitting out an entire novel in one month's time. While I admire anyone who can actually do this (and it would require almost 2000 words a day!) while holding down a full-time job, I think the idea behind it is too good to waste on just, you know, authors.  So, I've adapted the idea to implement a NaNoWriMo type of event in my school.

Since I'm wearing the hat of "writing coach" now, I feel it's my duty (much to the groans of my already over-worked and overwhelmed colleagues) to introduce great writing opportunities for them to use in their classrooms. The school is a Kindergarten through 8th grade school, but with some adjustments, we've now got ourselves a November Writing Challenge.

The Kinders are working on their letters, so their goal per day is to work on certain letters. They'll track their progress on a chart that they'll display in the hallway. If they can practice 2 letters a day, for example,  we can probably have them writing their names legibly on papers by the time the holidays roll around!

First and second graders are working on sentence structure. They have goals to write (x) number of sentences per day. They'll keep track of what they write as a class (See? Throwing some math in there as well!) and will keep track of their number of sentences each day to see how many they write by the end of the month.

Middle grades, 3-5, are working on stories. They'll be tracking word count, and will try to reach personal goals. Since the students in these grade levels have writing binders, they'll have individual trackers to keep a word count per day. They also use chromebooks which allow for easy access to word count totals. The chart is just a November calendar that they'll keep in their binder, and they will write their own daily numbers on it. Some of the more confident writers will commit to a word count per day, and others will just simply track what they do. Either way, they are writing, and that is what counts.

Our Middle School students, grades 6-8, will be writing stories and tracking word count. One of our Common Core Writing Standards is to "write routinely over extended time frames". Well, here is a perfect opportunity for that.  I'm most excited about the 7th and 8th graders - they will be attempting to end the month with a long story that may reach novella length!

Oh, and the teachers? They aren't passive observers in all of this. In the middle of our main hallway will be a chart to track their progress as they write each day as well. Hey, we walk the talk in our school.  Good sports, all of us, allowing everyone to watch as we color in the squares indicating that we have or haven't been reaching our individual goals each day. (As if we don't have enough pressure grading papers on time, right? *wink*)

Each of the classrooms will celebrate on November 30. And they should. If we can get our students excited about writing, and they improve through this challenge, then the effort put into this event will have been well worth it.

Pictures will be posted of how we tracked, and how we did. Stay tuned!

20
Oct

#rockthedrop: Promoting Teen Reading

I love getting my colleagues involved in helping to get kids to read more. So when the annual #rockthedrop campaign rolls around, I put the call out to all teachers in the building to help out. No matter the subject area, reading is a vital component of learning. All teachers know this, so when the call goes out, everyone jumps at the chance to participate.

What is #rockthedrop?  It's an annual organized event that promotes teen reading. You can read about it here:

Operation Teen Book Drop

The "drop", through the help of readergirlz.com, is linked to the #rockthedrop hashtag and can be followed on twitter and instagram. The idea behind it is to leave a young adult book somewhere a young reader would find it. Plastered with a post-it that says "Take me! Free book!", the hope is that a young person will find it, read it, and give it a good home.  A bookmark provided as a free download file on  readergirlz.com asks the new owner of the book to tweet or instagram where they found it.

I love getting the students and teachers involved in events like this. I'm probably just as excited planning the event as any young reader is when they find a free book!  An added bonus is when one of us is lucky enough to witness a book being claimed by an unsuspecting young person who happens to stumble onto their new treasure.  We were lucky this year to hear that two teachers who participated witnessed their books being picked up. Boy, that made them feel good!

It's rare in life that we come across such simple ways to make others happy. Being able to get a good book into the hands of a kid who may grow to love reading because of this simple act is a gift in itself.  Getting students to join in on the giving is an even greater gift.  Teen Lit Day is in April - and #rockthedrop is publicized by readergirlz.com.  Be sure to mark your calendars and look for upcoming dates for future drops. You won't regret it!

Here are some of our drops from this year:

rock-the-drop-elizabeth-1  rock-the-drop-cecelia    rock-the-drop-bethann  rock-the-drop-7-kaitlynrock-the-drop-1 rock-the-drop-3rock-the-drop-5 rock-the-drop-beth-allen   rock-the-drop-bethann rock-the-drop-dorothy-tucker rock-the-drop-gina rock-the-drop-hoerster rock-the-drop-madge

 

 

 

 

rock-the-drop-2  rockthedrop-prep

 

 

 

15
Oct

Writing with Senses - Descriptive Writing

One of the first things we try to drill into the heads of young writers is to "write using senses" - describe for the reader using sight, sound, smell, touch.  This is one of my favorite activities for demonstrating to students how they can do that, and all it takes is a trip to the home improvement store's paint aisle.

I usually do this with middle school classes, but this past week I tried it in a 5th grade classroom and the kids loved it.

paint-chips-1

Bright colors are great for younger writers.

 

 

First, head out to your local paint store and browse the paint chips.  Look for some visually stimulating colors. With the 5th graders I went bright, but with the older kids I was able to mix it up.  You'll want to grab the single color chips that have names that the kids will be able to visualize.  For example, I was able to grab a  bright green chip called Amazon Parrot, and a gorgeous yellow called Warm Sunrise, among others.  You'll find many great names - Pacific Surf, Tropical Paradise, Cowboy Hat, Desert Oasis, Wet Riverbed, etc.

As I mentioned, for the older kids, I stuck with more muted colors which were named a bit differently, with names like Midnight Fog, Sea Spray, Thunderstorm, Harbor View, Gentle Moss.

paint-chips-2

Middle School kids can be challenged with more difficult names.

 

 

 

For the activity, you'll need a graphic organizer such as the one I've shown below. You'll review with them the importance of "creating a scene" when writing, of being so graphic that the reader feels as if he is right there with you in that moment. Also, read a great passage or two from a book that they can relate to, pointing out how the author uses different senses to help the reader get pulled into a scene.

I drew an organizer on the board and then used the name from a paint chip (not revealing to them yet what they would soon be doing!) and asked them to help "visualize the scene using the name". After brainstorming a bit, I told them to now continue with a few words knowing that the name corresponded to a color - and I showed them my paint chip.  Harbor View - was the name and evoked great scenery of standing on a dock looking at sailboats. But the color was grey, so now we looked at it as a rainy, or foggy day, and that changed our descriptive words.

paint-chips-3

A sample brainstorming for "Harbor View"

 

 

I told them that writers can be inspired by anything - even paint chips - and that doing practice writing exercises will help authors  become better at their craft.  Then I distributed their own copy of the graphic organizer and followed that with one paint chip. They couldn't choose the chip.  It was dealt to them to give them a bit more of a challenge. They were told to write words and phrases inspired by both the color and name on the chip.

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Just a simple graphic organizer will guide them.

 

 

 

Following a fifteen minute brain dump into our graphic organizers, during which everyone participated enthusiastically, the next task was to write a one-to-two paragraph "scene" based on what the color and chip brought to mind.

For example, for the grey Harbor View chip, it came out something like this:

"The early morning fog settled heavy onto the water as I walked to the end of the dock. The stillness of the air seemed peaceful, and allowed the mist to envelope me, swallow me up. The faint sounds of gulls and voices of fisherman, their yellow raincoats barely seen, were about the only sounds I heard. Fog horns interrupted my thoughts, and I watched as small boats and fishing vessels moved carefully about. The grey skies reflected my somber mood. A chill went through me, but the smell of the salt air still made me feel wonderful, and I continued to watch as the harbor's day went on despite the weather."

The students glued their paint chip right onto their graphic organizer and stored it in their Writer's Workshop binder as a reminder to write using senses.  The paragraphs they wrote became part of their writing portfolio.

 

This was definitely an activity that they enjoyed, and hopefully will try to do with other writing props.

 

 

20
Sep

Middle Schoolers Love Mythology!

If there is one thing I can count on with each new class that I get every year, it's that they will love mythology.  No doubt that they know more than I do about it, as the characters are all around them in video games, movies and books. They are the experts, so my 8th grade Mythology Project was designed to  allow them to show off their knowledge by making a book about a famous character in mythology, which we share with our 5th grade classrooms.

We start off by doing some vocabulary, which helps those students who aren't as knowledgeable about the gods and goddesses as others.  We cover myth, god, mortal, Mt. Olympus, demi god, Titans, Olympians, and talk about Greece's relationship to the sea. We talk about the Olympic gods and show how many of our businesses today use references to mythology in their business names (Oracle, Hercules Moving Company, Nike, etc.).  We talk about how myths were used to help explain those things that were not easily explained at the time, such as the rough oceans, volcanoes, and even love. (They all know who Cupid is, but did you know that Cupid shot lead arrows if he wanted to keep people from falling in love?)

After all of this fun exploration into the world of Greek and Roman mythology, we then started our project. By now, all of the students had their favorite characters, but we needed to make sure that we covered a wide range of characters since the books would be shared with the 5th graders to teach them about mythology. To keep it fair, we put all of the names of the acceptable characters on the board, and then  wrote each student's name on a popsicle stick. We picked a stick at random, and that student then chose the character they wanted. It was the most fair way we could find to match characters to students.

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The project was done on board books. I bought them from a company called Bare Books (barebooks.com), and they have a wide range of blank page books to choose from. I use their products often in class, especially when I want students to capture a comic or graphic novel story onto paper. I also use them with younger grade level students when I'm wearing my Basic Skills or Writing Coach hat to get students excited about showing off their writing. I have a closet shelf loaded up will all different styles and sizes of blank books. (That will be another blog, I'm sure.)

The pages in the book need to follow a guideline to ensure that each book contains pertinent information about the character:

The cover must include a drawing of the character (all pages must be hand-drawn and hand-written!)

Pages 1/2 - an overview and drawing of Mt. Olympus and its significance to mythology

Pages 3/4  - a family tree for that particular character

Pages 5/6 - What are the character's strengths/powers/symbols? (written and illustrated)

Remaining pages - a story in which the character appears that will help the reader understand the character's role in mythology (retold in their own words, not copied!)

The back cover includes a short biography of the student author, along with a photo.

 

 

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While the students work on their books in class and out of class, we continue to explore the world of mythology. We usually watch any of the Percy Jackson movies by Rick Riorden as many of the characters will appear in them. We'll also look at Greek word roots to find similarities in words we use today.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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When the books are completed, the 5th grade teachers use them for a day or two discussion to introduce mythology. The best part is when the books are returned with book reviews written by the 5th graders for the 8th grade authors. We all enjoy reading their feedback to us after they've read our books.

 

 

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12
Jul

Using a Journal in Middle School Language Arts

I'm often asked to explain how I use an interactive journal in the Middle School Language Arts classroom. I'll attempt to give my best overview of how I use it with my students, and give some tips as to how to set up the journal. I have used them in class for the past 4 years, and will never do without one again. I absolutely love using it.

First of all, if I had to define what it is, I'd have to call it a mix between a notebook, interactive notebook, personal journal, reading response journal, scrapbook and mixed medium journal. It's the only notebook we use in class, and no two students will have the same. The journals are completely personalized by the student so that it works best for them.

It starts with a marble composition notebook, the kind you can get at the back to school sale. While smaller than a spiral notebook, it is more sturdy, and the pages are more secure. The only other supplies needed are simply a glue stick, colored pencils or colored Flair felt-tip pens, and a black ink pen. Optional supplies include photos, colored scrap paper, paper punches, washi tape (if you haven't yet discovered washi tape, you haven't yet lived!), and anything else you can think of to decorate the journal with.

The journal will be home to a student's in-class notes, reading responses, background information, writing pieces, opinion writing, and pre-writing organization, among other things.  Any type of full size paper handout can easily fit into the marble sized notebook by folding it in half, and gluing the back of one half onto a notebook page. The sheet will be securely stored, and easily read by unfolding the sheet. Another way, which I prefer, is to use a copier to shrink the 8.5x11 inch handout to 80% of its original size. This is easily done, and then just trim the excess to fit the size of the journal, which is about 9.5 x 7 inches. The page can then be glued into the notebook onto a sheet using the stick glue. (Some people prefer white liquid glue, but I find it's very messy, causes bumps, and students get too carried away with it, not understanding that a little goes a long way.)

Organization is key with the journal, which is one of the reasons I love to use it.  Everything can be easily found by utilizing a table of contents, or index.

So, first day - make sure every student has a marble composition book, including yourself. Have them take a few minutes either in class, or for homework, to number the bottom outside corner of each page. Begin with the first sheet when you open the book.  In class, this can usually be done in about 10-15 minutes.  If you want to speed things up, have them only number the odd number pages, which would be each sheet on the right side of the book. Either way, they'll be able to flip through to find what they are looking for.

On the top of pages 1 through 5, have the student write "Table of Contents" as a header.  You'll be using the margin on the page for the "page number" column, the middle of the line for a "description" of each item, and the far right of the page for a "date". In my photo, instead of the date, I listed whether the item was a 7th or 8th grade activity. I made sure to do each activity as a sample when it was assigned the first time to show the students how it could be done, however, it was a guideline only. Part of the beauty of the journal will be that each student will interpret the activity and it's overall usage differently. I'll touch more on this later.

The first assignment for the journal will begin on page 6 of the journal. After this, all of your students will always be working on different page numbers. What I mean by this is that if Johnny writes only one page in his first assignment and Sally writes two pages, they will both be doing their second assignments on different page numbers. DON'T PANIC! That is exactly the way it should be. You should record somewhere the assignment and date assigned to keep track for grading purposes, and not worry about what page they did it on. That's why they have a Table of Contents.

One of the best activities of the journal is the first activity. You can have them decorate the cover to reflect themselves using pictures from magazines, duct tape, markers, whatever, and assign a writing prompt as a "getting to know you" writing activity, such as "Where do you see yourself in 5 years?" or "What aspect of Language Arts do you find most challenging? What would you like to improve on this year?"  The prompt can be a way of getting to know them as a student and a person, and it serves an even more important purpose: it personalizes their journal from the start, and shows them that being self-reflective is an important part of writing in your classroom.

Once you have the Table of Contents and first writing assignment completed (and you've reminded them to record that first assignment in their Table of Contents along with page number (should be on page 6!), assignment title and date, then you are free to take it wherever you want it to go.  Here are some ideas:

For Novel Studies: Begin with an Introduction Page, which includes a photo of the book cover (I usually print a sheet of 16 photos of the covers and cut them out for the students), and research the book a bit. Setting, genre, published date, author... the page introduces the novel study and familiarizes the student with the genre. To explore the setting further, I have a set of student atlas books in the classroom, so we always include a map of the state/country where the story is set. For example, when my 7th graders read Voyage of the Frog by Gary Paulsen which was set off the coast of California and Mexico in the Pacific Ocean, we drew a map of that area of the country in order to better understand where the voyage took place, and throughout the story we drew lines to map the progress. Then, dig deeper, by having the students look up the background information on the author. I call this an Author Page. What types of work does this author generally write? How many books has he/she published? Usually by researching the author, students will better understand the author's writing style. For example, Gary Paulsen has been a nature lover his whole life - his bio reflects that. Reading about his hardships growing up, the student sees why Paulsen often writes books set around nature. Connecting the author to his writing helps the student comprehend the story a bit more. Next, tackle any vocabulary words that you'll be using that are specific to the book. For example, when reading the The Giver, defining words such as Utopian and Dystopian Society might be helpful. Don't forget about Dynamic Characters and Static Characters, Protagonist, Antagonist, etc...  Next, set aside a Quote Page for the students to use as they read. When they come across a quote that is important to the story, have them add it to the page, along with page number and who said it. They will refer to this later in their written assignments, for example.  Also, have them title a Character List on one page, where they can jot down characters from the story, identifying later if they are dynamic or static, major or minor, and what their relationship is to the protagonist.  All of this helps them in better understanding the story. Finally, a simple Plot Chart can be drawn in this section so students can jot down key events that take them to the conflict, climax and resolution of the story. Remember that some students will simply want to write down their notes - others may want to sketch note their pages with doodles or drawings, or color code their notes. Whatever works for them should be encouraged. The goal here is to let them explore ways that will help them to best retain the information based on their own learning styles.

Quickwrites are one page writing assignments that can be used in conjunction with a novel ("Should Jonas have left Gabriel behind when he ran away to find Elsewhere? Why or why not?") or just to get some opinion writing practice into class ("Should all toys be marketed to boys or girls or should they be gender-neutral? Should toy stores continue to have "pink" and "blue" aisles?). After assigning something like this, you can leave time in class for sharing, which some students usually love to do.

Creative Writing assignments are great in journals because the journal lends itself to being a perfect place to map out a story using a grid or a timeline, or to create character profiles by cutting out pictures from magazines and gluing them into the journal and then writing around the picture all of the traits of the character. Mr. Tall Dark and Handsome maybe has a secret life as a bank robber, but loves kittens and is married with 3 kids...

Steps to Structured Writing can be graphically represented in the journal. Samples of an opening paragraph for an essay and a thesis can be drawn out or highlighted in a writing passage and notes can be written in the outline to help with identifying key words, punctuation, structure. For each type of structured writing we do, I always draw out a diagram that students can refer to, whether for responding to a quote, writing a compare/contrast essay, an argument, etc.  Visual representation helps them to understand the structure before they even put any words on the paper.

Vocabulary Words can be tackled using foldables that allow students to study on their own. Taping index cards in their journal by only taping a small area at the top or side of the card allows the card to be flipped to reveal a definition or example.

Common Themes of stories can be included and examples can be given of stories or movies that have those themes so students can understand them. "Courage and Bravery" can easily relate to books (The Fault in our Stars) as well as Movies (Batman vs. Superman, Dawn of Justice").  Once they understand this, they can easily do the same to books they read in class.

How to grade journals? Well, I just check that the activity was completed. I told them up front that how they do it is up to them, but the information that should be included, needs to be included in order to get credit. And I grade them only once a month or so. They can use them on any of their writing assessments or tests. I want them to learn to take good, usable notes. Knowing they can use them on a test or writing assignment makes them take the time to be sure the information they include is useful to them.

These are just a few of the ways that journals can be used in class. We use them almost daily. I've included some photos below with some writing assignments we've done in class, and some that show how each student can make the journal their own through personalization and adding photos or poetry or whatever. The only rule is that everything has to be listed in the table of contents. I hope you try using the journal in your own classroom. If you do, let me know if you and your students enjoyed using them, and tell me about your favorite lesson or activity. If you want some other ideas, or have any questions, please feel free to contact me! I've included some other activities in other blog posts, so feel free to browse.

Click on any of the pictures below to enlarge.

 

covertable of contents   anne conflict schema

themes thankful reference quickpublic speaking

dialogue dialogue 2 holocaust giver jack

plot chart  quick 2

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

28
Jun

#COOLKIDSREAD - Making a READ poster

I love those "Read" posters of celebrities holding up or reading a book that you see plastered around bookstores and libraries. I decided to use some local celebrities, namely my 8th graders, to pose for a READ poster which we proudly hang at the entrance of our school library. Each year, I create a new poster.

Why? Well, why not? Younger students love seeing the older students they recognize as siblings or safety members in the photos. The older students look like "celebrities" to them, and turn out to be great role models when it comes to stressing the importance of reading to all students.

How do I do it? I just pose the students reading some books and come up with a catchy theme. This year, we chose #COOLKIDSREAD. I add text using a photo editing tool online, and enlarge the photo to 16x20. Once it arrives printed, I mount it onto a 16x20 mounting or poster board for strength, and hang it.  It's an inexpensive way to remind all students about the importance of reading. How cool is that?

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28
Jun

Metaphorically Speaking....

Ask any grade school student what a simile is, and they will tell you it's a comparison using "like" or "as". Somehow, they all memorize that definition, and can easily identify one.  Ask any grade school student what a metaphor is, and somehow, they get tongue-tied and confused. Metaphors are just more difficult for kids to understand. Both make comparisons, but the use of "like" or "as" make them more easily identifiable.

I tried to find an easy activity for my 7th grade Language Arts Lab classes of both general and special needs kids to do to tune them into the difference between the simile and metaphor. I came up with "Metaphorically Speaking".  I had them compare themselves to 4 non-human things by looking at the traits of that item. Then, they wrote out the statement for the comparison and illustrated it.

The results were funny. Some of the students came up with some great comparisons. One of my favorites was a very quiet young lady who compared herself to a taco, because she was "spicy".  The posters hanging in the hallway gave a chuckle to the teachers walking by, for sure.  Here are some of the posters from the classes:

metaphor 1 metaphor 2 metaphor 3 metaphor 4

I'd have to say that the students definitely understood the difference between a simile and metaphor once they did this activity. I asked a few of them to reword their statements to make similes of them, and they were able to do it. "I am as fast as Sonic." "I smell as nice as a flower."   The weekly Lab class was one of my favorite classes to teach because of activities that allowed the student's creativity to shine.