10
Feb

Language Arts Bingo: A Week of "Do Now" Writing

I wanted to find a way to keep my Middle School students writing often, but to do that, and to keep them from being overloaded with all of the large writing assignments and long-term writing we were doing in class, I tried to come up with some options for writing short-and-quick. I came up with "Two Paragraph Bingo".  The idea is to write just two paragraphs on a given prompt, and to complete a Bingo board by the end of the week.

Each prompt is open-ended, and provides the student the freedom to write with few constraints. They can write 2 paragraphs or more, but the purpose is to have them complete the writing in the time provided. I used a 10 minute time frame at the start of each class.  If a student is drawing a blank on one topic, they simply choose another. The idea is to keep using the same Bingo board until they complete a row.

I have a few different boards available waiting in the wings, and when they complete one, they take another. I've found, however, that the students who enjoy the timed writing will continue to use the same board even after completing a "Bingo".   I utilize marble notebooks in my classroom as our Language Arts Journals. They are used for notes, for quick writing assignments, for capturing research, for writing novel chapter summaries, and for creative assignments. We add photos, doodles, comics, and anything else that personalizes the journals and keeps them (and their classmates) revisiting each page. I also encourage them to add their own entries as well. The table of contents we've established at the front of the journal (the first 6 pages) allows me to find whatever I'm looking for when I grade them.

I've attached a sample of the Language Arts Bingo Board below. Feel free to try it out, and let me know if you've found it helpful.

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5
Feb

Middle School Non-Fiction Activity: The Lindbergh Baby Kidnapping

One of the most engaging activities I do in class with my Middle Schoolers when we tackle non-fiction is our quest to find the real killer of the Lindbergh baby. You may ask, "How can that be? Bruno Richard Hauptmann was tried, convicted and executed for that crime 80 years ago!" Well, yes, he was. But the case was so flawed, it doesn't take an FBI-trained officer to see that the wrong man may have been blamed.  Or, possibly, been guilty but didn't act alone.  In either case, the students get into the story and background and are determined to find out who the real killer(s) are...

I begin with a two page summary of the kidnapping. You can find them all over the internet. Once they understand what happened, and view the key pieces of evidence (the note, the location of the baby's body, the home-made ladder..) and throw in the fact that it was a rainy night, no one knew the Lindberghs were even at their vacation home that night, there was no way anyone went down that ladder holding a baby... well, before you know it, the students will be throwing conspiracy theories, other evidence, and motives at you like hot potatoes.  The internet has the drawings of the layout of the home, aerial views of the property, photos of the ladder propped against the house, and a list of mistresses of Lindbergh Sr. that all lend credibility to the idea that he might have been involved.

I give them 3 days to search the evidence, work in groups to go over theories, and watch videos. Then they write a 5 paragraph essay with an introduction, thesis statement (focusing on who they think really did it, and why) and their body of proof to support their claim. On the day their papers are due, I invite our school resource officer to sit in on the class. They each informally present their suspects and motive, and the officer quizzes them and tries to disprove their claim. (Officer: What about footprints? Wasn't it raining out?"  Student: "Yes! They found footprints - same size as Lindbergh's!" Officer: "They found the baby's body in the woods." Student: "No! They found A body, probably not THE body. There was an orphanage nearby, and it could have been a baby from there!")  I'm always amazed at the theories and motives the students throw out during the discussion. It's obvious that they did some research, and I've heard from parents that it was often the dinner conversation each night for that week.

I also throw in a quick lesson on domain-specific vocabulary. In this case, we go over a list of police terminology so that when they are presenting, they are using words such as motive, indictment, evidence, conspiracy, alleged, felony, etc.  They love learning the terms and using them. And, you'll be surprised at how many CSI TV program watchers you have in your class!

I love this research/writing lesson because it gets my students involved in local history - the Lindbergh's vacation home where the kidnapping occurred is not far from our school in New Jersey, and that helps the students relate to it .  It is also a great way to practice formal essay writing and thesis statements and all that goes along with that. Oh, throw in public speaking as well.

Some links to get you started:

FBI information on the kidnapping

The American Experience on PBS: Lindbergh Kidnapping

NJ State Police Lindbergh Kidnapping Evidence Photographs

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4
Feb

The "Key" to Creative Writing in Middle School

The key to creative writing in Middle School is...  keys, apparently.

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Using ornate keys is an easy way to get Middle School kids excited about writing.

Inspired by a pin I saw on a pinning site, I searched for some inexpensive, ornate keys to use with my 7th graders in a writing activity.  We've been spending so much time working on structured writing - essays, formal letters,  responses to questions - I wanted to give them a chance to stretch their imaginations a bit as we began a new marking period.

Each key was attached to a tag with a single sentence on it. For example,  "This key would hold the answer to the mystery." "He put the key in her hand, and then gasped a final breath." "Under the pile of old books and papers...was a single key."  The tags were face-down on a desk with the key sitting on top.  As they entered the room, they were told to file past the desk, take a key that interested them, and then take their seat. They were not allowed to look at the tag until they sat at their desk. At this point, they had no idea what the activity was, but they were very intrigued.

Once all of the keys were chosen, the assignment was revealed.  Using the key as a muse, they had to write a story that incorporated their tag sentence into it. The stories were done on Google Docs, allowing us to share and edit easily, and most importantly, track our word count. The story had to be at least 1000 words.  This part got some moans and groans at first. They were a bit intimidated by the word count. But I assured them, they'd reach it quite easily as long as they developed their story using our plot chart. Setting and character development, dialogue, rising action, conflict, resolution... all the pieces would easily get them to their goal.

The rules we had in place:

  • Proper heading on paper.
  • Times New Roman 12 or 14
  • Title of story, centered and underlined
  • Dialogue must be properly written - quotation marks, punctuated correctly, and matching the character. New paragraphs as each character speaks in a conversation. All the things we've gone over, looked at, written notes on.
  • Due date written in their planner so they wouldn't forget
  • Properly edited - highlighted to ensure correct capitalization, peer readers, listened to using Google translate, etc. (We have a list of ways to edit our writing in our writing journals)
  • 1000+ words
  • The sentence on the tag MUST appear in the story, and must be in bold and red font so it can easily be seen.

After going over the ground rules, I did get some questions such as, "Can I do this?" and "Can I write about that?" and I said, YES! It's your story, so let your imagination go!  It wasn't long before I heard them calling out to each other their word counts, their tag sentences, their ideas.... they were in full writing mode.

Writing formally for academic essays and test response is certainly important. But the feeling that comes from being able to lift the restraints and boundaries, and watching what happens once Middle Schoolers let loose, is pure joy.  For them, and for me.

 

 

 

 

30
Jan

All I Need to Know.... Writing Activity for Middle School

I did a quick writing activity with my 7th graders, and it was based on the book "All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten" by Robert Fulghum. You remember the lessons - sharing, saying thank you and please, taking naps, enjoying a simple snack of milk and cookies.... Everyone can relate to its simplicity. As we get older, we can really appreciate those things in life. For teens, not so clear to them yet.

I read the first 3 pages of the book to them. It's a perfect introduction to those simple things we appreciate, and perfectly illustrates the task you are going to charge them with: show how a common object can teach us many life lessons.

Here are some the class has come up with. I showed them a sample of the finished product using my dog. I always model the expected outcome in all of my lessons - even the essays. I believe it is important at this age to set expectations for them. The others are the posters they came up with. I picked out a few to give you ideas.

I suggest you try it with your own classes. Mine enjoyed the challenge!

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21
Nov

There's more to learning than reading, writing and 'rithmetic...


When an opportunity presents itself that allows the students to get out of the classroom, I always take it. So when my colleague and I were asked to pull together the Veteran's Day assembly this year, we took it as a great opportunity to allow the students the chance to learn firsthand what it means to serve our country.

We invited about 50 Veterans and active service members to attend our assembly and enjoy lunch with our 8th grade students. Being our school is in a town with a naval base, some of our students are part of military families. They know what it's like to move every three years and start fresh in a new town, a new country, making new fri
ends. But the others don't know what it's like to lose a parent to active duty for an extended period of time.  So, this provided a great opportunity to get everyone on the same page.

We started in Language Arts by reading a short story written by Gary Paulsen titled, "Stop the Sun."  It is about a boy who's father, a Vietnam veteran, has a PTSD episode while shopping in the mall.  Reading this as a class gave us an opportunity to research the Vietnam War, and America's reaction to it and those who served in it. We talked about the draft, and how it changed the lives of many teenagers and young adults during that time. And, we looked at Post-traumatic Stress Disorder and how it can affect so many people.

The assembly began with the entire student body giving a standing ovation to the guests as they were escorted into our gymnasium. The bleachers were filled with students from grades Pre-K to 8, holding signs and clapping for them. Our guests were very touched, and surprised, by the welcome they received. The local high school junior ROTC members presented the Colors and demonstrated their drills.  Our presentation followed, with students speaking about the history of Veterans Day, and describing each branch of the armed services. Members of each branch were asked to stand to be recognized, and again, they seemed genuinely touched.

As part of the assembly, we showed a short video about a grandfather trying to show his grandchildren what it meant to be a veteran. Of course, the grandsons were more interested in their phones then in what their grandfather was showing them. But at the end of the video, the boys begin to understand what their grandfather was explaining. When some active service members enter the picture, the grandfather stands and salutes them, and the boys follow that gesture.  At this point, our entire student body stood and saluted our guests. And they stood and saluted back. Well, needless to say, not only were our guests crying at this point, so was everyone in the bleachers!

Here's the link - but I will warn you - you'll need tissues:

The school's small chorus then led us all in a rendition of "God Bless the USA". It was the perfect ending for the assembly. As students filed out, they shook hands with the guests, thanking them for their service. Once the gym emptied, our 8th grade students escorted the guests into our Media Center to have lunch and chat.

Many of the veterans who attended our assembly were veterans of the Vietnam war, which allowed the students to hear first hand accounts of how the draft changed the lives of many young men and women during that timeframe, and what combat was like. One veteran spoke about his suffering from PTSD, and the students were well equipped to speak with them all about these topics because of the research and reading we'd done prior to the event.

After the guests left, the students had very positive comments about the time spent with our veterans and active service members. Many of them walked away with a deeper understanding of what life in the military is all about. I can say that the exchanges that occurred over that lunch of sandwiches and potato salad was much more meaningful than anything they'd ever read in a textbook. Would I do it again?  In a heartbeat.  What those students learned that day could not have occurred inside our classroom or by reading a textbook.  We're already planning for next year's event...

 

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8
Nov

Using Interactive Reading Journals for "In the Heart of the Sea"

Reading Nathaniel Philbrick's "In the Heart of the Sea" was one of the most painful, yet satisfying experiences I've had in teaching 8th grade.  How can that be?  Well, it was a challenging book, for sure. My eighth graders aren't all avid readers, so the vocabulary at times had them stumped, but nothing we couldn't work through. It also was set in the 1800's, and gave us a lot of history on the early whaling industry, more than my eighth graders really cared to know. But it was necessary to understand what drove these men to the sea for months or years at a time. And then, there was the cannibalism. No surprise, but they actually enjoyed reading about that part. But like giving birth, the pain and suffering involved in the process is all forgotten when the students finally get to the end and tell you they enjoyed the story. That's when I exhaled that proverbial breath I'd been holding in since the day we started the pre-work on the novel study.  Makes it all worth it.  And knowing there's a Ron Howard movie coming out on the novel as well? Cherry on top.

In case you are looking for something different to do with your students, I'll fill you in on how I presented this book.

Introduce the novel, setting, author, genre, topic

Introduce the novel, setting, author, genre, topic

We always begin a new novel with a little background on the book itself.  In our interactive reading journals (my journal of choice is the marble notebook with pages that don't easily tear out, and a cover that won't rip off), we included a picture of the book cover, and listed our main characters so we could get to know them a bit. We also drew a picture, and included some origami.  We listed genre, author and publishing date. So far, so good.

Then, we included a map of the setting of the story. Easy for this book, since the whalers are from Nantucket.  We gave our colored pencils a workout and pulled out our Student Atlas books (thank you, PTA!), and when this happens, I always allow the students to take extra time to flip through the atlas to explore a bit.   Since many of my students rarely leave the state, it's a great way to introduce them to the huge world we have out there.  Strike up a conversation or two as they work. Talk about whales, global warming, the lines on the map and what they mean, and where Tanzania is.  So what if it doesn't have anything to do with the story.

Map out the setting so students know where the story takes place. Geography lesson!

Map out the setting so students know where the story takes place. Geography lesson!

Next, we looked at the history of the whaling industry. What was a whale used for? How did the whalers process huge whales while out at sea?  We drew pictures and flow charts, and jotted down facts as to what people did with whale oil.  What did whales have to do with ladies' corsets? Well, you need to go look that up.

With about a week of background work under our belts, and some very colorful pages in our interactive journals, we finally picked up our books and began to read.  We wrote chapter summaries after each chapter as we discussed what had occurred, what we learned about the characters, and what we thought might happen next.  We glued a picture of the map from the book that mapped out the ship's voyage, and we marked chapter numbers on the map to show how the story took us through their journey. We learned sailing terms, looked up Cape Horn, and how whales mate. Yup, we covered everything.

Hand-drawn pictures to explain some of the details of the process were key. I had some of my better artists in class assigned to draw. I then copied the drawings and shrunk them down to fit in our marble notebook journals. (Shrink an 8.5 x 11 sheet to 80%, and once trimmed, it fits perfectly!) Once glued in, the kids used colored pencils to doodle and color them while we discussed what the pictures were.

Have the students draw out pictures, then copy them for the class.

Have the students draw out pictures, then copy them for the class.

Keeping track of which characters were in each of the smaller whale boats required some doodling as well.  Especially as certain people began dying from starvation.  There's one point in the book where students will learn all there is to know about a body shutting down from lack of food and water. Great health lesson and discussion.

To break things up, I bought some cotton cloth at the fabric store, needles and colored embroidery thread. Since sailors often embroidered to record scenery they'd see on their trips, or to remember a sweetheart left at home, we all spent a class period learning how to embroider.  The masterpieces were hung proudly in the hallway when they were completed. (See them below)

The cannibalism resulted in some great side conversations on eating raw meat and sushi.  As horrible as the event was to read about, the thoughtful discussions that it prompted were really quite entertaining!

Encourage students to draw maps in their notebook to understand what's happening in the story.

Encourage students to draw maps in their notebook to understand what's happening in the story.

 

Looking back at the experience, I can honestly say there were times I vowed not to use the book the following year. In fact, at one point, I was ready to scrap it halfway through because the students in one particular class were having a hard time connecting to it. It was at that point I thought about introducing the embroidery activity, and it turned out to be a hit.  It was just what was needed to help the students connect with the characters in the book.

So some final advice when doing a novel study: step out of the box and away from the literature circle with the assigned "jobs".  Use an interactive reading journal to not just write in, but to draw in, and map, and glue, and research in, and then take pictures of the students drawing and creating, and embroidering, and sewing, and give them copies of the pictures to glue into their journals. They will enjoy the novel as they "live" in the moment while reading it. Take time to do the pre-work to introduce the topic, setting and timeframe.  You and your students will get so much more out of the novel experience.heart 9

Embroidery cloths that students made, just as sailors did.

Embroidery cloths that students made, just as sailors did.

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Student's embroidery

1
Nov

When teens ask for boundaries...

In my 8th grade classroom, we begin the day participating in an extension of Responsive Classroom, called the Circle of Power and Respect. Geared toward middle grade and teens, the idea is to build community and trust within the classroom by spending a few minutes every morning greeting and sharing.

A recent activity we did surprised me.  Around the classroom hung three signs: Agree, Disagree, and Unsure. The task for students was to listen to a statement, and respond by standing near one of the signs. Then, I would ask a few of them to share their reasons for their choice.

The first few statements brought no surprises as far as responses. They all agreed that they shouldn't get homework and that school should start later in the morning so they could get more sleep. They disagreed that schools should ban cell phones.  They were mixed on whether video games promote violence in teens.

I was very surprised at what occurred when I read, "Parents are too strict with their teens."   All but two stood under the sign that showed they disagreed. Two were unsure, and not one agreed.  I read the statement again, thinking that maybe they misunderstood what I read. I even rephrased it and clarified it. They didn't move.  So I asked them what their thoughts were. One 14-year-old girl volunteered, saying that "parents need to have more lines for kids."

I thought for a minute. "Boundaries?"

"Yes, boundaries.  Kids have no boundaries and don't know when they've crossed a line. Parents try to be friends with their kids, and they need to be parents and tell them when they do something wrong."  Wow.  I looked at one of the boys raising his hand, wanting to comment.

"I agree. Parents need to follow through with what they say and punish us. Otherwise kids won't learn how to act."

"You mean by punish, for example,  a parent should be giving a consequence?" I tried to clarify.

"Yeah, they don't do that. They threaten, then just forget about it. So kids keep doing things that are wrong because they don't get into trouble for it."

At this point, one of the "unsure" students walked over and joined the group at "disagree".   The activity was designed to show just that - whether one student's statements could sway another to change his mind. But the message here was heard loud and clear. Teens want more discipline in their lives. They know they need it, but don't know how to ask for it.

So, parents, I hope you heard this message loud and clear. Teens want their parents to be parents. I was as surprised as you are, but I'd be lying if I told you I wasn't pleased at that response.

30
May

Watching Young Writers Bloom is Magic!

As I went through the process of shopping a publisher and then having a book published during this school year, I shared all I learned along the way with my 8th grade class in hopes that they would share in the excitement of birthing a book. To encourage them to write, and ultimately to pick up a book and read for pleasure, I had them writing a chapter story (we called it a novella) throughout the entire school year. Once a week, in our Language Arts Lab class, we sat for 45 minutes in front of a Chromebook and GoogleDocs, working on plot, dialogue, creating characters with backstory, and dabbling in other such helpful author-like tricks and tools. Read-alouds of their favorite scenes were done briefly every few meetings to encourage collaboration on ideas and feedback.

At first, I wasn't quite sure what to expect. My resource teacher and I stepped back and watched, encouraging the students as they hunted-and-pecked at the keyboards and engaged in lively discussions about their characters, their plots, and other musings. To keep them on track, each quarter we gave a goal to reach (two chapters and a character trait sheet, four chapters, etc.) We weren't sure if they would ever reach the goal we set of 8 chapters, but each week they continued to type, and share, and talk.

Advance 165 days to the end of the school year, and guess what? Our challenge was met. And boy, did they succeed! Many of them typed out over 30 pages of storyline, which included zombies, loves lost, family drama, social issues, war and death. Working in some cross-curricular activities, the technology teacher had them design a book cover and back for their "novella", which included great graphics, a summary of their story, and an "About the Author", including a picture. After constant bouts of editing and revising, the students handed in their manuscripts, along with dedication and acknowledgement paragraphs, and we are now having them bound by our most wonderful copy-room attendant.

I asked some of them if they were proud of their accomplishment, and many thought they'd never be able to write a piece that long over such an extended amount of time, and yes, they were proud of it. A few asked if they could continue their story after they've graduated (Umm... that's called a sequel, I told them with a smile and an emphatic YES). One young man, who didn't consider himself a writer in any sense, actually told me that he feels he became a better writer because of the weekly class that focused him and forced him to write and set goals. Well, chalk one up for the good guys.

Will they write for pleasure after they graduate in three weeks? Time will tell, but I know one thing for sure. They certainly aren't afraid of that task anymore. As a teacher, I would call this a success.

5
May

A Missing Piece of Common Core

Every year, teachers count down the days until summer vacation. Heck, I had the countdown on the board from the first day of school, and a student in my class was given the task of changing the number each day. But as the number on the board gets smaller and smaller, and the stress level of making sure you’ve covered all of the required curriculum gets higher and higher, it’s time to take a deep breath and convince yourself that you’ve done the best you can to get through it. No matter how well you’ve pulled together detailed plans, printed off those Pinterest ideas, downloaded those tips from Twitter, there is no way you’ve been able to get to everything you wanted to. Those assemblies, snow days, state tests, class trips and ad-hoc conversations that the kids can always drag you into somehow keeps you from covering all you planned to cover. And when the weather suddenly breaks and you get that urge to have a kickball game during 6th period? What’s wrong with that? Nothing!

Some of my most memorable teaching moments have come when we’ve put away the books, dropped the pencils and just talked. We talked about what we had for dinner last night, what our favorite movies are, what music we like to listen to. We talked about divorce, new babies, moving out of town and leaving friends behind. We talked about current events and the SuperBowl. And from those conversations, we learned a lot about empathy.

If you look at the Common Core Standards, somehow empathy was left off the list of standards in Language Arts. Somehow someone who wrote those standards didn’t feel that learning to put yourself in other’s shoes would help you to become a better writer, or understand what a character in literature was feeling or experiencing. For that matter, it also doesn’t help someone become a better person either. Isn’t that what we are supposed to be helping our students become? More well-rounded, ready-to-take-on-the-world people?

So my advice to teachers in these last few weeks of school: Put down the expo markers, close the books, and take a walk outside to the playground to hang out and just talk. About the weather. About vacation. About family. About the kids. Let them tell you about themselves, and then tell them about you. They may not remember how to conjugate a verb, or the theme of their latest novel, but they will remember the day they told you about the time they crashed their bike, or visited the beach with friends. And they’ll remember when you told them about your experiences. And they’ll appreciate the time you spent getting to know them. That’s what I call a learning experience.