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.

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

 

 

 

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?

coolkidsread

4
Feb

The "Key" to Creative Writing in Middle School

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

IMG_3210

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!

IMG_3153                                                                                           IMG_3156IMG_3158IMG_3155

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.