The lesson I discuss in this post was inspired by Susan Campbell Bartoletti’s visit. I used this lesson to begin the poetry unit with my students this year. If you try it, please let me know how it goes!
This week has been extremely busy for many reasons, and because so much is happening, I have many topics I would like to write about. I will, however, focus on one and save the others for later. Sometimes ideas become more earthy and and fuller bodied when they brew in the mind a a bit anyway.
So this post is about breaking old habits.
1. Wrangling with Writing
Before I met the writer’s notebook, teaching writing was somewhat of a struggle between my students and me. They didn’t want to do it, but I felt like I needed to make them do it for a variety of reasons, one of them being that good writing skills are an asset in every aspect of life. Even though I worked hard and my efforts were genuine, I don’t think I I met my goal–I don’t think I sold my students on the idea that learning to write was for their benefit. They treated it like a cat treats a dose of medicine–they saw little benefit from the torture of the task. The curriculum and my style made writing were too laborious for them–I took the fun out of writing.
The writer’s notebook changed everything for me.
I started using the writer’s notebook last year in preparation for implementing Lucy Calkins’ Units of Study (Grade 8) this school year. The spirit of this idea, which I first heard of from a colleague, Sarah Lucci, who was more familiar than I with Ralph Fletcher, has changed the way I view writing and, in turn, the way I teach writing. As a result, writing became fun again, for me and my students.
How did this happen? I can give you the short answer, but if you want to know more, you need to read Ralph Fletcher’s book, A Writer’s Notebook: Unlcoking the Writer Within You. Essentially, the writer’s notebook is a safe place for students to SAFELY experiment with writing techniques and ideas without fear of censure, evaluation, or assessment. If they want feedback, they may ask for it and the teacher may provide it. It takes a while for the students to get used to the concept, but once they do, their volume increases and then so does the quality of their writing.
In my opinion, though, the best outcome from using the writer’s notebook is that students no longer utter the dreaded phrase: But I don’t know what to write about! The writers notebook becomes their bank of ideas.
2. The Grammar Gauntlet
Jeff Anderson’s book Everyday Editing changed the way I view grammar lessons. I started small last year by having students notice and imitate good writing, mostly from young adult novels, novels, as Anderson recommends, that I thought the students should read. This year I began implementing some of the more extensive lessons in the second half of the book.
The short noticings and the focused lessons ask students to analyze and then writer’s craft and style as opposed to identifying grammatical components. Anderson does not completely forgo the standard language and throw grammar completely out the window. Instead, his lessons focus on inviting students to examine good writing and analyze why it works. The final step is for them to imitate the author’s style and make it their own.
I can’t tell you how happy I was when I finally received permission from the curriculum director to stop teaching students how to identify grammatical elements such as parts of speech, complements, clauses, and phrases. This kind of work was never fun. It seemed necessary for a while, but it was never enjoyable for anyone.
3. The Long Lecture
One of the most important ingredients of the writer’s workshop model is the mini-lesson. I have not come near to perfecting this art yet, but I understand it’s value. Teaching writing and grammar lessons in five to ten minute snippets is so freeing for teachers and definitely more digestible for students. No one wants to focus grammar rules for an entire class period, and frankly, talking in front of the class all day makes me tired and bored. I have found a new, more sustainable groove. And the most important part is that I am getting to know my students as individuals. Even though we are only half way through the first marking period, I feel as though I know more about this group of students in a shorter amount of time.
Today I tried something completely different for the mini-lesson. I showed a TED Ed video instead about zooming in on a moment. The title of the video is Slowing down time (in writing and film). It’s perfect because it’s less than six minutes long, it makes an effective connection between film and writing, and provides students with a distinct focus. I can honestly say that out of the 136 students I saw today, all of them wrote consistently without interruption for at least ten minutes. Now that might not seem like a long stretch, but for students who have never experienced the writer’s workshop model, it’s a true accomplishment.
4. Catching More Bees with Honey: The Unintended Results
The unintended consequences of the many shifts that have occurred this year in my building, my classroom, and me, my relationship with my students is changing.
- I am more encouraging and appreciative of students’ efforts as young writers.
- I am providing students with more focus, more authentic feedback.
- I am more forgiving of students’ mistakes.
- I am pushing past my own frustrations.
- Most importantly, I am building personal connections with them, and these connections are making the classroom a place where learning is fun.
Below is the beginning of a story that I’ve been working on in my head for about 24 hours now. I’m doing more modeling with my students this year by showing them more of my own writing. Here’s the idea that’s been brewing in my mind since yesterday. Please comment and let me know what you think!
Can Somebody Push the Restart Button, Please?
Second period. Staring at the notebook on my desk–Mrs. Sentor would call it my journal. I call it painful. A poster on the wall in front of me reads: There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed. –Ernest Hemingway. Well, here I sit. Trying to bleed. When I just want to cry. No. Disintegrate. No. Or is it dissipate? Ugh. I have no ID-E-A what I want, OK??? Please.
OK. I do know what I want. I want to cry. How about that? That’s what I want. And I want it to feel good. But it won’t. So I don’t. I sit here. In second period.
Mrs. Sentor put a prompt on the board:
If you could change one thing about yourself, what would it be?
Seriously? Seriously . . . Just one thing? Where do I start? With my eyebrows and work my way down to my preposterously thin ankles? Why do I stop at my ankles, you ask? Well, I like my feet. They are my best feature. They are dainty with perfect toes–not short and stubby and not long and knotty. My dad has gnarly yellow toes that he really shouldn’t ever show in public. I’m truly grateful that I did not inherit his feet. I wonder if Mrs. Sentor will notice if I write about something I like instead, like my feet.
But my pencil still doesn’t move. It can’t. My elbow is frozen. I wonder if that excuse will get me a pass to the nurse. But wait. I think my shoulder is frozen, too. This would explain why my pencil isn’t moving. Ugh. This day needs to be over.
Anyway, I was talking about my feet. Pretty feet don’t get a person much here at Brook Trout Middle School because they are covered up all day on the count of shoes–a required part of the dress code here in school suburbia. Not just any shoes, though. For instance, shoes without backs are verboten, as Mrs. Person, the German teacher, would say. Most of us call them slides. My mom calls them clogs or flops. Whatever. Doesn’t matter. Just don’t wear them unless you want to visit the goofy principal’s office.
Tommy Ranker, who sits next to me in language arts, looks like a forty-year-old man because he has a glaring bald spot at the top of his head. It is round and clean, like a plate that just came out of the dishwasher. The rest of him is not unattractive. He’d have a nice smile if he didn’t spew vomit every time he opened his mouth. And he can be funny. Like the day he asked Mrs. Kleindock the question no one ever dared to ask.
Tommy has never noticed my feet. He notices everything else, though, from my unnaturally dark eyebrows compared to my light blonde hair, to my burgeoning mustache, to my small chest, hairy arms, and string bean legs. I imagine that someday someone will find him charming if they can ignore the fact that at thirteen he is already going bald and perpetually immature. If he found a girl, maybe he would focus on her instead of humiliating me.
Even without looking at him, I can feel his eyes on me. He’s smirking. “Hey, Skinny,” he whispers when Mrs. Sentor isn’t looking. “What did you write?” His quick, stubby, chewed-to-the-bone fingers try to snatch my journal. I slap my hand down into the middle of it just in time. I give him a look like the one my cat gives me when it’s hungry: the I-am-going-to-eat-you-if-you-don’t-feed-me-soon look.
“Knock. it. off!” I say through clenched teeth. Mrs. Sentor turns our way. I look at my desk. Again, what do I want? If this is the only kind of attention a girl like me gets, then I think what I want is to be left alone.
When I woke up this morning, I thought today would be different. Let me rephrase that. Mrs. Sentor is always telling us to choose that clearly convey our meaning, so what I really meant was that I thought that today HAD to be different. I didn’t think the universe had a choice. There is no way that today could be as bad as yesterday. It had to get better. It just had to. When you already have no friends, things can only get better, right?
So why don’t I have any friends? I could make a long list, but I guess the closest answer to the truth is that I lie, hoping to impress people. I do it all the time. I can’t help it, even though it never works. People know I want them to like me too much. So, as I said, I really have no friends. No one that I would link arms with or willingly share the answers to my homework with. But yesterday–for half the day anyway–I thought I had a friend. Randi. Her real name is Miranda, but she prefers Randi. Anyway, she was my friend, until Kim handed me a “message.” Right before lunch, nonetheless. She says to me, all nonchalantly, “Randi wanted me to give you this,” as she holds out her fist. When I innocently open my hand to take the “note,” seventeen little pieces of shiny paper fall into my hand. Seventeen little pieces. I wonder if Randi counted them. Or did she just blindly rip without thinking.
She ripped my school picture, the one I gave her in October, the one with my note of friendship to her on the back. She shredded it. Like it was a piece of junk mail. Like it was something that meant nothing to her. I feel my thyroid drop into my stomach like a ball of acid. What did I do to make her so mad at me?
I throw the seventeen pieces to the top shelf of my locker. What the hell? Maybe there I won’t ever have to look at them. Someday a janitor will find them and never look to see what they are before he throws them in his oversized trash can.
The new school year has given me little time to write: I’ve been busy unpacking Lucy Calkins’ Units of Study for 8th grade and preparing my students for the writers’ workshop model. They are not quite ready yet, but we are getting a little closer every day. In this post, I will share with you some easy-to-implement strategies that have helped me and my students prepare. These easy hacks also create a safe and engaging environment for learning.
Anchor Charts, Anchor Charts, and More Anchor Charts
I was first exposed to anchor charts when I attended my first TCRWP Saturday Reunion at Columbia University last March. I have to admit that some of the fancy artistry intimidated me a bit. I was not used to making thinking visible. I am an English teacher, so explaining comes more naturally to me. I’ve realized, though, in the past few weeks, that these visuals are extremely helpful to my students. I know . . . Some of you may be reading this and thinking ,”Well, no kidding!” but the connection was not obvious to me until I implemented the practice. The charts that are relevant to our current studies are hanging around the classroom, and the students often leave their work stations to review the material on them.
The example at the bottom of the image is an exact replica from Kate’s blog post on A Teaching Life in regards to format; I changed the story to describe my summer vacation. The example on top is the design adapted by one of my students. She found this model more workable for her. It’s not much different, but my version gave her the idea to create an ameliorated visual representation of her thinking process.
I’m not sure that I’d call this next example and anchor chart per se, but I refer to it every day when the students ask me how their work is going to be graded. I’ve adopted a four point scale for classwork and quizzes. It look like this:
I snagged this idea from eberopolis on blogspot. It makes grading a bit simpler and gives the students a clearer picture of their progress in meeting the standards.
I have not mastered this art yet–I’m still a novice, hopeful that I am on my way to understanding and managing this routine better. For the first few weeks of school, my students and I have been working on close reading and annotating texts with a focus. I’ve been monitoring their progress and evaluating their skills levels at different intervals. The short two to three minute conversations I’ve been conducting with students may be the most valuable time I have with them. When I take the time to meet with them individually, they take responsibility for their work, which in the long run, actually makes less work for me because they are holding themselves accountable for their success.
Once again, I am getting better at utilizing mentor texts, but I would probably consider myself a practitioner at this point. I have a discerning eye for good writing after all these years, but I am no Jeff Anderson! I began this practice like so many teachers do: by reading Everyday Editing. When I was reading the book last year, I used the examples that Anderson includes in his book and slowly progressed to using examples that I’d found in my own reading of young adult novels. Right now I am using Gary Paulsen‘s Man with the Iron Heads, which is one of the novellas in his book Paintings from the Cave. The book is rich with figurative language and description; plus, the students LOVE the story. A teacher knows when she’s made a good choice when she hears students exclaim in the middle of reading, “I love this book!” and “I wish we could keep reading!” Hahahaaa! Those moments are what make teaching so savory and delightful.
I must say, and I would be remiss if I did not mention that Angela Stockman, the founder and executive director of the WNY Young Writers’ Studio, has been an vital resource in helping me develop my skills through the change process. If you are not following her (which you can do on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, LinkedIn, and Google+), you are missing out. She has been one of the most valuable contacts in my professional learning network this past year. She also writes a blog where she posts many valuable resources. I personally grab many of her resources and ideas from Facebook, but she is willing to connect with educators from all experience levels.
Even though this is the last installment of this series of posts, I doubt that this will be the last time I write about poetry because I absolutely love teaching it. Nothing creates a stronger fire in me than sharing my appreciation for this art form with kids.
In this post I will share a three activities that I experimented with this week. Some of them worked better than others, but all of them ask students to think about the world in a different way, experiment, and test their own limitations.
4. Imitating Structure and Form
And The Ghosts
I ran across Foust’s poem searching for poems to share with my 8th grade students. It’s unique because it is a one-line poem with a title. I chose it because no matter the writing assignment–essay, story, or poem–they always ask the question “How long does it have to be?” Instead of giving the students a line minimum for each poem, this year I provided the following answer:
Take time to notice.
And the Ghosts
they own everything
Before asking the students to interpret the poem, I asked them what they noticed. Probably the most important observation they made was that the poem would not have much meaning without the title. I’ve been trying to reinforce the idea all year that the title of a work–a news article, a book, a poem, a short story, a painting–is the holy grail. It is the key to understanding the purpose and theme of a piece. This poem provides students with ann example of that truth.
Look for meaning.
After giving students time to observe the structure of the poem, I asked them to look for meaning. What does the poem mean when he states that the ghosts own everything? Some said that the ghosts symbolize the past, and your past controls controls you–it makes you who you are today. Some said that the ghosts were memories, and your memories are an integral part of your consciousness. Remember to give students time to contemplate the difficult questions. Don’t expect them to raise their hands immediately. Sometimes I find myself waiting a minute or more for students to raise their hands. When teachers give students time to think, they know the instructor is serious about the question and expects them to come up with the answer. Too often teachers give the students answers to the difficult questions if students don’t answer right away.
I gave students two choices. They could either:
Create a one-line poem with a title
Use Foust’s poem as the start of their own.
Paul Revere’s Ride
I am not a huge fan of Paul Revere’s Ride because of its historical inaccuracies, and–I’ll be honest–I don’t really understand its purpose. The poem, however, is a part of our school’s curriculum, and I am expected to teach it when the students are studying the Revolutionary War in social studies. I needed to get excited about teaching this poem to mask my indifference from my students, so I decided to create a parody. I had the students do the same. They could choose any subject matter for the poem, but I asked them to model the rhyme scheme (AABBA) and meter (four beats per line, a mix of iambs and anapests) of the poem’s first stanza:
Listen, my children, and you shall hear
Of the midnight ride of Paul Revere,
On the eighteenth of April in Seventy-five:
Hardly a man is now alive,
Who remembers that famous day and year.
I’ve only completed two stanzas of my parody, but it was enough to use as a model for my students. I did not require them to write a full-length poem–I just wanted them to experiment with Longfellow’s form and style. Some of them decided that they wanted to turn their drafts into poems for their portfolios that they will submit on Wednesday. Here is the example I wrote for my students:
The Ballad of a Samson’s Ear
Listen, my cats, and you shall hear
Of the awful tale of a bitten ear,
One one Fall morning when dawn was nigh
I saw Loopy Lester, sleek and sly
Turn the corner like a buccaneer.
He said to me, “This is my domain!
From trespassing here you shall abstain!
Or I’ll claw your eyes and bite your tail,
And chase you to the nether vale,
Where snakes abound to slither and maim.”
After this lesson, I received the best compliment a teacher can get from a student: “Miss Raub, I never liked poetry before, but I think you are converting me.” Boom! That’s my reason for showing up every day.
5. Creative Prompts
Good questions will ask students to think about the world or themselves a little differently. With middle schoolers, I like to ask them questions that invite students to look inward. Here are my two favorites that I used this year:
- If you had the money and the influence to buy a digital screen in Times Square, what message would you share with the world?
- What are the five things that you know to be true? (Another nod to Sarah Kay–In her TED Talk, If I Should Have A Daughter, she mentions how she uses this prompt with her students. Her version asks students to write ten truths.)
For each of these questions, I, of course, created my own answers that I shared with the students. Sometimes I share before the students create their own; sometimes I share after. When I share depends on the class. If I find that the students are struggling with the concept, I may share my example in the beginning of the lesson. If students seem comfortable or ready to create without a model, I let them. In general, I find that students are much more creative if I let them experiment before sharing my models.
My digital screen: Listening > Speaking
Ten Things I Know To Be True:
- I am alive
- The world is small and colossal at the same time.
- I love my husband.
- Kids are fun.
- Birds are fascinating creatures.
- A leisurely breakfast is happiness.
- I can’t imagine a world without music or books.
- I love new learning.
- I know nearly nothing.
- I love my pets.
If you have ways that you’ve inspired students of any age to write and read more poetry, please let me know! I don’t know yet what the topic of my next blog post will be, but I do know that the end of the school year is drawing near. I hope you all finish the year robustly and vigorously. Stay enthusiastic to the very end–your students deserve it.
Last week I posted Part 1, which included two examples of poetry lessons that students love. This week, I am sharing two additional ideas that I hope you try in your classroom before the end of the year. Go for it! State testing is over, so now it’s time to play!
3. Love Letter Poems
I was honestly astonished at how much my students enjoyed this lesson. When a colleague of mine, JoAnn Welsko, first presented it to me. I thought, “OK. I’ll try this, but I think it’s kind of corny.” I can’t tell you how glad I am that I trusted JoAnn’s instincts. This type of poem is my all-time favorite out of all the different lessons and methods I’ve experimented with over the past 20 years. Believe me when I tell you that you, too, will be astounded–even the students who are reluctant writers had fun.
The first step is watching Sarah Kay’s performance of her poem, “The Toothbrush to the Bicycle Tire.” I’m going to explain to you what she does, but trust me, you have to watch the video to understand the ingenuity of this idea.
So Sarah chooses two completely unrelated inanimate objects. One, the toothbrush, becomes the narrator, and the tire, is the one to whom the narrator speaks. Her poem is clever, witty, and fun. What the students liked most about it is that the poem sounds like it could be from one human lover to another–it carries authenticity.
When I modeled Sarah’s poem, I chose two related objects because they were easier for me to conceptualize. I brainstormed a list of 14 pairs and ended up choosing the fourth idea on the list. The narrator: a raw egg. The object of the egg’s affection: the refrigerator.
My colleague, JoAnn Welsko, also wrote a love letter poem. I think hers is a better model because she chose to unrelated objects like Sarah did.
Even though my students loved this idea, some of them still had a difficult time getting started. Here is what we did together:
- For three minutes we brainstormed in our writer’s notebooks. We listed all the inanimate objects we could think of.
- We looked at our lists and chose the two objects we thought might work well together. Some students had difficulty choosing, so they asked their peers or me to help them with their choices. In this case, don’t be afraid to tell students what you think. They want assurance from you that they are on the right track. Some of them need your approval to feel comfortable about moving forward.
- We created T-charts in our writer’s notebooks, using the two inanimate objects as headings for each column.
- We made a list of adjectives to describe each item.
- We circled or highlighted the words that lovers would use and crossed out the ones that were not applicable. Here is an example:
With this little bit of prep, they were ready to go. I gave them 15-20 minutes to write a first draft, and then they each chose a classmate with whom they wanted to share. My students are currently in the middle of crafting their pieces, so I will share a student example next week. In a few days, I will also post Part 3 (the final installment) of “4 Ways to Get Kids Excited about Poetry.”
Quote of the day:
“Reading maketh a full man; conference a ready man; and writing an exact man.”
I love, love, LOVE teaching poetry more than I enjoy teaching anything else, so I thought I’d share four of my favorite lessons about writing poetry with middle school students. I’ve shared two in this post, and I’ll share the other two in my next post, which will be published in about a week. All the lessons can be easily adapted for any grade level.
1. The Found Poem
- The whole class creates a poem based on a text everyone has read. If you are not familiar with found poems, this video from the Teaching Channel is a good tutorial. (Click on the link in the caption below the image to watch the video.)
Here is the found poem one of my classes created using My Brother Sam Is Dead.
2. Then students create their own found poems using their favorite books as inspiration.
3. We share our creations with partners, and then volunteers share theirs with the entire class.
2. The Photo Poem
- Students to bring to class a photograph or picture that they like–one that means something to them. Here is the picture that I used as inspiration.
First, I project my photo on the interactive whiteboard and let them react. Inevitably, a few of them say something like, “Hey! That’s you!” Then I ask them how they know it’s me. They respond, of course, by saying, “It looks like you” or “You both have short hair.”
After they share their immediate observations, I ask them to look at the picture more closely, looking for evidence that I am the one in the photo. Once they begin looking more closely (some classes need more prompting than others), they realize that the picture looks old. They also notice the clothing the women are wearing–it’s not from an era in which I was alive. Then they may notice the “28” on my grandmother’s sweater. When they realize the 28 stands for 1928, the year my grandmother graduated high school, they can then draw some logical conclusions. Ahhhh….So who might be in the picture? My grandmother. Here is the poem I wrote as a model for my students:
2. Some of my students need no interventions or prompting and start writing immediately after they read my poem. Other students have difficulty knowing how to begin, so we use a T-chart to gather ideas. (You can access the T-chart here.) I provide some students with copies of a T-chart that I created using Worksheets.com, but other students prefer to create one in their writer’s notebooks like this student did.
3. In the right-hand column students list the details in the picture–their observations. For example, they may list the colors they see, the objects, any shadows, the setting, the people and their expressions, the action that is obvious or assumed. In the right-hand column students list the emotions they feel looking at the picture and the emotions that may be expressed by people or animals in the picture. Once they’ve completed both columns, I tell them to begin combining the words from both columns to create a description of the picture. I remind them to pretend that the person reading the poem has never seen the picture, so it is their job to pain a vivid image with words.
Here is an example of a T-chart that one of my students created in his writer’s notebook:
Yes, it’s messy–but writing is a messy process. Here is what this student created in about 30 minutes of class time. It’s one of the best spontaneous poems I’ve ever read from an 8th grade student. I included a typed, readable version below the image.
Below is the image he used as inspiration for his piece. I hope he reads it during 8th grade poetry tea at the end of May!
Tomorrow my students and I will begin writing some imitation poetry, using Gary Soto’s poem “Oranges” as a model, and later in the week students will write love poems with a fun and playful twist. I will post Part 2 of this topic in the next week!
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Each week we tackle a new problem that you sent in. Then, we match that problem with a teaching tool that can help. We are returning to a popular tool this week based on the problem…
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