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Ideas for Teaching Writing #1-4

Earlier this year, Oxford University Press asked teachers to share the biggest writing challenges they face in their classrooms. It's no surprise that the top challenge was this one: students don't want to write.

I happen to love teaching writing, so I choose to accept this lack of motivation as a personal challenge. These are some of my best strategies for getting my students to write.

1. Establish the fact that each student is a writer.

Kids are quick to put their own writing down, becoming their own worst enemy when it comes to writing. I love to start the year by reading excerpts from Writing Magic by Gail Carson Levine. Levine gives advice to young writers and tells of her own journey to becoming an author. She includes The Writer's Oath as a way for young writers to promise themselves that they will do everything they can to become the best writers they can be.

After discussing the meaning of each line in the oath, the kids laugh as I have them stand up to recite it choral style. Each writer has to "hold" an invisible pen to his head, with the other hand on his heart. I tell them we do this because writing requires a connection between the heart and head. Then, standing up in that odd pose, we recite The Writer's Oath. The kids love the ceremony of it so much that they often insist on reading it twice.

We display the oath in the room, and refer to it often during the writing process. One day I overheard a student putting down his own work. His neighbor turned to him and admonished, "You're breaking the oath. What would Levine say?"

2.  Quickwrites Get the Job Done

When my kids find out that we're going to spend a few minutes on quickwrites, they are thrilled. Quickwrites really are the quickest way to get warmed up for a writing session. Think of them as an appetizer, not an entree.

I pick three to four quickwrite topics that are related to the genre we'll be covering, and then I give the kids a minute or two to write like mad. It's fun to think of creative topics the kids can run with.

During a narrative writing unit, we might warm up by spending a minute finishing each of these story starters:
  • Let me start by saying it wasn't my idea to steal the...
  • It isn't every day that you wake up to find a monkey in your bedroom...
  • I bent down to pick up my pencil, and when I sat back up, everyone in the classroom was missing...
The quickwrites serve as wonderful writer's notebook seed ideas. Sometimes the kids can't wait for a class assignment and they end up finishing the stories on their own time. 

If students can't think of anything to write, they take Gail Carson Levine's advice and write anything. They just have to write, even if all they can think of is "This is so stupid, I can't believe Mrs. Buffet has given me this dumb assignment...I can't think of anything..." 

3. Encourage students to write about the topic they know best: themselves.

Every person's favorite word is their own name. Every person's favorite topic is themselves. We generate writing ideas by starting with a general personal topic and then narrowing it by making responses more specific. 

We might start a memoir unit by writing about a variety of special places. Then students choose one and answer specific questions about that place. After that, they choose one aspect of the place and focus in on writing about that one aspect, continuing to narrow down the focus of the writing. The gradual nature of the process gives students confidence, and makes the ideas flow easily.

4.  Publish everywhere and publish often.

While it's rarely possible for my kids to read all of their work aloud (which is what they ask to do EVERY day), it is always possible to share by displaying their work in the room. When I run out of bulletin board room, I set up a "Publication Desk" with folders full of various pieces. Sometimes I set up stations with different final drafts at each table. The kids rotate, reading as they go along. 

 Stay tuned for more ideas for teaching writing!

Teaching Global Citizens

What is Global Citizenship?
Simply put, global citizenship means that as citizens of the world, people have responsibilities to each other, to the creatures sharing our planet, and also to the Earth itself.

Effective global citizens 
  • participate in the community locally and globally
  • respect and value diversity
  • pay attention to community needs
  • take steps toward making the world a better place 

Sounds wonderful, right? As educators, we know that our students are the future, and we try our best to foster the values of global citizenship. However, it isn't always easy to find resources that meld curriculum needs with global citizenship ideology . 

I'm doing my best, but like a true global citizen, I'm also depending on ideas from fellow teachers around the globe. That's why I'm so excited to be a part of the Creating a Global Classroom Blog Hop. I'm positive that my fellow secondary teachers will come through with innovative suggestions that I can implement immediately!

Books Promoting Global Citizenship

One way I build the foundation of global citizenship in my classroom is through the use of diverse mentor texts. We use mentor texts all the time, so why not add social and cultural awareness to the mix? (Please note: I will be adding to this list in the future.)

Memoir Writing

I Will Always Write Back 
by Caitlyn Alifirenka & Martin Ganda, with Liz Welch

This wonderful dual memoir is the story of an unlikely friendship between an upper middle class white girl from suburban Pennsylvania and her pen pal, an impoverished black boy from a secondary city in Zimbabwe. What starts out as a simple school assignment becomes life-changing for both students.

This book would also serve as a perfect kick-off to a pen-pal unit.

Somewhere There is Still a Sun: A Memoir of the Holocaust
by Michael Gruenbaum with Todd Hasak-Lowy

Michael "Misha" Gruenbaum gives readers a gripping account of what life was like for the Jewish community living first in a Prague ghetto, and later in the Terezin concentration camp. 
Brown Girl Dreaming
by Jacqueline Woodson

Before devouring this in one afternoon, I read somewhere that it is "the world's best example of how to write a fictionalized memoir." It is deeply moving and deeply personal. It's a must-have in every middle school classroom library.


Research Paper

All of these are perfect for generating ideas for research paper topics. We write ours in the form of feature articles, and students must choose a topic that fits the "global citizenship" theme.

Folktale Writing

Around the World in 80 Tales 
by Saviour Pirotta
This is a fun trek to every continent through 80 folktales and fables. It proves that good storytelling unites us all.

                                     Around the World in 80 Tales

The Key to Interactive Notebook Success

I've been using interactive notebooks for a few years now. I like them a lot, for reasons I'll get into later. But interactive notebooks are not without their problems.

The key to using interactive foldable notes successfully is...sometimes you shouldn't use them.

We know that the advantages of using INBs include improved organization, increased engagement, and better retention of information. However, interactive notebooks are not without their problems. Let's examine those problems before we look at possible solutions.

First, we must acknowledge this ugly truth: notes that require cutting, gluing, and folding don't benefit every student. Two kinds of students in particular. 

#1: High achieving students. 

Students who are already organized and efficient note-takers often hate interactive notebooks. High achievers don't embrace INBs for several reasons: 
  • They have already established the efficacy of their own note-taking methods. These students are already successful. And they know it.
  •  High achievers are already engaged in learning. They don't need the tactile aspect of folding notes. And they know it.
  • They resent the time wasted cutting and gluing. And they let you know it.
Most of the time, these high achievers try to like their INB. At first. This comes from their innate desire to please their teachers, and it comes from peer pressure. Ask them in a few weeks, and they'll often choose to go back to their former method. 

Don't believe me? Ask them. In private. 

One 8th grade honors student told me he prefers the method that "got me where I am today." Point taken.

#2: At-risk students.

The INB can go either way with students who struggle academically and/or emotionally. For some, the cutting, gluing, and coloring is cathartic, and the fact that it keeps them organized is a wonderful side-effect. For others, the cutting and gluing part is an exercise in frustration, which is completely understandable if their fine-motor skills are still developing. Despite guidance, they often cut on the fold line or pour the glue in big messy globs instead of dotting it frugally. 

For these at-risk students, the INB is just another road to failure. It's cruel to require them to use an INB. 

Who is Left?

When we remove the students who don't benefit from INBs, we are left with some high achievers and some struggling achievers who tend to like the crafty, visual, tactile aspects of them. And we are left with the kids in the middle. 

Just like Jan Brady, the kids in the middle often get ignored, relegated to the sidelines while the Marcias in their life get their awards and accolades, and the Cindys get all of the attention from adults. We owe it to those kids in the middle to give them what they need. And if they need INBs, we should give it to them.

So even with their shortcomings, I do use interactive notebooks in my classes. Because there are solutions to the problems associated with the kids who don't benefit from them.

Solution #1:  Provide a choice.

All of the notes I use in my class are guided, so in addition to offering guided folding notes, I have versions of guided Cornell notes available. These notes have the same exact content and images. They are just as interactive as the folding notes and are formatted using a two column method.

These pages are then stapled into their marble notebooks, so the Table of Contents remains the same for all students. This is important, especially for our struggling learners, because when we need notes on specific topics, it's quick and easy to tell the class to reference pages 10-14.

Some students are determined to keep the notes in a three ring binder. In fact, the three ring binder is sometimes a requirement on an IEP. As long as these students have a well-kept Table of Contents that matches the rest of the class, the binder will work. 

                     Solution #2: Use folding notes with easy to cut straight lines.

Students with manual dexterity problems, will often have problems performing intricate cuts. Once they reach their frustration level it's downhill from there, and it's embarrassing for them to get "cutting" help for a simple task like cutting. Straight lines are much easier for them to tackle.

Solution #3: Pre-cut a batch of notes in advance.

One of my smartest classroom purchases was an inexpensive paper guillotine. In a matter of minutes I can cut the straight edges of a stack of folding notes myself. Sometimes I'll pre-cut notes for a specific class, and sometimes I'll just cut a few pages for struggling students to grab discreetly. They're even helpful to have on hand for students who arrive late to class.

It's time to stop forcing students into uncomfortable learning situations. Isn't there enough of that already? (Hello, standardized test creators...) We have to give them what they need. And by middle school, they are smart enough to know what that is. Let's respect them enough to give it to them.
If you would like to see any of my literary element resources, which all include CHOICES of folding interactive or Cornell interactive notes, click here.

 Literary Elements Bundle Theme: Teach, Practice, Test

 Plot and ConflictAll of these units include an animated PowerPoint show with folding interactive AND Cornell interactive notes. They are available with practice pages and a test or without.

 Figurative Language

Wonderful Free Teaching Resources

All Treats & No Tricks!

Every time October rolls around (which it seems to do annually, what's up with that?) I feel like I'm drowning. Suffocating under the weight of papers, forms, emails, and meetings. I read somewhere that a two hour meeting is exactly as productive as a single, well-written email.

It's true. Maybe it's just true for me because I'm a visual learner. But I don't think so.

When  Pam from Desktop Learning Adventure and I were toying with topic ideas for our October Secondary Smorgasbord blog hop, it occurred to us that everybody is completely fired fried (see how fried I am?), and a little treat is in order. What teachers need right now is a single, well-written email instead of a meeting.

Since we can't give you THAT, we will go with the next best thing. An assortment of wonderful free resources for your viewing and teaching pleasure.

My contribution is a useful freebie for teachers of all subjects. Before you look at it, let me ask you something. Have your students ever written something like this: "The book told me..." or "The article said..." or "I'm going to show you..." If they haven't used those phrases, this is not for you. Move on. You and your entire school system should move to Finland, the Land of Educational Excellence. You deserve it. Bravo.

Some of us aren't so lucky. My students insisted that books say things to them, and they have to announce their topic in a formal manner, like they are introducing Her Majesty, the Queen of England.

I now give you...
Her Royal Highness, the Argumentative Essay I Wrote that will tell you all about School Uniforms...

But when I went over these evidence based terminology handouts, all of that nonsense stopped. Like magic. The suggestions are funny, so kids remember them, and they are colorful, so kids don't mind looking at them. I blew these babies up as posters, and I gave the kids copies for their notebooks, so they can use the information in all of their classes.

 Evidence Based Terminology

No more excuses.

I know that because this blog post told me so. Or was it a single, well-written email?

3 Phrases to Stop a Student Meltdown

One day not long ago, a student I don't know very well stood in front of me and had a full-on, mostly irrational, arms-a-wavin', tears-a-streamin', nose running meltdown.

Maybe it was the stress of six long days of state testing.

Maybe it was due to rushing around for the 20 minute periods that were shortened because of those tests.

Maybe it was the weak coffee from Dunkin Donuts.

Okay. That part was me. It was a tough week or two, so it's no wonder the kids felt stressed out.

I was too worn out to think clearly about what to say. Boy, did I need this student meltdown list.

I felt helpless; I knew I wanted to help the student calm down, but my brain was so fried that I stumbled trying to find the right words. The calm-down took much longer than it should have, and left both of us feeling crummy. I knew I had to find an effective and efficient strategy for handling such an event in the future.

So I went to an expert. I spoke with a good friend, a therapist who works with troubled teens. She told me that the keys to all effective communication must be both active and constructive. She then gave me an emergency script that teachers- and parents- can use to calm a young person who is agitated.

 These are the soothing words that you can use:

1) Speak slowly. I'd like to help you.

This breaks the cycle. It provides the student with hope, and it provides them with constructive advice. They learn that you are empathetic, and if they calm down, you will try to help.

2) What can I do to help you?

This also breaks the cycle and provides the student with a specific action. It gives them an opportunity to articulate exactly what they need at that moment.
3) Let me repeat what I think you said...

The third phrase becomes the beginning of a dialogue. You repeat what they've said to show that you understand. Put the student's feelings into words, which they might be too agitated to do themselves. Thus begins a calm, back-and-forth dialogue.

One more thing. Use the student's name often. In How to Win Friends and Influence People, Dale Carnegie said this about using a person's name:

Acknowledging the student's name will make them much more likely to listen to you.

I'm keeping the phrases on a card behind my desk, just in case I need them. If you click on the image below, you can print one for yourself.

Good luck!
 Stop a Student Meltdown

Literary League Back to School Giveaway!

The Literary League, a group of exceptional secondary English Language Arts teachers, is hosting a Back to School Give-Away. Enter to win a choice of gift cards, middle school and high school ELA resource bundles, and shopping sprees to middle and high school ELA TPT stores.

By the time I grab my books and I give myself a look I'm at the corner just in time to see the bus fly by. It's alright’ cause I'm saved by The Literary League! That’s right, we are at it again! It’s one of the biggest back-to-school give-aways courtesy of some of your favorite ELA sellers. 

We’re teachers too, so we know that feeling of going back to school.  Cure those back to school blues by entering this HUGE give-away. Not only multiple prize packs, but also multiple winners!

The give-away will run Monday 8/31 to Monday 9/14. You’ll see some familiar and maybe even some new faces, so follow our stores and our social media accounts, and stay updated with what’s new! Winners will be announced Tuesday 9/15.

The Literary League, a group of exceptional secondary English Language Arts teachers, is hosting a Back to School Give-Away. Enter to win a choice of gift cards, middle school and high school ELA resource bundles, and shopping sprees to middle and high school ELA TPT stores.

Prize # 1: Gift Card of Choice
Win a $50 gift card to Teachers Pay Teachers, Amazon, Staples or Target.

a Rafflecopter giveaway

Prize #2: Middle School Resources
Win all of the resources listed below for your middle school ELA classroom.
a Rafflecopter giveaway

Prize #3: High School Resources
Win all of the resources listed below for your high school ELA classroom.
Close Reading: Guide Your Students Through the Process
Interactive Notebook Bundle
Rhetoric: The Art of Persuasion
Common Core Literature Bell Ringers for Secondary English
Found Poetry Packet
Introduction to Close Reading for Middle and High School - Model and Practice
Critical Thinking: What is Textual Analysis #2
Fiction and Nonfiction Test Passages
Short Story Starters Task Cards 

a Rafflecopter giveaway

Prize # 4: Middle School TpT Store Shopping Spree 
Win a $10 shopping spree to one of the TpT Stores listed below.
2 Peas and a Dog
The Creative Classroom
Literary Sherri
Mrs. Spangler in the Middle
Darlene Anne
Fisher Reyna Education
Brain Waves Instruction
Stacey Lloyd
James Whitaker's Sophist Thoughts
Created by MrHughes
ELA Everyday

a Rafflecopter giveaway

Prize #5: High School TpT Store Shopping Spree  
Win a $10 shopping spree to one of the TpT Stores listed below.
Room 213
The Daring English Teacher
Making Meaning with Melissa
Linda Jennifer
Brynn Allison
Juggling ELA

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Smart Pinterest Strategies for Teachers

A few years ago, I went to set up my classroom before school started, and I noticed a shiny new teacher hanging posters in the room across the hall. As I walked over to introduce myself, I had to negotiate my way past several big black garbage bags, full to the brim. I was pretty impressed with shiny new teacher's drive and ambition.

We chatted, I welcomed her, offered to help, yada yada. And then I noticed. The huge filing cabinet, drawers wide open and totally empty. My name, in Sharpie, written down the side.

It was mine. My file cabinet. Empty.

The garbage bags? All of my files. All of my plans. All of my everything. 

After waxing the floors, the custodial staff had placed my file cabinet in the wrong room. Shiny new teacher couldn't have known, so I tried to cry in private. I didn't want to tarnish the shine. 

Times have changed. These days I use that very same file cabinet to hold an extra pair of sneakers and an extension cord. Why? Because of my computer. And because of Pinterest. 

Pinterest isn't just for sharing recipes and cute outfits. It can be a classroom teacher's best friend. Here's how I recommend using it.

Create Unit of Study Boards

 Nonfiction for Middle School StudentsCreate a board for each unit of study that you teach, and pin photos, videos, books, and lessons pertaining to that lesson. With everything in one place, I can easily locate the anchor chart or mentor text I had in mind for a lesson. When I pin a YouTube video, I often remove the annoying sidebar first, so I'm never scrambling to hide the inappropriate images that sometimes appear. 

On my Middle School Nonfiction board, I keep track of books I'd like to purchase for class. When I'm in a bookstore or at the library, I can easily whip out my phone and open the board using the Pinterest app. Before Pinterest I would have everything in my notes app. Or worse yet, I would text myself titles. Try scrolling through that mess to find something quickly. Sheesh.

Share Ideas with Teammates

Make a teammate a co-pinner on the board so that you can collaborate and share ideas and resources.You'll avoid sending a lengthy list of emails links that get lost in the email abyss. The board will be easy to find, and the information on it can be accessed whenever it is needed.

I teach an short advisory class and often team up with a coworker to raise money for a local children's charity. We buy supplies, and spend the 10 minute period making crafts, which the kids then sell to other kids and teachers in the school. It's difficult to find a quick, easy, and cost effective project that can be started and completed in a timely manner, so when I come across something in my Pinterest "travels," I pin it to my Creative Ideas board. I love that board and also use it to pin classroom "hacks."

Use Pinterest as a Muse

Pinterest's search function provides a wonderful way to find educational sites, helpful blog posts, and all kinds of teaching ideas. You can be as specific as you would like. Just type in a variety of search words and terms and see what comes up. You can modify your search to look for pins or boards, which is extremely helpful. For instance, let's say you are interested in finding writing ideas to use in a middle school classroom. Search "writing, middle school students" and then click "boards." You will have a chance to look through the boards of someone who has already pinned useful information, saving you a lot of precious time.   

Don't forget to follow pinners who have similar interests as you. Often, they will follow you back, and you can be online "collaborators" of sorts, sharing information with ease. 

While you are exploring the wonders of Pinterest, you might want to check out our Secondary Smorgasbord board. It's the place to go to find pins related to our wonderful and informative monthly blog hops.
 Ideas for Secondary Teachers