Middle School Memoir Unit Part 1: Picking a Topic and Getting them Motivated

For the first time in quite some time, I decided to teach a unit on memoir writing.  Two years after interning at Nancie Atwell’s Center for Teaching and Learning, I was finally ready to use what I had learned.  I relied heavily on the information learned at CTL as well as Atwell’s book Lessons that Change Writers ,and I am very proud of how the unit turned out and the growth each student made as a writer in the process.  I am very excited to share my process and some of my students’ work with you.

I spent a lot of time working with my students on choosing a meaningful topic as I often find that this is one of the hardest things for a student to do.  Here are the pre-writing steps I took as well as some reflections.

  1. Brainstorming possible topics.  In Lessons that Change Writers, Atwell includes a great list of questions for memoirists to ask themselves when considering what to write about. “What are my earliest memories? What’s an incident that changed my life? What’s a time or a place I felt as if my heart were breaking?” are just a few. I chose to read each question orally and have my students bullet potential answers.  Periodically, we would stop to allow students to share responses to hopefully inspire others in the class.  As I read over questions, I added questions to my own personal list to support students who felt blocked. After reading over twenty questions, students had a giant list of potential topics to choose from and likely a lot more ideas than if I had them brainstorm from memory alone.
  2. Narrowing down topics.  After talking about Atwell’s “Rule of So What” with the students, I asked students to narrow down their list to two or three topics that they felt had a “So What” and they would also enjoy writing about.  Students then met in small groups and interviewed each other regarding their potential topics.  My students are well-practiced in working with each other in a “professional way,” and as a result, their discussions were very rich.  It’s always exciting to hear students question their peers regarding whether or not their work truly meets the guidelines of the genre.  This step did go fairly well, but in retrospect I should have spent more time really discussing the importance of having a “So What” in the student’s pieces.  Later on in the process as students began to write, it became clear that some students were finding this challenging. More time at the beginning would have likely helped students better see that the purpose of memoir writing is not just to record an event but to reflect and show the importance of it.
  3. Writing smaller. Even once the students had a topic, I noticed that many of the topics were broad, which would make it hard for them to write in a way that included thoughts and feelings.  I am a firm believe in modeling work for students for many different reasons but primarily because students often need to see how something works in action.   I think this is especially important when narrowing down a topic.  I knew that my model memoir was going to be about my grandmother’s battle with Alzheimer’s disease, but I didn’t know what part of the story I wanted to tell.  I worked with my students to discover how I could make this topic smaller.  We brainstormed all of the different elements of my grandmother’s battle (having to help her at her house, deciding to send her to the nursing home, when I first found out she had the disease, her first day in the nursing home, etc.).  We then discussed each idea in relation to my “So What” which was to show how my grandmother’s disease impacted but ultimately didn’t change our relationship.  I was able to uncover, with help from the students, that I thought the best way to do this was to talk about bringing her to the nursing home for the first time.  Students then went into their own work and, again with a partner, discussed how to narrow down their topics so that they focused on one main event that allowed them to explore their “So What?” in the best manner possible.
  4. 6-Word Memoirs: My favorite step in the pre-writing process was the most fun and one that I’ve been waiting for a long time to do.  I wanted my students to really think about why they were telling their stories and thought the 6-word memoir might be a good approach.  We examined and discussed some 6-word memoir videos on YouTube (there are many), and talked about the difference between creating a 6-word memoir vs. a 6-word motto. After I modeled some potential phrases and sentences for my own topic, I then asked my students to brainstorm some ideas that would summarize and show the importance of their memoir in just six words.  This was definitely hard for them at first, but I do think they ended up having fun with it and also believed it helped get them excited for the writing they were about to do.   Students used large post-it notes to brainstorm their ideas as seen below.

    After a good chunk of time, we placed their work all over the classroom for a gallery walk.  As the class (me included) silently examined each other’s work, they starred the phrases they loved, left comments, and asked questions. Following this peer revision technique, the writer then finalized their choice and illustrated their point using a poster, which I later videoed. 

    Although I don’t know how much this activity helped my students really understand why they were writing, I do think it helped them think about their stories in a different way. Some students eventually decided against their original topic later on, so their 6-word memoir didn’t end up matching up with their final project, but I firmly believe this activity helped get their creative juices flowing while also creating genuine enthusiasm for the unit.   Not to mention that it created a sense of community and made students a little less afraid to share something personal. I would do this again in heartbeat.

Would love to hear your thoughts and suggestions on my work.  How do you start off your memoir unit?

The Power of Student Blogging: A Simple Reflection

My 8th grade students recently finished editorials.  Throughout the process, I had told them that these editorials would also serve as their first posts on our class blog.  After multiple drafts and a great deal of effort, students have begun to excitedly post their work, eager for feedback.  Today,  I had students reflect on what they learned about their writing process from the assignment.  If people still wonder whether or not their students should be blogging, I offer this comment from a student’s reflection:

“At times in my writing, I felt like giving up, but then I’d remember we were posting on our blogs and I became excited.”

The writing got hard, but she persisted.  Why? She knew her voice would be heard.  The power of an audience of many.

Student Choice Doubters – Read On.

There always seems to be debate amongst educators regarding how much choice students should have in their own education.  And although there has been plenty of research done by both psychologists and educators regarding how important choice to both  learning and motivation – Thank you, Alfie Kohn and Daniel Pink! – there still remains doubters.  I’d thought I’d share three stories that have occurred to me recently that made me once again appreciate how important choice is not only for students but also for their teachers.

  •  An “Un-conference”:  I am a member of my school’s vision steering committee and one of our main purposes is to help plan and offer faculty professional development that will both inspire and move us forward as we delve deeper into PBL and begin using a block schedule.  Knowing that in the past, teachers have had little, if any, say in what would happen on these days, our committee thought we would shake it up a bit by using the un-conference model. An un-conference, as its name suggests, is not a typical PD experience.  Instead of having pre-determined sessions and speakers, the day is created by those in attendance.  Individuals share topics of interest  and the schedule is created from this list of ideas.  (My colleague Dana Huff gives a great overview of our process on her blog if you are interested in how we ran this.)  In a nutshell, our faculty members had a significant amount of choice what types of sessions they would partake in. As a result, people seemed genuinely more engaged in the process, those who tend to be more reluctant to participate had strong voices, and I can speak from personal experience to say that I found it energizing and inspiring to discuss ideas that I found important with colleagues who felt the same way.  My discussions would also immediately have an impact on my teaching.  Most of us as teachers have sat through uninspiring PD.  Many of us may have only gotten through these experiences by checking email or playing Words with Friends.   Neither helps our students.  What does help?  Giving faculty members some choice over their own growth and trusting that what they will choose will be worth it.
  • Adopting independent reading: I had the privilege to participate in a week-long internship at The Center for Teaching and Learning (CTL), a school in Maine founded by Nancie Atwell, where I observed how to run a reading and writing workshop.  One of Atwell’s philosophies that is evident throughout the school and in any of her writing is the importance of choice in both reading and writing.  Students at the school have almost complete authority in choosing what they read.  In the middle school, where I spent most of my time, there are no class reads; reading skills are developed primarily through choice books and reading conferences.  At first I challenged this idea as I do see the value in having an entire class read the same book and think the discussion that results from doing so is important, I quickly changed my viewpoint.  The students there were incredibly well-spoken, had astounding analytical ability, and most importantly, loved reading.  And though I will not be giving up my class reads, I very quickly realized that I had to figure out how to also get my students to read books of their own choosing.  Though I had always encouraged my students to read on their own, I never required it, and their reading was dwindling. Using the CTL model, I  now expect my students to read for 20 minutes each night in addition to the 45 minute period we spend reading and conferencing in class once a week.  The catch?  They could only read books they found enjoyable.  Although at first some students balked at the idea, proclaiming that 20 minutes every day was far too much, it has not taken long to completely win them over.  My proof occurred this Tuesday, our first day back from a long winter break. As I walked up the stairs to my class, I realized my students were already present, so I got ready to settle them down, expecting them to all be conversing about their time off. Imagine my surprise when I see every student in the class frantically recording all the books they read over winter break into their reading log, proud of their achievement and eager to share their accomplishments. Not only did this happen in my first class but also my second.  Every student, even my most reluctant readers, finished at least one book.  One student finished as many as eight.  Books ranged from the latest John Green to a Tom Clancy thriller to Animal Farm.  Not only are they choosing books that are enjoyable but they are also picking ones with high literary merit.  During our combined reading workshop the following day, 10 of my students presented book talks; it is obvious they are starting to love reading and are not afraid to show it.  Their vocabulary is improving.  Their writing is getting stronger.  Their understanding of what makes something a valuable piece of literature is developing.  It is hard for me not to beam with pride.  I’m finally achieving what I sought out to do when I decided to become an English teacher: share my love of reading with my students and help build theirs.  I don’t for one second think this would have happened if I told my students exactly what book they had to read over vacation.
  • Allowing student choice in writing:  I have always been a firm believer in allowing students as much choice as possible in their writing.  I have had my students blog every year for the past six years and typically allow them to blog about any topic of their choice as long as it remains school appropriate.  In doing so, I am often amazed at what actually interests them, how they see the world, and how much better they voice their opinions and put together an argument when the topic matters.  In the past few weeks, my students have written editorials on topics of their choice which have ranged from the Richie Incognito scandal to gay marriage to child labor.  I was a little nervous when one of my students decided that she was going to defend Miley Cyrus – really, how can you defend her, I asked – but I was glad I let her go with it.  Her final product argued that although what Miley was doing at the MTV Video Music Awards wasn’t great, the focus was completely on Miley and not on her “twerking” partner Robin Thicke. She went on to discuss double standards and maintained that the focus should be on the demeaning nature of Thicke’s song, which many believe is about rape.  Many people might fear, and I’ll acknowledge I did a bit, that when an 8th grader decides to defend Miley Cyrus that their argument will be immature and lack substance.   This was not the case here.  I gave this student expectations regarding the assignment and she surpassed them. And because she was writing about a topic that mattered to her, her voice was strong and her writing sound.  Amazing.

What prevents us from allowing people to choose their own paths?  Trust.  When we tell people how to act or what to do, it is because we assume that they are not able to figure that out for themselves or that they are going to make the wrong decision.  They might not choose the best workshop or pick the best book or write something of substance.  They don’t know what’s best for them.  Therefore, we have to do it for them.

Now, I am not someone who believes that an 8th grader should determine every aspect of their academic career.  I, as a teacher, also know that I cannot control absolutely everything about my curriculum or job.  But I do realize how  important it is for me to have some choice in my learning process.  And how much more enthusiastic I am about the process when I do.   Honestly, my students are not that different.

Summer Reading Blog = Writing Pre-Assessment

Photo Credit: Gibson Regester
Photo Credit: Gibson Regester

Just Say No to Book Reports and Yes to Blogging!

I wish I could remember the name of the graduate school professor I had who facetiously made this statement about book reports – “Yes, the first thing I want to do when I finish a great book, is to make a diorama” – because that really struck a chord. Not that there’s anything wrong with dioramas per se, but like many, usually when I read a great book, I want to process it and talk about it.  I do not want to make a mobile of important characters and symbols (is it bazaar that I can still picture the mobile I made in third grade but have no idea what book said mobile was on) or run to find the nearest empty shoebox.  Thus, in my attempt to stop destroying reading for my students, I have tried to change up the dreaded summer reading project to hopefully! make it a bit more interesting.

In the past few years, I have asked students to write a book review of the various required readings that they have done, and although I don’t think this was a bad approach, it really only allowed me to view their writing once school had already started.  This was helpful but would have been more beneficial over the summer when I try to do a lot of planning.  So, in trying to work “smarter not harder,” I have dropped this activity and instead am asking my students to respond to some discussion boards via our classroom blog.

Although I firmly believe in having students create the content on the blog, for this summer blogging experience, I have asked students to respond to questions I have created, seeing as the majority of these students have not done any form of blogging before. Basically, I am using the blog as the means for threaded discussions.    Below, you will find my process for creating the posts regarding our summer reading book The Book Thief.  You can also check out our Summer Reading Page and feel free to add to our discussion if you have read The Book Thief!

Thoughts about Process:

  • Why a blog and not Schoology or something similar: If this were done during the school year, Schoology discussion boards would be a great tool, but seeing as the summer is a time to create new classes and archive previous information on the site, I felt this activity would be easiest with something I could easily control and that was also very simple to use for new students.
  • Optional “I’m confused” posts:  The Book Thief is a fairly long book that can sometimes be confusing due to the unique narration style.  I decided to create a few posts allowing students to ask questions regarding the book as I didn’t want them to continue reading not having any idea what was going on.  So far, these haven’t been used, and they may not, but at least the students (and parents) know they are there if need be.  I monitor all posts, so students can respond to their classroom’s questions but if there is an error in information, I can easily delete the post.
  • Limited number of discussion boards:  I will be teaching a small class next year of about 48 students.  I did not want to have so many discussion boards that there ended up being little discussion.  I also wanted to make sure my students responses to said discussions were varied and not repetitive.
  • Required number of sentences per posts: I’ll admit that this is something I hemmed and hawed about as I am not a firm believer in this approach.  However, I do not know these students all that well nor they me.  They do not know my expectations, and I do not want them to “mess up” because they didn’t understand what I was looking for.  Requiring a certain amount of sentences and providing models for what good responses look like makes sure that students are taking the easy out and also makes sure they provide enough information that I can use as pre-assessments.
  • More  required responses to classmates than individual thoughts:  I want my students to read what their peers are writing.  This will allow them to see a book at a different level.  If they are only writing down their own thoughts, they will never stop and read what their classmates have written.  So, I can guarantee that they will read at least four of their classmates thoughts simply by making this requirement.
  • Models, Models, Models:  It’s no surprise that I just finished Kelly Gallagher’s Write Like Us, a book that discusses the importance of modeling while teaching writing.  I have provided many models of both good and bad comments so that my students know exactly the type of writing I am looking for. Continue reading

Command F or How I Got 8th Graders to Actually Edit their Essays

Photo Link: http://capitalcomtech.info/page/19/
Photo Link: http://capitalcomtech.info/page/19/

My education instructors would probably be terribly disappointed to find out that some of my “best teaching moments” have not come from careful planning and thought but were merely off the cuff ideas.  Case in point – finally finding something to actually get 8th graders to edit a piece of writing – ON THEIR OWN!

I view editing differently than revising and always tell my students that it is the last thing they should do before turning in a piece of work.  Students write all their essays on GoogleDocs in my class, and although I do typically have them print out a paper to revise, they often will stick to the computer for editing.  This doesn’t mean they do it well or even have any idea where to start.  I finally came to the conclusion this year that I could not leave my students to edit on their own, even after what I believed was careful instruction, but that I needed to give them time in class to edit their writing, so I could actually watch their approach.

This year as I reviewed some tips with students regarding things they should look over and some strategies for doing so, I suggested they use the Find feature on their browser to look for common errors.  Little did I know that this one spur of the moment thought – and it was just that –  would have such a great effect on my students’ writing.  We brainstormed things that we could put into the Find feature: we found commas to make sure we were putting them in the right places, looked for words that frequently cause fragments (if you’re familiar with Jeff Anderson’s Mechanically Inclined, they are known as AAAWWUBBIS words), and even typed in some commonly misspelled words among other things.

In about fifteen minutes, students realized that they found a good number of errors in their work, but more importantly that they found errors that they knew how to fix.  They were excited to make the changes and felt accomplished at the work they put in. . At the end of the year, when I asked students to edit their papers on their own and reflect on the strategies that they used to edit their work, the majority of the class used the Find feature.  Several even commented on their formal evaluations that this was something that greatly helped them as writers.  It was important that they realized how quick this strategy was and how much it could improve their work.  Let’s face it – 8th graders don’t exactly have long attention spans, especially for things they do not think work.

Something often so simple is easily overlooked but can be extremely powerful.  This tool was helpful for my students because it was tangible and allowed them to focus on one thing at at time.   I often tell them that the best writers are not those that do not make mistakes but are those that realize the mistakes they frequently made. This simple strategy allowed my students better understanding of their own writing and better grades as a result.  And who can complain about that!

How Online Grading Made Me a Better Teacher

Photo Credit: Nedral
Photo Credit: Nedral

I have used Google Docs (now Drive) in the classroom for about six years now, and I can honestly say that it has improved my ability as an English teacher probably more than any other tech-related tool.  I could list a bunch of different reasons why I think it is something that every student and teacher in the country should be using, but perhaps that will come later.  Instead, I want to discuss its ability to allow me to grade better and offer more detailed and specific feedback to my students.

I did not start out by grading online even after the first couple of years of using Google Docs, mostly because it seemed a bit tedious.  As an English teacher, it was frustrating to have to add in things like commas and then change the color so the student knew that I had changed his work.  It was easier for me to just grade by pen.   Despite this, there were times when I would provide feedback and grades online, and even when it was somewhat burdensome, I realized that the quality of my comments was much higher – largely because I could type faster than I write, write more, and not be held back by the writer’s cramp that most English teacher can identify with after grading a stack of 60 three-page papers.

My students appreciated the feedback online as well.  They didn’t have to worry about figuring out my cursive/print style hand-writing, easily could identify which portion of the paper I was talking about as Google Docs highlights the section of the writing attached to the comment, and didn’t have to worry about losing the paper if they wanted to go back and see prior mistakes.  Their positive response made me realize that even if it was at times tedious, the good far outweighed the bad.  Plus, it became tremendously helpful for me to be able to have a record of my comments that I could look back to when writing grades and assessing future work.  I didn’t have to worry about making photocopies.  And when I needed to find a previous piece of writing, I didn’t have to search through the stacks of paper still waiting to be filed at the corner of my desk.  Do teachers actually have time to file??  Everything was neatly arranged in folders that students had created and shared with me on Google Docs.  Portfolios? Check.

As I began to solely grade papers online, I also realized that I was doing too much for my students.  Fixing sentences with poor punctuation, re-writing structures to help students get them to sound right, or pointing out every single mistake did not help them – especially when for the most part, they didn’t re-write their final drafts.  Now, instead of identifying every mistake, I focus on things I am going to be assessing and color-code student’s work in terms of the type of error they make.  For example, spelling or mechanical mistakes are highlighted blue and sentence structure mistakes are highlighted in red.  Students then must go back and figure out the type of error they made – with help if necessary – and re-write the sentence so it no longer contains a mistake.  This forces them to actually think about what they did wrong and, more importantly, it puts the corrections in the hands of the person who needs to know how to fix them, and it makes my students more independent and responsible for their own learning.

I will, of course, continue to grade online, but also know that sometimes I wish I had a pen that I could add symbols like arrows or stars to what I am grading.  This is why I was so excited to see that there is an app soon to be coming to the iPad that will allow you to mark-up a Google Doc with a stylus.  The app is called gradeonipad and I, personally, cannot wait for the email to come through that says I can give it a try.  With this app, I can’t imagine why any English teacher would continue making his/her students print out papers that they are then forced to carry home if they had the option.  And even if you don’t have access to an iPad, give Google Docs and online grading a try.  Trust me, it’s worth it.