Tuesday, November 14, 2017

Sojourner Truth Speech Writing Activity

Sojourner Truth's "Ain't I a Woman?" speech is short and powerful. I assign this reading during our argumentative essay writing unit and then we analyze it for logic and persuasive techniques.

I recently started assigning a writing activity to go along with it, and it was successful. I got some of the best writing out of my students all quarter because they wrote passionately.  Here's the prompt:

Write a short, logical, persuasive speech defending yourself against something you have been denied or a stereotype or misconception about you.

Some examples of something students have been denied are attending an event or place because of age, a request to a parent (allowance, pet, expensive clothes...), membership in a club, a job they applied for, or a class change. Examples of stereotypes of misconceptions are that video game players are lazy, people who get good grades are nerds, athletes are not smart, or girls are too dramatic.

My students had no problem coming up with something. In fact, many immediately started writing the second I finished writing the prompt. The examples I gave were light-hearted and some were silly, but some students wrote about very serious racial stereotypes and misconceptions, and they said it felt good to be able to communicate what they felt.

 Here's a link to "Ain't I a Woman?" if you want to give this a try:


Tuesday, October 10, 2017

Using APA format in the Secondary Classroom

The vast majority of English teachers in middle and high school teach MLA formatting for essays with good reason, as it is what students will most likely be required to use in their first year of college. It is the format used for English and the Humanities, after all. 

But after having taught entry-level writing at several different colleges, I found students won't always use MLA. At one college, all freshman were required to use APA, as the school's majors were primarily in the social sciences. APA formatting is the preferred format for the social sciences, and for many students with majors and careers in these fields, MLA will be nothing but a distant memory from high school.

Teaching APA on the secondary level is useful for several reasons. The most important, perhaps, is that when taught in addition to MLA, it will prepare students for college writing. It is good for students to understand that there are different styles for different types of writing. It will increase their flexibility in the different rhetorical strategies. 

Unlike MLA formatting, APA style includes headings and sections, which can lead to more thoughtful and intuitive organization. Assigning one of the two most common APA-style papers, literature review or experimental report, will give students excellent experience in these rhetorical modes. 

APA also has many writing style rules, which can seem overwhelming on the secondary level when we are trying to teach the basics of good writing, but I've found most of these style rules are already the things we are encouraging our students to do, such as writing in active voice instead of passive voice. When I teach APA to beginning composition students, we focus on the formatting and save the style rules for more advanced classes. 

There are plenty of APA guidelines online. My favorite is the Online Writing Lab at Purdue, but if you would like some resources on the basics meant for secondary students, I've got some for your here:


Tuesday, October 3, 2017

Success Writing Prompts - Four Rhetorical Strategies

There are a lot of good writing prompts out there that ask for an opinion, but there are few that ask for rhetorical strategies beyond that. I created this product to help students practice writing with different methods - expository, narrative, persuasive, and research-based. Each prompt has a quote from a famous person on an aspect of success, and then a writing prompt that promotes critical thinking. Students write in the mode specified at the top of the page. There are ten for each strategy.

I also created this product in three versions for maximum flexibility: print, digital (for Google Drive and MS One Drive), and a Power Point presentation. Whether you want to hand out copies for students to write on, have students write on the computer, or project a slide and have students use their own paper, you're covered. Click on the picture above or here to get to the product preview.

Tuesday, September 26, 2017

Extreme Sports Argumentative Writing Prompt

One of my favorite activities in class to practice a particular writing skill is to show a short video about a high-interest topic and then give the class a writing prompt after a class discussion. By far, the most engaging topic for this method is extreme sports. The videos are gripping, and everyone pays attention. 

Here are two videos on YouTube about the topic that I like to show together. The first one is some amazing footage of people doing some extreme sports. The second explores the psychology behind it. 



In the class discussion, we talk about why people engage in these sports, but also the risk, the cost of rescue operations, and the legality of some of the stunts. This discussion always leads to arguments (in a good way!) and therefore, the prompts are easy:  Should people be able to engage in high-risk sports in national parks? Should they be required to pay for search and rescue if they get in trouble? Should the deadliest sports be illegal or regulated? Why would someone want to engage in such a dangerous activity? Is the freedom to do what you want worth the risk to rescue personnel? 

I think you'll find a lively discussion on this topic and some excellent written responses.

If you would like to add some reading to supplement the topic, click on the photos below for informational articles on extreme sports. The reading level is grades 5 - 8, but because of the subject matter, they are appropriate for high school students as well. 

Tuesday, September 19, 2017

The 5 Essays You Must Master To Be College Ready

My new book is finally available! After many years of teaching college students who are not quite ready for the demands of college-level writing, I identified the information and practice that they needed in five different rhetorical strategies to be ready. This book incorporates my most successful classroom curriculum, modified for secondary students who are homeschooled or working with a tutor or parent to enhance their skills. 

This is a full program, with exercises, step-by-step processes for each essay type, samples, and clear essay assignments for each essay type. Writing teachers will also find valuable information and projects for their classes. I'll be using it as a textbook for my future classes. 

This baby has been years in the making, and I'm proud it's finally here! Click here to purchase. 

Tuesday, September 12, 2017

The Glass Castle Movie and Book Comparison

The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls is a favorite of my students, so I was excited about the movie that was released in August. I'm hoping it will bring more attention to this book that has so fully engaged my students. You can read about my experience with it in the classroom in my blog post here.

Usually, I'm disappointed with the movie version of any book, and I was worried when I went to see it, because The Glass Castle is dear to my heart. In fact, I was prepared to be disappointed, and even angry if they messed with it too much.

They did mess with it, but I was pleasantly surprised. Better yet, I immediately saw how this movie would work perfectly with the book for a compare/contrast assignment.

Some of the changes they made from the book to the movie are evident right away. The main change is that the book opens with Jeannette as an adult, and then tells a linear story from when she was three years old to her adulthood. The movie alternates between her adult self coming to grips with her childhood, shown through a series of flashbacks. It works. There is certainly a different dynamic, but I found it interesting and the integrity of the story held. My first thought after the movie was how this structural differences would be excellent fodder for a comparison discussion with the book. Why did the director make this choice? How did it change the perception of the viewer/reader? Which version was more effective?

The other changes seemed like necessities of the format, such as skipping over locations and storylines to fit the time constraints. The movie also makes a main character out of Jeannette's fiancé, who is a minor player in the book. These are also good discussion points about how these choices affected the story.

The Glass Castle is not an easy story. It dredges up powerful emotions in many, and has mature themes and storylines, but it is not easily forgotten. Jeannette's ability to forgive and to craft a bright future for herself are uplifting and inspiring in the end, and the movie brings this into clear focus once again.

Tuesday, September 5, 2017

Discouraging Plagiarism

The bane of my existence in teaching is plagiarism. I do everything I can to explain to students why they should not plagiarize, and I spend a significant amount of time on making sure they know what it is. I even have them take a quiz on it before their first big paper. Despite all that, there are always the cheaters.

The luxury of being a writing teacher, however, is that I can usually discourage most of the cheating by requiring a process that would make it difficult to turn in a copied paper. Here is the process that I use (which is also just a good process for writing in general):

1.  I ask a specific question, perhaps comparing and contrasting two different articles, or limiting their choice of topic. This makes it harder to find something to copy that fits the prompt. I never assign an open-ended paper.

2. I require students to turn in sources ahead of time for approval. They are free to change their minds about the sources, but they must email me links to their new sources any time before the paper is due. Sometimes, if the topic is narrow enough, I supply one of the sources as a starting point and require that they include it.

3. I assign in-class, graded assignments for the paper. Perhaps students will write two or three introductions and then do group work to determine the best introduction for their papers. Maybe I will have them free write a body paragraph, or turn in a finished paragraph for feedback.

4. I always require a rough draft and rewrites. If they do not turn one in by the deadline, they still have to include one with their final paper, or they don't get any credit.

None of these alone will deter all plagiarism, but taken together, it would be more work to plagiarize the whole process than just writing a new paper.

Most important, however, is early intervention for someone who seems overwhelmed. If a student has been absent a lot and not turning in preliminary assignments or in-class work, I take them aside and ask how I can help, and gently work into the conversation that they must be careful not to panic and do something that they would regret later. In my experience, the students who plagiarize are those who have procrastinated or tried to do a last-minute paper and gave into the temptation to try the easy way out. I tell my classes frequently that anything they can accomplish is far better than anything they can copy.

Here are some resources to help your students understand plagiarism.  The first is a free checklist you can use in your classroom and the second is a complete teaching plan with explanations, examples, exercises and a quiz.

Tuesday, August 29, 2017

Every day vs. Everyday

The most common mistake I see in commercial signage, besides apostrophes, is using "everyday" instead of "every day." It drives me crazy because the difference is simple, and they mean different things. You would think that before a company would spend thousands of dollars printing their ads, they would have a proofreader look it over. Does this grate on anyone else's nerves as much as mine? Below are two of the latest offenders. Props to Firehouse Subs, though, for using an apostrophe appropriately in Kids' Combo.

It's also not unusual to find "everyday" and "every day" in student writing. No wonder, since the misuse is everywhere. Here's the simple rule, and a few examples to help ground them in their memories:

Everyday is an adjective that means "routine, usual, or mundane."  Examples: You don't want to wear your everyday clothes to the wedding.  Snow is an everyday event in the winter here.  Paper plates are our everyday dishes.

Every day means "each day."  Examples: I eat oatmeal for breakfast every day. Every day is a new start. Someone has to walk the dog every day.

To remember the difference, just remind students that if they can substitute "each day" then "every day" is correct. So the signs above should read "Kids 12 and Under Eat Free Every Day after 4 pm" and "Eat at least 6-8 servings of fruit and veggies every day."

Easy, right? Now if I could just stop seeing these mistakes every day!

Tuesday, August 22, 2017

Learning Students' Names (and more!) Activity

I am a big proponent of learning students' names early on, and several studies bear out the importance of this. In a recent small study of students in a large class, 85% said it was important to them that instructors know their name, but 80% of the students said it was "unlikely" that the instructors could name them. Not only did the students say they felt more valued when instructors knew their name, but they were also more likely to ask for help. I'm on board for that!

In the past, the most effective method I've used is taking their pictures in groups with each person holding a piece of paper with their name. (See my blog post about this here.)

I recently read about another method that sounds even better that I'm going to try this Fall, where each student glues a picture of him or herself to a notecard and gives their basic information. I'll modify this by making it a class activity at the end of the first week. I'll take group pictures the first day (many students don't have access to a color printer) and have them cut out their face and glue it to a half sheet of paper with questions on it. I'll include questions to help me also get insight into how I can be the most helpful in their learning process.

Here's an example of what they will look like:

I like the idea of memorizing not only their names, but a little about each student. The extra effort will pay off for everyone.

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

7 Ideas for Establishing Class Rules and Still be Nice

I had my first class with severe behavior issues this past semester. I've had individual behavior problems and small groups with attitudes and lack of motivation, but this was a classroom-wide issue, with just a few students who kept to themselves and away from the majority troublemakers.

I did a brave thing and asked a group of the troublemakers at the end of the semester what part of this was me. One student, in particular, was honest and said that I came off as "super nice" at the beginning, so they felt like they could run over me. When it turned out that I was actually strict about the rules, it was a surprise, and they pushed back. Everyone agreed. Another student piped in that most teachers come off as strict at the beginning, and then "turn nice," but I was the opposite. Although I was very glad that semester was over (it was so bad, I'd sit in the parking lot in my car beforehand and do breathing exercises), I was grateful that I got real feedback.

I've been teaching for eight years, so it's obviously not something that will happen with every class that views me as "super nice," but I never want to repeat last semester. So how do I temper "nice" with "strict" right from the beginning? Here's what I'm going to try:

1. Be consistent from day one with the rules. Always with a smile.

2. Involve the students more with class rule-making. This is something I always do, but I'll put a greater emphasis on it and even include a writing activity about it. Ownership in classroom management equals better behavior.

3. Talk personally with troublemakers right away and enlist their help.

4. Try not to joke about misbehaviors in class that are often humorous. This will be hard, but I'm committed. Sometimes the troublemakers are the cleverest humans.

5. Repeat the class policies and rules two weeks into the semester. Often students don't remember everything from the first day because of the amount of information they get from each class. I will also have students do a self-evaluation and quiz on the policies.

6. If a rule becomes an issue (cell phones, anyone?), post a countdown on the wall for motivation (5 days cell-phone free!) with a reward attached to a certain amount of days.

7. I learned long ago that students respect teachers who hold their ground. They also respect teachers who listen well. I am re-dedicated to letting students know they are heard, even if I don't deviate from policy. I will schedule more time for one-on-one instruction and conferencing.

I still want to be nice. I want to be perceived as nice. But I won't ever make the mistake of "super nice" again!

Tuesday, August 8, 2017

Fidget Spinners in the Classroom

Fidget spinners are everywhere, but do they belong in the classroom? Some say yes, as they are thought to help students with ADHD, anxiety, stress, or autism focus better on their lessons. The hard evidence is purely anecdotal, however, and teachers are likely to say they have the opposite effect, creating distraction instead of concentration. 

There is evidence that fidget devices can help a certain population. Studies have been done that show positive results with small, hand-held items such as putty, stress balls, or even a smooth stone. It stands to reason that fidget spinners could have the same effect, but who is to judge who truly benefits, and who is just playing? A second problem is that unlike these other objects, fidget spinners have a visual component. The spinning, whirring, colorful device is hard not to watch, and that's compounded by the fact that they are excellent tools for doing tricks.

Almost 11 percent of kids ages 4 to 17 have been diagnosed with ADHD, and many more are undiagnosed. Add to that the number of kids with anxiety, stress, or autism who could also benefit from a fidget item, it's hard to dismiss the possibilities of improved focus for this many kids. Some teachers, however, think they amount to nothing but trouble. One sixth grade teacher famously called them "helicopters of distraction" in a blog post that went viral.

Whether or not teachers allow fidget spinners or other fidget items in the classroom is becoming a school- and district-wide issue, with some banning fidget spinners outright. Other schools are leaving it up to each teacher to decide what's best for his or her classroom. 

If you want to put the question to your students, I've created two non-fiction articles, pro and con, along with reading comprehension, vocabulary, and writing assignments to help them come informed, reasoned opinions. The reading level is challenging fifth grade through standard seventh grade. 

Tuesday, March 7, 2017

Finding Bias in Non-Fiction

Critical reading of any text is an important skill for secondary students, and recognizing bias is a fundamental part of the process. It's easy to teach students how to recognize bias in potential sources for research, but it's not as easy with book-length non-fiction.

When you consider the investment in reading a book-length work, and the artful way the information is often presented, it is not surprising that it is hard to identify bias. Another reason it is difficult is because any work will contain some bias, simply by the necessary choices of what to include, what to leave out, and what point of view to present, among other decisions. I know from my time as journalist that even a just-the-facts story can be presented in a way to promote a particular viewpoint from something as simple as the information presented in the first few sentences.

I teach units on the non-fiction books The Other Wes Moore by Wes Moore and Zeitoun by Dave Eggers in my classes. Both of these books present stories that are compelling, descriptive, and read like novels. It is easy to lose yourself in the stories and forget to stop and consider the choices these masterful writers are making to present their stories. During discussions about bias with these two books, students have often bristled or become upset when I raise the possibility of bias. This is a good thing. It means they have engaged deeply with the reading, and if there is bias, it matters to them.

It helps to point out that it's impossible for any writer to present another person's story with complete accuracy, and that they did not set out to manipulate the truth. Both of these books, I argue, come from the authors wanting to tell the truthful stories of their characters, but they also want to promote a particular viewpoint. That necessarily involves crafting a narrative to do so, even while sticking to the facts. (Although in the wake of the hero in Eggers' novel being arrested multiple times for domestic violence after the story ends, many critics wonder if Eggers turned a blind eye to his less-than-saintly qualities.)

Whatever your approach, here are some questions that can open up a good discussion:

What information has the author chosen to focus on?
What information might the author have left out?
How does the point of view affect how the reader feels about the characters and story?
How much of the story is re-created by the author's imagination?
Is the author making an argument?
How does the story promote the author's argument?
Could there be an alternative telling of the story, and how might it be different?

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Should Schools Discipline Cyber Bullies?

By some accounts, every day, around 160,000 do not attend school because they are afraid of bullies. Those who are afraid and attend anyway are distracted and can't pay attention. Clearly, school administrators need to do everything possible to quell bullying and provide a safe environment for all students.

More and more, however, the type of bullying these students encounter is through social media or other cyber media rather than physical confrontations, making it impossible for victims to simply avoid the perpetrator via school intervention. School administrators are in a tough position. What if all the activity takes place outside of school hours? Where does school authority end? How can school administrators have the resources to monitor students' social media, and do so without invading privacy? By the time someone reports the abuse, the damage is often already done. It is easy to argue that schools monitoring what students do outside of school hours is an obvious overreach of power.

The only easy answer is that schools can offer educational programs and teach students smart social media use. This is, of course, only part of the equation, and students set on bullying other students often need a deterrent or discipline to quit the behavior.

I don't envy school administrators in sorting out this thorny problem. I suggest this topic for a discussion or debate in the classroom. When I used it with my class recently, the opinions and ideas were eye-opening. There was so much fodder for debate, the students couldn't wait to get writing!

Tuesday, January 10, 2017

Out with the Comma? Joining Independent Clauses

It's seemingly one of the simple punctuation rules: When you join two independent clauses with a coordinating conjunction (aka FANBOYS), you need to separate them with a comma. Here is an example. The independent clauses are in blue. 

English has many grammar and punctuation rules, but there are many exceptions to those rules

This is what I've always taught in my classes, no exceptions. Now, however, I can't ignore the exception to this rule because it's becoming more common in publications, and my students notice. 

If the two independent clauses are short, closely related, and if the comma is omitted, there is no misunderstanding. For example: 

He completed the assignment but it was late.

It's not new; it's in the Chicago Manual of Style and the MLA Style Guide, among others, but it's been largely ignored and doesn't come up in most shorter official grammar guides.  

The trend is definitely toward minimal punctuation, so I'm getting on board teaching the exception, but only so my students will understand when they see it in print. I will, however,  require my students to continue to use the comma in their formal writing assignments so I'm sure they understand the rule, and it's not a purposeful omission. I explain that you can't go wrong with the comma. My students know my mantra: Learn the rules (and demonstrate your understanding) before you break them.