Saturday, November 9, 2013

Narrative Mini Lessons and Padlet

My Students are wrapping up their study of Narrative and Style which includes Narrative technique. Typically I focus on developing effective hooks, including context and a thesis in their introduction, and narrative techniques including show don’t tell, dialogue, etc. 

One activity I do each year includes reading a distinguished narrative to identify effective narrative techniques and a scavenger hunt for hooks. 

In October, we held our first On-Demand Scrimmage with two narrative prompts from which to choose and write in a 40 minute period. I had the extreme joy of reading all 130 of them during Fall break and from that reading, was able to select one narrative that was distinguished in its use of narrative technique (show don’t tell, dialogue, effect hook and thesis, strong word choice, etc.)

Once we returned I put students in small groups of 3 to 4, with a copy of that narrative (with student permission and name deleted) and their task was as follows:

  • ·         Each member is to list one narrative technique that was done well with example.

  • ·         Together, justify the distinguished score using the writing scoring rubric.

They had to share the one technique they each listed on their own paper and then come to a consensus on which one they felt was the most effective and why.  They also had good conversation as to why the narrative was a distinguished, which opened their eyes to key words on the rubric that indicate narrative techniques one might use. 

The next step was to send one group member to one of the four computers I have in my room and to use to list their most effective technique and an example or explanation. 

The rest of the group was to go to their own narratives and begin to make notes on what they might add to jazz up their writing.
I felt that every student was very motivated and all students were busily listing what they might add with no exceptions. I think seeing that it could be done, having a mentor text at their level,  and actually experiencing how good narrative technique can be incorporated,  influenced their own insight that they could also do the same in their own writing.
Toward the end of class, I refreshed Padlet on my whiteboard and students could see all responses, which we shared out to the whole class- again making notes on their own narratives as to what they might add. 
A screen shot of one class' contributions

The great thing about Padlet was that I could print or save it as a PDF and actually have more samples of hooks  to use  for future instruction! Less work for me, since the students were the ones who did the discovering and the work in typing them.

Another activity we did was a scavenger hunt for good hooks/effective leads.  We had taken notes in our journals on the types of hooks/leads and looked at and labeled types of hooks I had previously gathered from NPR’s  This I Believe site of hundreds of essays. (I copy the entire introduction, because later we also label the context and thesis statements as well.) 
In our activity, Students had to look through young adult novels and children’s books (that I had and our librarian gathered on a cart for us) and had to list two hooks found and label each with the type of hook.
From there, students participated in a carousel activity where they each had to list one hook on large chart paper that had been labeled with the types- they had to find the appropriate labeled chart paper and write their hook down with the title of the book. (We had some good conversation on citations, use of quotation marks around exact words and how to punctuate a book title). 

Next step, you guessed it! After sharing out to the whole class, they had to  go to their own narrative and create two types of hooks for their own- each labeled with the type of hook. I was thrilled with some of their creations- Devon created this one:  “I couldn’t believe he had bit me. Again!” 

By reviewing the hooks, I was able to see who was getting it and who was not and put smileys by really effective hooks to help students decide on which one they would ultimately use.
I include this activity not just because it is a narrative activity, but because Padlet could have easily been used for this activity as well.
Incorporating technology and student discussion is easy when you have a well-developed plan and a tool like Padlet at your fingertips (for free!)

Thursday, October 10, 2013

Blogging in the Middle

Surprisingly, most middle school students I've polled, know about blogs, but simply have never tried it. Blogging is a type of informational writing, it can be persuasive/argumentative and it can even be personal. Last year I tried blogging with my students for the first time, but I went the easy route- creating an informational blog page on a topic of interest. While I could have incorporated the technology aspect of creating a blog page, there were many roadblocks. First, Access to technology is not readily available to all students from home and time in school can be constrictive when trying to cover content. Second, my school does not allow my students to go to any ole' website to create a blog since almost all require email addresses and/or have advertising on those pages.  I did come across Kid Blog, which, like Edmodo, has a code for students to enter and no email is required. So, while I will probably try that this year, I still think this activity is well worth the effort for many reasons.

The first step was to have kids brainstorm about a hobby, topic they are invested in, etc. They had to choose something they know a lot about so they wouldn't just go to websites and copy and paste information. While they were aloud to do some research, (great way to incorporate CCS 7- Conduct short as well as more sustained research projects to answer a question (including a self-generated question) or solve a problem; narrow or broaden the inquiry when appropriate; synthesize multiple sources on the subject, demonstrating understanding of the subject under investigation.)  they had to provide a link to that information within their blog page and it had to be at a minimum since I wanted it to be their writing and not that of a website.

Next, Students had to write a rough draft of their blog page- I made it a minimum of three paragraphs. From there we investigated various blogs- what are the parts, how are they written? etc. Some good resources to check out include:
LiveBinder of Resources about Kid Bloggin   AND and Wikis and Blogs   Specifics for kids and blogging.

You might create questions that students can answer through a scavenger hunt using these sites.

Once we have viewed blogs online, learned about the parts and how the blog is written, we began to design our own blog page. I have used a template in the past, but the easiest way to go is have students go to Google and type in Blog Page Template under images. Students can model their template after a variety of images without making them all cookie-cutter. In the middle of their page, their three paragraph blog writing had to be the focus. They were required to have a header, a Blog name, at least one graphic, and a sidebar, with links to other sites about their topic. Below are just a few that students created!

Topics such as NFL, Austrian Shepherds, Soccer, Music and ADD, to name only a few, are what's on our middle school students' minds.

I showcase many of the student blogs on a bulletin board with the title : Blog About It! 

My Visual-Spatial and even Kinesthetic kids loved this activity since they were creating something by hand. Obviously my Verbal-Linguistic students loved sharing their fave topic in writing. And since students were able to choose their own topic, all were highly invested in this project.  The Informational CCS 2 was well covered during this mini-unit.
Extensions can include- Commenting appropriately-Grammar Girl Blog Comment Tips

Which leads to another aspect of a blog post- engaging your audience- Students were required to engage their audience at the end of the blog post so that students had an idea to grasp in order to respond. Once our blogs were finished, students received Post-it Notes and they were able to read the blog posts in a gallery walk, posting comments onto the blog with their Post-It. We discussed revision after this activity- what comments surprised you? Did you realize you left important information out? What would you add or change given the audience reaction/comments?  etc.

Blogging with students does not have to be uncontrollable- which is how many teachers see having 130 students blogging on a website. How do you keep up with all that? How do you grade it? You can visit my Technology Resource page which houses many links to blog/wiki rubrics and ideas:
My Site for Everything Blogs and Wikis

 Blogging on Paper is a first great step to introducing the mechanics of a blog and its contents and can be a great stepping stone to creating a blog online.

Sunday, September 22, 2013

Understanding the Language of the Rubric

Have you ever noticed that most state writing rubrics are somewhat hard to fully understand? Particularly for kids and maybe not so much for teachers, the language of the rubric can be confusing, subjective and vague. I'm not saying that the following activities will fully shed light on meaning, but it can at least provide a start for students to begin to understand what each component means and how to get there.

The first step I take is to have students look at each level of the rubric. The KY Writing Rubric goes from a zero to a four- with four being distinguished. KY has set the goal for all students to be at a three- proficient. I begin by having students highlight the language changes from apprentice (two) to proficient (three). What are the changes in language from a two to a three? Highlight those. We hold a class discussion about those changes and what that looks like/what it means in our writing.

Highlighting changes in language of rubric
Students proceed to also note the changes in language from a three- proficient to a four- distinguished. Again we hold a class discussion on those wording changes and what they mean for our writing.

Pictures Speak Louder Than Words

The next project I undertake to help students understand specific language in the rubric is a great activity for visual/spatial students in particular, but great for all students since "pictures speak louder than words". Students are put into small groups and assigned one element of the rubric- Sentence structure, Organization, Idea development,  Correctness,  Language, or Purpose/Audience. Students were tasked to use key words and images to represent the rubric idea they were assigned. With me acting as guide on the side, my students produced some pretty impressive visuals of each rubric element.

I tape all six elements into one huge rubric (I try to make two large "student friendly" rubrics for classes to refer to.) 

Here is a close-up of a "Purpose/Audience" Depiction done by a very artistic group of students:

While the language in a writing rubric can be vague and subjective, there are ways to help students grasp major concepts needed in their writing. Closely examining changes in language from one level to another and visually representing major components needed in good writing are just two ideas that you might try to begin to explore and understand what is needed in Proficient Writing.

Sunday, August 18, 2013

Using Picture Books in Middle School Writing

The Common Core State Standards ask for more rigorous reading and writing, but does that discount use of picture books in classroom instruction? I say, absolutely not. The simple fact is that mentor texts are often hard to come by. We have a variety of abilities in each class, and writing is often looked at as, well, boring. At our fingertips, we have material that is interesting and colorful, pulling in the disinterested; we have mentor texts that start at a basic level (although you will see that many picture books are not so “basic” after all), providing a place to begin for all students and providing success from the start.

Personal Writing

Any of Patricia Polacco’s books are excellent mentor texts for personal writing, as well as examples of  development of character, conflict, setting, etc.  Before diving into more complex mentor texts, try using one of her picture books as a mentor text. Two that come to mind right away include Mr. Lincoln’s Way and Thank You Mr. Falker. Both books are excellent examples of memoirs as well as a personal story revealing a change in the major character.

First off, both books offer great “Hooks.”

Mr. Lincoln’s Way: “Mr. Lincoln was the coolest principal in the whole world, or so the students thought.” Students can discuss how the first sentence/paragraph “hooks” a reader, then go on a scavenger hunt through other picture books or young adult novels to find other interesting ways authors start their works. As a higher level activity, students might then categorize the hooks they found, sharing out as a whole in the class to create a class chart that lists types of hooks and examples. Students can also use predicting skills to reveal what they think will occur or what the story will be about as a result of the first “hook” or lead line.

Secondly, both books offer some great figurative language/language usage.

Thank You Mr. Falker: “Knowledge is like the bee that made that sweet honey, you have to chase it through the pages of a book!”

As you can see, this simile is pretty deep and not something that an elementary student may readily grasp. But middle school students have the ability to delve into the meaning of this simile and to uncover its meaning. Polacco’s books are loaded with figurative language; students can use them to go on a scavenger hunt and to work with partners to uncover the meaning.

Finally, both books offer thoughts and feelings and use of dialogue.

It can be difficult to teach dialogue, but in picture books that use this element, students find it easier to grasp- how the dialogue is used to move the story along, how the dialogue is formatted and punctuated, etc. All can be investigated through Polacco’s picture books. In addition, when writing a personal piece, thoughts and feelings is a crucial element. Polacco’s Thank You Mr. Falker, is full of thoughts and feelings. The teacher might provide excerpts and have students highlight those thoughts and feelings, revealing how and where they are used, as well as to what extent they are used throughout the story.

Other Picture Books I Love:

Why Mosquitoes Buzz in People’s Ear by Verna Aardema

I love to read Pourquoi tales- stories about the origin of an animal’s coloring, size, etc. In the seventh grade, students read Pourquoi tales, starting with the mosquito book, and we developed our own. They were imaginative and fun to read!

Zin! Zin! Zin! A Violin by Lloyd Moss

Introduce this book when studying onomatopoeia! It is full of sound words that students can respond to – highlighting them in excerpts, holding up a hand when they hear one, etc. Students can practice their own onomatopoeia in like fashion.

Nothing Ever Happens on 90th Street by Roni Schotter

I love this book at the start of the year. Students always cry about having “nothing to write about.”  As I read, students list each piece of advice that is given to the main character as she searches for something to write about.  For example, “Try to find poetry in your pudding,” Mr. Morley said softly. “There’s always a new way with old words.”  Students can work in partners to decipher what each character meant and how it applies to our writing.

Students also list what the main character thinks as events occur that prompt her to write:  “What if? What might happen next?” Etc.

Abbie Against the Storm by Marcia Vaughan

One of my absolute favorites is a true story of a young girl and a lighthouse, depicting heroism. I love this because it shows that even kids can be heroes. This book is rich in figurative language, strong verbs, dialogue, thoughts and feelings and use of adjectives.  Beyond that, it is a fast-paced story with strong character development, conflict and setting. Students can choose a character trait for Abbie and find quotes that support; students can identify strong verbs or pull out figurative language and decipher the meaning. This book is also a great book to graph on a plot chart; a simple start before moving on to more complex text.  Students might also partake in an exercise involving setting. Why is the setting important to the story? What if the setting were elsewhere? How would it change the story? Students might take the challenge, and create their own story of Abbie in a different setting.

I love picture books in  the middle school! They simply are the most interesting forms of literature that provide excellent mentor texts for writers, can provide examples of various elements of literature through mini-lessons, and instill motivation and success by starting “simple.” You will find, however, that there really is nothing “simple” about picture books; they reach into our imagination and spark our motivation quicker than any black text on white paper.

Note: Picture book images taken from 
Check out Other Picture Book Ideas in the SDAWP #113 Texts Initiative- 

Building Community: First Days Activities

Depending on your school configuration, some kids travel with the same kids from elementary throughout middle school, and other schools filter students in from many schools throughout a district. Regardless of the situation, there are first day activities that can not only reveal information about your students individually, but can also provide a class-wide snapshot of who your students are. Furthermore, students can get to know themselves and each other, building community within the classroom. 

One of the first activities I do Involve individual hobbies and interests. Students are asked to simply list up to ten things they love, like to do, hobbies, affiliations with extra-curricular activities (sports, church, youth-group, Boy Scouts, karate, etc.). I take that list and create a Wordle with it. The Wordle has their class title in the largest letters- “First Block” for example, and all the interests are in various sizes. I use Jing (  to take a picture of the Wordle, and we look at it at the start of the following week. We discuss our similarities (the largest words) and our differences (the smallest words). I discuss that a community is made up of many similarities and differences, and that is what makes us who we are as a learning community. We need to respect our differences and who knows? We might even learn from each other; gain new interests as we take notice of what others are “into” around us.
I can see the class as a whole through this Wordle (, and I can use those interests we have in common to bring in reading material and to help create writing prompts. I can also use those smaller words to gain the attention of my more difficult to reach students, tying in reading and writing activities that relate to those who might not otherwise be reached, had I now known their interests. I staple these Wordles on the bulletin board for future reference, and throughout the year, I am pleased to see kids studying their own class’ Wordle as well as that of other classes.
Another formative assessment I perform in class is a Multiple Intelligence test. I am able to gain a quick answer to how my students learn best, integrating these learning styles into lessons and activities. I don’t stop there, though. I want students to be aware of our similarities and differences in the class and I need to see the classroom as a whole. We engage in a graphing activity to do this. 

Students are given a post-it for their highest score, and asked to remember which Intelligence that high score was in. (If there is a tie for a high-score, and there often is, I give them two post-its, and so on.) Students are asked to write their name on the post-it. On the board I have listed each Intelligence across the top, and students take their post-it and place it under the category in which they scored the highest, forming a bar graph. Once more, I discuss our similarities and differences, as well as re-enforce how each Intelligence might be used to help them learn, and how I plan to integrate these Intelligences in lessons and activities. I also take a snapshot of the class graph, so I have a quick reference in order to plan my lessons.
Both activities create community, informs my instruction, and informs my students about themselves and each other- ultimately, aiding in the formation of a positive learning environment.

Thursday, August 1, 2013

Analogies of the Writing Process

Looking for a fresh way to review the writing process? Try creating analogies! 

One of my favorites!

To refresh middle school students’ memories about the writing process as well as to teach analogy, students were partnered and  asked to create an analogy for each step of the writing process.
First, we read an excerpt of Julia Cameron’s The Right to Write where she uses an analogy for writing. To continue the idea students viewed the Dodge Dart commercial– which is a perfect analogy for the writing process!
(What I really liked about using the commercial is how many times they "drafted and revised" to get the perfect car.) Students completed a formative assessment using this commercial (watching it at least twice after the initial viewing)- listing what they saw in the commercial that related to each step of the writing process. We shared out at the end and then viewed the commercial a final time.
Once students have read a few analogies, viewed the commercial and looked at a couple of examples (see below), they are ready to make their own.  I provided guidance as I moved about the room, reminding them of a step or questioning them about an illustration they were using for one of the steps- all  resulting in just a few of the examples below:

Baking and the Writing Process
A close up of two stages from a student analogy
Student choice is the key!

Thursday, July 4, 2013

Mapping in the Middle

 The #CLMOOC I am participating in with the National Writing Project (NWP) has introduced different makes each week. This week’s make has been maps. Several wonderful ideas have evolved and could be used in multiple ways in the ELA Classroom. One such way maps can be used in any classroom- the Google+ Map where students can pin where they are from. I could see this as a precursor to the “Where I’m From” Poem originating with George Ella Lyon. It is simple to do- students can log into Google +, right click on the location where they are from, and insert a placemarker. A box opens for a subject line and some text- students might do as we did in the CLMOOC, we put our name in the subject line and a six word memoir. Take a look at how it might appear:
One could take this farther and map the progress of a character or characters as they journey within a book. One such book The Watsons Go to Birmingham involves the family’s travels from Michigan to Alabama. As the family travels and places are mentioned in the book, students can pin those places and a memorable event or quote from a character. Rules of the Road is another great book that could be mapped. I have a cheap Webquest for Rules of the Road on Teachers Pay Teachers that prompts students to map the main character’s journey. Of course there are other types of maps and most of us have heard of the life map- where students “map” out their lives and significant events in their lives. This type of life map could also be a great pre-write for a “Where I’m From” Poem or a personal narrative. Students might also create a future life map- like this one on Prezi- and they can create SMART goals to get to the future they want. Students might map a character- what he/she sees, feels, thinks, wants, etc. as a pre-write for a character analysis- You can see a sample here- One other type of map involves a sociogram, where students map character interactions- who interacts with whom within the story. You can see a simple example here using The Monstrumologist by Rick Yancey. One might use circles for the main/Round characters, squares for secondary/flat characters, etc. Students can color code with a key that reveals the particular meaning behind each color, solid lines or dashed lines to connect the characters, etc. In The Monstrumologist example below, I could have put a dotted line from Dr. Warthrop to his father- since his father had no real relationship with his son but was the direct cause of the monsters coming into his son’s life.
Finally, many on the CLMOOC have experimented with a learning walk- inspired by Mary Ann Riley’s Blog post found here- . Some have created learning walks that show their surroundings- what they see globally, locally and even from the micro level. Some have gone on a “hearing” walk to record what they hear. This would be a great exercise in “noticings” in our school, outside our school, in the community, etc.- helping students to use their five senses to notice what is around them- to practice capturing what they see, hear or smell in words.

 There are so many places to go to experiment with some form of mapping- I was just introduced to . Here (for free) you can map out an entire story by dates- insert information, see the place on the map and create a timeline of your life. Here I wonder if students might use this when Interviewing Veterans for a Veteran’s Day project, to map out each person’s or several Veteran’s life story in relation to their lives and/or military service. Of course the life map could also be the focus for this type of app as well. You can take a look at my map using

As I developed my Life Map using MyHistro, I saw a theme develop- the number of times I moved in my life. This could develop into a memoir of my houses and the places I've lived and what I have gained through all these places. I might write a narrative help article on moving and how to cope, etc. The point is that a theme developed for me and may for students as well. If not, students always have individual events they've mapped that might spark an idea for writing.  

Other Mapping Tools- (you can only get 3 free maps and then you have to pay) – you can certainly create some mapping with several Prezi Templates offered for free.
 And finally maybe you might challenge students to read all the books on your state’s literary map-

This Article relates ways that students can create a mental map of where they learn- their "Learning Ecology"  Comes with directions and videos/examples-Mentally Mapping Where Students Learn

Mapping. Who would have thought that so many ideas might be incorporated using the age-old map?

Saturday, June 22, 2013

My Memoir in Books

Tried a new website- Stupeflix Video! Inspired by the #CLMOOC,in conjunction with the National Writing Project. I decided to create my memoir in books! The site allows you to create one free video and for $5 a month, you can create away! Even has an interview movie maker for those interviews you want your students to create! As I gathered the images for the books that have shaped my growing up and adult years- a story developed and I realized what a wonderful project this could be for a narrative- "My Life in Books" or a memoir on those who inspired me, the reader. I thought about how my mother would read to me and how she would make up stories- my favorite- the talking bus that would come around our neighborhood to pick all the kids up, including me, for school. Later my grandmother inspired me - she was an avid reader herself and it wasn't long before I was into The Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew. I wanted to be a detective as a result of those books. Later I began reading Stephen King and I recall the first book, Carrie, I had to sneak and read since my mother wouldn't allow it. And the stories go on and on- all conjured from memory as a result of this project.

Friday, June 21, 2013

Infographics and Research

CCS W.8.7. Conduct short research projects to answer a question (including a self-generated question), drawing on several sources and generating additional related, focused questions that allow for multiple avenues of exploration.

I have been thinking about infographics – a visual representation of data. A topic that many are discussing on the CLMOOC-  One area that I fail to give enough attention too is research. The CCS states that students should participate in short research projects, and all I have managed to fit in is one major research project and a resulting research paper. SO the idea of infographics caught my attention.

With the possibility of Infographics, students can think of questions they want to answer and they can create an infographic to not only display the resulting information, but they can share this information thus utilizing the speaking and listening skills as well. 

Some questions I thought of include:
·         Do teenagers get enough sleep? (Polling students on the number of hours of sleep they get on average each school night)
·         Does good organization correlate with good grades? (I thought maybe they could poll a number of students on use of their agenda book, use of locker, use of a folder system/binder and what their average grade is in their classes….)
·         Should school start later in the day? (Polling students on a scale of 1-5  on how sleepy they are in the morning, afternoon and late day)  
·         Does education pay? (Researching statistics on pay scales in relation to level of education)

I also stumbled upon a Kids Count Contest for Infographics that offers a cool research tool that kids might utilize to research information about kids and their well being across the US or even in their own state-
Of course my hope is that students might also generate their own questions in which to poll others in the school for the results.

Showing students Infographics and why they are used, their importance, and their benefits would be our first step after we formulate the question, carry out our research, and compile our results.

Some great sites that offer teaching tips and examples include:
10 Awesome Free Tools to Make Infographics

Both of these sites provide a great introduction to Infographics, examples, and tips on best practice.  The Infographic site that I have been experimenting with and have found good results and ease of use is    It is still in Beta form at this time.
This site has some fabulous samples of Infographics as well!  

Another recommended easy site is  The downside is that you have to log in to save the Infographic, and that might be a problem for students in a school setting. There is no way to print the graphic, so I will have to continue to experiment with different venues to find one that might work for students in a school setting. I do know that Google has some capacity to build charts and graphs, but many schools (mine included) do not  permit students to use Google  in the classroom setting.

That’s not to say that student couldn’t create their Infographic by hand or even using Word, and the Kids Count site noted above does discuss this as well.  The great thing about kids, they are VERY innovative and creative and I am always amazed by what they are able to produce when left to their own devices.

Another aspect of the CCS I think might work well here is the CCS RI.8.7. Evaluate the advantages and disadvantages of using different mediums (e.g., print or digital text, video, multimedia) to present a particular topic or idea.  
Provide the same information in an article, via a video and in an Infographic and have students compare/contrast the advantages and disadvantages of each medium and its ability to express an argument, to convey information, to persuade, etc. I was able to do this with the dangers of smoking. My students read an article about the dangers of smoking, they watched a video of “Dr. Oz” discussing and showing the dangers of smoking and I showed an Infographic that showed a person with diseased lungs, yellow teeth, etc. each body area labeled to discuss the dangers/effects of smoking. ( I just went to Google Images and searched for effects of smoking) Hands down the kids preferred the Infographic and provide some good reasons why. They enjoyed the activity and we had good discussion on the benefits of each format as well as the disadvantages for readers.

Here is a great blog post on implementing Infographics in the classroom written by Chris Miller, a middle school teacher in Wisconsin-  His blog is titled- “The Second Level: A  Middle School Teacher’s Perspective”

In the upcoming school year, I hope to post pictures of my students’ Infographics as well as a reflection on the project. In the meantime, I played around with another infographic site-   and here is what I was able to develop: