Thursday, February 19, 2015

Investigating Self: Text Based, Project Based Narrative Writing Projects

I have been striving to find narrative writing projects that would take students beyond the rote ‘write to a prompt’ thing.  I also am painfully aware that whatever project we do, I still have to make sure students can write narratives for the state test on-demand portion of the assessment. So I began diving into project based learning sites looking for ideas and strategies while also working through a Deeper Learning MOOC and a Learning Differences MOOC, gaining new insights and resources concerning student interest, motivation and student centered learning.  Combine all this with several snow days in a row, and I began to put together a couple Narrative based projects. I believe that both projects will generate student interest because… well… it’s about them. When it’s personal, students often have inherent interest.

 Both projects also are text- based with multiple non-fiction readings that students would use as research and as reference as they write. One project asks students to write an essay and the other a letter, but both will hopefully produce reflective writing using narrative techniques.
Like any narrative unit, the key to success will be an intensive introduction to narrative and related techniques- looking at multiple mentor texts. I also plan to do some journal writing to get the mental juices flowing as we practice narrative technique. Ultimately, I want students to incorporate narrative technique in the below writings.

One assignment I want to incorporate first, is the “Letter to Your Younger Self”. I first stumbled on this when I came across an article about the idea (see resources below).  The article was not meant for teaching or students but it got me thinking: Instead of the all-too boring “narrate a time when you learned a lesson, or made a mistake and learned from it” students instead could write to their younger selves to uncover these ideas. If nothing else, it might provide seeds for future writing ideas.  I also liked the fact that students would be diving into nonfiction in the midst of our narrative unit. While it isn’t completely a project based lesson, it does have many components, as noted above, that I find important.

 A Letter to My Younger Self:

Essential Question: If you could go back in time, what would you do over? What would you change? What would you keep the same?

Brainstorm:  (The below brainstorm would be done in 1-2 days. The journal prompts would come after they do the brainstorming. Take a day for mistakes, and a day for achievements- These journal breaks will provide narrative description/techniques within their letter)

  • What do you love about yourself and what do you hate about yourself? Why?
  • Mistakes you‘ve made- what did you learn? What do you wish you‘d done differently?

                Journal- Take one big mistake that really sticks with you. Describe specifically what happened, thoughts and feelings, and reflect on why this was a mistake and what you learned.
  • Achievements you’ve had. Why were they achievements? Your thoughts and feelings on them?

                Journal- Think of one achievement that sticks with you. Describe specifically what this achievement was, how you made this achievement and your thoughts and feelings about it. What did you learn after you achieved this?
  • What do you know now that you wish you knew earlier in life?


  (I really like this article because it uses science to explain the importance of writing and reflection.)
Dear Me- (website is for sale the of the book but offers excerpts for reading)

Write: Write a letter to your younger self- express regrets as well as what you are happy with. Tell yourself what you wish for them; give your younger self advice.

Extension: Tech Integration
Write a letter to your future self

Birth Order and Your Personality:

The second lesson I developed is more in-depth. It has to do with a person’s birth order and how it determines our personality. This project is designed to submerge students in nonfiction readings about birth order and personality to produce an essay that reflects on this idea in their own lives.

Essential Question: Do you think that the order in which you were born affects your personality?

4 Corners
Have students go to each corner according to the following:
If you are an only child
If you are first born
If you are the youngest child
If you are a middle child
(Starting with this progression will help the ‘only child’ differentiate from being first born.)

Brainstorm:  Show Birth order photo above to get thoughts going.
Thinking about your birth order and your life thus far, how do you think your birth order affects your life? How has it molded who you are as a person? How has it affected your relationships with others?

-          Talk to those in the same birth order as you and discuss blessings and issues.
-          Talk to those in an opposite birth order as you and compare contrast:
o   Your personality traits
o   Blessings and issues

Research and readings:

Psychology Today (higher order reading) 

From the readings: Make a T-Chart- One side- parts that you believe  are true about yourself and the other side- parts you believe are untrue for you. 

You might add additional collaboration time for those in the same birth order to compare notes/discuss.

Survey: Create a survey on Google Docs- Create a new spreadsheet- set it up according to picture shown. You must list a minimum of five traits for your birth order.  Survey at least 5 people- parent(s) or guardians, siblings, friends, teachers, pastor, etc. Ask them to rate you on a scale of 1-5/ 5 most like you and 1 not like you at all/ for each trait noted for your birth order.  Choose 2 people you surveyed and ask them for reasons for their ranking for at least two (2) traits.

Journal- Discuss the results of your survey. Report results for at least two (2) people you surveyed.  Do you agree with their ranking/reasons for each trait? Why or why not? What surprised you? Why? If nothing about the results surprised you, why? Did the results support the research on birth order and personality? If so, how? If not, why do you think that is so? 

Some Fun Quizzes to Take:

Webmd (shows correct answer immediately after student answers.)
Parents Magazine (This quiz tells you what birth order you are, determined by how you answer each question. And if it is wrong their claim is –‘something made you this way so listen up!’ Only one question that would be beyond students- ‘you and your spouse are going to see a movie….’ But I think they could take this quiz nonetheless. Lengthy explanation follows after 10 questions are answered. Some ad popups for the magazine occur during quiz)

Write: Write a reflective essay about your birth order, your personality and how you get along with others/relationships – What is true and not true from the research? Why do you think that is so? Provide specific examples from your life and use at least two (2) readings as evidence.

A related project I came across – “The Two Sides of Myself” might make a nice extension to the Birth Order Project. You can find it here: “Two Sides of Myself”-    (While it is an art project,  students could write an essay about their two sides of self or write a reflective piece explaining the art work;  and/or you can work with the art teacher in a collaborative project!)

My goal was to include nonfiction and research with narrative writing in a project based environment. I also wanted the projects to be interesting and to seem different from the traditional stand-alone prompts they are used to getting (and will never write again outside of MS/HS), and I wanted them to do some inquiry and deeper learning.  Both projects allow them to take a deeper look inside themselves and will likely provide some lively discussion.

How are you making Narrative more project based? Please share! 

Photos from Creative Commons-

Thursday, February 5, 2015

Current Events as Springboard for Argument

Lately I have been gathering editorials and articles that relate to current events in order to expose my students to real world writing exemplars.
As teachers we struggle to find good writing examples to use as models in the classroom and we often come across... well... mostly substandard student written arguments about gum in school or some plea from a twelve year old to help save the dolphins. While these 'models'  can be good starting points ( I use them as non-examples for my students- what a good argument isn't), students don't often get to see that REAL argumentative writing happens every day for a variety of purposes and audiences. 
The best thing a teacher can do is pay attention to current events and then start digging for articles and editorials connected to these issues. Let students see that real people write about real issues every day. 
In this post, I will share some current events articles/videos/cartoons that I have found with teaching points that you can use in the classroom. 

The Measles

The vaccination/anti-vaccination debate has been waging and it has real implications for us all. 
In this blog post by Adam Frank, an astrophysics professor at the University of Rochester, he declares that what we ignore or disbelieve does not make it untrue or impossible. It is a higher level reading for many middle school students, but his message overall is clear. So is his tone. This is a great piece to use for the identification of tone. Have students highlight portions of the text that clearly indicate the writer's attitude. The fact that the writer is an author and astrophysics professor lends him ethos and his use of logic to explain- logos. Both rhetorical appeals can be discussed using this post. Other aspects that students might learn from this post include the use of anecdote to start the argument and how he ties it in again later in the piece for impact. And of course, simply identifying the writer's claim can be a great starting point for all students. 
Here is  a great 5 minute Video from CNN exploring the debate of vaccination- both sides are presented- one from a parent's POV against the vaccine and one from a doctor's point of view. It is a very understandable video overall to explore both sides of the issue and the doctor offers a nice counter-argument in respect to the mother's point of view. 
This Article from offers some nice counterarguments to the biggest issues as to why parents are refusing to vaccinate their children. 
Editorial Cartoons are also popping up (no pun intended) concerning the Measles Vaccine Debate and they offer a chance to explore an artist's tone/message. This editorial cartoon offers the chance to discuss if Disneyland is getting a bad rap in all this since reportedly the outbreak began there. And if you want to jaunt a bit further into the political arena,  This Editorial/Cartoon has strong tone, denouncing both Christie and Paul in their Measles vaccination opinions. 

Remember, ELA teachers, this topic is a nice co-teaching prospect for both Science and ELA (and even World History) teachers to get involved in a research/writing opportunity! 

Snow Days 

Ah, glorious snow days! Students and teachers alike long for them. But if you experienced a VERY long May last year due to an exorbitant number of snow days, you understand that everything has its limits. Indeed many school systems have also recognized this issue and have derived avenues in which to remedy the situation. From this issue, many editorials have been written- from angry parents demanding less snow days and demands to "quit wussifying" our kids to those simply exploring both sides of the "snow virtual learning day"- the online answer to not being in school. 
This article provides both sides of the virtual learning debate and is a great springboard for students to use as a text based prompt/debate source. The article clearly lays out the argument for and against virtual learning days, providing video and reading for each side. Besides looking at both sides to prepare for a debate or to use as a springboard for a student's own argument on the topic, the title is clever and the writer's bias slips out as he starts the "Arguments against" side of the article and again in his concluding statements. 
Another article exploring  virtual learning day options is likely very challenging for middle school and more appropriate for high school due to its language- but tone is rampant throughout the piece and a great model for the various ways a writer might imply his/her attitude (quotation marks around words, for example) The ending to this piece- use of short punchy sentences- is very effective and a great opportunity to discuss use of sentence length for impact. 
From this simple topic you can find a plethora of articles and editorials surrounding the issue like 
This one- clearly a vote for virtual learning days (although it does present a bit of the "other side" of the issue too.) And even your visual students can be addressed through editorial cartoons such as this one and This Cartoon showing the implications of a snow day and that dreaded make-up day. 

The important thing to keep in mind is that an entire article/editorial does not always have to be used in class. If you are teaching anecdote- use that portion as a model, etc. It is also important to keep in mind that video and editorial cartoons can supplement a student's understanding and make the overall topic more interesting within the classroom setting. 

Finally, another great place to find argument and counter-argument is in the comments section of a blog or article. If you can find those that are 'fit for school use' you can snapshot them to use for discussion. Is the person's argument sound? Are they really arguing in the true sense of the word (using fact/evidence to support their point of view) or are they just quarreling? Do they set up their argument trying to establish their ethos? Do they provide logos in support?  Here is just one sampling of a discussion in the comments section about video games and if exposure to these games causes youth to become violent: 

Use of Ethos- writer sets up argument with "As a teacher...." 

In the first comment near the end, the writer sets up ethos "As an Avid video game player...." and the bottom comment is a clear example of quarrelsome vs a sound argument.

Be on the lookout for all kinds of argument in our every day lives- whether current event editorials, articles that offer both sides of an issue, videos, editorial cartoons or even the comments section of a blog post or article, you can find many real world examples to use in the classroom. 

All photos from Creative Commons use on