Conquering the Blank Page with Note Cards

The Blank Page

One of the largest hurdles for my writers is the fear that accompanies starting an essay. Their fear of the blank page often manifests itself in half-hearted introductions and tentative hooks. Importantly, these students know when their writing is less than what it can be. They aren’t trying to start their essays with weak hooks; they are simply experiencing small moments of hesitancy that is not conducive to their creative process.

Vital to understanding our students’ blank page jitters is the fact that these jitters can be conquered.

Note Cards that Conquer

All that is needed for this exercise are note cards, two sentence starters, and a prompt. With these three components, students are tasked with crafting the idea that will effectively begin their essay.

The Directions

  1. Write your name on the top of your note card.
  2. Answer the following question on your note card:

Do you have something that will interest your reader like a story, statistics, or really interesting facts?

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Annotated Intentions (and Why They’ll Change the Way You Grade)

I’ve spent years searching for a fair-minded approach to grading that demands accountability but also doesn’t crush student spirits when products don’t turn out well.  

I’ve definitely been given the “hard grader” label over the years, but students have also mostly agreed with my observations when it comes time to conference.  Our district writing rubric is clear and concise, and since students are familiar with it we can have conversations using common vocabulary.  I would venture to say that most of my students are not surprised by the grades they earn.

I did once have a student respond to my feedback by shouting, “Ah, fiddlesticks!” but I consider him an outlier…

Despite being generally happy with my approach to grading and encouraging a growth mindset in my writers, I’ve still sometimes wound up frustrated with myself, or with the firm language of a rubric that feels fair until those peculiar moments when, on a particular paper, it suddenly doesn’t.    

One of the most effective remedies I’ve discovered is the practice of pre-annotation.   Continue reading

Teaching Each Instead of All

Differentiation: It’s one of those words that all teachers seem to use, but I wonder how many of us really feel confident doing well. When I went through my teacher prep program in undergrad, I thought I had it. Then, when I got asked in interviews about differentiation (and, let’s be honest, we’ve all answered those questions in interviews) I thought I nailed it. I talked about offering opportunities for multiple types of learners. I’d mix visual representations with auditory. And, what I thought was most impressive, I’d give the kids some chances to move around with some especially creative lessons that I peppered in. I thought I had this differentiation thing figured out and was ready for anything.

I know, I know. You can practically hear the sound of music screeching to a halt like in scenes from 90s movies where the parents get home and bust up the house party. I wasn’t ready, and I didn’t have it. The reality of a real-world classroom with a diverse range of learners set in. Some of my students were carrying around Jane Austen while others didn’t want to move beyond Diary of a Wimpy Kid. Some wrote beautifully crafted prose while others struggled to remember where end punctuation goes.

differentiation

Image via: someecards.com

How could I be fair and reach all my learners? And why on Earth weren’t my carefully prepared, creative lessons helping? It seemed like all the hard work and time I put into developing these lessons was wasted because I never felt like they were reaching all of my kids.

And that’s where, I’ve learned, my mistake was: I was thinking in terms of all of my kids, when I should have been trying to teach each of my kids. The main difference between these two mindsets is grammar; “all” is plural whereas “each” refers to students singularly. Instead of trying to plan perfect lessons that reach all of my students at once, I’ve realized that I need to plan lessons with enough flexibility to adapt for each learner. Continue reading

Mentor Text Wednesday: At The Movies

Mentor Text: Someone Will Come Along: Rogue One, Logan and Hope by Jessica Plummer

Writing Techniques:

  • Writing Literary Analysis
  • Essay Structure

Background: If, as Stephen King would say, you are a “Faithful Reader,” then you know I’m a bit of a geek. If you’re here for the first time… Hi, I’m Jay, and I really like pop culture with a genre bent. I will not go for long without mentioning sci-fi or superheroes.

These interests actually pay wonderful dividends in my classroom. At the very least, it has dropped wonderful mentor texts like this week’s into my Twitter feed.

Plummer’s piece is a great little piece that analyzes the core thematic elements of two recent blockbusters withing my wheelhouse, Rogue One: A Star Wars Story and Logan, the final installment in Hugh Jackman’s Wolverine film series.

logan-trailer-700x300

A still from Logan via BookRiot

I love the timing of this piece, right after I finally  got a chance to see Logan, and as I’m plotting some of the next things we’ll be working on in my classroom. Actually, it ties in quite well to some work I’m doing with The Great Gatsby in my Lit class, as I’m having them connect Gatsby to pieces of pop culture, focusing on themes. Continue reading

3 Favorite Writer’s Notebook Prompts

I have a confession. I didn’t always use a writer’s notebook, either as teacher and especially as a student. It’s hard to remember what that was like—Where did I keep all my thoughts? How did I keep track of it all? Writer’s notebooks—or journals—were something I remember learning about in graduate school, and while I tried a bit of it when I first started teaching, I quickly abandoned the practice in favor of the neat, clean handout I could create (and control).

I think it was the open-endedness of the writer’s notebook that intimidated me: What prompts would I use? How would I know what prompts would work? And for what texts? Do I even have time for this?

Fast forward 15+ years, and I can’t imagine teaching without a writer’s notebook. That is not to say that I use them in all my classes. I’m still working on using them more deliberately and consistently in my literature-based courses. But writing? How do you teach writing without a writer’s notebook? I can’t imagine. Continue reading

Short Inspiration

I had a meeting this week, during the school day, in my building. It meant prepping a sub plan, but, since I was in the building, something I could get going before running out to the meeting.

As often happens, this wasn’t the best time for my Grade 9s to be without me. We’ve just finished one things we’ve been working on, and we’re not quite where I want us to be for the to work on another thing without me.

We’ve been looking at monsters, and scary stuff like that, as a way to explore imagination and empathy. I needed a one and done activity.

Recently, a tweet came across my feed that featured “Tuck Me In,” a wonderful little short film about the monster under the bed. I watched it again, seeing if there was a way to use it. As I watched it on YouTube, as I often do, I scanned the other videos suggested. This led me to “Run.” This one minute short is a neat little piece of horror. It was great fun to watch with the students.

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Yes/No/So

Spring in AP English Language is always a little tricky. Stress levels rise among the students as the test looms, and they’re all desperately searching for the magical formula that will make it all click. It’s tough to keep them engaged in the hard work of revising and slowly improving their craft as writers when they want me to just tell them how to get a 5 already.

When I’m not working with those AP students in the afternoons, I’m working with struggling readers and writers as a literacy support coach.  I experienced some similar frustrations–and the same desire for a magical formula– when working with some ninth graders on a recent argumentative essay.

In both cases, the students were frustrated with building arguments logically. They knew they had to address a counterargument, but they weren’t really sure what that entailed. They knew they had to support their claims with evidence, but they didn’t know how to order their different claims in a way that made sense. They knew some of the evidence was stronger than other pieces, but they couldn’t wrap their brains around how to weigh one piece of evidence against another.

As I worked with all of them, I realized I did have a magic formula.

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Mentor Text Wednesday: Inspiration From a Master

Mentor Text: Fortunately, the Milk by Neil Gaiman

Writing Techniques:

  • Creative Writing
  • Voice
  • Humour
  • Considering Audience

Background:

A beloved part of my day is right before my daughters’ bedtime, when we read. I have a six year old and a four year old, and each is currently obsessed with a different book. My oldest is in the early stages of Pottermania, as we read, for the second time, the beautiful new illustrated edition of Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets. Our youngest, like her sister before her, has been repeatedly requesting Neil Gaiman’s gorgeous little novella Fortunately, the Milk.

If you’ve not read it, do so. It’s a hilarious little book. Left alone, without his wife’s support, a father goes to the corner shop to pick up milk for his children’s breakfast. He takes a long time. Upon his return, he spins a fantastic tale explaining his delay. Initially abducted by aliens, he escapes only to be caught by pirates, is rescued from them by a stegosaurus in a time travelling hot air balloon, which they take to a primitive jungle in the past, a land populated by vampires, meeting back up with the same batch of aliens, before making it home with the milk. The illustrations, by Skottie Young in the version we have, make it clear that Dad is likely making this whole tale up, using things in his sight in their kitchen. Yes, it’s essentially a kiddie version of The Usual Suspects, but it’s awesome. My girls love it, and I love reading it to them. Continue reading

Showcase Projects

On Monday, I visited the STEAM Fair at our local early years school. My oldest daughter is in kindergarten there, and my wife teaches there. My wife had shared what her students were doing, and my daughter was vibrating with excitement about the chance to show off her work.

My obvious highlight was watching my oldest share her project with us, patiently answering her little sister’s questions. However, moving around the gym, watching students share their projects, listening to parents brag, and getting steered towards projects by excited teachers, I was moved by the whole experience.

I spent some time talking to one of a teacher there, discussing our shared belief in the importance of the A in STEAM, the Arts. We divide the disciplines a lot more in high school, and each of those letters becomes the responsibility of a specific group of teachers. If you work with older students, and you’ve tried to sneak the arts into class, you’ve likely had a student remind you that you’re not teaching Art. Continue reading

The Door of Chaos: Responding to Original Ideas

An Authentic Problem

Quite often, we ask students to respond to original ideas. We ask them to reflect on an author’s claim. We ask them to connect their values to an author’s values. We even ask them to make personal connections to an author’s background. A colleague of mine has students write letters to Sherman Alexie after reading The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian (to which he has responded once). Importantly, we also ask students to respond to the writings of other students. These opportunities provide moments of authenticity in terms of revising and publishing that carry genuine weight as students begin to see themselves as writers.

The push to allow for students to respond to one another was alive and well in my classroom until a student asked why she couldn’t respond to her friend who was in a different hour of mine. And so began The Door of Chaos.

The Door of Chaos

The idea behind The Door of Chaos is that students have the opportunity to respond to ideas that were generated when they weren’t in the room. Continue reading