October 2016 - Room 213

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Essay Writing: 5 Ways to Focus on Pre-Writing

Good writing requires a focus on the writing process

My students are working on a persuasive research essay and we did a lot of prep work last week with activities that had them focus squarely on the pre-writing process.

I'm very aware that many of our students skip over the steps of the process and are more apt to whip something off the night before. Because of that, the first time we do a formal essay in my class, I devote a lot of class time to showing them that good essay writing is a thinking process, one that takes some time. Here's what we did:

1. We started with the question: what makes a good essay? The students, twelfth graders, had all the right answers as they've been down this road before. However, I know from experience that a student can parrot back what they've heard from other teachers and still not write a good essay. That's because knowing what an essay is doesn't mean they know how to execute it (or will take the time to do it right).

2. Next I showed them some mentor texts, including two sample drafts I had written. I use the drafts to illustrate that even writing teachers need to improve their first attempts, and if I want them to work through the process, I have to show them mine as well. So, next week, I'll illustrate how I will improve these drafts.

3. The next activity took a whole class, but I think it was well worth the time. I started by showing them a topic: the problems with smoking. We then created a working thesis: smoking is a terrible habit. I made it clear that a working thesis may not be the final one, and that in the early stages of the process, a writer should stress too much over the perfect wording; instead s/he should focus on getting ideas down. Then we brainstormed possible points to develop this thesis: smoking is expensive, smoking can age a smoker prematurely, smoking can cause serious health problems, smoking can kill you, smoking affects one's appearance, second hand smoke is dangerous.  

Each of these ideas was assigned to a group, and the group members had to write details on post-it notes that would develop the idea they were assigned. The group was given a piece of chart paper, and the kids had to write a topic sentence on the top of the page, then organize the details they had on the post-it notes in an order that made logical sense.

An activity to teach students how to write an effective outline

After each group was finished, one member from each group stood at the front of the class holding their group's chart paper. I read off the details under each topic sentence and it became clear there was some overlap between groups, so we moved post-its/ideas to the appropriate piece of chart paper. This illustrated the process a writer has to go through to decide which details belong where in an outline. 

After going through each group's ideas, we had a discussion about the order that they would be presented if these pieces of chart paper were body paragraphs. I had the class move the students/paper around until they were in an order that made sense to them:  cost, appearance, aging, second hand smoke, health problems, death. This is when the great discussion began. We considered the idea that a writer could choose to drop the paragraph on cost, as all other ideas focused more on the physical effects of smoking. Then we played around with other possibilities for order by moving the students around, and they decided that maybe second hand smoke was the most serious issue, so it should go at the end.

I pointed out to the students that our class activity modelled the process they should go through in their head, and on paper, when preparing to write an essay. At that point, I gave them an outline and asked them to have a rough one completed for the next class.

Learning stations that get kids focused on the pre-writing stage

5. When they arrived the next day, I had my class all set up with my Essay Planning Stations. There were six stations that asked them to take a close and careful look at their outlines. They looked at focus, played around with order, made notes about ways to develop their ideas, and worked on possible ways to introduce and conclude their essays. They also had a chance to experiment with their language and to get some peer feedback.

In the end, I spent about three classes just getting them to the point where they are ready to start a draft. It's more time than I would normally take, but I believe so much in the thinking process that should precede good writing, that I do not think it was time wasted. By the time these kids sit down in the computer lab on Monday to start their drafts, they will have a very solid understanding of where they are going with their essays. 

And, once those drafts are done, we will be doing a lot more work on the revision process. Lots of great writing to come, I hope!

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Reader's Workshop Victories

I had a great week with Reader's Workshop. Last week I focused my mini-lessons on the ways that authors develop character, so during our conferences, students had to illustrate their understanding of how this could be applied to their own novels. We had some great chats. And the whole time, I was thinking how much better conferencing is than grading a character analysis essay. The kids were illustrating their knowledge, backing up their points with evidence, and it was so much less painful for me! It's also a great way to have some one on one time with the students.

I found out from several of them that they had finally found a book they liked to read. Two of them gushed that they couldn't put the down the book they were reading  -- and that had never happened to them before.  One girl, Delaney, had been reading Maze Runner and couldn't follow the plot because she had trouble concentrating on all of the detail, she said. So I suggested Between Shades of Gray, by Ruta Sepetys, because not only is it a captivating story, but it has very short chapters.  Delaney loves it and is so excited about the fact that she now looks forward to reading.

So does Alex. Alex loves trucks and hunting and a good day's work -- but he's never like to read. Someone recommended The Art of Racing in the Rain to him, and he started it reluctantly, only because he had to read something in class. During our conference, when I asked him whether he was reaching his reading goals, he told me that he was. He said that he couldn't believe that he was reading this much each week, and that he hated when I said it was time to stop reading. "That's not me," he said in disbelief.

I finished the conferences that day feeling pretty satisfied.  We switched over to writing, and the kids were doing some group work. Alex, usually loves group work and is always in the middle of the discussion. However, that day, he had his book on his lap, trying to read it undetected. When I noticed, I told him that, while I loved the fact that he wanted to read, it was time to put it away. "But there's only a few pages left!" he cried. "You have to let me keep reading!"

What could I say? Here's a photo of Alex, finishing the book while his group mates carry on without him. He finished, and now he's on to Twisted, by Laurie Halse Anderson. He's liking it too!

Not everyone has found their book or a good pace yet, but we're getting there, one page at a time. The more I do reader's workshop with my high school students, the more convinced I become that it's the way to go.

Have you had any workshop victories that you'd like to share? Would you like to get some support as you plan a workshop approach in your secondary classroom? Join my Facebook group, Secondary Reader's & Writer's Workshop Support. Send me your email to room213custom@gmail.com, or search this link. 


Take it Outside: Embracing Autumn

It's one of my favourite activities. I wait for a beautiful fall day, and I take my class to a nearby park, one that's surrounded by sparkling water and a wood full of colourful, crunchy leaves. I give them a handout with a number of tasks that ask them to capture what they see, hear and feel as they meander through the park. I call it my poetry "scavenger hunt" because they go in search of inspiration.

I send the kids off in groups, each with a sheet that directs them to different locations in the park where they can find inspiration. The tasks are in a different order on each sheet so they don't end up at the same place at the same time. You can grab my scavenger hunt here.

A few days later, I booked the Chromebooks so the students could begin to capture their experience in a  magazine style format, something that may make them feel a little more pride than lines scribbled on a piece of loose leaf. They have only completed their rough copies, and the final editing is yet to come, but I'm quite pleased with the  results so far. We have been working on idea development and descriptive writing. It's been a bit of a struggle with this crew, but the trip outside seemed to light a new spark in many of them.

I also asked the students to take a picture that captured the essence of the fall season for them. They could do it at the park if they wanted, but I encouraged them to think about it so they could come up with something that really said "fall" to them. Most, as you can imagine, took photos of trees or water, but one guy took a picture of his truck (newly purchased) loaded with wood for their fireplace. I love what he's written so far!

The students also had to create a quote that demonstrated their feelings about autumn. This one is my favourite:

We still have work to do, but I'm excited to see the final copies of their Fall Magazines.  I strongly encourage you to take your kids outside to do some descriptive writing. Not only will it inspire them, but it they will also get to spend some time enjoying our beautiful world!


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