Last week the National Council of Teachers of English sponsored the National Day on Writing. They celebrated writing with a social media campaign which asked people to share why they write using the hashtag #WhyIWrite.

Unfortunately, even though there were many interesting ways to incorporate the day into my classroom, I didn’t have much time to add a new activity to my curriculum lessons. 
Nevertheless, I still wanted to acknowledge the day.  So at the last minute, I looked at my empty bulletin board and decided my students would write tweets explaining why they write (thanks Glitter Meets Glue and Presto Plans for the clip art and exit slips).

Most students were excited to complete this activity, but of course, there are students who don’t enjoy writing, so I gave them permission to be honest.  This resulted in a handful of tweets that said they write “because I’m forced to” or “because I want to pass English.”  As a person who loves to write, these responses made me sad, so I’m pondering the following questions:  why do we make students write?  what do we require students to write?  and how do we make students write? 

The obvious answers are that we ask students to write to pass standardized tests, to meet course requirements, and to prepare them for college and work.  We identify purposes such as “writing to inform,” “writing to explain,” and “writing to persuade,” or we assign argumentative, narrative, and literary analysis essays.

Thinking about how to implement best practices for writing instruction is not a new idea for me as I have worked with the Eastern Shore Writing Project, an affiliate of the National Writing Project, for many years.  In fact, this summer I interned as a facilitator at our Invitational Summer Institute (ISI) where teachers from around the region in diverse grade levels and contents developed teaching strategy toolboxes for writing instruction to use in their classrooms.
What I was reminded of this summer, though, is that a primary purpose for writing is to connect with others. Writing for human connection reminds us that we are not alone in this world.  Our stories connect us through our fundamental human experience.  We are in this life together – whether the people we write for are our family, friends, community members, or seemingly strangers from around the world.  Most importantly, writing for human connection helps us understand one another, build empathy, and hopefully, create a more peaceful world.

Regrettably, with testing mandates and curriculum requirements in mind, teachers may neglect to incorporate writing for human connection.  But it’s important, especially if we want to encourage our reluctant writers to feel positive about writing.   Even I need to remember that sometimes we have to do what’s best for our students, no matter what pressures we experience from outside of the classroom.  Students want to write to express their feelings and to have their voices heard by others.   

So how can teachers incorporate more writing for human connection?  Here are some possibilities:

1.  Journaling
Regularly let students write about their feelings, opinions, and reflections on a host of topics.  This writing should be informal and can take various formats such as diary entries, letters, lists, webs, etc.  This can be intimidating for a teacher who then asks, how will I grade these? And maybe the answer is that it’s best not to grade many of these journals.  Maybe it’s okay to collect them occasionally and ask students to choose which journal they want you to grade.

2.  Choice
Give students choices and creative opportunities in their writing whenever possible.  One way I accomplish this is to provide a “menu” of writing activities that students select from.  For instance, when my students complete their reading of an excerpt from Henry David Thoreau’s Walden Pond, they can choose from nine activities.  Some of these include reflecting and writing about nature, researching and writing about the Tiny House Movement, or writing an imaginary diary entry from Thoreau’s perspective of life in current society. 

3.  Sharing
To help students connect with others, let students share their writing.  This does not have to be done with every assignment or always have to be in whole class discussion, but there should be frequent times for students to share in partners or small groups.  Teachers can also display student writing on classroom bulletin boards, school showcases, or encourage students to publish their writing in school newspapers, local publications, or online forums.

4. Inspiration
A participant from this summer’s ISI gave each of us a plastic egg with a paper that said, “Your idea can change the world.”  Teachers should encourage students to change the world with the ideas that they express through their writing.  Call students “authors” and reward them for sharing their writing.  Sometimes I offer enrichment points to students who will read their writing aloud in front of the class.

The most rewarding outcome of this summer’s internship was the opportunity to write for myself.  In years past, I had written eighty pages of a memoir but had stopped because of writer’s block. By responding and writing to daily journal prompts at this summer’s ISI, I moved past my writer’s block and began to once again work on my memoir.  Hopefully, just as the ISI motivated me, I can encourage students to share their voices.

How do you help students write for human connection?  I would love to try out some of your ideas.  Please share in the comments below:

Secondary ELA Seasonal Blog Hop: A Spooky Story Three Ways

In high school we don’t dress up for Halloween or have class parties, but we can still make connections to the season and have fun.  This week I’m joining The Creative Classroom and other fabulous secondary teachers in a seasonal blog hop to share how I teach my favorite spooky story. 

Since my primary prep is American Literature, Washington Irving's story, "The Devil and Tom Walker," is a relevant classic to incorporate into my instruction.  The reading level is accessible to most students and Irving builds supsense to keep them interested in the story. 

In the story, the greedy Tom Walker makes a deal with the devil for money.  Even though the story is set in 1727, the theme about the desire for material wealth is certainly applicable today.  It’s also an excellent story for teaching literary elements including characterization, foreshadowing, irony, and allusion.

This year, I’m using the story to give my students practice with narrative writing and prepare them for their upcoming PARCC assessment.  For years, I’ve neglected creative writing in my instruction, but the narrative writing prompt gives me a new opportunity to let students use their imaginations.  In two weeks, my students will read the story and write a new ending in which they will tell what happens to Walker after he’s taken by the devil.  This prompt, of course, could lead to some wildly fantastic tales, so I’ve developed some tools to guide students in the right direction.  You can access this free resource here.

In the past, I have used the story to make interdisciplinaryconnections and surprised students with math activities in their English class! Since Tom Walker is a “usurer,” I’ve used the story to help teach students about interest rates on student and car loans, and credit cards.  My high school students appreciate the application to “real life.” 

In another lesson, I’ve made nonfiction connections to the story with an article from The New York Times which explores the culture of greed on Wall Street.  This lesson guides students through close readings of the texts and ends with students choosing from a variety of nine activities for their final assessment.  Activities range from researching topics such as the financial crisis of 2008 or the Faustian legend, to interviewing family about how they handle their finances and budgets, to writing a diary entry from an imaginary person living during the era of the The Great Depression.

Do you teach scary stories?  Tell us about them in the comments below.

Find other great blog posts for Halloween in secondary ELA below.


Keeping Students Focused

So last week our school celebrated homecoming, and as usual, everyone was distracted by “dress-up” days, evening activities, voting for the homecoming court, and of course, the dance. When I was a new teacher, I never paid attention to special times of the school year- whether they were holidays, field trips, dances, or important sports competitions.   I took my job seriously and expected that nothing would interfere with my students’ learning.  I kept the mindset that students were in school to learn, and it was their problem if life distracted them.

Of course, this didn’t make me a very successful teacher during these times, but fortunately I’ve learned from my mistakes!  Over the years, I’ve realized that teachers need to be flexible.  I was a student once, too, and even though it was a long time ago ;) I remember how exciting these times of the year were, so I shouldn’t fault my students for being distracted.  Instead, now I try to help them manage their enthusiasm for these activities while they also continue to learn.

Here are a few tips that I use to help make these weeks manageable:

1.  Acknowledge there is a distraction and plan ahead.  It’s not the wisest decision to make the Monday after homecoming weekend (or Halloween, or Thanksgiving, or prom, etc.) the due date for a major project.  The reality is that many students will not complete the assignment.  Then you’ll have to decide if you’ll let them submit it late or fail the project. If they fail, are they learning?  Ultimately, making the due date on the Tuesday or Wednesday after a special weekend gives them a weeknight or two to finish homework and will result in less hassle for you!

Parents will also appreciate this forward thinking.  For instance, at holidays, many parents struggle to balance travel plans with school schedules.  Consequently, they will likely thank you for making it so their children don’t have to stay up after arriving home from a delayed flight at 10:00 p.m. on Sunday.

2.  However, still keep students accountable during these weeks.  Although it’s important to recognize the holiday or event taking place, and maybe even incorporate a few fun activities, it’s important to continue with lessons from the regular curriculum.  In my class, students have vocabulary assignments every day, and I make sure to collect them. 

With my high school students, I talk with them about planning ahead.  For example, I tell them that they may want to complete their upcoming vocabulary index cards during the weekend before a special week.  This way they can enjoy the evening activities that take place during our homecoming week.  No doubt, this is a helpful lesson for their futures at college and in work.

3.  Participate in some of the fun.  I honestly don’t feel that excited about homecoming anymore (between being a student and teaching high school, I’ve just experienced 17 homecomings) but I still want to connect with the students and have school spirit.  Therefore, I choose a few days to dress-up for during the week.  My students notice that I’m taking part in activities that happen outside of English class, and it opens conversations with them.  Even though I think my English class should be the center of everyone’s attention, lots of my students, parents, and other staff members won’t agree.  They have their own interests and priorities, and I need to accept that. 

My colleague and I dressed up for "Twins Day."

4.  Maintain regular routines.  I believe that structure and routines are beneficial to my students’ learning.  They know they can expect certain warm ups, lessons, and activities on specific days of the week.  For example, they know that I always start with journal writing on Mondays and that we begin class with silent sustained reading on Tuesdays and Thursdays.  This helps me plan my semester and provides consistency.  As much as possible, I keep these routines during special weeks during the school year. 

What advice do you have for keeping students focused during the holiday season or other eventful times during the school year?  I’m always interested in new ideas so please share in the comments below!


Active Learning

Why do so many teachers expect students to sit and listen to lectures when the research shows the strong connection between physical activity and learning? In fact, Eric Jensen, author of the book Teachingwith the Brain in Mind, says, “When we keep students active, we keep their energy levels up and provide their brains with the oxygen-rich blood needed for highest performance. Teachers who insist that students remain seated during the entire class period are not promoting optimal conditions for learning.”

Maybe teachers are reluctant because they think it will require more time to prepare lessons that involve movement, or perhaps they are worried student behavior will get out-of-control.  However, in my experience students are often more engaged and well-behaved when they are allowed to get out of their seats in my English classroom.  Whether it’s getting students to rotate around the room for a carousel activity, moving to corners of the room for a debate, or walking around to interview one another, students appreciate the opportunity to get out of their seats.

Games are another way to get students moving. I often use Trashketball games because they motivate students with their love of sports. Additionally, the games encourage friendly competition because the teacher arranges the class into teams.   This team approach is an excellent way to meet the needs of all students, especially when they are arranged in heterogeneous groups. The rules to these games also encourage students to work together on their teams to solve the answers; they can keep trying to find correct answers even after they have made a mistake. The games don’t require many materials and they’re easy to play.

I provide power point Trashketball games that include detailed rules and explanations for both the students and the teacher.  Furthermore, each game provides a brief review of its topic and includes several rounds of practice exercises. Even in middle school and high school, holiday themed games can make learning more fun.

How do you get students out of their seats?  What grammar concepts do you teach?  Share your ideas in the comments below.
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