Greetings! I have been teaching middle school since 1988: first English Language Arts, and now also Digital Design Lab and Broadcast Media. I present workshops for teachers on technology in the classroom, project-based learning, and writing; plus I work with Edutopia and KQED Learning. I love to connect with other educators, so please enjoy my site, check out my how-to NaNoWriMo site, see my students’ novels for sale on Amazon, and contact me here or via Twitter @LAMBRADLEY.
If your students have been pounding away on their keyboards for the past month, drafting a (very very rough) first draft of a novel (thank you, NaNoWriMo!), you might be wondering how you can assess the work they’ve done. It wouldn’t be fair to assess their first drafts, especially since one rule of NaNoWriMo is that we all “silence our inner editors.” How painful would it be for us to read all those unedited first drafts? (insert scream emoji here)
There is great value in having our students spend an entire month working on one lengthy piece of writing (see just a few of the reasons here), but when it comes time to assess their work, I recommend asking students to choose an excerpt from their novel that they will revise and polish to be worthy of publication. I give some basic parameters for this excerpt, such as:
- between 1 and 2 pages long (800-1200 words)
- includes dialogue
- includes details of setting
- includes details of at least one character (appearance, actions, thoughts)
- has been proofread carefully
- demonstrates your best narrative writing
My students copy and paste their excerpt into a new doc, print it out and bring it to class. I distribute a rubric based on recommendations from the Young Writers Program, and we go over the qualities one would find in an effective excerpt.
Then with highlighters in hand, they identify elements they are proud of and areas that need improvement. They trade excerpts with classmates to get feedback, and they take turns stepping outside to read their writing aloud so they can better hear how it sounds and catch more errors.
Once they have revised, proofread and corrected their excerpt, they add a brief introduction at the beginning to give the reader the broader context from which the excerpt was taken. These polished excerpts are then published in a variety of ways:
- on their digital portfolios
- on our classroom walls
- read aloud at our local bookstore at our own Meet-the-Author event
Since my students have been invested in these stories for most of the semester, their excerpts demonstrate the kind of writing we love to read: student-centered, passionate, and rich with the voice and authority of engaged writers.
Instead of viewing them as just another stack of papers to grade, enjoy them and celebrate the writing journey your students have taken!
Check out more tips for NaNoWriMo assessment here.
Returning from Fall Break this week, my students have four more days before NaNoWriMo ends. We have two class periods together, plus they will write at home. Our focus this week, after months of planning our stories, collecting writing advice from authors, working through writer’s block, and figuring out how to conclude our novels, is to just get to our word goals. We know the draft we’ve written this month is very, very rough, and we know we want to revise it significantly, but this week it’s all about that sprint to the finish line.
But today, before we dive into writing, we’re going to take some time to brainstorm ideas for titles for our novels. No matter what kind of writing my students are working on, I tell them to wait on a title until they are finished. So often the best ideas for titles come from within the piece itself, so why struggle to name it if it hasn’t been written yet?
Another reason we wait to come up with our titles is that brainstorming titles can generate more ideas for our stories. We look at how authors often title novels with conflicts from the story itself (like Jay Asher’s 13 Reasons Why, or Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games), or with important symbols (like Hatchet, by Gary Paulsen, or Drums, Girls and Dangerous Pie, by Jordan Sonnenblick). The time we spend listing potential titles can give us ideas for how we will finally conclude our stories, or how we will add more words by inserting a flashback or two.
Here is the brainstorming page that my students will be using this week. You’re welcome to use it, too. Who knows, maybe the activity will inspire an entirely new ending for your novel.
When my students create characters for their NaNoWriMo novels, I push them to get super detailed: to hear the songs their characters will listen to when they plug in their earbuds; to picture the snack food they’ll pull from their backpack as they walk home from school; to feel the clothes they’ll grab from their closet on a Saturday morning. But those details don’t get to the heart of a character, to the backstory and soul that really drive a person.
So this year I added some layers to our character development lessons. I found this great article by Roxanna Elden on the three layers of a complex character:
- the outer, protective layer, which is usually “socially acceptable but superficial”
- the middle, defective layer, which we try to hide with our outer layer
- underneath it all is our inner, human core, the part of us that helps explain our other two layers. This core is also the part of us that is most universal. Elden says, “If we can see the human core of a character, we will understand and care for them. If a character can find and learn to accept their own human core, they will achieve inner peace to the degree it’s possible.”
Middle school students (and many adults) are not usually fully aware of their own layers, but after just a brief lesson on the topic, along with examples of characters we know well, my students started crafting some deep, layered characters for their novels.
We started, of course, by watching the “ogres are like onions” scene from Shrek (click image to view):
This was meant to be just a fun introduction, but as we watched I realized that Donkey really helped to drive the point home. When he suggested cake or parfait instead of onions, he clarified another reason that an onion is the best metaphor. I put these images on the screen and asked my students what they noticed:
It took them a little while to see what I saw (I’m learning to let it be quiet longer than is comfortable so they can THINK), but eventually someone got it:
“Oh! I know! The onion has a center, but the cake and parfaits don’t. They are stacked layers, not layers that wrap around and hide inner layers.”
And – BAM – that sweet little insight really nailed the concept for many of us. We looked at the character of Snape, from the Harry Potter series, and how in the beginning he seemed to be an angry man who unfairly picked on Harry. But throughout the series he becomes one of the most complex, layered characters of all:
My students spent the rest of class detailing the three layers of their protagonist. At the end of class we shared our characters’ layers in a quick whip around the room, and the depth was staggering. I can’t wait to read the stories of these layered characters!
Bonus: I could see a chipping away of the façade that teens often wear as they heard their classmates speak of the deep, human core at the heart of their characters. This fresh understanding of human layers just might help my students develop empathy both for each other and for characters in the books they read (and write).
There’s nothing quite like the intensity, the chaos, the one-crisis-after-another, the sorry-I-can’t-help-you-go-find-someone-who-can, the exhilaration, jubilation and exhaustion of the first day of production in a middle school broadcast media class.
My brand new group of 7th and 8th graders had met six times in the first couple weeks of school (90 minutes, every other day) and our audience was antsy for a show. Our news program delivers the daily announcements to the staff and students, and at the start of the school year there is a lot of information that students need.
So after just six class periods of training 12- and 13-year-olds to write scripts, create graphics, film and edit video shorts, set up cameras and lights, read from (and pace) tele-prompters, load media onto a TriCaster, manage the audio, direct the anchors, and operate a video bus and TriCaster during filming (which includes green screen technology, switching between four cameras and four student anchors, and incorporating graphics and videos during filming), it was time to get our first show on the air.
Suffice it to say, chaos reigned. The script team struggled with the language of dates (“If I’m writing the script today for a show that airs tomorrow, which day is “today,” which is “tomorrow” and what is “next week”?); the graphics team spent far too much time looking for just the right “labeled for reuse” image for the Icebreaker Dance announcement; the producer couldn’t find camera angles that worked for students under five feet tall and those well over six feet; the floor manager nearly fried her Fitbit chasing down graphics and videos from computers all over the classroom and delivering them to the tech team; the audio team assured us the audio was fine (but, par for the course, it was not fine at all); the bus operator kept switching to the wrong camera at the wrong time; and the TriCaster team fought the never-ending battle of green fuzz around the anchors’ heads.
But when the bell rang for lunch, our first show was finished, uploaded to YouTube and tweeted out on Twitter. And the best part? The kids applauded, slapped high fives, and walked out of the classroom taller, prouder and more confident than they had felt that morning. That show was theirs, warts and all, and they knew that they had a part in its production. (Click below to watch our first show of the 2018-19 school year.)
In my 25+ years as a middle school teacher, I have never seen a class that inspires students to take responsibility, invest in their work, own their efforts and develop confidence like I see in this broadcast media class. And I’m pretty sure this happens in large part because I can’t answer all their questions and I can’t solve all their problems. There are far too many tasks and far too many crises for a teacher to be in charge. No, the smartest move I made in that class was to tell them from day 1, “I will not be able to solve all the problems, so don’t ask. Find someone who can help you.”
It’s not easy to let students struggle, to watch them fail, but when I don’t step in to help, they collaborate, communicate and problem-solve to get that show produced. As their “teacher,” it is an honor and inspiration to step back and watch them take charge.
(For more information on our award-winning broadcast media program, see this post that I wrote for KQED; this series on EducatorInnovator’s The Current; and this video from our 2016 Jack London Award for Innovation in Education from Sonoma State University.)
On my first-day-of-school survey, I asked my 8th graders:
If you could write about anything this year, what would it be?
Their answers remind me why it’s so valuable to give students choice in their writing. I never would have guessed they would want to write about so many interesting topics. Here are some of their plans:
I would write about…
- a kid who is anxious about the future.
- equal treatment for everyone. Or mental health.
- social difficulties and internal conflicts in the modern times because I can easily relate.
- my dog because he’s really goofy.
- an imaginary island.
- people who are stuck in the wilderness, like in Hatchet.
- a realistic fiction novel
(NOTE FROM THE TEACHER: WHAT 8TH GRADER SAYS THEY WANT TO WRITE A NOVEL?!? Must be an 8th grader who knows she will be a NaNoWriMo novelist this year!)
I would write about…
- the U.S. military because it is something I want to be a part of.
- owning a corporation and the crazy antics that would follow because one of my dreams is to own a company.
- politics and feminism.
- the impact of a family that loves and supports you, compared to the opposite because I’ve always wondered.
- natural disasters.
- my friend Jack, who has Down Syndrome. He means the world to me.
- my puppy being able to talk. It would be really funny.
- a family surviving in a bunker after the world ends.
- different cultures. The stories we would learn would be very interesting and it would be nice to know about other people’s cultures.
- having to evacuate my cabin over the summer due to the Carr fire. I think I can be very descriptive about what happened.
- current events. It’s important to know what’s happening in the world.
- politics. There are a lot of political issues that need to be addressed.
- intentional and unintentional racism in public schools. It’s a real issue.
- mental disorders, because it’s a topic that nobody ever addresses.
- my trip to Niagara Falls. It was one of the most memorable experiences of my life.
An added bonus to giving students choice in their writing is how it affects our relationship. When I ask them to tell me about their topics, their faces light up with enthusiasm as they share about the puppy they rescued, the rally they went to with a friend, the business they started over the summer, or the post-apocalyptic world they’ve created. What better way to get students invested in their writing (which means they are more likely to write thoughtfully, proofread carefully, and invest in the final product) than to let them write about their passions? Go ahead, try it! What would YOU write about?
In my last post I shared the beautiful and inspirational bulletin boards that my students created when they were given the challenge to make our classroom walls their own. Not content to end this project with their displays, I then asked them to choose one part of a bulletin board that they liked and reflect on its value to them and our community. Here are some of their responses, which they added to their digital portfolios:
Finally, I surveyed my students to find out what they thought of this assignment. What were they proud of from their own contributions? Did they think the activity improved our classroom environment? Did they learn from it? Do they think I should do it with future classes? This is what some of them said:
“I am most proud of the the melted crayon art, because it was very hard to do and it turned out pretty good. I think the many different colors on this canvas represent how everyone is different but together we do great things.”
“I think that it was a good teamwork exercise because it requires people to work together and listen to each other… or it can go down the drain fast because you’ll have fighting, random things on the boards, and people just in overall bad moods. I learned that I can work with a lot of people, all of us with very different personalities, and we can still make a board that looks amazing and one that we’re proud of.”
“I think it was really fun and let everyone put a part of what they like in the classroom. I enjoyed looking at it when taking breaks from working, it gave me some inspiration.”
“The item I enjoyed the most was the quote by Michael Jordan. I enjoy this quote mainly because it has the most meaning to me. I think this picture and quote can inspire the class to keep working hard and stay positive. Overall I think this quote has been very useful.”
“I think this experience was good and very positive. Personally I didn’t think that getting the materials was hard, but our bulletin board still may have had an affect on somebody’s day. I think at the end of the process the walls looked very bright and organized, and I think they sent powerful messages.”
“It was a lot of fun, and because we had to communicate with each other, we got a little closer.”
“I think letting students be in charge of what we see everyday is fun and gives us a chance to think outside the box, but it can get bad when the group does not work well together. If the group doesn’t agree with one person, drama can start and it can change the students’ behavior in the class with that person. That is why I think it was a good idea to let the students pick their partners.”
“It was cool that something I played a part in was on the walls for my class and other classes to see.”
But of course not everyone enjoyed the project:
“I honestly did not like it – too much responsibility – but I am pretty sure other people liked it.”
“It wasn’t that great and it didn’t really feel like it made a difference to the class.”
“I would have liked it more if my group had done some of the work, but it was kind of fun.”
“It was fun to do, but I don’t think very many people really pay attention to the bulletin boards and look at what’s on it.”
This feedback is helpful for how I can improve the project next year. Because I had made a last-minute decision to experiment with the bulletin boards, I didn’t have a full plan for how it would work. I can see now that we need to spend more time noticing what students put on their boards, talking about its impact, and digging in more to the symbolism. As I have learned many times in education, next year this will be even better!
Overall, I’m happy with their participation and feedback. Even students who didn’t love the project noticed benefits beyond what I had anticipated. While I wanted them to feel that their contributions mattered and see symbolism in classroom decorations, many students also commented on how much they enjoyed the chance to be creative, to work with a group, to learn about each other’s interests, and to feel part of our community of learners. The few negative experiences were far outnumbered by the many who said, “Yes, keep doing this!” I’m looking forward to seeing what future classes do with our classroom décor, especially since it means I will have one fewer task on my to-do list.
They arrived early on Day 1 of their bulletin board rotation, laden with bags of decorations, eyes and smiles full of anticipation and excitement. I handed them staplers and push pins, and stepped back to watch them work.
I had assigned this group to the largest bulletin board in the first round because I knew them well enough to expect them to produce a creative, thought-provoking display. I also hoped they would be an inspiration for the rest of the class. And they did not disappoint! They brought in beautiful pictures, inspirational quotes, 3-dimensional objects, bright flowers, and even two different strands of twinkly lights. They filled the enormous board with their creations, and then came back the following class day with more. They weren’t content to leave any large empty spaces.
When the bell rang and their classmates started arriving, their hard work was rewarded with “oohs,” “ahhs,” “wows” and “OMG did you bring anything for OUR board?!” Groups who had been assigned to the smaller boards formed quick huddles and started strategizing how they would get their decorations up later in the week. Yes, they were frustrated that they had forgotten, but they were also excited to show that they, too, could inspire their classmates with their own bulletin boards. And they did:
My students were clearly proud of their work and enjoyed seeing their classmates pore over the various images, quotes and objects they had contributed to our classroom. But I wanted more from this project. I wanted my students to better understand symbolism, to see how flowers or twinkly lights or a basketball jersey could represent bigger ideas, concepts that may be hard to explain but could be understood through symbolic objects. So after the boards had been up for a couple weeks, I had students take pictures of the items that were meaningful to them, and then write about the symbolic meanings of one of them.
Tune in next week for part 4 of this bulletin board experiment to see how the students responded….