curriculum

#NaNoWriMoTinyTip: Whip it!

Most of our class time during NaNoWriMo is spent in silence (except for the tap-tap-tapping of the laptop keys), as my students need a quiet environment to focus on their writing. Many of them use earbuds to listen to music while they write, but they know that the room needs to be quiet so we all can concentrate.

But we have also learned that talking about what we are writing helps us get clear on our story while also giving us ideas for our next chapter. So we schedule in times to share aloud with one another. One of our favorite ways to do that is with a whip, which is simply a whip around the room, with each writer sharing just a sentence or two about their novel-in-progress. First I have students write a quick response to a certain whip topic, and then we move our chairs into one huge circle so we can all see and hear each other.

Photo by Steve Shreve on Unsplash

Here are some whips we have enjoyed:

  • Synopsis: Tell us about your main character and his/her status quo, the inciting incident that launches the story, and how the character reacts: My main character, _______________________, is ________________________ until ______________________ so then ________________________.
  • Tell us about your main character’s big dreams/goals and what is getting in the way of him/her achieving them: My protagonist, ______________________, wants ____________ more than anything, but __________________________ so _____________________________.
  • Status of the story: Tell us what just happened in your story, what will happen next, and what your “long game” is.
  • What is one secret in your story? What is it that a character does not want anyone to find out?
  • How has (or will) your character change throughout the story? In the beginning, my protagonist was ___________________________________, but in the end, he/she will be ________________________________ because ______________________________.
  • What has surprised you in your story? What is one plot idea that came to you that is changing the original direction of your story?

The best part about doing a whip at the start of class is that students go into writing time with some specific ideas about what they will write today. But whips work any time – in fact, if your writers are having a hard time concentrating during writing time, that’s also a good time to break up the silence with a quick whip.

So tell me – what’s happening in YOUR novel?

[Get more tips and tricks for using NaNoWriMo in the classroom from my NaNoTeacher website.]

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#NaNoWriMoTinyTip: Houses & Hamburgers

The first few years that my students and I wrote novels with NaNoWriMo, I neglected settings. This wasn’t intentional, but my main concern was helping my students plan enough of a plot that they would be able to keep writing for the full month. My lack of novel-writing experience caused me to miss the fact that settings make a big difference in adding more story, more conflict, more ways to move the story forward while also revealing more about our characters. Last year we discovered a great way to detail settings for our novels before we start writing.

First, though, I want my students to see why settings matter. They read The Outsiders in 7th grade, and since it is a story that most of them love and remember, it serves as a great reference when we plan our own novels. The settings in S.E. Hinton’s classic novel show us just how valuable our own stories’ settings can be:

  • Ponyboy’s home and neighborhood, where we see the bond of the brothers who try to support each other without their parents; plus we see the fear and danger of walking the streets of their neighborhood, and the support the Greasers give each other when one of them is jumped by Socs.
  • The drive-in theater, where we see Cherry take on Dallas, and where she and Ponyboy begin to get to know each other.
  • The abandoned church, where Johnny and Ponyboy hide, and where we see their friendship develop. Later we see how courageous and generous the Greasers are when they risk their own lives to save children who are trapped in the burning church.
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Photo by Harry Miller on Unsplash

Looking back at these settings helps my students understand why they need to decide which settings will be important in their novels. But where do they get ideas for settings? How do they create settings that are realistic? #TinyTip answer: the Chamber of Commerce.

After my husband and I enjoyed a vacation in Grand Lake, Colorado, I decided to set my next novel there. I loved the tiny mountain town, the beautiful lake, the downtown boardwalks, and the live theater. But as a California native, I didn’t know much about living in Colorado. Thank you, Grand Lake Chamber of Commerce, for providing ideas for not just places, but also local hangouts, activities, festivals, and weather. After all, a novel set in Colorado must have some snowy winter scenes, and that is far outside my own experience.

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Photo by Alisa Anton on Unsplash

Even if my students want to set their stories in fictional towns, using a Chamber of Commerce site for that area of the country will help them plan settings that will improve their stories. Writing science fiction? Fantasy? Your characters still need places to live, to travel, to hangout, to enjoy a burger… and Chamber of Commerce sites are gold mines for setting ideas. Students can even visit Chamber of Commerce sites all over the world with this international list.

Where do you get ideas for your novel’s settings? How do you make them realistic?

Coding in English class? Yes! And not just an #HourOfCode, but a #MonthOfCode!

My students have participated in the Hour of Code since it launched in 2013. Regardless of the class I’m teaching (English 8, Digital Design 7/8 or Broadcast Media 7/8), we take a break from our current projects and spend a class period dipping our toes in the waters of computer coding. Thanks to a wide variety of video tutorials provided by the good folks at Code.org, I don’t have to be a coding expert to give my students this opportunity. Even better, the tutorials differentiate the experience for my students, some of whom have been learning to code on their own via Khan Academy, and others who have never heard of coding. Best of all? The online tutorials are all free and continue to be available beyond Computer Science Education Week, which is when Hour of Code is officially held.

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Three years later I decided it was time to take my English students beyond just an hour. Our first semester had been devoted to narrative writing, when my students wrote their own novels for National Novel Writing Month. When that project ended on November 30, we had three and a half weeks before winter break and the end of the semester. I decided those weeks would be a great time to go deeper into coding.

Although I am not a gamer, I know enough about games to recognize the link between narratives and games. I asked my students to brainstorm elements of novels (something they had become quite expert in) and elements of games. Eventually they saw these similarities:

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Then I told them about Computer Science Education Week and Code.org’s vision to give “every student in every school the opportunity to learn computer science.” We watched a couple of introductory videos, and then I introduced them to Scratch, the free online coding program launched by creative thinkers at MIT. Using a step-by-step lesson for creating a simple Scratch game, I set my students loose on the Scratch site to get familiar with the drag-and-drop platform that introduces them to the  language and logic of coding. And that’s where Hour of Code would usually end. But I had a better idea…

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Here’s the assignment I gave them: create a computer game based on the novel you just wrote. Their eyes lit up and their creative juices started flowing. Having just invested over a month into that novel, they knew their characters, plots, and conflicts inside and out. I hoped that the chance to create a game from that story would honor their writing and stretch some different brain muscles, while also giving them the basis for a richer game than they might create if it didn’t come from a well-developed story.

Their enthusiasm was exciting, but I knew many of them were nervous about tackling something as foreign as coding. And that’s where the geniuses at MIT make the significant difference between a one-hour tutorial and an entire unit, semester, or even year of coding instruction possible. I showed my students the many help options on the Scratch site, and told them to please work with friends so they could learn from each other. Each day, as they developed their games, we stopped midway to share out our questions, discoveries, and excitement. With a few weeks to devote to the project, students who thought they were done one day discovered a neighbor who added sound effects to her game, so they were inspired to go back in and do the same.

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The next week, I gave my students small tasks each day in case they thought their game was done and they were ready to quit. One day they added introductory information on their game info page; another day they traded rough draft feedback with a peer; and another day they updated their online portfolios with reflections on their coding experience and screenshots of their games. Some students had so much fun they chose to stay in at lunch to keep working on their games:

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And what will these students be doing on their “final exam” day next week? They will each create a Google Form feedback survey for their game, and then they will post the links to their games and feedback forms on a shared doc. Their work will then be assessed by their peers as they play each other’s games and submit feedback for revision.

There is so much about this project that mirrors the writing process: in addition to creating a story, they brainstormed and outlined their games, drafted them, tested them, found errors to fix, drafted some more, tested some more, revised some more. And eventually they will publish their games to an audience as big as the internet (via the Scratch site), where this creative gaming community can play, rate, and give  them feedback. And if they didn’t proofread their game carefully? It won’t run.

Do I expect all of my students to pursue computer science? Of course not. But will they all benefit from their month of coding? Absolutely. They were immersed in a new language and area of study in a collaborative, student-driven, interactive, face-to-face and online environment. Their narrative skills were sharpened, along with logic and critical thinking, and they got first hand experience in how computer devices are programmed. They saw their work published and learned the value of revision, proofreading, and peer feedback. It was well worth our time to devote weeks, instead of just an hour, to coding.

Have your students gone beyond an #HourOfCode? Have you found a way to integrate coding into your subject area? Please share!

#NaNoWriMo: ask the experts

I’ve never published a novel of my own, so it’s intimidating to ask my students to write a novel under my tutelage. But since the answer to just about every question can now be found online, I decided this year to ask my students to search the web for writing advice from those most qualified to give it: published writers.

Much of the wisdom they found echoes what I will be teaching them in the next few weeks. Maybe my lessons will carry a bit more weight since the experts said it first!

  • Don’t give up. Trust your journey.

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  • Editing matters. Write truth.

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  • Your story matters.

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  • Make it real; make it scary; and … cliffhangers.

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  • Make it human (but don’t let your mom read it).

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  • Also good: tension and snap.

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  • When you get discouraged, remember: the world needs your novel!

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What advice do YOU have for my #WriMos?

 

Loving the homestretch: meaningful work and active engagement

Oh, these crazy days of May! As sure as the weather gets warmer, our students get antsy, lose their focus and challenge our well established rules and expectations. Attention spans wither and distractions bloom. But thanks to the engaging nature of PBL and student choice, I love my classroom in May.

Although my students know the year is almost over, they are (for the most part) fully engaged in meaningful work. They have invested weeks (even months) into final projects, and they know that due dates are right around the corner. They are proud of the work they have done and eager to see it all come to fruition in a completed, published form.

So instead of battling distracted students and misbehavior in May, I have the pleasure of circulating as they work, answering questions, admiring their progress, and enjoying the beauty of students blushing with pride as they show off their best work.

My 8th grade English students are putting the final touches on their magazines, a project that allows them to pursue a topic of interest to them, while also building their skills in essay writing, graphic design, media, advertising, target audience, and long-term project completion.

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Overlapping with the publication of their magazines is the completion of their digital portfolios, where they reflect on the work they have done this year, highlight their best pieces, and add symbolic images. Students spend the final class days presenting their portfolios to the class.

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My favorite part of their portfolios is the final piece: a gratitude slide, where students represent their journey with one final symbolic image and thank an adult on campus for their impact on their lives. Middle schoolers can be a bit self-absorbed, but with just a little prompting, they can see and appreciate how the adults in their lives have affected them. And it is through these final slides that we see not just the appreciation of teachers, but also counselors, administrators, campus supervisors, coaches, office and cafeteria staff. My students are fortunate to have so many inspirational role models across our campus:

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How do you keep your students engaged in meaningful work during these final, crazy days of May?

Brainstorm backwards, then look ahead

The first time I read Billy Collins’ poem “On Turning Ten,” I thought it would be wonderful if my 8th graders wrote poems about the nostalgia of childhood and the uncertainty of growing up, since they were kind of in the middle: finished with elementary school and looking forward to high school. We watched a video of Collins reciting the poem, and I distributed it on paper so we could dig in to the imagery that made the poem so powerful. We talked about the value of specific details (“I could make myself invisible by drinking a glass of milk a certain way,” “my bicycle never leaned against the garage as it does today, all the dark blue speed drained out of it”), and then they started working on their own poems.

Bicycle at Venice Beach, by Michael, flickr.com

Bicycle at Venice Beach, by Michael, flickr.com

But before long, they started complaining. They didn’t know what to write. They didn’t understand why Collins would compare growing up to “a kind of measles of the spirit, a mumps of the psyche, a disfiguring chicken pox of the soul.” They didn’t get the nostalgia at all. One student helped me see why the assignment that I thought would be so sweet was falling flat: “Mrs. Bradley, we aren’t sad about growing up! We can’t wait to get to high school, to learn to drive, to get a job!”

Ah ha. Now I got it. They were a little young to be feeling nostalgic about childhood; in fact, they were still in it. Collins, after all, didn’t write “On Turning Ten” when he was nine going on ten. He waited until he was an adult and could appreciate those years.

But I wasn’t ready to give up. I knew my students would experience rollercoaster emotions as they hurtled toward the end of 8th grade and began to anticipate moving on to high school. It may not be cool to fear growing up, but many of them were feeling just what Collins did; they just didn’t know how to identify and express it.

boys being boys, by Mighty mighty bigmac, flickr.com

So we worked backwards. They took out their notebooks for some brainstorming. We started with kindergarten, 1st grade, 2nd grade: what clothes do you remember wearing? What TV shows did you watch? What did you do at recess? What did you eat for lunch? Who were your teachers? Your friends?

Thinking of my now-grown children, I tossed out some memories of my own: “Did you wear those light-up shoes?” The room exploded! “I had those!” “Those were soooo cool!” “I had the rolling ones!” And then I asked, “Did you watch Blue’s Clues or Sponge Bob?”

The room was filled with happy remembering. Now it was my turn to be quiet while they got lost in the details of their childhoods. They brainstormed with their friends, bouncing memories off each other until the room swirled with sweet nostalgia, these just-turned-teens so worried about being cool, laughing as they remembered their worn out superhero costume that they insisted on wearing everywhere, including the grocery store.

Anders Ruff superhero party by Becca Bond Photography

Anders Ruff superhero party by Becca Bond Photography, flickr.com

Now I know that we need to start this assignment with backwards brainstorming, giving them time to fall into nostalgia on their own, to appreciate their innocent little selves before they think about growing up. And then when we read “On Turning Ten,” they get it. They sigh at the closing lines:

“But now when I fall upon the sidewalks of life,                                                                                    I skin my knees. I bleed.”

They understand those sidewalks now, and when they write their own poems, they are so sweetly nostalgic they make me cry, every time:

Now it’s time to hang up my invisibility cloak.                                                                                               Now you see me                                                                                                                                                       Exposed to pain and responsibilities.  ~Humberto

I was the crazy little girl who jumped off her bed                                                                                                 thinking I would dive into the ocean                                                                                                                       but instead ended up with a sprained arm.  ~Dulce

Math Facts, book reports, mission project, and cursive writing                                                                     These things troubled me about turning 10                                                                                                            I was worried about big changes.  ~Lucas

I won’t cry out of sadness                                                                                                                                              I refuse to give in to my fear                                                                                                                                         I can’t let go of the warm rays of sun on my skin                                                                                                 I’ll never let go of my imagination.  ~Brenna

Even if the images were in the past they stay with me forever,                                                                         all I have to do is open my mouth and tell my story with a smile.  ~Amelie

Sometimes a lesson has to go wrong before we can get it right. Right?