Middle School

#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?

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#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?

 

Always a learner; also a teacher.

Screen shot 2014-10-04 at 1.29.05 PMGreetings! I am a veteran middle school teacher with nearly 30 years experience teaching English language arts. In 2012 I added Digital Design and Broadcast Media to my schedule, and discovered the joys and power that an internet-connected 1:1 classroom can bring to my students. Revising my curriculum to take advantage of 21st century tools while also developing our digital media programs have kept me engaged and excited to be in the classroom every day. In addition to teaching, I also present workshops for teachers on Google Apps, project-based learning, and writing; plus I work as a community facilitator for Edutopia and write for KQED Learning and Edutopia. I love to connect with other educators, so please enjoy this site, check out my how-to NaNoWriMo site, see my students’ novels for sale on Amazon, and contact me here or via Twitter @LAMBRADLEY.

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?

Read > blog > discuss > repeat

Blogging isn’t new. In fact, blogging came on the scene a full decade before my current students were born. But have our students discovered the power of their own blogging?

If your students are writing, I challenge you to move that writing to blogs. And if your students aren’t writing, blogging is one way to change that. When students move their work from paper to blogs, they:

  • publish their writing to a bigger (and more significant) audience;
  • can easily access and read their peers’ writing;
  • can engage in online conversations in response to their peers’ writing;
  • learn to work online for academic purposes;
  • learn a variety of digital skills within a meaningful project.

For a few years now I have had my students create digital portfolios using Weebly.com, where they showcase and reflect on the learning they have done throughout the year. I like Weebly because it is a free and easy program that allows students to create beautiful and personalized websites with their own blog pages.

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So this year my students built their Weebly sites and published one blog post… and then, in ongoing efforts to regulate students’ access to the internet, our district tightened up the filter. And just like that, we lost access to Weebly.

Sigh. Such is life in a tech-integrated classroom. But we know from experience to think fast, change gears, and pivot to the back-up plan.

Did you know that Google Docs make pretty good blogs? Students write their blog post in a Doc, and then their classmates use the insert-comment option to respond to the post. The authors are then able to read and reply to the comments, and shazam, we have our own blogs with comment threads. Take that, filter.

blog sample Tito

Last week my students finished reading Sleeping Freshmen Never Lie, by David Lubar, and they were eager to talk about the story. Since they had already blogged their responses throughout the reading, they had a wealth of resources from which to draw for a class discussion.

At the start of class they went to our document of blog links and read entries from six of their classmates’ blogs. In their notebooks, they jotted down the names of bloggers to recommend and topics for our discussion. They shared out what they found and I started a list on the board:

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(Bonus points for Mikaela for pointing out the red herrings!)

Then we moved our chairs into one huge circle (thank you, flexible furniture with wheels!) so we could see each other as we talked about these big issues.

I am so proud of and impressed by the discussion my students had. They are 8th graders, which means that sometimes they have the insight and sensitivity of adults, grappling with issues like poverty and the presidential election; and then the very next day (or minute) they are more like 4th graders, rediscovering the humor of bodily functions. But after reading each others’ blogs, they entered our discussion understanding that many of their peers, like Lee and Mouth, have been victims of bullying. They saw themselves in Scott’s family dynamics, as well as in the familiar cliques of Scott’s classmates. They recognized the angst Scott experienced as he pined for Julia while discovering unexpected friendship in Lee. And although depression and suicide may seem like scary and far away concepts for 8th graders, my students discovered through blogging that some of their classmates had been close to those very situations. Their class discussion was polite, mature and sensitive, and covered a wide range of topics inspired by the novel. With all of their blogs as starting points, they could have continued their conversations well past the final bell.

Blogging is a natural for English class (and a powerful platform for English language learners), but teachers and students are also discovering the benefits of blogging in classes like math, sciencehistory and more across the curriculum.

How could your students benefit from blogging? What could they blog about that would further their own learning, as well as prompt their classmates to deeper thinking?