writing

Assessing your WriMos

Best LinesIf your students are feverishly writing novels as fast their little fingers can fly across the keyboards, anxious to meet their NaNoWriMo word goals by the end of November, you may be wondering how best to assess their work during this glorious month of literary abandon.  Since it may be unrealistic for you to read the complete texts of their novels (I have 98 students writing an average of 15,000 words each, so I don’t plan to read them all cover to cover), I offer you these more realistic assessments:

  • have them choose one beautiful line from their writing to be shared publicly (on a blog, on a bulletin board, etc.).  If you’d like to make it a more specific assessment, direct them to choose a line with a particularly effective metaphor or powerful imagery.
  • give them a grade for making it to their individual goals by November 30.  If they don’t make it, give them the percentage that they do achieve.  Consider rewarding students who choose but don’t quite make it to an unusually high goal.
  • once November is over, have students pull one-two page excerpts that demonstrate certain aspects of narrative writing: dialogue, character development, setting description, conflict, etc., and give them directions for revising those excerpts.  Imagine the joy of grading just those short pieces that they have had time to fully polish, rather than tackling pages and pages that they won’t have time to revise.
  • assign literary analysis of their own writing. My students have done some work analyzing why an author chose certain words or created certain characters; think of how powerful it would be for them to write analysis of their own novels. These  shorter pieces would also be great on a blog so that students can respond to one another’s work.
  • add public speaking to the experience.  Our local bookstore hosted my students as visiting authors, and the work they did to prepare for that event was an assignment worthy of its own grade.  They wrote an introduction of their novels, including titBest Linesle, genre, basic set up and themes; then they wrote an introduction of the excerpt so that the audience would understand it in context; and then they practiced reading aloud so that their work could be appreciated.  The evening event was listed by many of my students as one of their favorite parts of the project, even though most of them said they were terrified of speaking in public.
  • extensions of the NaNoWriMo experience could include creating book trailers for their novels; book jackets with author information and critics’ quotes; posters with images and quotes from the text; and of course polishing their novels so they can take advantage of the free publication offered to them from CreateSpace.

The month-long journey of writing a lengthy story is valuable all by itself.  Don’t work yourself too hard or put unnecessary stress on your students by trying to evaluate too much of what they have written.  Focus on the beauty of smaller pieces and celebrate your students’ accomplishments as NaNoWriMo winners!

#NaNoPrep – are your WriMos ready?

photo 1 (43)If your students are participating in NaNoWriMo (in T – 3 days), then they are probably chomping at the bit to start writing.  There’s nothing like telling students they CAN’T write until a certain date to get them begging for permission to write!  If they have created their characters, crafted their conflicts and plotted their plot, then they are probably more than ready to start chapter one.

But being ready to write doesn’t mean they are ready to deal with the inevitable road blocks that will get in their way once they get past the first page.  Be proactive and get your students ready before they crash and burn:

  • give them time to explore the resources on the Young Writers Program site for NaNoWriMo.  Not only should they create and personalize their accounts, but they also need time to check out the Dare Machine, the NaNo News and the Author Pep Talks, and to find their writing buddies on the site. When they start writing on November 1st, tell them to open the NaNo site in another tab so they can access it during writing time.
  • get them familiar with gmail and Google docs (assuming your students have access).  We use Google docs because it stores their work in their gmail accounts (which means no need for flash drives), and also because all work is saved automatically.  But most young students don’t have much experience with gmail or docs, so they’ll need time before November to get comfortable with them.  You don’t want to waste time on November 1st explaining it (and dealing with forgotten passwords), so practice with Google in the days up to NaNo Day 1.
  • teach them how to write dialogue and have them practice.  My students are 13, and most of them have not written much dialogue, but they will definitely want to include dialogue in their novels.  Better to have them practice with it now, before they write pages and pages of indecipherable dialogue.nano ywp icon
  • have basic directions posted in your room for logging in to online accounts, for what to do when they get stuck, and for updating their word count at the end of each writing session. That way you won’t need to interrupt their writing to give directions.
  • create a shared document for all your students and have them come up with their own dares; another shared doc of their own excerpts can also be motivational.
  • consider letting them listen to music while they write.  The first year my students wrote novels, the silence in the room was a distraction in itself.  When I let them plug in earbuds and listen to music on their phones, they were able to stay focused much longer.  Or you could play music for the whole class.  Anything to break the eerie silence of writers writing.

If you are a teacher interested in bringing the magic of NaNoWriMo to your students, check out my NaNoTeacher website for oodles of help.

Bring it on, November!  We are ready-WriMos.

A pro-choices classroom

thank youWe teachers of young adolescents learn early on to grab our students’ gratitude when we can: their glee over a clever assignment, their pride in a hard-earned grade, their bashful “thanks” as they hand over a holiday gift probably bought and wrapped by a parent.  It’s a rare treat indeed when our students communicate their gratitude to us in writing.

Even better is when a student thanks us for something that we had hoped would be a valuable teaching strategy or meaningful lesson.

This student’s thank-you note was especially sweet: not only did he remember that I love dark chocolate, but he also recognized the value in having choices in the work he did in my class.

When my students write literary analysis, they get to choose which part of the literature they want to address and through which lens they will analyze it.  When they join National Novel Writing Month, they completely own the novel they write: the genre, the plot, the characters, the conflicts.  When it’s time to develop their expository writing skills, they create a magazine on a topic of their own choosing.  In digital media class, my students choose what kind of project they want to create: architectural design, computer game design, movie-making, animation, computer coding, etc.

I am staunchly pro-choice in my classroom.  I am pretty sure that the best learning happens when students have some say in how and what they learn.

How do you let your students own their work?  What kinds of choices do you give them in the classroom?

Evolution of a lesson

It all started with a Facebook post by a friend of mine:

“Check out these customer reviews on Amazon!  It’s like a whole new kind of writing!”

bananaslicer2The Hutzler 571 Banana Slicer has generated nearly 3,000 customer reviews that mock the absurdity of this unnecessary product. Ranging from “What can I say about the 571B Banana Slicer that hasn’t already been said about the wheel, penicillin, or the iPhone,” to “Evil comes in many forms, and sometimes that form is banana-shaped,” one could spend hours reading through these very clever and entertaining reviews.  I decided my students would probably enjoy them as well, so I crafted a lesson on satire, with the Hutzler reviews as models.

I gave my students class time to practice writing their own satirical reviews, and then the next day I presented them with our own banana slicer-inspired blog.  Embedded in the blog are eleven infomercials for products such as the FlowBee, the Hawaii Chair, and the Fish Pen. We watched all eleven, and then each student drew a product name out of a hat and got to work writing a satirical review worthy of banana-slicer status.

The next day we talked about what blogs are and how they differ from other websites, and we reviewed some online safety practices. Then we pulled out laptops and the students got to work posting their reviews, paying close attention to proofreading and writing quality since they knew all their classmates would see their work.  The end result is a funny blog that they enjoy going back to time and again to read the clever reviews and to comment on each other’s writing.

And this is one of my favorite aspects of my job: designing my own curriculum, injecting humor into the classroom, integrating new technologies, and taking advantage of current trends to hook my students on reading and writing. I am fortunate to work in a school and district where I am trusted to be the professional curriculum expert that I am; I fear losing that autonomy to a standardized test-universal curriculum-driven approach to education.

The Common Core is supposed to focus more on the “what” students need, allowing teachers more say in the “how” it is taught, but the final assessment is still multiple choice tests and the stakes are still too high.

A Novel and Most Excellent Cause

You are frustrated with the testing emphasis in education, and you really resent politicians and non-educators trying to tell teachers what to do in their classrooms.  You are especially upset over the shift away from creative, artistic pursuits in the classroom as drill-and-kill math and reading replace the arts.  So what can you do to make a difference?

Don’t despair, my friend!  The Office of Letters and Light is a non-profit organization that believes in “ambitious acts of the imagination,” and they really put their money where their mouth is.  They provide the complete National Novel Writing Month curriculum, including student workbooks, teacher lesson plans, online support for students and teachers, AND it is all linked to the new Common Core Standards AND it is all FREE.  What more could a teacher ask for?  

My daughter, Chloe, and I are fundraising for this most excellent cause so that more students and teachers can write novels as part of their school experience.  You have read about my students’ NaNoWriMo experiences here and here (and my current students are right in the middle of their month of “literary abandon” here) — now you can help us help them keep doing this important and beautiful work.

Just click on our fundraising page here: Laura and Chloe’s NaNoWriMo fundraising page and donate today!  This is a last minute plea, as the race to be the top fundraiser ends this Weds. 11/14.  Will you be the donor who gets us to our goal?

Chloe is offering a unique opportunity: donors’ stories may be written in to her current novel!  Watch her video here to see how.

Watch this video to learn more about the great work of The Office of Letters and Light.

Thank you!

Call me NaNo…

It’s Day One of NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month), and my 8th graders wrote for a full hour in class, tap-tap-tapping away on the first chapters of their novels.   They wrote in a Google Doc, which they shared with me, so when I should have been working on my own novel, I was taking peeks at theirs.  Wow!  Some great stuff.  Here are just a handful of opening lines that caught my attention:

My favorite sound in the world is the click of a camera shutter, not the crack of a gunshot.  (AG)

School sucks. Yet another black eye from yet another dumb brute who plays football. (NB)

We barely slid under the first gate before it was slammed shut.  (DH)

Look at those NaNos go! (And hooray for our principal, who worked on her novel with us today!)

My window overlooked New York City and I knew that somewhere past the newly constructed and the old historic buildings of New York were the graffitied and dangerous streets of the Bronx, leading to my favorite place in the world, Yankee Stadium.  (SL)

The beginning of the end for me was when I moved to San Francisco. (PB)

He expected it to be just like any other school year: normal stupid friends, normal jerk teacher, normal inedible food, normal everything. (BK)

It was the long bitter winter of 2040 when all this began. (DW)

“Is he dead?”
“Of course he’s dead! That’s usually what happens when someone gets shot!” (BL)

Charlie stood in the doorway, a ripped piece of paper clutched in his hand—his good hand. (EB)

I took a deep breath, inhale, exhale, and stepped back into the monotony of my life. (JG)

Not even a Halloween candy hangover got in the way of our writing today!

It was september 2, 2033, the fourth week of school, and already I was wishing it was summer. (DG)

Life is like Russian Roulette, a game, a risk you take. It is a choice that comes with a chance, and the thrill, the temptation, of death. (RP)

Terry stared down at his scar as the rain splashed against the glass of the taxi car window. (DW)

Nate didn’t get it.“You’re fired, Nate. I’m sorry.” Only his boss, Mr. Newman, wasn’t sorry.  (JS)

The woman clutched the man’s arm as the impact of the bombs shook the ground.  (HD)

The sounds of blaring horns and rhythmic footsteps came echoing up through the narrow streets of the commerce district. (HH)

Hi, I’m Desean Rodriguez and I am a ninja. Yeah, no big deal really.  (HK)

My sleep was plagued with nightmares, and I found little comfort in the darkness of my room. (JK)

I knew that at that very moment, I had been infected, I had been diseased, and I would never be the same again.   (EF)

He had eaten out again, and having left without paying, the police were after him. (HH)

My name is Aurora Swayley.  I am 17 years old.  There is nothing special about me.  That is until they entered my life.  (GW)

Rain rolls down the window in time with my tears. (DC)

Ben Jackson was on his way to his dream – his Nobel Prize. (CM)

The frosty November air bit at my cheeks and water drops from the trees splashed down on my already wet hair. (EM)

School had been out for just a half hour when I checked my Google Drive again — and there I could see students working on their novels from home.  Can’t wait to read more!

PBL conquers spring fever

One more reason to love project-based learning: as the weather gets warmer and the kids’ minds wander to summer, my students stay focused, working hard to complete projects that are due at the end of the semester.   Of course one reason they continue to work so hard in spite of rampant spring fever is that their semester grade depends on their performance on these projects.  But I know they are also working hard because they are engaged in meaningful work of which they are very proud.

This is how we stay focused and learning at the end of the school year in my 8th grade English language arts classroom:

The Magazine Project: my students have been writing, editing, designing, formatting, and printing their own magazines since February.  Along with learning to write academic essays, they are also building their word-processing, graphic design, and new technology skills.  Each student’s magazine centers on a topic of his/her choice, which helps them stay engaged in this semester-long project.  The final product is a glossy, multi-page publication that looks like a professional magazine.  The students glow with pride when they turn them in, and very few fail to complete the project.

Online Portfolios: rather than assigning a paper portfolio of my students’ best work, this year I taught them to build online portfolios using Weebly.  Not only does this digital project capture their interest, but it teaches them to create an academic portfolio that they can keep, add to, revise, and improve until their senior year of high school, giving them an application-ready portfolio worthy of sending to colleges.  The 8th grade work they post on their portfolios this year probably won’t make the cut four years from now, but the process engages them in an activity that builds their digital media skills while giving them real-world experience they can use throughout their academic careers.

Children’s Books: we ran out of time this year, but in past years my students have ended the spring semester by writing children’s books for schools in Uganda.  In addition to the writing and publishing skills gained from the project, my young teens are exposed to the poverty and lack of educational opportunities faced by children in another country.  I see their eyes opened and hearts broken by these innocent victims, and the book project gives them a very real way to make a difference in their lives.

Once the projects are complete, we spend our last couple class days of the school year sharing each other’s work.  It’s so much fun to thumb through the magazines and children’s books, and check out portfolios on the LCD.  And I’m pretty sure they enjoy that a lot more than wading through worksheets and gagging over grammar.  Uh, yeah.

They’re kids, not Olympians

We work hard all year, writing and reading and analyzing and discussing and reading and writing some more.  And then, all of our hard work and learning are testevaluated and assessed in two days of state exams.  Multiple-choice exams, mind you, no writing necessary.

So we also work hard to create a testing environment that supports our students.  We keep our daily routine the same.  We schedule the tests so that students take them in the same classroom, with the same teacher, where they have learned the content that year.  Students are tested in only one subject each week, so that their other classes are kept on a familiar routine.  And we encourage our students to approach the tests as an opportunity to show everyone what they know, what they have learned.

And then this happens: a beloved 2nd grade teacher is gunned down by her husband, who then kills himself.  Their 18-month-old twins are left orphaned and her two teen daughters from a previous marriage lose their mother.  Many of our students were in this teacher’s class.  One of her daughters is a student at our school.  The victim was a local girl, attending high school here with many of us.  Her mother was our teacher when we were in junior high.  The ripple effects of this horrific tragedy continue to splash against the hearts of so many lives here in our tight-knit Northern California community. We are devastated, in shock, angry, grieving.

flowersThe day after the shooting my 8th grade students were scheduled to take the first half of their state exams in English language arts.  Wisely, our administration postponed that day’s testing.  So that Monday back to school we did the other kind of work so common to teachers: we acted more as counselors, walking our students through grief, giving them time to write, draw, talk, share.  We let them leave class to go to counseling rooms.  We ignored the mandated curriculum because we knew that nothing was as important as acknowledging their grief, allowing time for healing.  Some needed to cry; some needed to get back to a normal routine, whatever “normal” might be.  We straddled that precarious line, offering solace to those in need, some semblance of regular “school” to those who wanted it.  The first day was exhausting, the second, a little better.

By Thursday of that week, we needed to be back on track.  We have little flexibility in the timing of the state tests, so four days after the shooting, my students took the first 90-minute portion of their English language arts exam.  I watched them as they read, contemplated, and bubbled, and I thought, does it make sense to anyone that all the work we have done this year is assessed in this one sitting?

This is not about the horrors of domestic violence, and in no way am I suggesting sadthat issues with state testing can compare to the losses faced by this family and their community.  But as we reeled from the shock of this tragedy, the absurdity of our situation was magnified.  We all have good days and bad days, we all have struggles and tragedies and life’s curve balls thrown at us, but over the course of the school year, we do a lot of good work.  Why, then, must we perform in a one-shot, high-stakes testing scenario?

Maybe it makes sense for law students taking the bar exam.  Maybe it makes sense for Olympic athletes competing for gold.  But does it make sense for 13-year-old students?  And what about their 7-year-old siblings?  Seven. Years. Old.

Adults learn to set aside whatever is going on in their lives in order to perform in a high-stakes situation, but children? No, it doesn’t make sense.  And this is why some of us are trying to fight back.  Join us?

“A, B, C or D? Really?!?”

Our frenzied novel writing was repeatedly interrupted on November 30 as students let out yelps of joy when they met their word count goals.  Even I disturbed the quiet when I took a writing break, loaded my novel into the NaNoWriMo word validator, and saw “WINNER!” flash across my screen.

“I made it!” I yelled, jumping out of my chair and bowing to my students as they applauded my success.  Whew.  Last day of November and just hours left in the NaNoWriMo challenge — nothing like having students watch my progress online to motivate me to get that novel written!

Kyle is a novelist!

The next day my students came to class bubbling with excitement over their success.  Of my 91 8th graders, 87 met the word goal they had set for themselves in October (and the remaining four students continued to write until they met their goals — maybe not in a month, but they made it!).  Many wrote far beyond their goals, and most of them said, “I’m not done yet, Mrs. Bradley!” They came back to class in December knowing that they needed to put the finishing touches on their novels, and then we would dive into the hard work of revising and proofreading.

Ivette and Hailey celebrate making their goals.

But first – their task that day was to log in to an online, multiple-choice test that would supposedly assess their progress in English so far this year, give me a print-out of their current abilities, and, MOST IMPORTANT OF ALL, predict how they will perform on the high-stakes STAR test in the spring.

The terrible irony in the contrast between the hard work they had done in November and the assessment they were asked to do on December 1 was not lost on my novelists.  (“Mrs. Bradley, I wrote a NOVEL!”)  But they are well trained little monkey students.  They sighed, set down their backpacks, opened the laptops and logged in to the assessment site.  A, B, C, D, click, click, click.

I am confident that my students are better readers and writers because of our novel-writing month, and I am sure their improved skills will be reflected in their performances on the multiple-choice assessments that drive our schools today.  But doesn’t it make more sense to assess their writing skills with writing?  Doesn’t it make more sense to look at the larger body of work they have done this year as an assessment of their learning than to trust isolated, unrelated bubble tests?

On the other hand, hooray for the local news, which recognizes the power of project-based learning like the NaNoWriMo project:

“Students inspired by novel writing.”           

“Can we write today, Mrs. Bradley?”       

“Teacher tells students: just write.”

“Petaluma’s Kenilworth students write novels in a month.”

And hot off the presses!  A cover story on our NaNoWriMo project: “A Novel Idea.”

Mihir, Julia and I show off the covers we designed for our novels.