A student-produced magazine celebrates middle level student voice.
In October 2015, a team of seven editors—all eighth grade boys at St. Christopher's School in Richmond, Virginia—met during lunch to compare two digital publishing platforms. They judged entries for the Cover Art Contest and debated the potential of QR codes.
By mid-November, a staff of 36 students released the fall edition of PaperBoy, a 58-page magazine focused on student culture. Within a month, the digital magazine had been read by 700 viewers in the United States, plus a dozen viewers globally, including several from Australia, Thailand, and the UK.
Why a Middle School Magazine?
Authentic writing experiences have been credited with motivating students to compose their best work. Nancie Atwell's In The Middle, along with her subsequent publications, have validated the importance of empowering student voices. Writing for a publication allows students to explore a choice topic, serve as an "expert in residence," and build social connections with peers who share common interests.
Students write in an authentic way, collaborate meaningfully, and often strengthen their personal identity. Nate reviews classic movies, Brett writes humorous pieces, Lane views video games with an intellectual lens. Voices emerge with increased confidence when students have the safety net of a team initiative.
Although a school newspaper offers those same features, a magazine offers many more and varied advantages for young adolescents. Consider that if each student is given a page for free expression, that student has complete ownership of the space. Some may choose to tell their story with images, simply select a suitable background color, or designate fonts to customize the appearance of their pages.
And, there's plenty of room for partnerships: a student writer can pair with a friend who is a page designer. A savvy mathematician can collect survey data and analyze it with a peer journalist who translates findings into narrative form.
A "newspaper column publication" requires time-consuming page formatting to ensure consistency, yet each magazine page is formatted independently. Cohesion is achieved by shuffling pages into a reader-friendly sequence.
Paper Boy wasn't always this big or this popular. Five years ago a staff of seven boys worked the entire school year to produce a 20-page publication (http://stcmsnews.edu.glogster.com/1/).
Our first edition was a recap of an event we call Activities Day. During this biannual event, all students sign up for an extracurricular field trip or focused project that runs for half of a school day.
For our first edition, our student reporters each chose a different activity, carried old-school digital card cameras, and wrote a short synopsis of their chosen activity. They loaded their content into Glogster Edu pages and hyperlinked the pages together. The first edition went live online.
The next year, three boys who were already contributing to a library-inspired book blog were invited to try something new: input their book reviews into a Glogster page and add some images. What would they think about publishing with the PaperBoy staff?
Not only did they accept the invitation, they harnessed animation tools to create Harry Potter-like moving-news images. By pairing Activities Day articles with reviews, PaperBoy increased its readership. Merging these two small groups also helped cultivate new friendships and generate more recognition within our school.
In addition to releasing the magazine digitally, we printed each page (about 12–15 pages at that time) and hung them on a hallway bulletin board with the URL address printed in large type. "Visit http://stcmsnews.edu.glogster.com/glog-3888-3190."
Students gathered around the display to note who was caught by the camera, to chat about Activities Day, or to point out books they had read.
We were able to quickly recruit book reviewers and serious writers, but staff growth exploded when we asked, "Would anyone be interested in writing movie and video game reviews?"
We initiated a policy that limited reviewing games to those rated for teens or younger audiences; movie reviews covered those marketed as PG-13 or younger. Other popular features now include technology reviews, top ten lists, student survey results (favorite products, music, or hobbies), and teacher interviews. Offering a menu of categories can spark student interest, but individuals always feel free to propose original story ideas.
This is not a club and there are no cuts. Students "join" the staff by submitting artwork, a creative story, a feature story, or a review.
Platforms for Publishing
Students need a canvas on which they can work. Any digital word document can serve this purpose. If you select a specialized publishing platform, first ensure that it complies with the Children's Online Privacy Protection Act (www.coppa.org). Then, check end-user agreements and subscription costs.
We started with Glogster Edu (edu.glogster.com), which offers a multitude of design options, but requires a subscription for a "class account" where multiple students can create. The class account is key for its faculty-editing privileges.
This year, many students opted to work with Lucidpress (www.lucidpress.com). Our director of academic technology, Hiram Cuevas, added Lucidpress to our Google School account as part of our suite of apps. In addition to being free, Lucidpress allows us to share pages with digital collaborators. We collate our finished pages into a singular pdf document and upload them to issuu.com. Issuu requires a subscription, but it is far less expensive than printing paper copies and allows student work to be shared in the digital domain.
We do not offer a journalism class. We do, however, ask writers to model best practices. Reviewers are required to read professional reviews on Amazon or video game websites. Feature story writers are reminded to cover the 5Ws and 1H (who, what, when where, why, and how). All interview questions and student surveys are submitted to the faculty advisor before they are sent to their target audience.
We publish what students write as long as it is appropriate for our middle school community and respectful of the values and ideas of others. If the story needs extra work and doesn't make it in the upcoming edition, editors help the students revise it so it can be published in the future.
With regard to reviews, if a student dislikes a product, he is welcome to share his views in an objective way based on details. He may be asked to balance his perspective by citing a few strengths or by sharing a marketing quote from a vendor.
When we started the magazine, our school had two computer labs that housed a total of 30 desktops. We are now a 1:1 school, which has been an asset. If your school isn't there yet, allot more time for students to complete their pages.
How does our process work for staff members? A "draft deadline" is set for each edition, and a Google Document is established for story proposals. Students sign up digitally to request a story and/or to complete a page design. Drafts are submitted to the faculty advisor and a section editor via Google Drive. Feedback is returned within a week so students can make revisions and resubmit by the following week. At that time, page design begins.
Students search for copyright-free images and record all image links for the advisor to check. Text is pasted into the designed page and then shared with the advisor and editors for final review. Study halls and lunch periods have provided ample time for team communication and collaboration. If a one-to-one writing workshop is needed, a student can meet with the advisor or an editor during recess.
To celebrate the release of each edition, all contributors are invited to the library for a pizza party during lunch. We've never asked English teachers to give extra credit to staff. I do share the publication directly with teachers and parents to ensure that students' efforts are recognized.
You can see our fall 2015 edition at http://issuu.com/stc678/docs/pb246.
A Match with Middle School Culture
Launching a student publication presents challenges, but those very challenges empower student growth. With flexibility and creativity, the entire staff develops problem-solving skills to meet team goals.
From the start, we have been able to offer a meaningful realm for adolescent development. Ownership, leadership, peer relationships, and collaboration skills are all cultivated in authentic ways. Digital citizenship, writing skills, and technological savvy are embraced purposefully.
If you want to engage students in active literacy and celebrate middle school voices, a magazine may be the perfect match.
Lisa Brennan is the middle school librarian at St. Christopher's School in Richmond, Virginia.
Published in AMLE Magazine
, May 2016.
Incorporating writing into math helps students understand their thinking.
In the minds of middle grades learners, math and writing typically don't go together. With the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) things have changed!
If you'd asked me not too long ago about the challenges of teaching pre-algebra to adolescents, I would have talked about procedural questions such as "What is the square root of 121?" or "What is the formula for volume of a sphere?" Today my response is very different because what counts as math in the middle grades is also shaped by notions of academic language within and across content areas.
Beyond the Numbers
More than strictly procedural fluency and factual recall, students today solve language-rich, complex, real-world application problems. For example, a problem from a unit on the laws of exponents today might read something like: "A shipping box is in the shape of a cube. Each side measures 3c^2d^2 inches. Express the volume of the cube as a monomial."
In short, adolescent learners need to not only know the exponent laws, they also need to apply prior knowledge about volume as they interpret and process a multi-step word problem.
Finally, and perhaps at the center of CCSS math reform, learners need to articulate on paper the thinking behind their solutions—step by step. Common Core math pushes students to think deeply and apply what they know and what they are learning. Freewriting on paper can help take adolescent learners there.
Sometimes students reject writing when it comes to solving mathematical problems. However, exploratory writing—thinking aloud on paper—can provide access to higher-level questions, word problems. Or, to paraphrase a quote by British novelist E. M. Forester, "I'll know what I am thinking when I see what I say." Discipline-specific exploratory writing allows problem solvers to tease out their reasoning and work behind each step of a solution with words.
Stop and Jot
One technique that I use is called "Stop and Jot." The Stop and Jot strategy is a brief moment when everybody pauses and writes about what we've been learning. I tell my students that they don't need to worry about correct grammar, spelling, or punctuation—they simply need to write their thoughts about the day's math activities: what they understood or what they are still trying to figure out. The idea is for students to see what they and their classmates are thinking.
For example, when a September lesson centered on the laws of exponents, the Stop and Jot prompt went like this: "Describe what law of exponents would help solve this problem. What do you already know about this question?"
To guide them, I provide the following instructions: "Write between 3–5 sentences about the day's problems. You can write about your understanding or you can extend a problem. You can write a question you have or you can explain how you solved the problem. Write silently and independently. We'll share our thinking on paper with desk mates."
Here's what three students wrote about the shipping box container:
"The question is asking me to multiply, so I use power to a power law."
"I know it is multiplication because in the volume formula you multiply; I know the volume of that shape is length x width x height."
- "I am not sure how to write the exponent law using those numbers."
Talking About Math
The great thing about Stop and Jot is that we can choose to freewrite as often or as little as we need. Students only need a journal, a pen or pencil, and a quiet place where they can write and then share with peers. Having my math students see what they think on paper has made them confident about doing math and talking about math!
Rebecca Stelfox is an eighth grade math teacher at Northeast Middle School in Charlotte, North Carolina.
Published in AMLE Magazine
, April 2016.
Even the most technical STEM jobs require verbal and written communication skills.
John Engler, president of The Business Roundtable and former governor of Michigan, recently wrote an article for U.S. News and World Report entitled "STEM Education Is the Key to the U.S.'s Economic Future."
Engler pointed out the United States' reliance on more qualified workers to fill the increased number of jobs in the science, technology, engineering, and mathematics fields, or STEM. "We need STEM-related talent to compete globally, and we will need even more in the future. It is not a matter of choice: For the United States to remain the global innovation leader, we must make the most of all of the potential STEM talent this country has to offer," Engler said.
While students are being encouraged to explore the STEM field, it would be unfortunate if the humanities fields and skills were deemed to be less important. It is precisely skills like effective written and oral communication, written expression, and interpersonal skills that can make a qualified STEM candidate stand out from the crowd.
According to the U.S. Department of Commerce Economics and Statistics Administration report, STEM: Good Jobs Now and for the Future
, STEM jobs are projected to grow at a rate of 18% from 2008 to 2018, compared to 9.8% for non-STEM occupations. The job force needs prepared college graduates to fill these jobs, and candidates' communication, problem-solving, and interpersonal skills they learned in the humanities are
more vital than ever.
For example, in a LinkedIn job posting for a senior software engineer search algorithms and data analytics position at The Home Depot, the first skills listed are "strong interpersonal skills, written and verbal communication" and "strong decision-making, problem-solving skills, critical thinking, and testing skills." Clearly, even the most technical STEM jobs require verbal and written communication skills.
STEM and Beyond
Holcomb Bridge Middle School in Alpharetta, Georgia, operates a STEM Academy as a "school within a school" model. Teachers and administrators select students with high science and math scores and place them in a cohort for integrated science, math, and engineering classes. Students participate in a science fair, hear guest speakers from STEM professions, and complete a STEM portfolio with artifacts from their three STEM classes.
The STEM Academy gives high-achieving students with an interest in math and science a great place to grow their talents and gain experience in these high- demand areas.
Beyond the STEM Academy, to prepare all students to be effective communicators, the humanities department at Holcomb Bridge promotes the continuous development of our readers and writers. This year, our language arts and reading classes focused heavily on reading and analyzing technical documents. Teachers challenged students to read and use data from technical documents in their writing in order to better understand the often-difficult nonfiction texts.
Our school also implemented a writing portfolio. Students save one example of persuasive, narrative, and expository writing from throughout the year, along with the prewriting and preliminary drafts.
The portfolio travels with them from sixth to eighth grade and serves as an artifact of writing improvement for high school admissions. Students have the chance to reflect on their improvement throughout the year, as well as throughout their middle school career.
To encourage our students' love of reading, the humanities department created a monthly book club. Teachers in all the humanities content areas (reading, English language arts, world language, and social studies) volunteer to sponsor a book club session once a month.
Teachers choose books that are high interest and do not necessarily apply to the curriculum. Students are more interested and involved when they are given the chance to work with students from different grade levels and share their thoughts on the complex plots and themes.
Finally, the eighth grade language arts teachers started a program they call Literacy 4 Life. Students follow "Lacey," a cartoon girl posted on the classroom wall, through her life, using literacy skills to navigate complicated documents. Students scour documents such as the Georgia Driver's Manual, a college application, and job applications. They learn the importance of being able to apply an understanding of nonfiction documents in real-life situations.
Many of our students speak English as a second language; some of their parents do not speak English at all. As such, they often are challenged to read and interpret nonfiction texts for their families. As young adolescents, they are tasked with reading, interpreting, and sometimes writing for their parents.
Understanding student and family needs makes the Literacy 4 Life initiative even more applicable and important.
English language arts, reading, and social studies teachers: have no fear for your future in education. Although technology is rising in importance and the STEM areas are gaining in popularity, there will always be a place for the humanities.
Students still need to learn history. They need to know how to communicate effectively and they must learn strategies for deciphering difficult nonfiction texts. That is where English language arts, reading, social studies, and foreign language come in.
The humanities give students a foundation on which to attach new information and build a deeper level of knowledge.
Brittany Durkin is an eighth grade reading and language arts teacher and humanities department chair at Holcomb Bridge Middle School in Alpharetta, Georgia.
Published in AMLE Magazine
, April 2016.
These simple strategies put students' voice in their writing.
Some students come to class ready to engage and offer their voice, but others wish to go unnoticed and remain silent observers to the educational scene. The following is an assortment of creative writing, image writing, and cross-curricular writing ideas that may encourage young adolescents to become actively involved in their learning.
To encourage freedom in narrative and deeper thinking, involve students in a What If writing activity. This strategy lends itself to a variety of texts; the example here involves pairing the strategy with the Jack London story "Up the Slide," found in many middle grades textbooks.
In "Up the Slide," the protagonist must overcome several man-versus-nature struggles. Teachers may ask students to imagine the story in an alternative setting and to reapply the narrative and protagonist to a new set of struggles revolving around nature or another type of conflict. Students may also rewrite the narrative from a first-person or third-person point of view, addressing the Common Core point of view standards.
An Open-Ended Narrative activity provides part of a story, then asks students to complete it—like a choose-your-own-adventure story. This open-ended strategy can be applied to other writing genres, such as explanatory or argumentative writing. In that case, teachers provide portions of an already-created brainstorm web, essay outline, or a roughly drafted essay and ask students to use these elements to create a more fully developed writing product.
For the Genre Optional strategy, teachers create a list of writing styles, such as poems, memos, and digital texts, and ask students to reach objectives through the chosen genre. For example, students may use a digital text or poem to teach three to five vocabulary terms related to algebraic equations. Or, they may create a memo to demonstrate their understanding of a scientific process or historical event.
With Single-Image Writing, teachers select an image of a character or setting and ask students to infer to describe or respond to the image. These descriptions and responses can take the shape of a character web, a dialogue, or a paragraph structure.
Multiple-Image Writing requires students to use their cognitive skills to connect images. These images can revolve around an already-identified theme, or teachers can help students construct a narrative or expository response to the image set.
Created-Image Writing requires students to visualize aspects of a single character or story element or create an extensive storyboard design based on the events of a longer text. This storyboard design can emphasize discrete language concepts, or it can be used to demonstrate the overall structure of a typical plot, requiring students to identify and explain which panels in the storyboard relate to the exposition, resolution, and other segments of the plot.
When technology tools are available, students can create Informational Websites using digital tools like Blogspot (blogspot.com) or Weebly (weebly.com). Teachers can model this strategy using their own informational websites.
Reading and Responding to a variety of texts across the curriculum is also important. The more students explore a variety of texts, the better prepared they will be for standardized assessments.
Some students are eager to share their thoughts in the classroom; others lack the confidence, interest, or even skill-set to immediately dive into the world of language. These strategies may give them their voice.
Jason D. DeHart, an eighth grade English teacher, is also a student in the Department of Theory and Practice in Teacher Education at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville.
Published in AMLE Magazine
, March 2016.
Turning negative perceptions into positive outlooks.
Common Core State Standards require that students read at complex levels. Guiding students through these increasingly complex materials can be daunting for teachers of mixed ability students, special education students, English Language Learners, and students considered to be Level 1 and Level 2 readers.
Some students do not have the same ability as their classmates; other students lack the motivation needed to read complex texts. Still others are hampered by negative attitudes toward reading.
Among the several strategies teachers can use to motivate reluctant readers is keeping a growth mindset at the forefront of their thinking.
Carol Dweck's work on growth mindset is described in her book, Mindset. Dweck describes the growth mindset as the belief that regardless of talents, aptitudes, interests, or temperaments, "everyone can change and grow through application and experience."
Students must be explicitly taught how to embrace this mindset in the content areas. Unless they have fully embraced the growth mindset, they are vulnerable to academic and social stagnation , or worse, their abilities may decline in these areas.
By the time students reach middle school , the enjoyment of reading, or lack thereof, has been instilled. As their minds become full of technology and social media, and academic expectations grow more complex, we must teach them how to approach reading in a positive way. Tackling a lackluster attitude may be enough to light the fire and give adolescents at least some desire to engage with the reading materials in each class.
Each student is unique and has a different approach to reading. Teachers can begin to adjust their instruction to emphasize positive viewpoints on reading. Overemphasizing the difficulty of the text may shut down apprehensive readers. Instead, teachers might say a text is challenging, but then explain ways the class is going to strategize to understand the text.
Rather than saying, "This is a really difficult text, so we need to pay attention to understand it," try saying, "This text is a challenging text, but we are going to look at different strategies to help us understand the content. These strategies will help us understand this text and make it easier to read other texts later this year because we all will know how to apply these strategies effectively."
The latter statement helps students see how they can be successful. The language is more positive, which transfers to a positive classroom environment.
Another way to address students' negative attitude toward reading is to refuse to allow it to permeate the classroom environment. When students make statements such as, "I don't like reading" or "Reading is boring" or "I'm not good at reading," teachers can introduce positive statements that help students see value in what they are reading:
"It's okay not to like everything that you have read. Today, however, I would like us to think about how this text can help us understand the world. This will allow us to see why our textbook might have included this selection and help us locate other texts that may answer questions we have about the content of what we are reading."
This generic statement can be modified for a specific text or content, but it may change a negative comment into a yearning for knowledge statement. Relating the text to something in an adolescent's world helps alter his or her mindset and delivers a sense of intrigue about a topic.
Some texts in a prescribed curriculum may not relate to adolescents. If teachers take time to find additional text, related to first text or as an alternate text that appeals to the interests of students in their classroom, a reading resister may be more likely to engage with the content.
Appealing to the interests of students is key to creating an equitable classroom as teachers form positive relationships with students and get to know them as individuals. This is also a way teachers can differentiate for the needs in the classroom. However, appealing to the interests alone may not be enough to engage students who resist reading.
A fixed mindset is the opposite of a growth mindset. In a fixed mindset, students believe they have only what Dweck describes as a "certain amount of intelligence, a certain personality, and a certain moral character." Once this mindset takes root in a student's mind, it is difficult to shake. When a student determines he or she has failed at something, this belief tends to stick and the "I am not good at reading" and "I dislike reading" comments become reality statements rather than avoidance techniques.
The belief of not being good at reading typically takes root in third or fourth grade and is particularly problematic at the middle school level. By the time students reach seventh or eighth grade, this mindset is creating a foundation that is academically dismal.
However, challenging the adolescent fixed mindset regarding reading gives students the opportunity to change from taking a defeatist approach to learning to embrace the tools needed to be successful in the future. To address this mindset, educators must first recognize it exists. They also must believe a student is capable of reading complex material at the appropriate grade level.
It's important to recognize that a fixed mindset will not change immediately. It takes persistence and patience to work with a student who has a "failure" response to reading. Providing students with adequate feedback can help them adjust their thinking patterns. It takes work to provide positive feedback, but it will pay off.
Teachers can follow a simple formula to provide effective feedback: Area Addressed + Present Behavior + Future Implication. This formula can be adapted to any situation for any student. Before giving this type of feedback, the teacher must understand the root of the problem.
For example, let's say a student is struggling to comprehend a particular text. The teacher may say, "It seems that you are having some trouble identifying the main idea of this text. I notice that when you read, you are skimming through one section and then moving on to another section. Try slowing down and when you come to the end of a section, identify any words or phrases that you may not know. I can help you understand these terms. If you continue to use this strategy, you will begin to answer some of these questions on your own and texts similar to this one will become easier to understand later in the semester."
A teacher using the feedback formula might say, "I hear you say you are not good at reading. When we read in class, you seem to be able to follow along and you ask some great questions about the characters. Sometimes you don't know all the answers to these questions, and I think that is what is troubling you. When you can't find an answer, try re-reading the text. If you still don't know the answer after you have read the text, continue reading. The answer may come later in the text. If you become confused, let me know. Together, we can find these answers. When you are able to find these answers, and if you continue to question characters, you will be better prepared for the narrative we will be writing in our next unit."
There are many reasons students enter our classrooms as reluctant readers. Initially, addressing these readers can be taxing; however, with the appropriate tools, educators can begin to change
the mindset of resistant reader.
John Helgeson has taught middle school students for 17 years. He is currently the Secondary English Instructional Specialist in the Northshore School District in Bothell, Washington.
Published in AMLE Magazine
, March 2016.
An old-fashioned radio broadcast encourages deeper reading.
Connections between students, connections between texts and students, and connections between texts and the real world are vital to student learning. In classrooms, one way to make connections is by linking people, ideas, behaviors, and activities through projects.
My first experience teaching in a classroom was when I substituted for 10 days for a foreign language teacher who taught one English class: a ninth grade basic reading class. She was assigned this class because there were not enough language classes to fill her roster and, frankly, no one else wanted these students. This was a class of "reluctant readers."
The students were supposed to be reading Dandelion Wine by Ray Bradbury. Most of Ray Bradbury's works would have been an appropriate choice for this class, but Dandelion Wine was based on his childhood summer with his grandfather in a small American town in 1928.
This was 1988, and the remedial English class was comprised primarily of 15-year-old urban males. Nothing could have been further from their reality.
After a few minutes with the students, even I, brand-new and idealistic as I was, could tell they had no intention of reading the novel. In front of me were the endless lists of vocabulary words, end-of-chapter "discussion" questions, and quizzes I was pretty sure they all would fail—and they wouldn't care.
I had to find a way to interest them in the book—something social, something active, something that would entice them to read the book and engage them in academic discussions about characters, setting, plot elements, theme, diction, and author's purpose.
On the Air
I cleared my throat and announced: "We are going to turn this book into a radio news show."
Now I had their attention. We discussed the components of a 30-minute news show: lead stories, local news, human interest or feature stories (the "kicker"), sports, the economy, lifestyle stories, weather, and commercials. Then, for the next few days, we partitioned the class into two parts: (1) learning about the structure and content of each type of news story, reading newspapers, and listening to broadcasts as "mentor texts"; and (2) reading the novel and looking for the news stories within.
Readers now had a purpose for reading. Even though they did not personally connect to the characters and events in the novel, they had a purpose for learning about them: to report on them. This novel became more of a window than a mirror.
Each day I gave a 15-minute focus-lesson during which we listened to a clip of a radio news show or read a newspaper column as our "mentor texts." Sometimes we had a mini-lesson on research and reading for details, since they were conducting some light research on the time period.
During the 45-minute workshop time (although this was long before I had heard of reading-writing workshop), students individually caught up with their reading and used sticky notes to jot ideas for news segments.
The students divided themselves into broadcast groups, each planning its specific part of the radio show. Within their groups, they flipped back and forth through the pages of the novel, reading and re-reading; questioning and explaining and arguing over events and dialogue; analyzing details and events and setting.
They searched for newsworthy events, wrote scripts, and played with word choice. They created jingles and ads to advertise dandelion wine and dandelion wine recipe books, green apple pie, and sneakers. They drafted summer weather reports and human interest stories based on events and characters from 1928.
During the development of the program segments, I continued 15-minute focus lessons on skills such as reading for—and writing to include—details, leads, script writing, interviewing or persuasive advertising techniques, which they would be able to apply to reading, writing, and speaking during the year.
The classroom was abuzz with laughter and singing. Students were reading the novel, local newspapers, and research articles and primary sources about the time period of the book—all at an adolescent decibel. Absenteeism was at an all-time low.
Radio Show Day
Radio Show Day arrived. All the students had read most, if not all, of Dandelion Wine, drafted and practiced their scripts, and arrived prepared to perform. The class was loud, boisterous, committed. When I looked around, I saw boys perched on desks arranged in a circle, rather than in neat rows. It was their newscast, and they were ready to go.
The students put on a wonderful news show for each other, filled with facts and creative commercials and easily filled a half hour with content based on the book and the time period. However, it wasn't the quality—or quantity—of the product that mattered; it was the quality of the process—the reading, analyzing, and synthesizing of information read and application to "real" situations. It also was the quality of the learning community that was built during those two weeks.
Since I was not the teacher of record, I left copious notes for their regular teacher and gave the students feedback on their preparation, content, and delivery. If I were assessing the project, I would make sure that each student was responsible for researching, writing, and presenting a part of his group segment and would have given the students a content and delivery rubric in advance.
As far as reading and comprehending the book, all students demonstrated that they read all or most (or at least more than previously) and were able to analyze and apply what they learned from the book and the informational multimedia texts they "researched" in their synthesis. I must say, they successfully climbed Bloom's Taxonomy of Thinking, which is what teachers hope for in any classroom lesson.
Reading, Writing, and Collaboration
After 27 years of a lot of reading, research, and writing about best practices in teaching and literacy and engagement strategies, as well as studying male literacy, I can look back and truly analyze the success of the radio news project. It was based on purposeful reading, writing, and speaking in a collaborative workshop format. This single project encompassed at least a dozen best practices:
- Writing (in narrative, informative, and persuasive modes) for authentic purpose and audience and making reading-writing connections
- Talking (and singing) and listening that is on-task, purposeful, and academic
- Reader response, or writing to learn, as readers talk and write about what they read
- Synthesis of text, taking students back to the book to re-read for deeper meaning and learning
- Active, experiential, project-based learning
- Use of supplemental mentor and research materials (newspapers, newscasts, and primary sources) to support learning
- Higher-order thinking, such as analysis, application, and synthesis
- Student responsibility, choice, and, therefore, engagement
- Democratic principles (students decide what, how, and why)
- Differentiation and individualization; valuation of different strengths and talents
- Multiple intelligences
- Interdisciplinary approach to teaching. Even though the project took place within English class, students studied and incorporated elements of history, science, and math. For example, students used math to figure out the timing of the newscast segments, to analyze the percentage of the newscast devoted to different topics, and to perform statistical analyses for their advertisements.
The most apparent best practice was collaboration. As Kathryn Wentzel says in her contributed chapter to The Handbook of Competence and Motivation, "When teachers support [the] need for collaboration by allowing students to share ideas and build knowledge together, a sense of belongingness to the classroom community is established and the extension and elaboration of existing knowledge is facilitated."
This or similar reading-writing-speaking-listening projects that combine independence with interdependence and collaboration can be used in each content area or across the team as an interdisciplinary unit, incorporating all content areas.
Twenty-seven years ago I may not have been able to articulate my rationale in academic terms based on the research of others. But I would have been able to explain why collaboration and noise were necessary to the learning of these adolescents.
Helping Administrators Understand
Recently, I worked with administrators who wanted to know what they should be looking for in a class in any discipline to determine whether reading and writing are being effectively taught. Many of the "look-fors" I suggested were not what they expected to hear—especially those administrators who value quiet students, rows of desks, pacing guides and scripted lessons, and everyone on the same page at the same time.
Some key general look-fors in any content area classroom might be:
- Direct instruction moving toward release of responsibility with teacher as facilitator.
- An expressed purpose for reading.
- Lessons that connect reading and writing standards.
- A classroom arrangement that is conducive to the particular instruction or lesson.
- All students actively engaged on task.
- Talk that is on-task, purposeful, and academic.
- True differentiation based on students' needs and strengths, not merely teaching a lesson at different "levels"
However, observing these elements is not enough. To determine effective reading and writing instruction, administrators might ask students questions to determine if they understand what they are doing, why they are doing it, and what they are learning. Administrators might ask teachers to explain what they are doing and what the rationale, objectives, and goals of the lesson are, and initiate a critical self-reflection on their own teaching practices.
Administrators might ask teachers:
- What am I observing?
- What teaching methods are you using and what are your objectives and goals? What outcomes are you seeing from this teaching method?
- What literacy/comprehension strategies are you teaching? Why? On what research or readings do you base this teaching/lesson?
- How are you delivering this instruction? Why? On what research or readings do you base this method of teaching this lesson?
- How can you determine on what level your students comprehend the material? How are they responding to text?
- How are you supporting the reading of text that may be too challenging for or uninteresting to students? How can your students apply it to other text or lessons?
- What changes have you observed in your readers and their reading? How have you observed these changes?
Lesley Roessing is senior lecturer in the College of Education and director of the Coastal Savannah Writing Project, Armstrong State University, Savannah, Georgia. She is editor of
Connections, the GCTE journal and author of several books and articles. The strategies in this article were incorporated in additional projects, in a variety of content areas, included in
No More "Us" and "Them": Classroom Lessons & Activities to Promote Peer Respect (Rowman & Littlefield, 2012).
Published in AMLE Magazine
, February 2016.
You've read it … that one passage in a student research paper that startles you. The sentence structure and vocabulary exceed middle school norms. You raise your eyebrows, shake your head, and take a deep breath. How many times did you say, "Don't copy word for word."
As middle school educators, we're used to saying things more than once; we're also comfortable with learning from mistakes. Middle school plagiarism is often unintentional. Plagiarism prevention, however, needs to be explicitly intentional.
The excerpt below, from plagiarism.org, lists six types of plagiarism. Three of them can be avoided when students can confidently paraphrase.
What is plagiarism?
All of the following are considered plagiarism
- turning in someone else's work as your own
copying words or ideas from someone else without giving credit
failing to put a quotation in quotation marks
giving incorrect information about the source of a quotation
changing words but copying the sentence structure of a source without giving credit
- copying so many words or ideas from a source that it makes up the majority of your work, whether you give credit or not (see our section on "fair use" rules)
So what can teachers do? Be proactive.
Introduce your students to effective paraphrasing strategies before they begin a research project. Once a research project begins, students need to navigate a number of new routines, platforms, and skills. Short term assignments are replaced by longer term deadlines. Textbooks are temporarily traded for database articles. Bibliographies, website evaluation, and citation styles (which may not have been mentioned for a few months) are suddenly essential again.
The lessons shared below are designed to require minimal class time while targeting concepts middle schoolers need to paraphrase successfully.
Lesson #1 - Introduction: What is Paraphrasing?
Share the three images below and ask students to explain how they might be sequenced into a simple story. After listening to their ideas, introduce the term "paraphrasing" and its definition. Reveal the image captions, and guide students to apply the image "story line" to the concept of paraphrasing. In this way, you're bridging the concrete to the abstract and offering a visual anchor that can be referenced when the research project begins.
Copyright © Encyclopedia Britannica ImageQuest
Assess what you have.
Copyright © Wells Fargo Bank
Create your own work.
Copyright © DwellStudio
Why are image attributions listed under each picture? Three different artists contributed to my illustration of a new message. That's exactly what students will do when research and writing ensues. Each artist (or author) deserves credit for their work. Not citing sources is one type of plagiarism. For a research paper, full citations would be included in a formatted bibliography.
Lesson #2 - Practice Active Reading and Note Taking
Prior to research, class time is always at a minimum. A review of note taking skills, however, can be paired with a regularly scheduled textbook reading as the groundwork for paraphrasing. Selecting key facts is critical to an effective paraphrase. Remind students to ask questions before they read, highlight only valuable keywords (these are "golden"), and apply a note taking strategy such as two-column notes, bullet notes, or an outline. If your students are well versed in these study skills, a homework assignment is likely to offer sufficient practice. If your students aren't familiar with note taking and highlighting strategies, consider inviting your school's literacy coach to lead a lesson.
Lesson #3 - Paraphrasing Dos and Don'ts
After students have practiced highlighting and note taking, devote some time for paraphrasing practice. Modeling paraphrasing from existing notes is ideal. Offering time for students to work in groups as they paraphrase notes can build confidence. Still, some students rely on "rephrasing" strategies that are within the realm of plagiarism.
Sentence level plagiarism frequently occurs when students reverse the structure of the sentence, substitute a synonym, or delete a conjunction to create two sentences. Try this system to support student understanding. Keep a sense of humor. The reminders are intentionally "light hearted," but middle school students are sure to recognize mistakes they've made in the past and to remember these "labels" in the future.
|It is not ok to….
||When the cell is ready to divide, the nuclear membrane dissolves (Mitosis, UXL).
||The nuclear membrane dissolves when the cell is ready to divide.
||The chromosomes, are exactly replicated and the two copies distributed to identical daughter nuclei (Mitosis, Columbia)
||The chromosomes , are duplicated and the two copies are sent to identical daughter nuclei.
||In animal cells the centrioles separate and move apart, and radiating bundles of fibers, called asters, appear around them (Mitosis, Columbia).
||In animal cells the centrioles separate and move apart. Radiating bundles of fibers, called asters, appear around them.
see bibliography below
Plagiarism occurs any time an idea or work is borrowed from someone else without giving proper credit. While proactive paraphrasing lessons enable students to approach research writing with increased confidence, a comprehensive understanding of plagiarism and guidelines for its prevention remain part of an ongoing dialogue. The lessons above, designed in response to a History teacher's request, are now reviewed prior to English class research projects as well. Collaboration between departments, grade levels, and librarians can ensure that plagiarism prevention is dovetailed with meaningful student practice.
DwellStudio. Gold Horse Figurine. N.d. DwellStudio. Web. 18 Feb. 2016. <https://www.dwellstudio.com/Gold-Horse-Figurine-DWL4353-DWL4353.html>.
Gold pan full of bullion. N.d. Wells Fargo Bank. Guided By History. Web. 18 Feb. 2016. <http://blogs.wf.com/guidedbyhistory/2014/01/mother-lode/>.
"Mitosis." UXL Encyclopedia of Science. Ed. Amy Hackney Blackwell and Elizabeth Manar. 3rd ed. Farmington Hills, MI: UXL, 2015. Research in Context. Web. 14 Feb. 2016.
"Mitosis." The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia™. New York: Columbia University Press, 2015. Research in Context. Web. 14 Feb. 2016.
Prospector pans for gold
. Photography. Encyclopædia Britannica ImageQuest
. Web. 14 Feb 2016.
"What Is Plagiarism?" Plagiarism.org. IParadigms, LLC, 2014. Web. 14 Feb. 2016.
Lisa Brennan is a librarian at St. Christopher's School in Richmond, Virginia.
Speed date a book? Let students give it a try!
Although it's been said that all learning should come from the teacher, sometimes it's the students who do the teaching. In my second year of teaching, Chad, an eighth grade student, taught me my first lesson.
Under a district mandatory reading program, all students, regardless of ability or stamina, were required to read a specific amount of literature in addition to class assignments—and largely on their own.
Chad lacked some of his peers' reading skills, and when we went to the library, he picked out a book far below his reading level. His choice mystified me at first, but then I realized that the books at this level fell within his comfort zone. They reminded him of the last time he felt safe as a reader.
As a teacher, I knew that if he continued reading books at this level he would not make his mandatory district goal nor would he become a stronger reader. But Chad wasn't unique. Many of my students selected books at a much lower level than they were capable of, and wouldn't push themselves to become better readers.
How could I push Chad without his becoming frustrated and giving up?
Lessons from Chad
The next time the class visited the library, Chad approached me in his quiet, respectful manner. "Mrs. S., I read all the books in this series and I don't know what else to pick. Can you help me?"
"Sure!" I responded enthusiastically. This is what I was trained to do! I was trained to help kids read. I jumped in with the exuberance of a young teacher but I didn't have the wisdom to guide his choices.
"What do you like to read?"
"I don't know?"
"Well, do you like books about sports?"
This back-and-forth continued for several minutes. He had no idea what kind of books he liked. How could I, with the benefit of my college courses, guide him to the world of books if he didn't even know what he liked?
We didn't pick a book in the library that day. I told him we would find one in my classroom library. Really, I just wanted to buy time because I had no idea how to help him. I talked with one of my colleagues that night, and she suggested I try something: "Ask him what kind of movies he likes. If he can tell you that, you can pick a genre for him to read."
I tried it, and lo and behold the next day Chad and I chose a book he simply couldn't put down. His mom and I couldn't hide our excitement. Both of us had struggled to get him not only to read on his own but on his grade level and now he did it with no prompting from either of us.
Spreading the Love
AMLE talks with author Leta Simpson talk about Igniting the Reading Spark
The following strategies, teacher-developed and tested, can help foster a love of reading in students.
1. Ask them what kind of movies they like.
This simple question can help you guide even the most reluctant readers toward books they like. If they can't think of a type of movie, ask them to name the last movie they watched and enjoyed.
For example, a student said that he liked Fast and Furious 7. I asked him what he liked about it, and he said he enjoyed the action and the cars. Based on his responses, I was able to guide him toward a particular author and series.
2. Organize your classroom library.
My classroom library consists of baskets of books organized by genre. Each basket is labeled with the proper term for that genre of book, such as historical fiction or fantasy. Underneath the main descriptor is a list of "Similar To" movies and other books that are similar to the contents of the basket.
This type of organization exposes students to books they might not have noticed in the library. It also increases the chance they will find a book they like. Some of my students have read all the books in a particular basket because they like that genre so much. We've also used genres as a springboard for discussions about other literature or authors based on their choices from the basket.
3. Teach them to date books.
Most students choose a book by its cover. I start off the year teaching kids how to date books.
- Look at the title and cover art.
- Read the synopsis of the book on the back.
- Open to any point of the book and read for two minutes. (But don't read the end and spoil the book for yourself!)
- If your book passes the first three tests, read at least two chapters before making a judgment. (It took me 100 pages to get into The Maze Runner!)
If they tell me they don't like a book they've picked, I ask them how many dating steps they got to. They must have completed step D and give me a valid reason before they are allowed to choose a new book.
4. Try speed dating.
Many times, students don't know a book exists unless it's right in front of them. Speed dating exposes students to many different books of many different genres. A speed dating round can be completed in one session or over several days, depending on how much time you have. If you don't have a classroom library, work with the librarian to pull some books for your students.
You'll need books of various genres by a variety of authors. You should have at least two books for each student. You'll also need to develop a graphic organizer on which students can take notes. My graphic organizer typically has a place for students to record book title and author, assign a rating (Yes, Maybe, No), and explain why they gave the book that particular rating.
Place students in small groups—desks pushed together or around tables—and scatter several books in the middle of each table. You should have at the least two books for each student in the group. Make sure the books represent a variety of genres.
Students follow these steps:
- Grab a book and write down title and author on the graphic organizer.
- Read the back cover. (Give them 60 seconds or less to do this.)
- Open the book and read for no more than two minutes.
- Assign a rating based on what you read and explain why you gave the book that rating.
- Change tables.
Use a timer to signal the end of each step. At the end of the allotted time for step 4, signal that it's time to change tables. Students take their graphic organizers with them and move to the next table, where they speed date another book.
When it is time to pick a book for outside reading, my students consult their "potential dates."
That's Not So Hard
Studies show that students who read just 20 minutes a day tend to score in the 90th percentile of standardized testing; those who read for only 5 minutes a day score in the 50th. But getting students to read on their own, outside school can be challenging.
Once students figure out what they like, they have an easier time falling in love with books. Some of my most reluctant readers have turned into avid readers thanks to these strategies. What's more, I have had many rich discussions about literature and authors with my students simply by tapping into their sometimes-newfound love of literature.
Notable Books for Young Adolescents
Each year a committee of the Association for Library Service to Children (ALSC) identifies the best of the best in children's books. The committee identified these as some of 2015’s most notable books for students in grades 6–8. For more, visit www.ala.org/alsc/awardsgrants/notalists/ncb
Because They Marched: The People's Campaign for Voting Rights That Changed America. By Russell Freedman. Illus. Holiday.
Caminar. By Skila Brown. Candlewick.
The Crossover. By Kwame Alexander. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.
The Family Romanov: Murder, Rebellion & the Fall of Imperial Russia. By Candace Fleming. Illus. Schwartz & Wade/Random House.
How I Discovered Poetry. By Marilyn Nelson. Illus. by Hadley Hooper. Penguin/Dial.
The Night Gardener. By Jonathan Auxier. Abrams/Amulet.
Nine Open Arms. By Benny Lindelauf. Illus. by Dasha Tolstikova, Tr. by John Nieuwenhuizen. Enchanted Lion.
The Port Chicago 50: Disaster, Mutiny, and the Fight for Civil Rights. By Steve Sheinkin.
Illus. Roaring Brook.
Portraits of Hispanic American Heroes. By Juan Felipe Herrera. Illus. by Raúl Colón. Penguin/Dial.
Revolution: The Sixties Trilogy, Book Two. By Deborah Wiles. Scholastic.
This One Summer. By Mariko Tamaki. Illus. by Jillian Tamaki. First Second.
American Library Association
Leta Simpson teaches at Stephen F. Austin Middle School in the Bryan Independent School District in Texas. firstname.lastname@example.org
Published in AMLE Magazine
, February 2016.
Understanding student needs is only part of the teaching expedition.
I started the group discussion with what I believed to be a rather easy question: "How does the article, 'Rise of the Machines,' connect with your life experiences?" After all, students interact with technology each day, smartphones are glued to their hands.
After I posed the question, I followed the good teacher protocol and waited painfully for more than 15 seconds. No response. I thought to myself: Do I need to rephrase the question? What are these students not getting? The question is all about their experiences and opinions.
I backtracked with some different questions. First, "How many of you decided to read the entire article?" Well over half the students raised their hands. Then, "How many of you understood the article?" Most students made every effort to avoid eye contact with me.
I felt like a pirate discovering hidden treasure on a deserted island. The pirate opens the treasure and sees the wealth, but soon realizes he is stuck on the island alone with no way to leave. What good was the treasure?
Searching for the Treasure
For the first few weeks of school, I was a pirate in search of my treasure: knowledge about where my students—English Language Learners—were academically, what they already knew and were able to do. Because the Common Core State Standards focus on reading informational texts and citing information to support understanding, I wanted to ensure my students developed these skills throughout the year. After reading Kelly Gallagher's persuasive and insightful book Readicide: How Schools Are Killing Reading and What You Can Do about It, I decided to jump on board with the Article of the Week strategy.
Each week, I assigned an article about a current event or topic that I thought would appeal to students' interests. Each article was divided into "chunks," or digestible bites, to help their comprehension. With each chunk, the students read, then summarized the main idea and made real world connections. After reading the entire article, they used evidence from the text to support their answers to various "reading for meaning" questions.
During my attempted discussion related to "The Rise of the Machines," I realized that the students needed to develop more background knowledge, better comprehension strategies, and a clearer understanding of how to read informational texts. That knowledge was my treasure.
Then the realization set in: I was on a deserted island. I was not an expert on the best strategies or practices to help students develop these skills—especially with the wide range of abilities within my classroom.
Action Research, Action Plan
After discussing my classroom discovery with my colleagues and mentors, we decided action research would be the best way for me to learn best practices and keep a clear track of students' progress throughout the remainder of the year.
As I began researching different strategies to help improve students' reading comprehension of informational texts, I noted that almost all the articles discussed the students' lack of background knowledge and the impact this disconnect has on students' comprehension abilities.
Although the articles provided teachers with several practical strategies to improve students' comprehension skills, I decided to stick with two while conducting my action research: cloze reading and structured small-group discussions.
I continued assigning an article on Monday with the expectation that the students would read the article and complete the annotations by Friday. At the beginning of class on Friday, the students completed a cloze reading activity, which was a summary of the article with important vocabulary words missing and placed in a word bank. The students read the passage and placed the correct word from the word bank based on the context clues and their understanding of the article.
I looked at these cloze reading passages to see what words the students were struggling with and where they might need some clarification.
After the students completed the cloze reading passage, they discussed the week's article in structured small groups. I provided clear expectations and structure to each small group discussion. For example, I expected the students to continue to practice respectful speaking and listening protocol by using "Accountable Talk" stems such as "I agree with _____ because _____" and "I'm not sure I understood you when you said _____." Also, each student was required to participate in the conversation by bringing up a new point or extending another student's comment.
Each week, I structured the discussion a little bit differently and had the students communicate their ideas and comprehension in various ways such as orally, in writing, or visually. We also used technology and tools to help build the discussion.
As the students discussed, I walked around to monitor their comprehension and mark their understanding on a rubric (Figure 1). An important part of helping students improve their speaking, writing, or reading skills is to set clear expectations through a rubric, clearly explain the expectations, and provide oral
or written feedback.
Self-Assessment Rubric for Article of the Week
||3 (Above Standard)
||2 (Meets Standard)
||1 (Below Standard)
|I can understand and explain the vocabulary.
||All of 2, plus I am able to listen to the definitions others suggest and expand upon them.
||While discussing, I use words from the text correctly in speaking.
I am able to use the word in a sentence correctly.
I can explain the definition so other members of my group understand.
|I use some words from the text incorrectly.
I am unable to properly use the word in a sentence correctly.
I attempt to explain the definition to my group members, but they don’t fully understand.
|I can identify the main idea and support with textual evidence.
||All of #2, plus I can use the main idea to explain the author's purpose of writing the article.
||I can correctly pinpoint the main idea of the article.
I can explain the main idea to my group members.
I am able to support my ideas with appropriate textual evidence.
|I am close to identifying the main idea, but I am missing important parts.
I am unable to explain the main ideas to my group members.
I am unable to support my ideas with appropriate textual evidence.
|I can summarize the article and include specific details.
||All of 2, plus I can explain connections between different chunks of the article.
||Using my own words, I can summarize different parts of the article.
I am able to identify specific and important details in the text.
|I am unable to summarize different parts of the article.
I am unable to identify important details in the text.
For the discussions, I listened for students' understanding and ability to 1) explain the vocabulary; 2) identify the main idea and support with textual evidence; and 3) summarize the article and include specific details. If the students addressed these three checkpoints throughout the discussion, I determined they understood the material.
For the cloze reading strategy, I was not surprised that the students completed the passages more easily when the article's Lexile® level was below grade level. However, I realized that more than half of my students were reading well below grade level. I knew I needed to continue the cloze reading strategy to help build up the low-level readers' vocabulary.
In addition, using the cloze reading passages helped hold students more accountable for learning the definitions of the challenging vocabulary words. Rather than skipping over the words they did not understand, the students took the time to look up the definitions. This, of course, helped their comprehension.
Since most middle school students learn better when interacting with their peers, the small-group discussion was a great way to get them to interact with each other. Often, the students helped clarify something and explain misconceptions in a way that their peers better understood. Sometimes students' comprehension of the article improved after the small-group discussion.
An indirect benefit of this small-group discussion strategy was the students' development of speaking and listening skills. The Common Core State Standards focus on ensuring students express and share their knowledge clearly. After using the small-group discussion, I noticed a significant increase in the students' social skills—especially listening and meaningfully contributing to a discussion.
A Happy Ending
Now the tale comes to an end. Eventually, the pirate finds help, escapes from the deserted island, and shares his wealth with his rescuers. Just like the pirate, I found my help and support by collaborating with professors and colleagues and through the process of action research. Now my students are equipped to handle more challenging texts because the skills they practice with the Article of the Week assignment will transfer to texts in other classes.
Shelby Notbohm teaches middle level English Language Learners in West Fargo, North Dakota.
Published in AMLE Magazine
, January 2016.
Blogging is real-world writing for an authentic audience.
If you asked my students whether they do a research paper in my seventh grade English class, they would probably say “no”—not because they don't do research, but because they don't do research and write about it in the traditional manner. The same would probably be true if you asked them about informative, argumentative, or any other kind of writing.
Why? Blogging is my students' writing platform, and they enjoy writing and connecting with others about their topic so much that it no longer feels like a writing assignment. They are real authors in the real world.
The Common Core State Standards (CCSS) encourage students to incorporate technology into the writing process and call on teachers to have students write for a range of purposes, allowing them time for research, reflection, and revision. I can think of no better way to do this than through blogging. Blogging has opened unlimited opportunities for my students to explore topics that matter to them. It has brought my readers' and writers' workshop into the 21st century.
Getting to Know You
At the beginning of the year, I use Nancie Atwell's heart mapping activity (see her book, Lessons that Change Writers) to explore students' interests. We brainstorm and discuss what really matters to us in this world. Students write about those things that are important to them inside the drawn shape of a heart, with the most important things in the center. We talk about why these things are important and while we talk, I point out patterns I see in their brainstorming—common themes like sports, crafting, baking, family, and friends.
When we've had ample time to get to know one another and our brainstorming has been exhausted, I show the students mentor texts—magazines pertaining to special interests such as photography, cooking, baseball, and the outdoors. These mentor texts not only provide examples of specific writing skills, they also get students thinking about their own personal special interests.
We also look at blogs as mentor texts. Students explore a variety of blogs, looking for patterns in the way the bloggers use digital media and text, hyperlinks, and comments. We talk about the blogs that appeal and don't appeal to them. I share my blog (http://jmliteracy2.blogspot.com) and we talk about why I like to blog.
This is the exploratory phase in the blogging process—a crucial step that should not be dismissed. With so much required curriculum in a year's time, it may be tempting to abbreviate the time used with mentor texts. However, remember that before students can be writers themselves, they need to see how and what other people write about in the real world—in print and digital media formats.
After we have discussed the various types of writing they encountered in the mentor texts, such as informative, descriptive, and argumentative, students create a wall chart defining each type of writing and provide examples of mentor texts that illustrate each type. This chart guides them throughout the school year as they write for different purposes—something I encourage them to do each time they blog.
This is a great time to use mini-lessons to focus on each of the writing types. I divide students into small groups according to their writing purposes, which allows me to offer direct instruction and guidance about the idiosyncrasies of each of the types of writing formats they may be working on at any given time. Throughout the year, I meet with the students on a regular basis to evaluate their writing skills, research skills, technology skills, and even grammar. Then, I use mini-lessons to address their needs.
When you teach this way, it is hard to plan in advance. You must constantly evaluate and reevaluate. Being flexible is a must! You may sketch out a general road map, but your students should always guide the turns you make.
Beginning the Blog
When I think the students are ready, they begin drafting their own blogs. Their goal with the first blog is to write an introductory blog about themselves. As they draft their first post, and as they continue to post to our classroom blog all year, I conduct mini-lessons on how to find and cite reliable sources on their topics, how to hyperlink, how to embed images and video, and how to “chunk” (paragraph) their text to make it reader-friendly. Other topics include how to write a title that catches a potential reader's attention and the importance of proper grammar. It's good to remind students that they will have an audience much larger than just the teacher reading their posts.
Blogging provides students with an authentic audience. Depending on your comfort level, you can adjust the settings for your student blogs to allow for a true global audience, or you can be more restrictive and allow only students in your class, school, district, and/or parents to view and comment on your students' blogs. The choice is yours to make, but I encourage you to opt for the true global audience; students are eager to share their thoughts with an audience beyond their community.
Read and Respond
When students are working through the revision and editing process, it is time to get them excited about reading each other's posts. Before allowing students to read and comment on blog posts independently, I model my own reading of a blog post to my class. I think aloud as I read, then with my students watching, I scroll to the comment box on the blog. There, I model how to write a well-thought-out comment that demonstrates both comprehension of and reflection on what I just read aloud. This is time well spent; you don't want to get a hundred blog comments with smiley faces, “great job,” and “OMG.”
I allow time at the beginning of the year for peer reading of blog posts, but I encourage students to read their classmates' blogs outside school as well. Blogging can help build community, as it provides students the opportunity for reading and writing outside the classroom.
Team with teachers at the other grade levels and ask their students to comment on your students' blogs. It is also fun to have comments from administrators, such as the principal, assistant principal, special education director, superintendent, and school board members. There is nothing more validating and motivating than seeing a positive comment on your blog posts.
Supporting the Standards
Does this instructional strategy sound inquiry-based to you? It should! I am teaching the CCSS while allowing students to explore topics of their choice using technology. My students research and explore topics of personal interest to them, synthesize what they read, then write about it in their own blog posts. Students connect with experts online and collaborate with other bloggers to create dynamic text. My students are learning much more than English; they are learning to be active participants in their own education.
The Common Core State Standards ask students to write for a range of purposes, and they require teachers to incorporate technology in the classroom. Blogging accomplishes these goals while allowing for student choice, which is so critical at the middle school level.
If we want students to be prepared for the “real” world, we have to provide opportunities for them to practice for the real world. Blogging is real-world writing for an authentic audience. It doesn't get any better than that!
Jamie Diamond teaches seventh grade English at Prairie Middle School in Barrington, Illinois. She co-authored the book
Literacy Lessons for a Digital World with Meg Gaier (Knapik), and also is an adjunct professor at Judson University in Elgin, Illinois. email@example.com
Published in AMLE Magazine,