Power of the Pen (SOL #25)

I love coaching Power of the Pen. It’s always fun to spend a Saturday with a group of students who are excited about writing and who get to try their best to compete with other writers in the area.

Today my team competed at Chillicothe Middle School in the Regional Tournament, and after this one, they only have the State Competition left if they qualify. We know we will have at least two of our writers moving on, since they placed 1st and 3rd individually!

The day is always a little crazy because students do three rounds of 40 minute writing sessions, during which they have to follow a prompt – given at the beginning of the round. For each round, I act as a judge in in one of the writing rooms. I am always impressed by how much effort these kids put into their writing, and how much talent I get to see on competition days.

Overall, my 8th grade writers did a fantastic job during today’s tournament – they ended up placing 3rd as a team, with the two who placed 1st and 3rd in individual awards. One of my students even wrote a story based on something that we talked about in class, which made me feel proud. Last week, I showed them a John Green video in which he argues about why we should get rid of pennies in the United States. She took what she learned in that video and turned it into a response to the prompt “Create an acronym for a protest of your own making” – and she did No More Pennies (NMP). I laughed as I read it.

We also have a lot of parents who come to support their children during the award ceremony, and it’s so nice to have them there. They are kind and really appreciate the work we do, and the kids love seeing them there too.

All around, we had a great day!

Workshop Strategies (SOL #23)

This week, I’ve worked with my district’s literacy coach to help me out with a few things in my classroom. I initially reached out because I was struggling with classroom management in a couple of classes, so we took a look at mini-lesson strategies to help with that. I realized that I was feeling a little unstructured with many days full of writing for students, and that having true mini-lessons really do help them focus.

Yesterday, my “mini-lesson” was more of a directional one, but I gave students the task of writing their goal for the day on a post-it note, and keeping it on their desk. Then, I had them sign up for one of four categories on the board, with the caveat that they could move their name at any time. The categories were 1) work alone (AKA don’t bug me), 2) conclusions, 3) planning, and 4) individual conference (the catch-all). This was our last day of writing in class, so my students were pretty self-aware at this point if they needed help (though a few needed some nudging).

These focused strategies were both suggested by my literacy coach, and they worked really well to help students stay focused and to remind them what they should be working on. I am still a little afraid of small group instruction (luckily I got to see a great model of that from my coach, too!), and I am getting more comfortable with stepping back and letting my students take the reins.

I am so proud of the writing they’ve done, and I think they are too. At the beginning of this unit, I told them that this would probably be one of the hardest writing assignments they’ve ever done. I could tell they finally recognized this when a student (who usually slacks off a little) came into class today proudly sharing how much work he had put into his writing.

That’s all I can ask for.

(On a side note, my 1st period class was very independent – but they worked hard the who class! See Exhibit A:)

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For the Love of Conferring (SOL #16)

I love conferring. It’s one of my favorite things to do as a teacher.

When students are engaged, it works beautifully. I get to sit and chat with students about their writing and give them one-on-one instruction. The other students are engrossed in writing their own papers. (Not that this is how it always plays out.)

Right now, my classes are working on argument writing. They studied and researched the topic of child soldiers, and they are arguing whether or not child soldiers should be granted amnesty. They have struggled with this topic – with the real world implications, with the complicated decision of what makes someone a victim and what makes someone a perpetrator, and how to craft an argument around such a delicate subject. Most of them knew nothing about child soldiers before they began this research.

So I love seeing the discovery in their writing, and how their thinking plays out in the writing process. I keep telling kids that their arguments or reasoning is so nuanced, which makes what they’re writing even stronger. Some get stuck. “How do I explain my evidence?” Lucky for them (and for me), I have prepared a set of materials beforehand with tips on writing counter arguments, transitions, and more. I gave them a checklist to use, which has become one of the most important tools in my writing conferences.

What makes me the most proud, though, is seeing their hard work. They are learning. They are becoming smarter, and they are recognizing that this process of working through the struggle will make them better writers. I told them at the beginning of this unit that this will probably be the hardest writing they have ever done, and that I expected them to push themselves.

They are rising to the challenge.

Crazy Train, or the Life of a Teacher (SOL #9)

Where to begin today? I started out by jumping on the crazy train, and just rode it all day.

The first three classes I taught went well (even though a student tried to throw an eraser at me in 2nd period), but they just felt jam-packed. I was conferring with kids nearly the whole time, and since my co-teacher had a sub, I felt thankful that he was ready to jump in and confer with kids too. That was great. But I still felt wiped after 3rd period.

I had a little break during my 4th period plan, but I had to take a break from my planning to deal with a few wild students (not mine), then my wacky 5th period study center came in. Luckily, those guys were pretty tame today, but I spent the whole period multitasking – helping kids with work, getting missing assignments, answering phone calls – it just never stopped.

Even at lunch, I didn’t get a break. Today was our peer buddy lunch day, which I lead for 8th grade. It’s a great group to lead, but I didn’t get to sit and enjoy my lunch or even just take a breather. Each thing today just rolled right into the next thing.

7th & 8th period were mini-lessons and then constant conferring. I love teaching days like today when I get to spend most of class talking to students about their writing, but I feel like I didn’t get a chance to just organize my thoughts. And I forgot that I had bus duty (for the 3rd day in a row). Whoops.

The whole day was also masked by some 8th grade drama because the kids just would not stop talking about it. It wasn’t necessarily distracting, but having to rehash this issue every class period was a little exhausting.

After school, I needed a break, so my husband and I took a walk to Starbucks where I got a Coconut Milk Mocha Macchiato. Finally – a little respite. I still feel a little like I’m juggling 500 things at once, but hopefully tomorrow will be a little smoother.

Love, Teach does a good job of explaining my day:

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Giving Up Control (SOL #8)

One thing I have trouble with is giving up control. This year I am trying to let my students take a little more control without me micromanaging every aspect of class. That means that sometimes there is a little more off-task behavior than I would like, but it also means that students are learning at their own pace.

Today I was reminded of my “giving up control” goal when my morning classes were combined with another Language Arts teacher’s classes, and she had a sub. This meant that I was pretty much in charge of 50 kids every class period. The sub was great and checked in with kids, but since we’re working on a challenging writing assignment (argument), I was the one they came to for help.

I was having a hard time balancing classroom management versus helping kids who have questions and really needed guidance. (However, as I’m reflecting now, I realized those groups sometimes overlapped.) Giving up control to work with individuals or small groups means I am spending more quality time conferring with kids. This also means that all of my students are not on task all of the time, as much as I would like them to be.

Tomorrow I will be in the same situation, and I think I will utilize more small-group discussions to confer with as many kids as possible. This will also help me to check in with nearly everyone in an efficient way. We’ll see how it goes, and see if those collaborative conversations can help my students stay on task and working hard (at least most of the time).

What are some ways that you have quality conferring time while also keeping tabs on all students’ work?

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