Group Writing: How to Inspire Your Students to Enjoy Writing

Sixth grade students love to talk and interact with their friends and peers.  They solve problems through talking, play games while talking, and even talk when they shouldn’t be talking.  Many sixth grade students tend to be very outgoing and interpersonal.  They experience life through social interactions, as they love doing things together in small groups or with a partner.  Teamwork and group work play vital roles for sixth grade students.  If offered the choice to work alone on a project or activity or to complete the task with a partner, most sixth grade students would choose to work with a partner.  They crave social togetherness and feeling like a part of something greater than themselves.  These connections are crucial to how successful sixth grade students feel and actually are in reality.

So, to capitalize on this important facet of sixth grade life, I wanted to try a different kind of writing activity today during Humanities class.  While many of my students have already begun to find the fun and enjoyment in writing, a few of them are still stuck in thinking that writing is a required task and not something they enjoy doing.  To help inspire my students to get into the Halloween spirit today while also helping them find the fun in the writing process, I had the boys participate in a Group Writing activity.  The students each received a different spooky story starter that was the springboard into their story.  They used this prompt to begin their story.  Each student worked on their story for five minutes, formulating a strong beginning.  They then all traded stories with a peer, read what their classmate had written, and then continued building on this new story for five minutes.  They rotated stories with their classmates three more times, as they added to new stories, building on what was already written.  The last rotation had the students finish the story that was worked on by four other students.  Throughout the process, laughter was heard on numerous occasions as they read each other’s stories and added to them.  Smiles spread across the faces of my students as they busily worked to craft scary and strange Halloween-themed stories.  The boys had a blast with the writing portion of this activity.  They all seemed so proud of their work as they pointed out some of the highlights from their pieces while they traded stories with their classmates.  One student came to me towards the end of the writing process and said, “Mr. Holt, I’m loving writing so much now that I may start doing it during my free time.  This activity is so fun.”  Another student, who struggles to write as he finds it boring, told me, “Thanks for doing this activity, Mr. Holt.  It was a lot of fun.”  The boys seemed to thoroughly enjoy crafting crazy, weird, and morbid stories together as a group.  They loved adding to what their friends had crafted and enjoyed reading what their peers had written.  While there was very little talking happening during the writing part of this activity, the social interaction component was quite high.  The students were silently interacting with their peers in written form.  I was impressed and amazed by how much my students seemed to like this activity.  It was awesome.

Before moving into the sharing portion of the activity, I asked the students for some feedback on the process.  Almost all of the students raised their hands to express how much they loved this activity.  To wrap things up, I had the students gather in the reading area of the classroom, turned off the lights, and read aloud their group write stories.  I not only had a blast reading their bizarre, scary, and often funny stories, but the students couldn’t stop laughing.  When their part of the stories was read aloud, shouts of laughter and “This is mine” were heard.  It was such a remarkable experience.  By making writing a social activity, I inspired my students to find their passion.  My students found the fun in writing during today’s activity.  While this is only one way to teach students how to write and craft stories, it is a highly successful method as it allows the students to silently engage in social discourse.  They talked with their friends through their writing.  Many of the stories had tinges of a video game the boys love playing together during their free time.  Almost every story seemed to include some reference to this game.  While I have done this activity every Halloween for the past four years, I’m amazed each and every year by how much my students truly enjoy it.  This activity is usually just the bridge many of them need to cross over the river of challenges and into the land of Writing is Fun.  I can’t wait to see what wonderful masterpieces my students put together during our next writing activity.

Varying the approach to teach writing is important in helping all students see how much fun writing can be.  While some boys love writing creative stories or historical fiction pieces, others like writing non-fiction essays or reports.  Each student is different and unique in their own way, and as teachers, it is our mission to help them tap into their potential as a writer.  What type of writing activity or genre will inspire them?  By providing the students with various writing opportunities throughout the year, we are helping them unlock the writer within.  Group writing activities like the one I did today, can help students uncover the writer inside of them.  Who knows what’s possible unless we give our students a chance to try?  So, if you’re looking to mix things up and make writing fun for your students, try a Group Writing activity.

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How My Reflection Changed My Students

Having seen the value of individual reflection for many years now, I know the power it holds.  Being a reflective teacher has enabled me to become more effective at helping and supporting my students.  Taking the time to stop and think about what went well or what proved difficult in class on a daily basis has helped me refine my approach to teaching and the field of education.  Teachers are not the givers of information.  We are guides for our students as they journey towards understanding.  We are the flashlights our students use as they navigate their way through the dark world of life and school.  We encourage our students to ask questions.  We help them solve problems encountered.  We empower them to think for themselves in a critical manner.  We show them the path that will lead them towards enlightenment.  We pack their knowledge backpacks full of use study and work skills.  We are beacons of light and power for our students.  We are not libraries full of facts and information.  Reflecting over the past many years on my daily teaching practices has allowed me to see my true role as a teacher.

During the past week, I’ve struggled with feeling as though I am not appropriately helping my students see the value in revising their written work.  Earlier last week, the students seemed unable to focus their effort on making their historical fiction stories better and more effective while also providing their classmates with useful feedback on how they can improve their stories.  The boys seemed to rush through the process to finish and be done with it, rather than really jumping into the task as though they are on a writing journey.  This bothered me because I know that in order to grow and develop as writers, they need to see the benefit in revising their work based on feedback.  They need to utilize a growth mindset to see feedback provided to them as useful.  My students seemed greatly challenged by this phase of the writing process.  They seemed more interested in what they could do when they finished writing.  Very few of the students seemed to take the assignment seriously, and that caused me to pause.

How will they be prepared for the rigors of seventh grade English class if they can’t learn to improve upon their writing based on suggestions provided to them by others?  I reflected on my struggles in this very blog last week, at least twice.  I then incorporated some new thoughts and ideas into my class so that my students would, hopefully, be able to see the vast power that revising their work holds for them as students.  While I did see my students begin to change their thinking regarding the revision step of the writing process, I was skeptical that all of them had revised their thinking on the topic.  I reflected in writing and mentally.  What else could I do to inspire my students to see that they need to take the process of revising their work seriously if they want to grow as writers?

Then came class today.  Today provided students one final opportunity to revise their historical fiction stories based on feedback provided to them by me, their teacher, and their classmates.  I also had them reflect on the process they used to craft this piece of writing, using an author’s note.  The students needed to respond, in writing at the bottom of their stories, to four questions.  Those students who finished revising their story and crafting an author’s note had two options:

  1. Complete an extra credit, objectively graded task, that involves the students creating a book jacket for their historical fiction story.  They must craft a front and back cover for their stories, being sure to include a title, relevant, hand-drawn image, brief summary of the story, and quotes from others on their story.
  2. Work on the Things to Do When Done list that is posted on one of the window displays in our classroom.  They could fill out their planbook for next week, work on Typing Club, work on homework, check their grades, or work in the Makerspace.

The students quickly got to work.  They seemed very focused on the task at hand.  A few of the students spent a good chunk of their time revising and improving upon their stories.  It was amazing to watch them add details, dialogue, and more effective character descriptions to their stories, on their own.  Some of the other students put forth fine effort into reflecting on their writing process as they crafted their author’s note.  Their responses were detailed and included examples from their writing experience.  It was impressive to see them being so mindful and reflective as they own their work.  The five students with whom I conferenced took the feedback I offered them with open arms.  They asked meaningful questions that allowed them to understand what they needed to do to improve their story.  It was fun to read their stories, praise their phenomenal talents as writers, and challenge them to grow and develop as they improve upon their writing pieces.  Students who had finished their story and author’s note early on in the period, took it upon themselves to help others revise their piece, if help was needed.  They were being truly compassionate community members.

During class today, I only needed to redirect two students who seemed to find focusing on the task at hand, individually, difficult.  Those two students, once redirected, did regroup and got right back to work on growing as writers.  The rest of the students seemed zoned in on improving their skills as writers.  They reviewed the three graded objectives on which their final story will be assessed.  They were committed to exceeding my expectations as they clearly saw the value in the process of revising their work.  I could not have been more proud and impressed by my students today.  They rocked their stories!  I can’t wait to read their final drafts.

So, what did I learn from all of this.  Well, I learned that reflection not only changes me, but it fosters change within my students.  Because I reflected on what didn’t feel right to me last week, I changed my approach to teaching the revision phase of the writing process.  Today, I saw, first hand, how this change impacts my students.  They were completely different writers today than they were last week.  They care about making their stories better, and thus crave feedback.  It’s quite amazing.  They weren’t rushing to finish their stories, they took their time to polish their words and develop their characters.  Because I took the time to think about how I could better support and help my students become better writers, I changed the way I spoke to my students about revising their work.  I didn’t explain the process as a task, but a journey they were going on to transform themselves into better writers.  My personal reflections on revision didn’t just change me, they changed my students too.

Learning from Yesterday’s “Failures”

When I was just a wee young lad, the word “fail” was considered almost as bad as other curse words like the “F word.”  If you failed at something, it meant that you were not good and lacked talent.  No one wanted to fail or be thought of as a failure.  It was a Scarlet Letter that you wore with you for the rest of your childhood.

Now, of course, we all know that times have changed and the word failure is synonymous with success.  In order to do something well, you have to fail at it first.  We want our students to fail in order for them to learn how to grow and succeed.  While it’s amazing that our ideas on teaching have progressed so much thanks to technology and research on the neuroscience of education, I do wish that the adults in my world when I was a child would have embraced failing as an essential part of the learning process.  Had I failed more because I was inspired to take more risks with my learning, I wonder how many other things I’d be capable of doing now.  Perhaps I would have learned to stick with playing the guitar.  Maybe I’d be in a band right now, touring Europe.  That would be cool.  I’ve always wanted to see London during this time of year.

As I now see the value in failing on a regular basis because of the learning that comes from the experience, I am more willing to try new things in the classroom as a teacher.  I’m not afraid to try out a new application on the computer or a new instructional strategy in the classroom.  If it works, great; if not, it provides me with a teachable moment in the classroom.  Luckily too, I can also reflect on my failed lessons or activities and learn from them.  While I was not overly happy with the outcome of yesterday’s Humanities lesson on the process of revising writing, I had the chance to reflect on what didn’t go well yesterday.  Then today, I was able to more effectively introduce and explain the purpose of the revision process and the power that it holds.  “Revision is the most important step in the writing process because it provides you with a chance to fix what’s broken with your work.  No writer, regardless of age and experience, is able to craft the perfect piece of writing.  Every writer is in need of fixing and revising their work.  Today, you have a chance to receive feedback from as many people as possible so that you can create an even better story than what you currently have.  You also have the chance to receive such valuable feedback that you will be able to, hopefully, exceed the three graded objective for this assignment.  So, treat today’s revision period with the respect it deserves.”  After feeling as though I did not explain the process of revising one’s writing well yesterday in class, I wanted to be sure that I highlighted the benefits in revising one’s written work based on feedback from others, and I feel like I did that today.  After my introduction and review of what was to happen in class during the work period, I felt quite confident that things would be better today than they were yesterday.

My future-telling skills were clearly right on par today as the work period was phenomenal.  The boys worked so well on providing each other with feedback, revising their work, and growing as writers.  I conferenced with three students and was able to provide them some meaningful feedback that will allow them to make their story far better than it was.  While I didn’t have a chance to observe every student or group as they worked during class today as I was conferencing with students at the back table, the groups I could see and hear seemed to be bleeding greatness.  To conclude class today, I some had students share how the peer editing process went for them in class today.

“Me and my partner worked on helping each other come up with better words to describe the setting in our stories,” one student said.  I praised those two students for the great effort they put into looking at one aspect of their writing.

“My partner helped me fix grammar stuff in my story and I helped him make his story funny and not boring,” one student said, laughing.  “He even said that he’s going to write a whole new story since he doesn’t think he did a good job on his first one.”  He was describing what he and his partner worked on during their peer editing conference.  Awesome!  I then explained how amazing it was that because of feedback, this specific writer will be able to grow and develop his writing skills.

I can’t wait to read the revised stories my students will complete by early next week.  They are sure to be far better than what they had typed this week.  And to think that if I hadn’t taken the time to reflect on yesterday’s lesson and thought about how to change things for today’s class, I would not have been able to inspire my students to see the value in revising their writing while also helping their peers make their stories better.  Failure helped me better support and challenge my students to utilize a growth mindset in Humanities class today.  Making mistakes is how genuine learning is fostered.  I need to fail in order to grow.  It seems counter intuitive, but it’s how the brain works.  We are wired to remember things that are tagged with emotion, and so failed experiences stick with us because they don’t make us usually feel very good.  I thought about my “failed” class yesterday for hours, which is why I was able to spend so much time thinking about how to fix the situation in class today.  How could I help my students better appreciate the editing and revising stages of the writing process?  And wallah, I found my answer in class today.  Failure rocks!  I can’t wait to do it again.

Helping Students Find Enjoyment in Writing

Ever since I was in the sixth grade, I’ve loved to write.  I used to write poetry for fun when I was bored in high school.  I even used writing as an emotional outlet.  When I was struggling to accept the death of my grandfather, I wrote about it as a way of processing my feelings.  It really helped me work through a lot of challenging emotions I was facing at the time.  Writing has always been a hobby of mine.  Even now as an adult, I treasure the time it takes to blog on a daily basis, as it allows me to reflect on my teaching in a creative and meaningful manner.  Writing is my way of documenting my life and journey on Earth.  It’s how I can prove that I exist.  I also find much joy in writing.  It makes me happy when I can sit in front of my computer or at a desk with pen and paper and pour my heart, soul, and being out via words and sentences.  What seems such a simple action, provides me with such a cathartic release.  It’s free therapy.  I love it.  It’s like mental Legos.  I get to put letters and words together in new and fantastic ways so as to bleed my emotions and thoughts out.  It’s like bloodletting, without the mess and death.

As a teacher, I make it a personal goal of mine each and every year to inspire my students to find the joy in writing.  While they may not all view writing through the same rainbow-unicorn glasses I use, I want to help them find the peace and fun in writing.  I want them to write stories and poems that make them happy.  I want them to find the passion in writing.  I challenge my students to write pieces that make them want to never stop writing.  I want my students to see writing as an experience and not a task they are forced to do.  Although this is a difficult goal for me to meet on a yearly basis, it is one that I hold near and dear to my beating heart.

There are many ways to help students find enjoyment in writing.  By using the Writer’s Workshop model of writing, I help to engage the students in what they are writing.  Because they can choose what they write about, they have a far better chance of falling in love with their work than if they were pigeonholed into specific writing topics.  I also try to inspire creativity within my students by using various prompts to promote unique thoughts to be born in their minds.  Using Quick Write activities, the students use prompts as springboards into their writing.  These activities aren’t graded and rarely looked at by me.  They are word-vomit activities for the students to begin to find the fun in writing.  They begin to learn to take risks in their writing as they aren’t being graded on these short writing tasks.  While I do teach the students all about the process of writing, I try to make it fun and inviting.  I want them to see feedback as essential to the growth process.  I want them to value the thoughts and ideas provided to them by their peers and teachers.  I want them to think of writing as a never ending journey.  I tell them from the start of the year that writing pieces are never finished.  Even published authors would tell you that they would gladly revise their published books based on new ideas and feedback received.  I hopefully help my students to see writing as something they are able to do that is fun and exciting.

Today offered me the chance to provide a few students in my class with feedback that will hopefully help them better find the joy in writing.  As my students worked on their historical fiction stories, I meandered around the room like a Brook Trout searching for shade on a warm summer’s day.  I observed the students as they extracted thoughts and ideas from their brains.  I watched them play with words in order to tell a story that intrigued them.  This observation time allowed me to help two students who seemed stuck.

The first student sat at his desk in front of his laptop, tapping away on the table, not his laptop.  His body language told me that he was bored.  So, I stopped to chat with him.

“It seems as though you are stuck.  Can I offer you some help?” I said to him as he stared longingly into his computer screen.

“Yes,” he responded.

So, I read what he had typed and provided him with some feedback, “While you do a fine job explaining facts about Canaan’s history, this piece reads more like a list of things that happened than a story.  How can you transform this into a story that reads more like the books you love reading?  How can you bring life into this piece?”

He seemed a bit mystified and so I shared some examples of how I might begin a piece based on his topic.  As I didn’t want to steal too much thinking from him, I walked away at that point.  A few minutes later, I noticed that he had deleted everything he had previously written and was starting from scratch.  While he didn’t have much time to start a new story before class ended, he seemed inspired to write something that made him happy.  I can’t wait to read his sloppy copy.

Then, another student said to me, “Mr. Holt, I’m almost done my story and it’s quite long, but I’m getting bored with it.  What should I do?”

“Shall I take a look at what you’ve got and see if I can provide you with some ideas or suggestions on how to move forward?” I responded.  He seemed to like this response.  So, I sat with him and read over what he had already written.  He had crafted a unique story about the destruction of the Noyes Academy.  He approached it from an interesting angle, but he wasn’t having fun with it anymore and it showed.  I was bored just reading his piece.

“While this is a fine story and will allow you to meet the objectives covered, I can totally see why you are bored with it.  You know how the story is going to end.  You have the timeline etched onto your brain already.  There are no surprises or possibilities for fun.  I think you need to find a new story.  I think you need to start from scratch,” I told him.

He agreed with me and quickly began working on a whole new story that made him happy.  He wanted to find his passion in the writing and it wasn’t in his first piece.  While I’m glad he spoke with me about this, I wish he didn’t feel like he needed my permission to start over.  I want my students to write with joy and passion.  I tell them every time we write that they should stop and restart if they are not in love with their piece.  “If you aren’t having fun, you’re doing it wrong.”  This student saw that in himself today and then made a change.  He knew what he wanted to do, but he wanted my blessing and feedback.  When I gave it to him, he seemed relieved.  It was a pretty cool experience.

Like the two students I helped today, I hope I am able to inspire all of my students to find the joy in writing.  I want them to see writing as an experiment.  Try something new to see what happens.  If you get the result you want, great, and if not, then try again.  Don’t be afraid to fail.  Embrace the challenge of failure so that you can find the soul within your writing.  Great writing allows you to transfer your beating heart into the piece.  Great writing is alive with description, vivid details, risque topics, and remarkable settings.  I hope that my students leave the sixth grade next year able to see what fun writing can be.  I hope that I am able to help my students find enjoyment in writing this year.

How to Help Students Find their Writing Flow

When I was a younger, I used to love writing.  I would sometimes just write stories for fun when I was bored at home.  In elementary school, we were rarely provided time to write, but when we were, I would craft magical stories of fantasy and action.  Possibly due to my numerous hours of practice when I was younger, I became quite a fine writer and minored in it in college.  To this day, I find great joy and comfort in creating new pieces of writing.  Writing to me is more than just typing letters on a keyboard or pressing a pencil against a piece of paper.  Writing is an art.  It’s about playing and experimenting with word combinations: What words working together conjure up just the right image or emotion.  Writing is so much more than just something I do to be done with.  Even in school, I rarely finished stories I started as I never wanted to be done with the journey or writing process.  When I write, I can escape into new and uncharted worlds or ponder ideas no one else has ever thought of.  Sometimes when I write, I find myself lost in the act.  I get so caught up in writing that time flies by.  That’s the writing flow.  When I’m in my writing flow, nothing else matters.  I just write.  It’s a pretty amazing experience.

As a teacher, I want to try and inspire my students to find their writing flow.  I want them to be so engaged with the process of writing that they lose track of time.  I want my students to fall in love with the words they type.  I want writing to feel like fun time for my students.  To help foster this love of writing within my students, I use the Writer’s Workshop model of writing instruction.  Today’s Writer’s Workshop block went like this…

  • I completed a mini-lesson with the students on historical fiction.  I posed several questions to the class in order to generate a discussion around the following questions: What is historical fiction? and What makes a good historical fiction story?  I want my students to think of the writing process as a recipe.  Begin with a fact or historical knowledge nugget and then add in some realistic characters, a dash of a historically accurate setting, and a pinch of an overall sense of reality based on a happening in history.
  • After I was sure they understood the ingredients of a well made historical fiction story, I explained the process that they would go through to transform their homework writing piece into a historical fiction story.  “You need to revise or change what you wrote last night about something you learned regarding the history of Canaan from Wednesday’s field experience and transform it into a historical fiction story.”
  • With that, the students got right to work.  While a few students had clarifying questions and needed a little support to get started, most of the boys jumped right into their historical fiction story with ease.  They almost seemed excited to get started.
  • As I fielded questions, I also observed the students as they worked.  I read sentences they had written and praised the students for their fine focus and effort.  I even asked one student to reread his first sentence and decide if he thought it was interesting or provided enough of a hook to draw readers into his story.  Even though he had written it, he didn’t like it and found a more creative way to begin his story.
  • Many of the students were so enthralled in their story that they didn’t even notice I was walking around and observing them as they worked.  I had some soft instrumental music playing as a way to keep the boys mindful and focused on the task at hand.  Several of the students seemed to be in the writing flow.  When I asked them to finish up the sentence they were working on, very few of them wanted to stop.
  • I wrapped up today’s Writer’s Workshop block with some questions and a brief share.  “How many of you are in love with your story?”  Many hands shot right up into the air, as I had predicted would happen.  “How many of you felt like you were in the writing flow, as Mr. Wilkerson mentioned in yesterday’s Chapel Talk?”  Five or six hands went right up.  The boys thoroughly enjoyed crafting new stories of Cannan’s involvement in the Underground Railroad, how the town was founded, and Noyes Academy.  They just couldn’t get enough.  Then I had three students share aloud a few sentences from their piece.  Wow! was just about all I could say.  They had crafted masterpieces of intense scenes and action.  They seemed to take today’s task seriously and really dove headfirst into their historical fiction stories.  I was amazed.

So, how did this happen?  Why were my students so engaged in the writing process?  What allowed them to enter the writing flow?  Was it my introduction or explanation of the assignment?  Were they excited to craft action-packed stories about Canaan’s rich history?  Or was it that they take their academics seriously and just wanted to be sure they put forth their best effort?  Was that it?  Did their great effort help today’s writing period go so well?  Almost every student had at least a half-page of text by the end of the 20 minute period.  Was it the subject matter?  Were they so engaged with what they learned from Wednesday’s field experience that they were inspired to craft lyrical works of art in class today?  Perhaps it was a little bit of everything all rolled into one.  Maybe some of the students were enthralled with the history of the town while others were motivated by grades to work well.  I do feel though that flow events don’t happen accidentally.  I believe that something else was at work in the classroom to cause such brilliant writing to happen.  Something magical and special must have occurred to allow so many of the students to fall into the writing flow within minutes of beginning the writing process.  Maybe that’s what it was.  Well, no matter what happened today, I was impressed and amazed by the work my students completed.  They worked like published authors.  I just hope I can inspire this same kind of magic during our next writing period on Tuesday.

The Power of Providing Students with Choice when Writing

“What would you like for sides with that?” wait staff at various restaurants often ask customers when they are ordering their meal.  With so many choices, it’s almost too difficult to choose; however, at the end of the day, people like being able to pick what they eat.  Some people like French fries while other people like rice or pickles.  If restaurants did not offer choices, I wonder how many customer would become repeat patrons.  Humans like to be offered options.  It empowers us and makes us feel as though we are in control.  As teachers, we need to remember this same principal when teaching our students.  Our students don’t like when we make choices for them.  They like to be able to select how and what they learn.  It engages them and allows for genuine learning to take place in the brain.

Today in my Humanities class, I made sure to provide my students with choices and options so that they would be excited and engaged in the learning process.  Following a discussion on community and what it means to be a part of a community, the students completed a Quick Write activity.  As this was our first Quick Write of the academic year, I did explain the protocol and procedure so that they understood what was expected of them.  Today’s prompt was, “Imagine the perfect community.  What would it look like?  How would it function?  Who would live there?  Where would it be located?  Explain and describe your perfect community.”  After explaining how a Quick Write works and what the prompt is asking them to do, I addressed questions the students had: “Does it have to be about a real community or can I make it up?”, “Can I write about a community I’m a part of?” and,  “Can I write it like a story?”  The boys were thrilled that they could write about any sort of community.  They were also excited that they could write it as a story or any form of writing.  They liked that they had choices for how they could complete this task.

For 15 minutes, the boys sat, quietly typing away.  Some of the students had almost a full page of text when the time had expired.  A few of the boys were upset when the time was up because they wanted to keep writing.  I love their enthusiasm and excitement.  They were all so engaged in this activity because they could choose what to write about and how to do so.  I didn’t pigeonhole them into one style or topic.  They had the freedom their brains crave.  Once the writing portion of the activity had finished, I had the students share their piece with their table partner.  They seemed to enjoy sharing their work with a peer.  I then had the students analyze their piece to determine their favorite sentence or short chunk of sentences, and a few volunteers shared what they had chosen aloud to the group.  I was so amazed with the variety of topics and genres the students utilized to accomplish this simple writing task.  To conclude the activity, I asked students to raise their hand if they had fun with this writing exercise and almost every hand in the classroom quickly shot up towards the ceiling.  That’s a great sign in my book.

My students were excited about writing, communities, and creativity today in Humanities class all because I provided them with options and choice.  Sometimes, little things make a huge difference.  I certainly could have outlined exactly what I wanted them to write about and how, but would all of my students have been as engaged with the assignment if I posed it like that?  Are all students interested in the same things?  Clearly, we know that effective teachers tap into how students learn best by providing them with options in the classroom.  Just as customers don’t like to be forced into ordering one particular side with their burger, our students don’t like to have only one way to complete an assignment.  So, let’s make sure that we find creative, engaging, and fun ways to provide our students with choices in the classroom this year.  Not only will it help our students learn better and be more excited in the classroom, it’s also a lot more fun to read different types of stories and papers than the same one written by 15 different students.  Let’s vow to make our classrooms more fun for us and our students this year.  Bring on the choices!

The Humanity in Humanities: Revising my Unit on Community

Being an elementary school teacher at heart, I remember learning all about planning and implementing a unit on community in my methods and practicum course in college.  “Young students need to learn the importance of community and how they are all a part of many different communities,” the professors would often preach.  While I used to think it was hokey, in this day and age of technological distractions and social media, it’s crucial that students learn all about the community in which they live while exploring it without a cell phone or portable device.  Students learn through experiences, and so what better way to help them appreciate and understand the community in which they live than to have them dig through an old river bed for artifacts from the town’s history?  Hands-on learning brings the community alive for the students and makes learning engaging and fun.  Through experiences like this, students will learn to appreciate the communities of which they are all apart.  It will also help them to be more open-minded and aware of their surroundings.  If students only knew the history of the towns in which they live, they might be more apt to explore and get out and about in their communities during their free time instead of playing video games or checking their social media applications.

So, to be sure my students learn to appreciate all that the little town of Canaan has to offer, I’m beginning the academic year in my Humanities class with a unit on community.  While I’ve enjoyed the activities completed during this unit in past years and the students have provided positive feedback on the various lessons completed throughout the unit over the past four years, I’ve made a few minor tweaks for this year.  I want to be sure the students have the opportunity to process and debrief each of the field experiences.  Last year, I felt as though we would simply move on after each field experience without making sure the students understood why we did what we did and how that informs their understanding of the Canaan community.  I don’t want to think of this unit as a series of boxes to check off; I want to make this unit an experience that the students will carry with them when they go out into other communities.  I want my students to always be asking why and how?  How did this town come to be a town?  What is my role in this community?  How can I make this community a great place for all people?  I want my students to be changemakers, and in order to do this, I need to provide them with opportunities to ask questions so that they understand the relevance of every piece of this unit puzzle.  In this same vein, I also added a new option for the final project that will allow the students to identify a problem within the community, create a solution to the problem, and then enact their solution.  I want critical thinking and problem solving to be skills the students learn and practice in every class.

I’m super excited about this unit because of the slight alterations I’ve made, but also because of the power it holds.  This unit is the foundation upon which the other units we will complete throughout the year will be built upon.  This unit ties our course together as we revisit the themes and ideas of this unit in every successive unit.  The stage is set for both Writer’s and Reader’s Workshop in this unit as well.  I’m very pleased with the work I’ve done to enhance this unit over the past few weeks, and I’d love any feedback you could provide me with about this unit.  Here is the daily plan for Our Community unit…

Day 1: Reader’s Workshop Introduction

  • Homework: Read for 30 Minutes
  • Trivia Time: Discuss and Explain process
  • Discuss and Explain: What is Humanities class all about?
  • Introduce and Discuss Reader’s Workshop
    • Think-Pair-Share: What is your past experience with reading?  Do you like to read and why or why not?  Have students jot down answers on paper before partnering.
    • Explain Reader’s Workshop
      • Class Read Aloud: First Book Seedfolks  by Paul Fleischman
      • Mini-Lesson on Reading Strategies
      • Silent Reading
      • Book Talks
      • Book Chats
      • Teacher Conferences
    • Choosing Just Right Books
      • Mini-Lesson in small groups
      • Discuss: How do you choose a new book to read?
      • Model and explain 5-Finger Rule using books
      • Have students choose first reader’s workshop book and read silently
      • Conference with students as they choose books
    • Wrap Up: Briefly Explain Habits of Learning and have students share which they used today in class

Day 2: Community Unit Introduction

  • Homework: Write about the Dawn Climb for 30 Minutes
  • On This Day in History: Explain and Discuss
  • Introduce Focus for first Humanities Unit
    • Discuss Community: As a group of students together, what are some other titles we might use to refer to us as?  What does it mean to be a part of a community?  What communities are you a part of?  How does being a part of a community make you feel?  What are you able to do as a part of a community that you couldn’t do if you weren’t?
    • Community Definition: Have students brainstorm a definition for the word Community with their table partner before sharing ideas aloud with the class until we have an agreed upon definition
    • Community Norms: Discuss what an effective community looks like in action before generating a list of how all good communities should function and operate
  • Exit Ticket: Write at least ways all good communities function

Day 3: Reader’s Workshop

  • Homework: Read for 30 Minutes
  • Reader’s Workshop
    • Book Talk
    • Class Read aloud
      • Mini-Lesson: Previewing a text
    • Student-Teacher Conferences
    • Read Silently
  • Wrap-Up: Who would like to share what they liked about their book today?

Day 4: Writer’s Workshop Introduction

  • Homework: Continue Working on Quick Write for 30 Minutes
  • Geography Bee: Explain and Discuss
  • Writer’s Workshop Introduction
    • Class Discussion: What do you like about writing and why?  What do you not like about writing and why?  This year, we hope to turn the negatives into positives
    • Writing
    • Mini-Lessons on Writing Strategies
    • Sharing
    • Revising
    • Editing
    • Rewriting
  • Explain Quick Write Protocol
    • Write about provided prompt for 10 minutes
    • Have volunteers share what they wrote
    • Ask students: What are your thoughts on this activity?
  • Wrap-Up: Which Habit of Learning did you use the most in class today?

Day 5: Canaan Community

  • Homework: Read for 30 Minutes
  • Trivia Time
  • Review: What makes an effective community and why?
  • Pair-Share Activity: Where are you from and how is it different from Canaan?
  • Discuss: When learning about communities, what do we need to keep in mind?  How do we learn about communities that are unfamiliar to us?
  • List Generation: Make list of what we need to or want to learn about in our unit on the Canaan Community
  • Community Quick Write
    • Create Canaan’s history.  How did the town form and when?
    • Have students share their pieces with their table partner
  • Wrap-Up: How does growth mindset play a key role in learning about a new place?

Day 6: Writing About Your Reading

  • Homework: Finish Goodreads Update and Read About Current Events for 30 Minutes
  • Mini-Lesson: Writing about your Reading– Part I
    • Ask students: Why is it important to know how to write about what you read in a meaningful and critical manner?
    • Discuss and Explain Requirements of Effective Goodreads Update
    • Share a Goodreads update that meets the requirements and discuss why
    • Share a Goodreads update that does not meet the expectations and discuss why
    • Read chapter from Seedfolks read-aloud novel and have students write, on lined paper, an update focused on the character narrating the piece
    • Have students meet with teacher and peers to receive feedback on their update
    • Exit Ticket: Write two requirements of an effective Goodreads Update

Day 5: Current Events and Writing About Your Reading

  • Homework: Free Write on a Current Event
  • Weekly News Quiz: Explain and Discuss
  • Introduce Current Event Process
    • Have students share current events read about with their table partner
    • Explain and discuss one current event with the class
  • Mini-Lesson: Writing About Your Reading– Part II
    • Have students Review their Goodreads Update
      • Highlight support or example from book
      • Underline Interpretation or analysis
      • Write number of sentences in margin
      • Write and circle number of topics focused on in margin
    • Collect Goodreads Updates and read a few aloud discussing requirements and expectations
  • Wrap-Up: What do we need to remember when crafting a Goodreads update?

Day 6: Reader’s Workshop

  • Homework: Read for 20 Minutes and Update Goodreads on 1 Character
  • Reader’s Workshop
    • Book Talk
    • Class Read aloud
      • Mini-Lesson: Reading with a Purpose
    • Student-Teacher Conferences
    • Read Silently
  • Wrap-Up: Who would like to share what they liked about their book today?

Day 7: Canaan Community

  • Homework: Read for 30 Minutes
  • Geography Bee
  • Discuss the physical place of Canaan
    • Show students a map of Canaan and have them share noticings and wonderings
    • Ask students: Does the physical space of Canaan have everything a community needs to be successful and why or why not?  Do you think the map of Canaan changed over time and why or why not?
    • Show students different maps of Canaan over time and discuss the changes
    • Ask students: How does the physical place and environment affect a community?  How does Canaan’s location affect the people and place?
    • Tell students: Tomorrow we will be going on a walking field trip of Canaan Street.  You will be taking notes, writing, drawing, and actively participating in the field experience.  Your notes will be graded along with your participation in the field experience.  What kind of notepad do you want to use for tomorrow’s trip?
    • Have students make a notepad for tomorrow’s field experience using supplies in the classroom.

Day 8: Canaan Street Field Experience

  • Homework: Finish Canaan Street Notepad
  • Canaan Street Field Experience

Day 9: Writer’s Workshop

  • Homework: Finish Dawn Climb Story
  • Collect Canaan Street Notepads
  • On This Day…
  • Writer’s Workshop
    • Have students share their Dawn Climb story with their table partner
    • Ask students: What did you notice about the pieces?  What did they have in common?  What made them different?  What is narrative writing?  What makes an effective narrative story?
    • Have students revise, finish, or rewrite their dawn climb story remembering to include the features of a narrative story
  • Exit Ticket: What makes an effective narrative story?

Day 10: Current Events and Writer’s Workshop

  • Homework: Read for 30 Minutes
  • Weekly News Quiz
  • Explain and discuss one current event with the class
  • Explain Editing and Revising Process
  • Have students edit their dawn climb story
  • Have students revise their dawn climb story
  • Have volunteers share piece with the class
  • Wrap-Up: Which Habit of Learning best helps with the revising and editing process?

Day 11: Reader’s Workshop

  • Homework: Read for 20 Minutes and Update Goodreads on Setting
  • Reader’s Workshop
    • Book Talk
    • Class Read aloud
      • Mini-Lesson: Use Prior Knowledge
    • Student-Teacher Conferences
    • Read Silently
  • Wrap-Up: Table Partner Book Share

Day 12: Writer’s Workshop and Canaan Community

 

  • Homework: Finish Revising Piece Based on Peer Edit Feedback
  • Geography Bee
  • Writer’s Workshop
    • Explain and discuss Peer Editing Process
      • Handout worksheet and discuss
    • Have students Peer Edit their dawn climb story with a partner
    • Have students begin revising piece based on student feedback
  • Discuss what we learned about the Canaan community during last week’s field experience
  • Ask students: What else do you still want to know?
  • Have students Create Canaan Historian Field Experience Notepad reminding them that it will be graded
  • Wrap-Up: What questions do you want to ask Mrs. Dunkerton about Canaan tomorrow during our field experience?

 

Day 13: Canaan Community

  • Homework: Finish Canaan Historian Notepad
  • Canaan Field Experience

Day 14: Writer’s Workshop

  • Homework: Read 1 current event and take Bullet Style Notes on lined paper
  • On This Day…
  • Writer’s Workshop
  • Explain Writing Groups Process
  • Have students get into their assigned writing groups and complete process
  • Have students revise their piece based on the feedback received
  • Wrap-Up: What did you find helpful about the writing group process?

Day 15: Current Events and Writer’s Workshop

  • Homework: Finish Author’s Note
  • Weekly News Quiz
  • Have students share their current event with their table partner
  • Explain and discuss one current event with the class
  • Explain Author’s Note Process
  • Have students complete their Author’s Note at the end of their dawn climb piece
  • Exit Ticket: Why is it important to learn about current events in the world?

Day 16: Reader’s Workshop

  • Homework: Read for 20 Minutes and Update Goodreads on Thoughts About your Book
  • Reader’s Workshop
    • Book Talk
    • Class Read aloud
      • Mini-Lesson: Make Connections
    • Student-Teacher Conferences
    • Read Silently
  • Wrap-Up: Why is making connections an important reading strategy?

Day 17: Canaan Community

  • Homework: Read for 30 Minutes
  • Rand Estate Tour and Field Experience

Day 18: Writer’s Workshop

  • Homework: Finish Revising Piece Based on Teacher Feedback
  • Trivia Time
  • Writer’s Workshop
    • Discuss Teacher Feedback and Final Revising Process
    • Have students read the teacher feedback and make changes to their piece based on this feedback

Day 19: Canaan Community

  • Homework: Read 1 Current Event and Take Bullet Style Notes
  • On This Day…
  • Discuss what was learned from Tuesday’s field experience
  • Ask students: What else do we want to know about the Canaan Community?
  • Introduce and discuss Canaan Community Project
  • Have students choose project and begin working

Day 20: Current Events and Canaan Community Project

  • Homework: Work on Canaan Community Project for 30 Minutes
  • Weekly News Quiz
  • Have students share their current event with their table partner
  • Explain and discuss one current event with the class
  • Have students work on Canaan Community Project
  • Wrap-Up: Have volunteers share successes and/or struggles they are having in the project

Day 21: Reader’s Workshop

  • Homework: Read for 20 Minutes and Update Goodreads on Questions you Have
  • Reader’s Workshop
    • Book Talk
    • Class Read aloud
      • Mini-Lesson: Questions
    • Student-Teacher Conferences
    • Read Silently
  • Wrap-Up: How does asking questions make you a better engaged reader?

Day 22: Canaan Community Project

  • Homework: Work on Canaan Community Project for 30 Minutes
  • Geography Bee
  • Work on Canaan Community Project

Day 23: Canaan Community Project

  • Homework: Work on Canaan Community Project for 30 Minutes
  • Trivia Time
  • Work on Canaan Community Project

Day 24: Canaan Community Project

  • Homework: Finish Canaan Community Project
  • On This Day…
  • Work on Canaan Community Project

Day 25: Current Events and Unit Wrap-Up

  • Homework: Read for 30 Minutes
  • Weekly News Quiz
  • Explain and discuss one current event with the class
  • Collect Canaan Community Projects
  • Debrief Unit with Class
    • Have students complete student feedback survey
    • Ask students: What did you learn about communities from this unit?

Here is the Unit Plan document for the unit…

Unit Title: Our Community
Creator: Mark Holt
Grade Level: 6
Timeframe: Fall Term– Wednesday, September 13 – Thursday, October 19 (25 class days, double periods)
Essential Questions

  • What does it mean to be a part of a community?
  • What do we need to learn about a community in order to fully understand it?
  • How does what you learn about a community change your perception of a place?
Habits of Learning

    • Growth Mindset: The students will be challenged to take risks, fail, make mistakes, and try new strategies when writing, reading and discussing.  The students will need to be flexible in their thinking when approaching the strategies covered.  Thinking creatively will allow for new and unique ideas to be generated, which will in turn lead to deeper engagement and more genuine learning.
    • Self-Awareness: The students will need to be aware of their writing and reading abilities when choosing just-right books and crafting pieces of writing.  They will be challenged to move beyond their abilities so as to grow as readers, writers, and thinkers.
    • Coexistence: The students will work collaboratively with their peers when peer editing, discussing current events, discussing community, and discussing their reading.  They will be challenged to overcome obstacles faced when working with their peers.
    • Critical Thinking: The students will think critically when brainstorming writing, revising their writing, peer editing, discussing various topics in class discussions, and reflecting on their reading and writing.  They will be challenged to move beyond the concrete to the more abstract.
    • Communication: The students will need to effectively communicate with their peers and the teacher when writing, reading, and discussing.
    • Ownership: The students will be expected to take responsibility for their learning throughout this unit.  They will be challenged to self-check their work before turning it in to be assessed and graded.  They will need to be honest with themselves and the teachers when choosing appropriate just-right books.
    • Creativity: The students will be expected to craft an original and unique story based on their experiences climbing Mt. Cardigan at dawn and add their own original thoughts to class discussions.
Student Objectives, Skills, and Outcomes

Students will be able to:

  • Write about their reading.
  • Craft an original story, with a beginning, middle, and ending, based on a true account.
  • Revise their writing based on feedback.
  • Participate in class discussions.
  • Participate in field experiences.
  • Understand how a geographical place changes over time.
  • Create a visual representation of their knowledge regarding the Canaan community.
  • Review their work to be sure it includes all required parts.
Cross Curricular Connections

  • PEAKS:
    • Students will learn how to utilize a growth mindset when learning new information.
Instructional Strategies Utilized

  • Identifying similarities and differences
  • Homework and practice
  • Cooperative learning
  • Setting Objectives and Providing Feedback
Materials/Resources/Websites

Haiku Learning Website

Seedfolks Paul Fleischman

Canaan Community members

Assessments

  • To assess students’ ability to write about their reading, we will read and grade their specific reading updates posted on the Goodreads website.  They will complete one update a week and we will spend the first few days of classes explaining and modelling the expectations for an effective update.
  • To assess students’ ability to craft an original story with a beginning, middle, and ending and revise their writing based on feedback, we will read their unique story based on their experiences hiking Mt. Cardigan at dawn, paying close attention to their ability to effectively utilize writing structures and the writing process in terms of editing and revising their work based on feedback from their peers and the teachers.
  • To assess students’ ability to participate in class discussions, we will take copious notes during small group discussions regarding the read-aloud text and current events.  We will spend time at the start of the year explaining and modelling the expectations for effectively participating in class discussions.  We will provide the students with much feedback throughout the unit so that they fully understand what is expected of them regarding this objective as it will be woven into almost every unit covered throughout the year in Humanities class.
  • To assess students’ ability to participate in field experiences, we will grade their performance during our visit to the town museum as well as our Canaan Street walk.  They will be expected to appropriately add their relevant insight, thoughts, and questions to the discussion.  They will also be expected to take relevant notes on important facts and details.
  • To assess students’ ability to understand how a geographical place changes over time, create a visual representation of their knowledge regarding the Canaan community, and review their work to be sure it includes all required parts, the students will complete the Canaan Community Project, which will have them make a creative visual representation of what they learned regarding the Canaan community and it’s history.

Teaching Students to Enjoy Drama

Writing has always been one of my passions.  When I was struggling to deal with the death of my grandfather back in my teen years, I turned to writing to deal with and address my emotions and feelings.  I processed my grief, anger, and sadness by scribbling letters and words onto lined paper.  The weight I placed upon myself after my grandfather passed away, seemed to leave my body when the black pen chaotically danced upon the paper, revealing more of my true emotions and feelings.  Aside from music, writing was one of my main outlets.  It served a purpose that blossomed into a passion.  I love crafting creative stories, sculpting poems, and constructing expository pieces.  Writing has always been my jam, like the first song on Thursday’s Full Collapse album.

While I dabbled in multiple writing forms over the years, one genre I tried to avoid, like any country song ever made, was drama.  I just didn’t get plays.  What purpose do they really serve?  The character development is usually quite weak and the setting is so bland and gray.  I used to view plays as the unnecessary form of writing, like any movie starring Brad Pitt.  They seemed so mundane and artificial.  I just didn’t get drama.  So, as a teacher, I avoided teaching a play or even introducing the writing form for many years.  I let my bias of the art form influence my choices in the classroom.  Because I didn’t like plays, I would make sure that my students felt the same way.  Well, back then anyway.  Then, a co-teacher of mine from a few years ago opened my eyes to the genre.  “We should introduce drama to our students.  We should read a play altogether as a class,” she suggested.  So, as I valued her opinion, I listened.  I remembered reading the play 12 Angry Men by Reginald Rose many moons ago when I was in high school and not totally hating it, unlike any play ever penned by Shakespeare.  So, I grabbed a copy and refreshed my memory.  It was short and contained enough roles for every student in our class.  Plus, a few of the boys would have the opportunity to curse.  They’d like that.  So, we went with it.  The students loved it.  You would have thought we gave them an extra free period to play games.  They couldn’t get enough of it.  That was quite a few years ago, and I have taught this play ever since.  Each year the students in my class have a blast acting out and performing this play.  They love examining the symbolism of the eighth juror and the anger some of the men in the jury room possess.  So it seemed that my dislike of plays and drama started to transform into something else.  I’m not willing to say that I like plays now, but I do have space in my writing heart for the genre now.

As we completed reading 12 Angry Men in class earlier this week, I realized that we still had class time together prior to our March Break.  Instead of beginning our new unit on the Middle East Region, I decided to give the students a chance to try creating their own play.  As we analyzed Rose’s masterpiece over the past two weeks, I knew that the students understood the form of drama and how it works.  So, why not have them take a crack at writing their own play?  It seemed like a rather cutting edge idea.  I liked it.  So, I did it.

Today, I explained the assignment that laid ahead of them: “Now you have the chance to be like Reginald Rose.  You get to create your own play.  Perhaps you’ll want to rewrite a scene from 12 Angry Men or update it or maybe you’ll want to craft a parody of 12 Angry Men.  If none of those ideas seem to tickle your fancy, you could always craft an original play about something completely different.  You get to choose.  So, choose an idea that is exciting.  Pick a topic that will be fun for you to write.”  After fielding some questions, the students got right to work.  I could tell that some of the boys were very excited about the prospect of crafting their own play.  One of the students asked the class if it would be okay for him to use their names in his play.  The students gave him the big thumbs up.  While most of the students quickly whipped open their laptops and started feverishly typing as though their life depended on it, a few of the students sat, staring at a blank screen for many minutes.  No ideas seemed to come to them.  They were stuck.  Rather than provide them with ideas, I let them struggle through.  They were getting to what I like to call the sweet spot.  When students begin to struggle with a task or assignment, they either shut down, misbehave, sit motionless lost in thought, or persevere.  As long as students don’t have a meltdown in the classroom or start distracting their peers, I know they’ve hit the sweet spot.  The point at which the neurons in their brain begin to sizzle with creativity.  Sometimes, students stay stuck in this sweet spot for a while, until the right idea comes to them, but when it comes, oh man.  It’s awesome!  You can almost see the mental wheels begin to turn.  The creative juices flow through them like sweat from the brow of an athlete in the heat of competition.  After twenty minutes of staring at a blank computer screen, those three stuck students, found their idea.  They worked through the struggle to find that one special idea.  Then, even they couldn’t be stopped.  They kept writing and writing.  Some students had several pages of their original play finished by the end of the sixty minute work period.  They were on fire.

Many of the students were so excited by what they had begun to create, that they felt the need to share what they had with me or a peer.  During the Morning Break period, instead of taking a break to get a snack, use the restroom, or check their email, several of the students stayed in the classroom working on their play.  At that same time, I noticed a few of the students gathered around one student’s computer screen.  Usually, this means they are playing a game or doing something they shouldn’t be doing.  I waited a few moments before checking on the situation.  Giggling erupted from the group of students as they stared at the computer screen.  “What are they doing now?” I thought to myself.  Then, when I walked over to find out what was going on, I realized that they were reading a play that one of them had written.  It was titled 12 Angry Bunnies and was a parody of the play we had read.  Bunnies were in cage deliberating on a case involving another bunny.  It was quite original and funny.  The boys were so into this playwrighting exercise.  I was in awe.  The genre that once felt like a thorn in my side, was now being enjoyed by my students.  They had so much fun writing their own, unique masterpiece.  It was amazing.  My students were taking to drama like I took to Coheed and Cambria and City and Colour.  Was it me?  Did I help to inspire them?  I may be a really cool educator with a lot of fantastic talents, but an inspiration?  Really, I doubt it.  I think it was 12 Angry Men.  They enjoyed this play so much that it inspired them to want to create their own play.  When at first some of the students seemed stuck or even a little frustrated about having to write a play, they all ended the period enamored by this genre that I wouldn’t be surprised if some of them continued working on their play over the upcoming break.  Who knew that something I used to loathe could turn into a teachable moment and fun for my students.  Maybe I’ll some day learn to like country music and share my new love with my students.  Yah, no.  Country music is not for me and never will be.  Frankly, it should really not be for anyone, unless there are people out there who like when their ears bleed.

How Writer’s Workshop Allows Me to Differentiate My Instruction in the Classroom

At the beginning of each new academic year, students will exclaim, during our Writer’s Workshop introduction, how much they hate writing.  “I hate writing and I will never like it,” students are often heard saying during that first week of classes.  By the end of the year though, those same students can’t stop writing because they have grown to enjoy it so much.  The Writer’s Workshop approach to the teaching of writing provides students with freedom and choice.  They can write whatever they want based on a broad topic.  At the start of the year, we introduce students to the personal narrative style of writing and have them craft a personal narrative piece.  It can be fiction or truth, they get to decide.  It can tell the story of literally anything.  We want our students to play with writing and words so that they learn to see the fun that can be had while writing.  As most of our students have never experienced this style of writing instruction, they are usually so excited that they are able to choose what they write about.  It’s not that our students ever hated writing, they were just never provided opportunities to see how much fun writing can truly be.

Today in Humanities class, the students had one final Writer’s Workshop block to work on their most current writing piece.  Throughout our unit on Africa, we had the students begin working on three different writing pieces based on our mini-lessons.  From those three pieces, they chose their very favorite to finish and bring through the writing process.  We’ve spent this whole week working on this process in Writer’s Workshop, and today was the final chance for students to receive feedback from their peers and teachers.  While a few students had already finished their piece prior to today, most students had not.  Those students who had finished, spent the period reading or completing other work.  They were focused on the task at hand while the other students polished their Africa writing piece.  Some of the boys sought feedback from their peers while my co-teacher and I conferenced with the others.  It was so great to have one-on-one conferences with each of the students.  I asked them what kind of feedback they were looking for.  “What do you want me to look for while I’m reading your piece?  What kind of feedback would you like?” I would ask them at the start of the conference.  I then asked them, “How would you like me to provide you with this feedback?  Shall I comment in your Google Doc, tell you the feedback orally, or write my suggestions at the end of your piece?  What method will work best for you?”  I want to make sure that I am tailoring the conference to meet the needs of my students.  Every student was looking for something different.  Some students wanted me to help them with their grammar while others wanted me to be sure they used enough details from our mini-lessons in their piece.  These conferences were so individual and unique.  It offered me the chance to praise my students, notice their growth as writers, and provide them meaningful feedback to help them grow and develop as writers.  During these conferences, the other students were focused and diligently working on making their pieces even better so that they could exceed each of the three graded objectives.  It was an amazing period filled with beautiful writing, excellent questions, quality feedback, and hard work.  I was so impressed with my students.  They continue to amaze me on a daily basis.

Now, getting the students to the point at which we are currently in the classroom takes much time.  Our first few Writer’s Workshop blocks are filled with learning opportunities.  Some students write for about 10 minutes and then move onto another task.  Helping the boys learn to develop their stamina as writers takes time.  During our first go-round at peer editing, the students give and receive very little feedback that is at all useful.  They focus on the font size or color.  They don’t analyze the writing to see that adding more depth to the character would help move the story forward faster.  All of these little details about writing and what an effective Writer’s Workshop should look like takes much time and effort.  We do much modelling for the students on how to provide quality feedback, utilize feedback provided by others, stay focused on writing for long periods of time, self-edit and revise their own work, and generate writing ideas.  After several months of mini-lessons and practice, the students get to the point that we were able to witness first hand today in the classroom.  The students know what to do and how to do it and so they just do it.  They write, edit, peer edit, revise, conference, talk about writing, and really work to make their writing stronger and more detailed.

Observing an effective Writer’s Workshop in action is quite the amazing sight.  It almost feels like you are in a tiny cafe in a city where writers sit and work all day, drinking coffee, writing, and talking about writing.  Fostering this love of writing and care for others takes much time and energy but is so worth it.  Because I am able to meet with every student and not worry about what the others are doing as I know they are focused and on track, I am able to differentiate my instruction to meet the needs of each individual student.  I make sure to pay extra close attention to grammar when I am conferencing with my ESL students.  I also do some teaching during these conferences too as I notice recurring mistakes.  For my more advanced writers, I focus on the nuances of writing like plot holes, character development, and setting.  I challenge those authors to focus on revising the bigger parts of their writing.  These conferences provide me this time to really focus my instruction for each student so that I can be sure they are prepared for the rigors of seventh grade English.

Using the Writer’s Workshop method to teach writing has not only made me a better teacher, but it has helped my students learn to find the enjoyment in writing.  By June, my students love writing and enjoy talking to their peers about it.  This method of instruction also allows me to make sure that my students are accurately applying the skills discussed and practiced during our mini-lessons.  Differentiating the instruction is crucial to helping students be and feel successful, and Writer’s Workshop is one easy way to create opportunities to do just that in the classroom.

Why I Love Teaching Sixth Grade

On this day of love, I find myself in a loving and reflective mood.  I am so grateful that I have been allowed to create such a strong sixth grade program over my years here at Cardigan.  Because the administrators at my school have faith in my abilities as an educator, I have been able to take risks, try new things, fail, try other new things, and develop a sixth grade program that best suits the needs of each of my students.  So, to celebrate this great freedom and amazing program I’ve been able to create over the years, I’ve devoted today’s blog entry to discussing the sixth grade program.

Introduction

Going through the adolescent stage of development is like being on a roller coaster without a seat belt.  When you flip upside down, you fall out of your seat unless you are holding on with everything you’ve got.  Each benchmark within adolescence brings new turns, curves, and loops.  Working with adolescent boys is like trying to dodge raindrops.  You can’t avoid the inevitable.  Craziness and chaos will ensue.  But heck, that’s why middle school teachers work with this age group.  We’re a little crazy too because we remember what it was like to be this age.

At Cardigan, we make it our mission to mold young boys into compassionate and mindful young men.  It’s a wild and sometimes frustrating journey, but we wouldn’t have it any other way.  Boys who attend sixth grade at Cardigan begin this adventure earlier than most as it is the youngest and smallest grade at our school.  Because of this, we have created a very unique  program that will help our boys foster a family spirit and connection that they carry with them throughout their time at Cardigan; to help provide them with some safety features on the bumpy roller coaster of adolescence.

Rationale

Brain-based research on how learning really happens reveals that students learn best when they are engaged, motivated, feel safe, are challenged and supported.  The sixth grade program has greatly evolved over the years due to this research and, as sixth grade teachers, we are always trying to find new and innovative ways to inspire and effectively educate and prepare our boys for meaningful lives in a global society.

Our Philosophy: We’re a family, and families take care of each other

The first ten weeks of the academic year are focused on building a strong family atmosphere amongst the students.  One of our biggest goals in the sixth grade is to foster a sense of family within the boys.  We want the students to understand and be able to effectively coexist with one another in a way that celebrates their differences.  First, as teachers, we model the behavior we expect to see from the students.  Second, we spend time each week talking about what makes an effective community.  We have the students share personal information about themselves including interests, hobbies, sports, and social identifiers.  We help the boys examine all parts of their personality that remain hidden to most of the world.  In exploring this, the students begin to think deeply and critically about themselves and how they fit into the world.  They also have a chance to share this information with their peers.  While making them vulnerable, it helps the boys make deep connections with each other.  We provide the students with specific strategies on how to communicate with their peers effectively, how to solve problems amongst themselves, and how to work together as a team to accomplish tasks.  We utilize numerous team building activities as catalysts for these mini-lessons: The boys build spaghetti towers in small groups, create a scavenger hunt with a partner, and solve various tasks that provide opportunities to practice and learn how to be effective teammates.  We want the boys to understand what it takes to be Cardigan community member.  

During the first month of school, we take the boys on an overnight trip to our school’s CORE cabin to help build a sense of family and community within the boys.  While the location of the cabin is on our campus, it feels very like it could be miles away.  We build a fire together and then roast marshmallows.  We tell stories, play games, and interact as a family.  If problems arise, we take the time to help the students learn how to work together to solve them.  It’s an amazing experience that helps lay the groundwork for future whole-class experiences we will provide the boys with throughout our year together.

Towards the end of the first term, we put our teamwork and family to the test with a three-day trip to an outdoor center in southern New Hampshire.  The focus of the trip is teamwork.  The students work together to solve problems, accomplish tasks, and have fun learning about how to survive in the wilderness.  It’s always one of the big highlights for the sixth grade boys.  They will never forget how they overcame their fears and learned to help and support their classmates in new and fun ways.

Co-Teaching

While our class size fluctuates from one year to the next, in recent years we’ve had a smaller sixth grade class.  A tight-knit team of two lead teachers is the most effective method for our program.  We plan, grade, and teach together.  Having another person to bounce ideas off of allows for more ideas to come to fruition.  As units are developed, we work together to generate engaging lessons.  With two people working together to complete this process, ideas can be built upon and added to.  Good ideas become great ideas.  Grading together allows for conversations about objectives and work.  How can we create objective objectives that don’t allow room for interpretation?  Having two teachers in the room for classes allows the students to be fully supported, and those students who need one-on-one time have the chance to receive it with two teachers in the classroom.  We can conference with students more effectively during humanities class and the boys are able to safely conduct investigations in STEM class.  We constantly model effective teamwork skills for the boys so that they see what we expect from them.  Co-teaching has fostered a sense of compassion in the classroom.  In order to create a family atmosphere amongst the students, we need to be able to effectively care for them, and  with two trained educators in the room, we can more effectively challenge, support, and ensure the safety of each and every sixth grade student in our class.

Classroom Organization

In order to help foster a sense of engagement in the classroom and to allow our students to feel as though they can focus on the lesson or activity at hand, our classroom is organized in a very specific manner.  

We have a reading nook area for small group work, independent reading, and movie viewing when appropriate.  The boys can sit or lie on the carpet squares in any way that allows them to feel engaged and focused.  We also have a small group work table for those students who need to be sitting to work and stay focused.  The desk table area is towards the front of the classroom near our interactive board and projector.  We use whiteboard tables to allow the students the opportunity to take notes, brainstorm, solve math problems, or just doodle upon them while working or listening.

We instituted this change just this year and it has made a huge difference.  We also use rocking style chairs at the desk work area to allow those students who need to move and stay focused.  These chairs help create a sense of calm and focus in the classroom during full group instruction lessons.  While every student is rocking, they are able to pay attention and listen intently.

These classroom organizational choices are based on the neuroscience of learning.  Students are able to genuinely learn the concepts and skills covered when they feel safe, engaged, and motivated.  The classroom furniture we use and the spaces we’ve created help our students to learn in a meaningful way.

Curriculum

Our goal is for our boys to feel connected to and engaged with the curriculum we employ in the sixth grade.  We want the students to enjoy coming to classes because they are excited and interested in what is happening.  We are constantly revising and updating what we do and how we do it, and because of this, our curriculum is a living and breathing entity.

Humanities

In our humanities class, the students develop their critical thinking skills to become community-minded young men with an awareness of the world around them.  We begin the year with a unit on community so that they learn to accept and appreciate differences in others.  Through completing various activities during the first two weeks of the academic year, the students begin to understand how they fit into our sixth grade family as well as the greater Cardigan community.  The boys also learn much about their peers through this first unit.  Everything else we work on throughout the year in humanities class builds upon this foundation we create at the start of the year.  

The humanities class occupies a double block period that covers both the history and English curriculum for the sixth grade.  This integrated approach allows students to see how the big ideas in History and English go hand in hand.  We cover various communities and cultures from around the world so that we can provide the students with a macro view of the world in a micro manner.  Our goal is to help the students understand perspective and how it can change based on many different factors.  We utilize the workshop model of literacy instruction so that a love of reading and writing is fostered within the boys throughout the year.

For Reader’s Workshop, the students choose just-right (engaging, grade-level and reading-level appropriate) books so that they are interested in what they are reading.  While at the start of the year, several students often seem uninterested in reading, they grow to become voracious and excited readers because the boys can choose books, novels, texts, and e-books that interest and engage them.

For Writer’s Workshop, the students choose the topics about which they write within the confines of the genre requirements.  The vignette form of writing is the first genre covered in the sixth grade.  Rather than mandate that it be a personal narrative vignette, we allow the students to choose the topic.  This choice and freedom empowers the students.  “I can write a short story about anything?” we often hear our students exclaim.  For boys, writing is generally not something they enjoy doing.  They would much rather go outside and play or explore instead of writing.  We want our students to see writing as something that can be fun and hands-on.  If we allow our students to write about topics that engage them, a sense of excitement develops within them.

STEM Class

An effective way to bring science to life is to create a Science Technology Engineering and Math (STEM) class.  Students have difficulty seeing how the different math and science puzzle pieces fit together.  They also struggle with the math concepts when they aren’t applied in realistic ways that make sense to them. Helping the students build neurological connections between prior knowledge and what they learn in our classroom is one of the many ways we make our program meaningful for our students.

Our STEM class teaches students to persevere.  They learn how to overcome adversity, think differently, see problems from numerous perspectives, communicate effectively, and be curious. We teach students what to do when faced with a new problem. As Angela Lee Duckworth stated in her well-received TED Talk, we need to teach our students how to be gritty. Our sixth graders are provided with opportunities to explore, try new things, fail, try again, talk with their peers, sketch out new ideas, and then do it all over again.

Our STEM curriculum holds the bar high for our students. Rigor doesn’t mean that we require more work to be done for the sake of doing it, it means that the standards and objectives we are teaching are challenging, specific, and relevant. Our STEM units challenge students to think creatively and solve problems in innovative ways. The Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) and Common Core Math Standards (CCSS) are the foundation of our STEM curriculum. These standards promote rigor and problem solving in fun and engaging ways.

PEAKS Class

At Cardigan, while we weave study skills into every course that we teach, we have one class devoted to supplementing and supporting every other core subject: Personalized Education for the Acquisition of Knowledge and Skills (PEAKS).  The true purpose of the course is to help the students understand how they best learn, metacognition.  Through self-inventories and mini-lessons on learning styles and the multiple intelligences at the start of the year, the boys begin to become self-aware of their own learning styles and preferences.  Much reflection is also completed throughout the year so that the boys have a chance to observe their strengths and weakness and set goals to work toward.  They also document this learning process in an e-portfolio that they continuously update throughout the year.  Beginning the year in this way, allows the students to focus on the process of learning and how being self-aware will help them grow and develop.  During the winter term, students learn about brain plasticity and how their working memory functions as a way to build upon their self-awareness and genuinely own their learning.  This course supports and challenges each and every student where and when they need it.

Homework

Student engagement isn’t confined within the walls of the classroom.  What the students do or don’t do outside of the classroom can be equally important.  If students aren’t seeing the relevance or value in their homework assignments, then we’ve lost them.  In the sixth grade, we approach homework in the same manner we approach everything.  It’s all about choice and engagement.  We want the students to further practice the skills learned in the classroom in a captivating way that allows them to continue learning and growing as a student.  Homework is not graded and assessed purely for effort.  If we want our students to practice, fail, try again, and continue to practice, then we must not grade this practice work.  Plus, since the students are completing the work outside of the classroom, it is difficult to know who is doing the work and how it is being done.  Are the boys getting assistance from peers, teachers, or parents to complete the work?  While we promote this self-help approach, grading the individual students on work when we don’t know exactly how the work was completed.  Most of the homework assigned is a continuation of what was worked on in class.  

For example, in humanities class, we do much writing and reading.  So, a typical homework assignment is to read from their Reader’s Workshop book for 30 minutes.  As they choose their Reader’s Workshop books based on ability and interest level, the engagement is already there.  Plus, this practice allows them to increase their reading stamina so that they are prepared for the reading demands of seventh grade.  Homework assignments shouldn’t be separate, stand-alone tasks that overly challenge the students.  Developmentally, by the time the sixth graders get to evening study hall at 7:30 p.m. they are exhausted and unable to focus for a long period of time in order to effectively process information and solve problems.  You might say that our homework assignments complement the classroom curriculum the way a beautiful brooch can bring out the colors of a flowing dress.

Project-Based Learning

To prepare students for lives in the global society in which they will live and work, we teach our students how to effectively work in groups to solve open-ended problems with no right or wrong answer. Students need to know how to delegate tasks, lead groups of their peers, follow instructions, ask questions, and solve problems. Project Based Learning ties all of the aforementioned skills together with ribbons of the required curriculum. While the students are engaged with the content and hands-on aspects of the project, they are also learning crucial life skills that will help them persevere and learn to overcome adversity.

Standards-Based Assessment

To help our students adopt learning skills necessary to grow and develop as critical thinkers and problem solvers, we use a standards-based system of grading. The focus is on the standard or objective being assessed. If our curriculum is set up according to the standards, why should we grade the students on anything other than what the curriculum asks? If we are teaching paragraph structure and the standard is, students will be able to craft an original, properly formatted, and complete paragraph, then we should only be grading student work on that one standard using a scale that aligns with the school’s grading criteria? Points must not be taken away for spelling, grammar, or other reasons unless the paragraph is being assessed regarding those standards as well. Rick Wormeli and other leading educational reform leaders have been talking about standards-based grading for years. It is the only way to accurately grade students on what is essential.

In this vein, we also want the students to understand that learning is a process.  Education is like a living organism.  Our students will grow, change, regress, and evolve throughout the year.  As we expect and want our students to meet or exceed all of the objectives covered so that we know they will be fully prepared for seventh grade, we allow students to redo work that doesn’t meet the graded objectives.  The boys are allowed to redo all and any work for a unit until the unit has finished.  They can seek help from the teachers and utilize any feedback we provide to them in order to showcase their ability to meet or exceed the objectives.  This grading system is dynamic and can be changed to allow for the students to employ a growth mindset and truly own their learning.

Conclusion

At Cardigan, we prepare students for an unknown future in a world that will inevitably be very different from its current state.  Because of this, in the sixth grade, we have devised over many years of data collection, research, and practice, to develop a strong and creative academic and social program that engages students in an applicable curriculum that teaches problem solving, critical thinking, coexistence, and how to manifest and utilize a growth mindset.  Students who attend Cardigan Mountain School starting in the sixth grade and then go onto graduate at the close of their ninth grade year receive a meaningful and rich experience.  They grow up together, and, in turn, a family atmosphere and spirit is created within that group of four-year boys.  While it can be challenging at times to be a sixth grade student at Cardigan, our inclusive program helps the boys feel safe and connected within a special family known as the sixth grade.