Continuing on my quest to improve the opinion writing in my classroom, I used some time this afternoon to discuss boring writing.
You’ve all seen it: the words on on the page (or the screen), they are accurate, they tell what the author intended, and they are to the point. But they are also so incredibly dull!
I gave my students an example:
I like tacos. They are yummy. They are easy to make. They are nutritious.
Just like yesterday, I asked my students to rate my writing on a scale of one to five, with one being “well, at least you wrote something. even if it doesn’t make the least bit of sense!” and five being “ohmygoodnessthisisthemostamazingwritingIhaveeverseen! IamsoexcitedthatIcan’tevenstopforpausesbetweenmywords!” At first I had students who said that my paragraph should receive a one. When questioned further, though, they changed their minds and said it deserved at least a two or even a three. Here were their reasons:
- The author’s position was clear.
- The author provided three solid reasons to support his argument.
- The author used proper conventions, such as spelling, capitalisation, and punctuation.
But at the same time, my students all looked at that paragraph and knew it could be better. So I asked them to help me out. I gave them the topic sentence, then they came up with the rest.
I have lived across the United States, I have visited Canada, and I have even lived in Australia. Of all the many different kinds of food I have eaten, tacos are still among my favourites! One reason I love tacos is that their juiciness is so yummy! Another reason I love tacos is because they are so easy to make. Finally, tacos are incredibly nutritious, with all of the food groups wrapped in one delicious package.
The students all agreed that this was a much more effective introduction. Just as we were finishing this, Miss C happened to stop by. We asked her to read our introduction and tell us what she thought. I think her response perfectly captured the kind of feedback we all want from our readers. She said, “Wow! I think I’m going to go get some tacos before I finish reading this!”
I left my paragraph up on the board so my students could refer to it as they worked on their own powerful introductions. I am sure that some used the same words I did, but that’s okay. That is why I had them help me write it. I want them to use my words and make them their own, adding their voices to the writing.
Tomorrow we will begin tackling the body paragraphs, focusing on using evidence and reason to support our arguments.
But first, I am going to make tacos for dinner tonight.
My students have a lot of deeply held beliefs about right and wrong, good and bad, preferred and not preferred. They are developing their sense of collective and individual justice and fairness. They frequently share these opinions with me, with other teachers, with parents, and with peers.
However, they don’t always make the strongest arguments.
A common argument I hear in my classroom is simply, “That’s not fair!” When I ask why, the response is typically, “It just isn’t! I wanted to do that and you said no!” (There are often multiple exclamation marks in these arguments that often border on quarreling.) I often calmly and matter-of-factly reply that fairness does not always mean “the same” and there may be a reason one student is permitted to do something that another is not.
As we move into the last month of school, I’ve decided to use Lucy Calkins’s Writers Workshop framework to organise my instruction on writing opinion pieces. My main goal is simply for my students to learn how to express the ideas clearly and well. Before starting the unit, I wanted to get a baseline of their current level, so I picked a topic that I knew would bring out their passion: I told them that our principal was considering canceling the end-of-the-year kickball game and colour run and that the students had to write letters to her explain why she should or shouldn’t.
What I was looking for was a clearly stated opinion, at least three supporting statements, and a conclusion. Some students did this very well, some didn’t do it at all, and most of them did part of it.
So today we started with breaking down the writing process. The first step I decided to teach was picking a topic. This can be easy: make a list of things you care strongly about and keep it handy! Some of the topics the students brought up were video games, homework, music, movies, books, games, recess, sports, etc. The next step was outlining the essay itself. I selected a topic of personal interest and first wrote up a quick opinion piece about it:
I like tacos because they are yummy and I think you should like tacos, too, because then you will agree that they are yummy also.
I asked if this was a well-written opinion piece and asked the students to rate it on a scale of 1 to 5. Most gave it a one or a two. They pointed out that even though it was a run-on sentence, it stated my postion and gave at least one reason. But they also all agreed that my opinion wasn’t very strong.
So then I had then help me outline my piece to make it clearer. Here is what the final outline looked like:
After outlining my essay, I had each student pick a topic of their own and make their own outline. Then they could begin working on an early draft. I will share my own early draft with the class tomorrow and have them help me improve my piece until we have a strong essay that clearly explains why I like tacos.
The Internet at our house is down for some reason, so today’s post will have to wait until tomorrow. (This post is being written and updated by way of my phone, but there is no way I am going to do a full update like this!)
I apologise for any inconvenience this may cause.
Today I was a Family & Consumer Sciences teacher at Mahomet-Seymour High School. I have been very fortunate to have teaching assignments nearly every single working day for the past two months. In fact, so far I have had only one working day without an assignment. My schedule for this week is almost completely filled–I just have to find something for Wednesday. Why have I been so lucky? I’m not sure, really. It may be because the districts actually put a halt to hiring new subs for the year. (Interesting aside: one of my districts employs 200 substitute teachers, even though they only use, on average, 60 subs a day. Not sure why they have so many extras, unless it is just really that hard to find a sub some days.) But I think it may also be because I am willing to accept just about anything.
Which is why I accepted the aforementioned Family & Consumer Sciences assignment despite the very obvious fact that I had no clue what that entailed. I mentioned it at dinner last night, and learned that Family & Consumer Sciences is the modern name for what used to be known as Home Economics, or just Home-Ec.
Little known fact about myself (well, little known to those who don’t know me incredibly well): I never took any vocational education courses in high school. Even the one state-required course that falls under that category, Consumer Economics, was not taken, because I managed to test out of it my Freshman year. (I think that business classes are part of vocational education… Please correct me if I am wrong!) I had friends who took courses through the vocational ed program. I have a former classmate who is now teaching vocational ed at our high school. But I was very much the hard-core band/choir/drama geek who loaded his schedule each semester with math, science, language, social studies, and band/choir/drama. If I’d had an extra hour or two to the day, maybe I would have dipped my toes into the vocational pool, but probably not. It just wasn’t my area of interest.
So, armed with my complete lack of knowledge of this field, I went off to Mahomet-Seymour High School today wondering what on earth I’d be doing. The first class of the day was Food and Nutrition. I walked them through an introduction to a unit on eggs–Hey, I can handle that! I was an eggs-to-order cook for a few years while at the University of Illinois!–and that was that. The next class was Cooking & Culinary Arts. We watched a video clip of Good Eats starring Alton Brown. So far, so good.
Then we got to the Life Skills class. Um, okay… I think. We went to the computer lab and they spent the period finding articles online about positive peer pressure, negative peer pressure, and filling out a worksheet to compare/contrast the two. Oh, and they had to print out the articles. Except that the printer ran out of paper and instead of waiting for it to get refilled, they just kept hitting print. So several articles got printed about a dozen times. Oh, and someone tried to print an article but instead of highlighting the relevant portion, he or she just hit print and printed off a 34-page document, 32 pages of which were a list of the blog articles that had been published. Whoops.
And then we got to the area that left me completely baffled: Early Childhood Practicum. With two class periods at our disposal, we went into the bizarre basement computer lab so they could have a “work” day. (This is the computer lab that has film projectors and other antiquities lying around.) One boy seemed to be working on something that may or may not have been a relevant project. The only other boy in the class spent the two periods on funnyjunk.com (he didn’t click on anything inappropriate, though). The girls all seemed to be shopping for prom dresses and checking out hairstyles that can do, despite the fact that prom is in five days.
It turns out that the girls were working on their projects, though. One of them is doing a wedding planning project, and, after browsing dresses, turned to cakes. Aha! I know about cakes! I suggested she check out the Sunday Sweets segment of Cake Wrecks. Victory!
Now if only I could figure out what the rest of them were supposed to be doing all day…
Last night, or, more likely, early this morning, I had a dream that I missed a teaching assignment at Washington Middle School in Ottawa, Illinois. Here’s the thing:
- I don’t teach in Ottawa.
- They don’t have a Washington Middle School. (They do, however, have a Jefferson Elementary, a Lincoln Elementary, and a McKinley Elementary, but none of those are the correct president. Oh, and they aren’t middle school. The middle school in Ottawa is Shepherd).
- Even if I did and they did, the district is, like most other districts (except my little sister’s, apparently), are on Winter Break right now.
There were other strange elements to the dream. I had apparently thought the assignment was at Washington Middle School in Washington, Illinois, which is where I grew up. I had initially gone to the old building where I had gone to middle school, but the building is now owned by the park district, since the school district upgraded to a new building several years ago. I thought the assignment was from 1:00-2:30 pm, which is a ridiculous assignment, but it was actually from 8:00-9:00 am, which is even more ridiculous. Also, my wife was dropping me off at work. Never mind the fact that Washington is a good hour and a half away from where we live. Oh, and she had apparently stopped on the side of the road in front of some guy’s garage, and he got really upset and started yelling and screaming at her for blocking his drive, because he had to go around the van (we were in the van we sold about a year ago) to put his trash can away. Then a police officer popped his head in the window and told her that she could park “over there” (a location that actually made sense to me). All this while, I was using the Google Maps app on my phone, along with the online substitute assignment site, to discover that I had completely missed the assignment and had gone to the wrong school, the wrong district, the wrong city, and even the wrong county. At some point in the dream, I had thought that maybe I was supposed to be at the Washington Middle School in Peoria, Illinois, which is a town close to Washington.
I can only assume that this is a form of madness that comes to teachers who have not been teaching for a while, but wish they were. The fact that I actually looked up information for the Ottawa Elementary District 141 in order to verify all of this only contributes to the madness that are my dreams. The strangest part of all, though, is that I generally don’t dream. I tend to think in my sleep. When I do dream, the dreams are short and vague. This was long and vivid and detailed. Enough so that I woke up actually nervous that I had botched up an assignment!
Good thing I am on break!