Tag Archives: language arts

Why Kids Write Boring Essays (it’s not the reason you think)

14 Mar

English: A bored person

Have you ever sat down and said to yourself, “You know what I’d like to do right now? Sit down with a nice, thick stack of five-paragraph essays written by local sixth graders. What a fabulous way to spend an afternoon that would be!”

If you’re like most people, then the answer to that question is an emphatic no. Five-paragraph essays, particularly ones by kids, are notoriously dull and poorly written, right? Don’t kids hate writing? Shouldn’t we be proud to squeeze five reasonably organized paragraphs out of them?

Not at all! I love reading my kids’ essays and, in fact, have been known to spend a cozy afternoon or two re-reading them.

The real reason that kids write boring essays is so simple it hurts: kids write boring essays because they think that essays are supposed to be boring. They are shown boring examples and given boring topics. Kids are asked to choose theses, but never to pick a topic that makes them angry, or to write about an opinion that all their friends disagree with. No one tells them that it is okay to make jokes in an essay, or to use interesting extended metaphors.

If my kids are writing something boring, I make them stop and start over again until they have a thesis that gets them excited. I’ve had a lot of success teaching essay-writing via satire; I’ve had kids write essays with titles like “Why Boys Should Wear as Much Makeup as Girls” and “Why You Should Wear a Helmet in the Hood”–and they are a fabulous read. For the lesson plan and example essays, you can order a copy of the Deep curriculum here.

How do you get your kids to write interesting essays? I’d love to hear your ideas!

Top 4 Reasons Kids Get Totally Confused in Class (and handy tricks for avoiding it)

26 Feb

English: Question marks with transparent backg...

 

We’ve all had that moment before: we think we’ve explained something brilliantly. The kids are nodding and smiling. Our examples were charming and relevant. We know that our kids absolutely understand the concept.

 

And then we ask them to get to work and…it turns out they have no idea what they are supposed to do!

 

Here are a few of the most common reasons this happens:

 

1. You aren’t clearly outlining your goals and agenda. I never go to the movies without watching a preview first, I never order a new dish without reading the description on the menu, and I never book a plane ticket without researching the city I want to visit. Why on earth should I expect my kids to dive into a lesson before they have any idea what it’s about, or where it will take them? The easiest, quickest, most effective way to get  kids on board and invested in your lesson is to spend a little time at the beginning explaining what you are going to do that day and why.

 

2. You are using think-y verbs, rather than action verbs. The most confusing thing you can possibly do is tell your kids to “think about” or “imagine” or “explore” or “look into” or “consider” something. It all sounds very inspiring and academic, but kids have no idea what these verbs really mean (and honestly, neither do I). Ask them to do things that you can physically see them achieve: write, act out, discuss, measure, underline.

 

3. You aren’t scaffolding. Often, tasks that seem obvious to us are actually really complicated to people who are new at them. For example: “take notes” seems easy to adults, but what we’re really asking kids to do is “listen to what I am saying while simultaneously sifting through the information for the most salient points (which you need a lot of context and expertise to determine) while also writing down these salient points in an organized and meaningful fashion using standard outline format.” Take every task–even seemingly simple ones–and break it down into a list of its component parts.  If you aren’t sure that your kids know how to do each and every step, take the time to teach it to them!

 

4. You are using words they don’t know. You wouldn’t believe how often this happens; it’s easy to forget that some kids haven’t been exposed to words like “compare” before. Luckily, this kind of confusion can be avoided by simply asking kids to repeat your explanations back to them in their own words. If they can’t do it, then go back to find the culprit word and add it to your word wall.

 

Have you ever accidentally confused your kids? What happened and how did you fix it? I’d love to hear your ideas.

 

Top 3 Reasons Kids Hate Writing (And How to Change Their Minds)

28 Nov

Writing

So many teachers tell me that their students hate to write, but I don’t believe that. (More on that here.) When students say they hate writing, what they really mean is this:

1. They don’t think they can write.

2. They are not allowed to write about what interests them.

3. They are not allowed to write in their own voice.

 

Luckily, all three of these have straightforward fixes.

1. Offer your students lots of opportunities to succeed at a writing task, and praise them loudly when they do. This can be as simple as starting every week with a fill-in-the-blank metaphor contest (“Mondays are a….”) or as involved as creating a pen pal program where your students write letters to each other every week. Try to give at least three pieces of praise or encouragement for every piece of criticism.

2. Give your kids as many chances as you can to choose their own topics for writing assignments. While learning to write on assigned topics is important, so is learning to invent topics and brainstorm ideas. Try to give students at least one “free” writing assignment (poetry, journals, letters) for every topic-driven essay assignment.

3. Give your kids opportunities to write in their own voices, with their own spelling and punctuation rules. While learning to write in standard academic English is important, so is learning to find your voice and distinguish “home talk” from “school talk.” Give your kids free writes and creative assignments in which they can write in whatever voice they like, without being criticized for non-standard English. This even includes allowing slang or profanity, if the student feels that this is the best way to express his or her ideas. (I have some advice for dealing with that here.)
How do you get your kids excited about writing? I’d love to hear your ideas!

 

The Worst Question You Can Ask a Student

14 Nov
Question mark

Question mark (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The worst, most annoying, most pointless question that you can possibly ask a student is also, hilariously, probably the most common question in classrooms today:

“Do you understand?”

It seems innocuous enough–it’s important to make sure that your students are keeping up, after all–but let’s look at the effect that this seemingly harmless question actually has on students:

  • If your students do understand, then this question will likely seem patronizing and annoying.
  • If your students do not understand, then this question will make them feel stupid and helpless.
  • If your students misunderstand, then they will remain blissfully ignorant of that misunderstanding and continue to make the same mistake for a long time.

Some other questions that have a similarly detrimental effect are:

  • “Do you have any questions?” (Students, particularly young ones, rarely know how to phrase their confusion in terms of a specific question.)
  • “So we all agree that [fill in the blank here with whatever idea you want them to believe].”
  • “So we’re ready to move on?”
  • “What do you guys not understand?” (Again, if they knew what they didn’t understand, they’d probably have come to understand it by now.)

So what should we do instead? Ask students to demonstrate their knowledge in some specific way. Rather than saying, “Do we all understand what Esperanza is trying to say in this passage?” try saying, “Everybody circle a sentence that shows you what Esperanza thinks of Nenny and then write your own sentence about what you think it means. Share your sentences with your neighbor and see if you both came up with the same answer for what Esperanza thinks of Nenny.”

Then, you can see if yourself if your students are ready to move on. If they aren’t, you’ll have a lot of data to help you figure out what they missed, and how you can help them learn it.

How do you make sure that your students understand what you are teaching? What’s worked well in your classroom? I’d love to hear your ideas!

 

How Much Does a Story Matter?

7 Nov

Watch to see how writing and sharing a story affects a kid–and find out what you can do to help more kids share their stories.

How a 30-second exercise can save you 15 minutes or more

31 Oct

English: I am the author and the source of the...

 

Imagine that you have a choice of running in one of two races. In one race, the ref tells you, “It’s a 100-yard dash. See that finish line down there? Run until you pass it.”

 

In the other race, the ref says, “Run until I tell you to stop.”

 

Which race would you rather run in?

 

If you’re like most people, you’d prefer the first race because having a clear finish line makes the race seem exciting and achievable. Having no finish line makes the race seem daunting and annoying. It also makes you hate the referee.

 

Likewise, your students will be excited to work if they see the finish line clearly. If they know exactly what the class is about and precisely what they will learn by the end of the day, then they will be chomping at the bit to get started. If they don’t know what they are going to learn or how they are going to demonstrate that learning, then they are going to feel confused, aimless, and annoyed.

 

Try this 30-second exercise at the beginning of class each day, and I can guarantee you that it will save you up to 15 minutes of lost time in questions, foot-dragging, and misbehavior:

 

Write the day’s “finish line” up on the board before the students enter the room. (Make sure it’s a clear action that you expect the students to complete–“We will define topic sentence and write at least four topic sentences” is much better than “We will learn about topic sentences.”) Have a kid read the goal aloud and run a 30-second discussion on what the goal means.

 

It’s that simple. I guarantee that if you do it every day, kids will start coming into your class automatically excited, purposeful, and curious. And if you ever forget to write the finish line up on the board, your kids will definitely remind you.

 

After all, we all love the rush of crossing a finish line.

 

 

 

The Biggest Mistake New Writing Teachers Make

10 Oct

 

When someone is new to teaching creative writing, you’ll often hear them say things like this:

“I want my students to be free in their writing.”

“I don’t want to limit them.”

“I want them to express themselves creatively, without rules or constraints.”

These are all admirable goals from great new teachers–and I said all of these things myself not very long ago–but I still cringe when I hear them. New writing teachers often misunderstand how freedom and creativity are best encouraged, and our desire to let our students be “free” is usually more of a hindrance than a help.

Most people assume–understandably so–that broad, open-ended prompts are the best way to give kids freedom. By asking kids to “write about a memory” or “express something that is important to you” they believe that they are giving kids room to flex their creative muscles.

In reality, though, open-ended prompts encourage kids to rely on clichés and “safe” answers, rather than pushing them to dig deeper for unique, creative ideas.

Imagine watching an improv comedy show. In one scene, the actors are told, “Okay, make up a scene.”

In another scene, they are told, “You are in a doctor’s office. One of you is holding a pineapple. The other one has to say ‘My monkey is missing!’ at some point. Neither one of you is allowed to use the word ‘the.'”

Which scene do you think will end up being more creative? More artistically free and interesting? More rewarding to the actors when they pull it off?

The same goes for writing–if you want your kids to be free and creative, try giving them a bunch of interesting rules to follow. This will push them to abandon the “safe” answers and explore what makes their brains really unique. Here are some examples of rules that have worked well for my kids:

– Include at least one smell, two sounds, and a description of a texture

– Include at least one simile, one metaphor, and a symbolic object

– At some point, one of your characters has to say. “That’s a terrible idea.”

What rules would you give your kids to help them be creative? I’d love to hear them!

How “Straightening Kids Out” Actually Cripples Them

27 Sep

I started a new Deep workshop with 6th grade students at a local middle school the other day. It was supposed to be a simple day—fill out some surveys, introduce ourselves, go over procedures—but it turned out to be one of the most frustrating hours of my life.

Not because of the kids—they are hilarious, and I adore them, and I called their parents to tell them so—but because of how the kids were used to being disciplined.

Ten minutes in, at least four kids had commented at how strange it was that I hadn’t yelled at them yet. I told them I wasn’t going to yell at them—I never yell—and they laughed at me. “You’re too nice,” they said. “Other teachers would have straightened us out by now.” Another said, “We’re underachievers. You gotta keep us in line.”

“No,” I said. “You have to keep you in line. You are going to make our rules, and you are going to stick to them. I’m just here to remind you of them and make sure you practice them.” They shook their heads at me, certain that I was nuts and had no idea what I was doing.

The reason I didn’t “straighten them out”—by which I mean yell at them until they shut up—was because, while yelling at or lecturing kids gets immediate and obvious results that my style of discipline takes much longer to achieve, it also does three other things:

  1.  Teaches students that yelling is what mature adults do to get what they want, though we all know honey catches more flies than vinegar in the real world. Though yelling sometimes works in the short term, it is rarely effective in the long term.
  2. Takes away students’ agency and self-worth—rather than complying because they know that it is the right thing to do, or because they understand the long-term consequences of their actions, they do it because they are scared of getting screamed at. This can be devastating to a kid’s sense of purpose and self-worth; one study shows that being constantly yelled at is a better predictor of future mental illness than sexual or physical abuse.
  3. Cripples students in creative or independent endeavors. Which is pretty much every high-paying job ever. Students who grow up with lecture-and-yell discipline learn to rely on a supervisor to keep them in line, rather than doing it for themselves, and bosses hate employees like that. I certainly wouldn’t hire someone who needed me to look over their shoulder all day.

So what should we do instead?

Procedures, baby. Instead of screaming at kids for doing the wrong thing, be fair to them and show them exactly how to do the right thing. Help them practice it over and over until it is easy. Any time they forget, ask them to do it over again correctly. And praise the heck out of them when they get it right because adjusting to school life is tough, and they deserve some serious kudos for getting the hang of it. I’ve started this process with my new students, and I’ll admit: it’s slow, and it takes a lot of work and repetition. But they are awesome kids, and they are absolutely worth that effort.

3 Crucial Writing Skills We Always Forget to Teach

17 Sep

The Georgia State Writing Test has a rubric that measures students on four categories: ideas, organization, conventions, and style. These skills may all be important stepping stones to great writing, but let me ask you this: when was the last time you asked someone why they loved a favorite essay or story, and they said, “What really gets my juices flowing is when ideas are cogent and nicely organized, the grammar is correct, and the author varies his sentence structure and uses an impressive vocabulary!”

Yeah, right. Organization, grammar, and sentence structure may make a piece of writing intelligible, but they have very little to do with what makes a piece of writing great.

Because at Deep we believe that my students are capable of something much greater than merely intelligible writing, I have invented a new rubric for them that measures artistic merit, rather than mere competence. This rubric requires that their writing be three things:

  • Vivid. As in, full of juicy, telling, laser-targeted details rather than lazy generalizations or safe clichés.
  • Unique. In the true sense of the word–as in no one has ever, or could ever, say anything like this. Said another way: demonstrating a specific and memorable voice.
  • Fearless. As in, honest (in the artistic sense, not necessarily the literal one) and willing to embrace humor, say unusual or unpopular things, be frank, challenge common beliefs, criticize oneself, and/or approach difficult topics.

I will be scoring students’ work on a pass-fail basis: students will be expected to work with peer and mentor feedback until their writing demonstrates all three of these qualities.

What do you think of this rubric? What else makes great writing? How would you encourage students to aim for brilliance, rather than just competence?

How To Get a Kid to Write Without Begging, Bribing, or Bullying

18 Aug

 

THere is a new tool that I have been working on to help new teachers brainstorm effective ways to inspire their students. I would love to hear your thoughts!