Tag Archives: Middle school

How did kids from a low-scoring school end up published authors reading their stories to an audience of 600 people?

8 Jul

ImageCheck out this great article about what happens when teachers and communities expect great things from every kid:

http://savannahnow.com/accent/2013-07-04/looking-pearls-mysteries-deep#.Udq_PiinbD1

LOOKING FOR PEARLS: MYSTERIES OF THE DEEP

BY BEN GOGGINS

School’s out for the summer, but rising seventh-grader Imani Blackshear is not on a break from reading or writing. Not her or a lot of the other DEEP Kids from East Broad Street Elementary.

She was at the school last week when I visited language arts teacher Salacthia Coast. She won the Education Partner of the Year award at the “DEEP Speaks” show June 3 at the Savannah Theater.

That night, 42 middle school students from across the county took the stage and read their original works of fact, fiction, poetry and prose — hot off the presses and hot out of their notebooks from spring semester — but cool under the spotlight.

Coast took the stage, too, with a lot of help. In pain with a serious knee injury, the principal and another teacher helped her climb the steps to the stage and then safely return to the audience. I wanted to meet this trooper who toughed it out that night and who embraced the program so enthusiastically.

Coast said this past year was the first for East Broad to participate in DEEP. It is a voluntary, after-school creative writing program with limited spaces. She said her students didn’t want to miss any sessions. Word of how much fun it was spread after the fall semester.

“It’s like the art of writing, that has been lost, is now being found,” Coast said.

Blackshear was happy to tell me how the sessions went. Two DEEP volunteers/writing fellows would lead a discussion about a topic or theme. The kids would then hand-write a poem or story or essay. They would read them to the group and get feedback and suggestions about their ideas. Then they might re-write or revise.

“We got help from each other on how to express our ideas and help on writing better. You learned to really think it through,” Blackshear said.

And write they did.

At the DEEP Speaks event, the imagination and sincerity of the students made me proud, and I’m not a parent to any of them.

DEEP published five books, grouped by schools, with the best works of the 150 young authors who participated in the spring program. The artwork and photographs of the kids are excellent.

The students themselves chose what to read the evening of DEEP Speaks, but the books have lots of their other work.

Coast sang the praises of the East Broad girls in the program.

I remember how confidently Blackshear read her work on self-esteem, “She is Everything.” And how tenderly soft-voiced and well-mannered D’erea Johnson told the story of her grandmother. Another of her stories in the book, “The Moldy Wig,” shows great sensitivity.

I can tell that Zahra Pleasant Murphy is an avid reader. And her quiet and thought-provoking “Awake” resonated with the night owls in the audience. And bubbly Sha’keriah Wilson made you do mental double-takes with her lighthearted “I Am a Squirrel.”

Petrice Crawford sounds like another precocious reader. Her story of the eccentric lady who steals the queen’s identity with some sour punch cracked me up. Lakeasha Quarterman sounded like she blossomed with her writing, and her “I Like to Be a Lion” would make any lioness proud.

Blackshear said writing fellows Sarah Wagner, Kolby Harrell, Austin Christmon and Dustin Michael helped them find their voices better every week.

She’s keeping a journal with ideas she’s thinking about for next fall’s DEEP. A story of self-discovery called “Lost and Then Found” sounds like it will really sing.

Since I live on Tybee, a story she’s thinking about called “Lonnie, the Lonely Lawn Chair” caught my attention. It’s about an old folding chaise lounge with tattered webbing that gets uncovered by a storm on the beach.

The wind exposes a little more of it every day. How did it get buried? Who sat in it before? Blackshear says there will be a surprise at what they find under it.

Coming from a long line of beachcombers, all I can say is, “I can’t wait.”

 

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Why are so many kids failing standardized writing tests?

21 May

I got an editorial published in the Savannah Morning News about local writing scores! http://savannahnow.com/column/2013-05-15/commentary-how-teach-write-stuff#

HOW TO TEACH THE WRITE STUFF BY CATHERINE KILLINGSWORTH

People are asking a lot of questions about Chatham County’s low eighth-grade writing scores. There is much speculation about curricula, test fairness and time spent writing in the classroom.

Yet no one is asking the question that will really make a difference:

Do kids care about becoming skilled writers?

If not, how can we change their minds?

Every parent knows that kids can learn how to do pretty much anything they really care about and get satisfaction from. Kids master impossible video games. They practice free throws for hours to perfect their shot. They text faster than the human eye can follow.

If kids are not learning how to write essays in standard academic English, it is most often because they do not believe it is important.

Either that, or they think it is impossible and thus not worth the effort.

Imagine a kid — a smart, talented kid — who doesn’t speak standard English at home. He uses body language to make a point.

None of the people he admires have gone to college. He, like every kid, wants to grow up to be like the people he loves.

While we educators may believe that teaching him to write a timed essay on a topic he knows nothing about is important (indeed, learning how to do this will give him access to the cultures of commerce and academia, thus providing him with more choices in the future), to this kid it seems pointless and demeaning.

He is forced to translate his thoughts into a language no one has taught him. Perhaps he wants to pass the test so that he can go on to the next grade, but odds are he doesn’t think that writing itself will be useful in his future. He is not going to go home and scribble persuasive essays into his journal for fun.

In my work at Deep, a nonprofit that provides free after-school writing programs at local public schools, we have achieved tremendous results with improving students’ writing skills, and we are successful because we believe that motivating kids is as important as teaching them.

We use the Georgia State Writing Test rubric to score writing samples from our students, and on average our kids improve their scores by 20 percent after just 10 Deep classes. Our students — many of whom come from the schools that are facing criticism, including DeRenne and East Broad — are winning state, regional and national prizes for their writing.

Our kids write well because we give them a compelling, rewarding reason to: we publish their work in a professional anthology and invite them to read it to hundreds of community members at a book release event. We give them an opportunity to share what is important to them with a large audience.

We are not in this game to “fix” our students (a surefire way to destroy anyone’s desire to learn). We are simply here to help students through a difficult but rewarding writing project.

If we want children to succeed, we must approach the project not from the test down but from the kid up. We must ask: how are we making the project of writing meaningful, relevant and rewarding? How are we making it worth their time?

If we can answer that, then our kids will rise to any challenge.

3 Things You Think Are “Cool” That Actually Make Middle School Kids Hate You

24 Apr
Cool emoticon

Cool emoticon (Photo credit: wstera2)

We all want to be cool. Often, even when we are the most experienced, knowledgeable, and confident person in the room (as we often are–though not always–in middle school classrooms) we still want our kids to like us. This is why we often do three very stupid things in the hopes of making ourselves more appealing to our kids:

1. Being sarcastic. We all have vague memories of a high school teacher who was sort of bitter and sarcastic, and we remember thinking he was entertaining.  He reminded us of that cool teacher from TV, right? So if we’re sarcastic in class, that makes us cool, right?

Wrong–especially with kids under the age of 14. If think back further, we remember that,while it was sometimes  funny when teachers made fun of historical figures, we never liked listening to jokes we didn’t understand, and we REALLY didn’t like feeling stupid or dismissed in class. Kids 14 years old and younger largely don’t understand sarcasm yet, particularly students from families that don’t care for that kind of humor (which are common, especially in inner city areas). Being sarcastic around kids who don’t understand sarcasm, or who feel attacked by it, can undermine trust and make you seem out of touch with their sense of humor.

2. Telling personal stories in class. Again, we all remember that high school teacher who shared personal stories about their crazy college days or  their first marriage. We remember, vaguely, wanting to stick around in that teacher’s classroom at lunchtime. It made us feel cool. So if we tell stories about ourselves it makes us cool and easy to relate to, right?

Again: wrong. While telling high school students the occasional tidbit about your life may get them to like you (though it is equally likely to make you look pathetic or needy), it DOES NOT WORK WITH MIDDLE SCHOOL KIDS. Young adolescents are so consumed with themselves (remember how important that zit seemed at the time?) that they generally are not interested in the lives and feelings of adults. Talking too much about yourself is more likely to make you seem irrelevant than it is to make you look cool. The only exception to this case is if your story about your life directly relates to your students’ lives. (For example, sharing your acceptance or rejection letters from literary agents with your writing class could actually be very cool and informative.)

3. Giving easy assignments. New teachers often think that the easier an assignment is, the more likely it is that kids will be excited to do it. Not only is this wrong, it’s dangerous, and it can lead to lowered expectations and poor performance from your students. Think about it: would you want to play a game where you were absolutely guaranteed to win every single time? No! It would be boring. Likewise, your kids don’t want easy assignments all the time—they want you to give them a challenge.

Have you ever tried to seem cool for your kids and had it backfire (or work)? I’d love to hear your story!

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!

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 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.

 

 

 

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.

A 1-Hour Assignment that Stops Kids From Failing?

12 Feb

Yep, you read right: there is a 1-hour writing assignment that will make your students significantly less likely to fail out of school. In fact, there’s a writing assignment that can do just about anything. We’ll get to more of them in the next few months.

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The Assignment

Take one class period and ask your students to write about a value they hold, such as honesty or loyalty, or even just good friendships. This incredibly simple exercise can change the course of their lives. Researcher Gregory Walton has done some fascinating work in this area. Check out what the LA Times has to say about it:

“Simply writing an essay about a personally important value, like relationships with good friends, seems to have changed attitudes toward school and, consequently, how well the essay writers did in a particular course. Only 3% failed the course for which they wrote the essay, compared with 11% of the control group. That’s critical because data show that students who fail classes in middle school are prime candidates to drop out before graduating.”

But why does it work?

Who knows? My guess is that by asking students to think about and affirm their values, we send them the implicit message that their values are, indeed, valuable, and that they should spend time thinking about and acting in accordance with those values. Writing down an idea is a hugely powerful affirmation of that idea, and when students affirm their personal values, it boosts their confidence and gives them agency. When students feel as though they are the masters of their own fate, they are probably a lot more likely to make good decisions.