My Middle School Language Arts Classroom…

I have spent the past few days beginning to plan out next year. I am a third year teacher, so some of my units are ready to go, others need tweaking, and some are being rewritten from scratch! However, I wanted to share what my normal day looks like so that other teachers can possible get some ideas!

I teach in a team setting: I teach Language Arts and my students have a different teacher for math, and a third teacher for science/social studies. I have two classes- my homeroom and my afternoon class.  I teach Language Arts in a 2 hours block.  M homeroom stays with me all morning, then we go to lunch, afterwards I get my afternoon class before they go to special.  Because of this, we start each day with a Do-Now. I am in charge of the Do-Now for my two classes on Mondays and Wednesdays. Traditionally, we use DOL as our Language do-now, but I want to change that next year. Granted, the ease of use is a big temptation, but the research shows that DOL doesn’t help kids use correct grammar in context. And I am willing to bet half my students just put any old answers down and wait for us to go over the correct answers together. So this summer I am revamping all of my grammar plans! This means I need a do-now. It has to be something quick and easy (we have a ten-minute homeroom) but also needs to hold students accountable. Any ideas?

Word Study: This year, I plan on using a mix of direct instruction, inquiry, and grammar in context for grammar. Right now I am writing my curriculum, based on our state and district standards. I am using Don and Jenny Killgallon’s Story Grammar for Elementary School: A Sentence-Composing Approach and Grammar for Middle School, Jeff Anderson’s Mechanically Inclined: Building Grammar, Usage, And Style into Writer’s Workshop and EVERYDAY EDITING: Inviting Students to Develop Skill and Craft in Writer’s Workshop. Last but not least, I am waiting for Constance Weaver’s The Grammar Plan Book: A Guide to Smart Teaching. I know, it’s a lot! But when I went to the Columbia Teacher’s College Reunion Saturday back in March, I went to great session on teaching grammar in middle school. The presenter introduced all these great books to me, and I was inspired.

We have a district spelling curriculum, which means we have a spelling pretest on Mondays. Students complete a spelling contract during the week (that I wrote) and take a final spelling test on Friday.

Vocabulary is something I am still struggling with. Last year I followed Linda Rief’s model. I had my students find 5 vocabulary words each week from their reading. They then defined them, wrote each word in the sentence that they found it, and handed it in. For extra credit they included the etymology of the word. I just didn’t feel it was successful with my students, so I am searching for a new idea this year.

Reading Workshop: Reading workshop, reading workshop, reading workshop!!! I start my reading workshop with a mini-lesson. My students have one Language Arts binder that is divided in 8 sections. (I may amend this to 6-7 sections this year.) One section is devoted entirely to mini-lessons and notes from mini-lessons. The section begins with a table of contents that the students fill in each day, noting the subject of the lesson.

This year, I plan to use more short texts in my mini-lessons, so that my students have common texts but can still focus on their independent novels. This will allow me to differentiate more in conferences, but all the students will have common texts at hand. For this purpose, I am reading Less is More: Teaching Literature With Short Texts, Grades 6-12 by Kimberly Hill Campbell.

After the mini-lesson and guided practice, we break into independent reading. During this time, students read independently, putting into practice the skills we have learned. During this time, I have individual conferences with students and pull small groups. I also sometimes (especially at the beginning of the year, when I am building the reading foundation) just read with the students. This models an adult enjoying reading, something they don’t always see. They also see me enjoying their literature, children’s, middle-grade, and YA, valuing it.

I do teach whole-class novels, as they are required by the district. But I love the novels we do together, and they allow us to have a common text. Plus, I don’t assign the reading for homework- we treat it as a read-aloud/whole class novel. I do a lot of text marking, teaching them how to annotate their books. It’s a skill they will need in future years and one I never learned (and wish I did!). Our whole class novels are: Tuck Everlasting, The Giver, and The Devil’s Arithmetic .

Writing Workshop: My students keep a writing notebook. I start the year with a lot of activities from Notebook Know-How: Strategies For The Writer’s Notebook. My students have a little bit of experience with the workshop method in the primary grades, but not since then. I really have to ease them into it. For the first half of the year, their weekly homework is to write 4 entries in their notebook. I collect these as a homework assignment.

This year I will be using the front half of the writer’s notebook for their writing and the back half for notes and mini-lessons. I am hoping this helps keeps them more organized. And to be honest, it will keep me more organized, too!

In 6th grade, we focus a lot on persuasive writing because it is tested on the state tests. But I start the year with launching the writer’s notebook. Then we ease into personal narrative. I am working on what we will do after that! I do know I will be doing my poetry unit again because it was such a success. :) And I plan on doing my multi-genre projects again at the end of the year. Right now, I am paging through Lucy Calkins’ Units of Study for Teaching Writing, Grades 3-5 for ideas.

Read-Aloud: My favorite part of each day is at the end of class. That’s when we have our read-aloud. During the read-aloud I model higher-level thinking and other comprehension skills. And the students love it! We experience various genres and everyone. To see what we read this year, check out this post.

As for how I choose my read-alouds, it’s all about the kidlitosphere! I read reviews, read Newbery contenders, and of course turn to some of my personal favorites. The read-alouds change with each class and each year. This way, they stay fresh and personalized!

I still have a lot of work to do for next year, but I am getting excited. I love my grade level and I love teaching language arts. Hopefully, this post can help some other middle school English teachers!


A little bit of self-promotion….

I am selling a huge lot of teacher resources on ebay right now.  Just various Scholastic books, workbooks, etc that I bought and do not legitimately need.  Hopefully, someone else can use them!  Check them out here!

The Hunger Games

The Official Hunger Games website is now up at Scholastic.  I love the book trailer!  You can also download the first chapter in PDF form.

Check it out!

Bliss by Lauren Myracle

I hate horror- movies, books, TV shows, you name it. If it is horror, I avoid it like the plague. Somehow, the fact that Lauren Myracle’s newest novel, Bliss, is a horror story escaped me. Never mind the fact that the title is written in blood on the cover. I managed to miss all the not-so-subtle clues. In fact, I was thrilled when I received an ARC from the publisher thinking it was just the book I needed. I wanted something light and fluffy, something fun and beachy to read.

I was wrong.

Very wrong.

Myracle has crafted a true horror story, in the tradition of Stephen King. Bliss is the child of hippie parents. She’s moved around a lot, living in basements, various apartments, and most recently a commune. She loves her life on the commune, but is uprooted when her parents flee to Canada to avoid Nixon’s policies during the Vietnam War. Bliss is left with her wealthy grandmother in recently-integrated Atlanta.

Suddenly, everything she knows seems wrong and different. On the commune, health and hygiene were basic. Bliss never considered that the rest of the country might think differently. A bra becomes a necessity, make-up part of her daily routine. But the hardest part for Bliss is the fact that blacks and whites are still so separate. On the commune, her best friend was African-American. In Atlanta, her grandmother has a “negra” housekeeper. There is only one “token” black student in her prep school. And the KKK is alive and well.

Before she leaves the commune, Bliss’ best friend warns her of a vision she had- two girls that will not be good for her. Bliss ignores the vision, assuming it’s nothing. However when she begins attending her new prep school, she begins hearing a haunting, evil voice around a certain building. Her new friends seem harmless enough (though Bliss has a hard time navigating the world of high school girls), but the voice haunts her. Then, one of her new friends begins acting crazy and sympathizing too much with the Manson family (the Tate-LaBianca murders have just occurred) and romanticizing a rumor about a girl who killed herself on campus when the school was still a convent.

Myracle’s newest novel includes pieces of the Manson Family murders and the resulting Tate-LaBianca trial, as well as the realities of racism during that time. Bliss is a believable narrator and you sympathize with her complete confusion when it comes to this new world called high school. The novel also includes various snippets from another character’s diary, in between Bliss’ chapters. You see the beginnings of this character’s psychosis take hold and eventually take over their life. I spent most of the book trying to predict who that character would turn out to be.

The story is frightening. Too much of it rings true and seems all too realistic. The horror aspect is horrific, and threatened to give me nightmares (I’m a baby)! I can’t wait to recommend this to some of my students who love the Cirque Du Freak books. This is definitely not a G-rated book. I would probably give it a PG/PG-13 purely due to the horror.

A new movie adaptation?

I read some interesting news today. It seems that Danny Devito is preparing to start production on a movie based on The True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle.  Charlotte was one of my favorite characters as a kid, so I am very excited!  I think the story will make a great movie and will also turn a new generation onto Avi’s older works.

According to the Hollywood Reporter, “Danny DeVito will direct Saoirse Ronan, Morgan Freeman and Pierce Brosnan in the family adventure “The True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle.”  Filming is set to begin in September for 2009 release.

Summer Literacy Packets and Summer Reading

At the end of the school year I handed out a Summer Literacy Packet to my students.  I told my students it was completely voluntary, and I am very happy to say that a few of my students have been sending me weekly emails detailing their progress.  And come August I expect a few more to pop their notebooks in the mail to me.  It’s been awesome being able to continue our literacy dialogue through the summer months and I am enjoying the deeper conversations we have been having over email.  But today I received a letter essay from one of my students that only further fueled my anger with required summer reading lists.

This particular student is a very strong reader, and an avid one.  She is currently reading The Adventures of Tom Sawyer.  (Three of the six books on our summer reading list are classics).  The email I received from her today broke my heart.  This girl loves to read and shouldn’t be forced to read a book that she is hating.  All year long I preached choice, choice, choice.  I taught my students to choose books on their level, and to be aware when books are not on their level.  Tom Sawyer needs a good deal of scaffolding for 7th graders, and that scaffolding can’t happen over the summer, when students are on their own.

I want to share a few quotes from her letter:

Today, I read chapters 15 and 16 in Tom Sawyer.  So far I rate this book a three out of ten.  this book is really boring and I do not understand it.  Every chapter talks about something different then the last chapter.  It doesn’t flow very well.  It also shocks me that it is considered a classic because I am not enjoying it.  I expect more from a classic than this book has to offer

Is this how we want to introduce the classics, the canon of English literature to our students?  How long will this attitude stay with these student?

Also, they talk in old southern accents and use older words and use old fashioned tools and devices.  Finally, it is boring because the print is small, it is hard to read, the characters are boring, the adventures are boring, and basically the whole book is boring.

Scaffolding, scaffolding, scaffolding!  This should not be happening!  The vocabulary is difficult, the accents are hard to decipher, and a lot of the “adventures” require a good deal of historical background knowledge.  All things students are not being supported with during summer reading.  Ridiculous!

I would recommend this book to no one except older people from the South.  This book is boring and a waste of time.  I can’t wait to finish this book and be done with the required summer reading!

The only thing these required reading lists is doing is making our students despise the classics.  There is nothing wrong with the classics, but forcing students to read them independently, without the background knowledge and support they require is practically cruel.  It really is a shame.

Little Brother by Cory Doctorow

Little Brother by Cory Doctorow is a modern-day thriller, akin to 1984 . To be honest, I enjoyed Little Brother a great deal more than 1984 ! The story is action-packed, with thrills around every corner. It’s also extremely frightening, set in not-so-far-off future. You spend much of the novel debating whether the setting is now, 5 years from now, or a hundred years from now. It is so very realistic, with references to the life and times of most world citizens today, but you want more than anything for the story to be from the far-off future. Otherwise, it is too frightening. Doctorow has written a rousing call to arms for a new generation, warning them that giving up their freedom can sometimes be more frightening than the alternative.

nullMarcus is a geek and a typical teenage kid. He loves computers, programming, and hacking. Nothing major, just fun stuff. What he really loves is his online/real world computer game. He and his friends have formed a team and are competing in a worldwide scavenger hunt for the grand prize. Unfortunately, a lot of the clues are released during school. And his high school tracks students, butnot just by their computerized schedule. Oh no- there are “gait cameras” that scan your gait and try to match it to known students. Makes skipping class a little harder than normal. Not to mention the software on their school-issued laptops which tracks every keystroke, website visited, and program opened. Luckily, Marcus has figured out a way around most of the technology employed by the school.

When he and his friends cut class one day, they end up on the streets of San Francisco during the worst terrorist attack ever suffered by the United States- the Bay Bridge explosion. Picked up in the aftermath, Marcus is treated as a hostile enemy combatant and interrogated in a secret prison off the coast, all because he was in the wrong place at the wrong time. When he is finally released, practically under threat of death, he realizes that San Francisco has been turned into a police state, under the control of the Department of Homeland Security. When Marcus decides to fight back and save his city, he uses his technology skills to help his peers work around the new laws and regulations put into place by the new Patriot Act.

This is not an easy book to summarize. So much happens, and so much of it is very difficult to read. It clearly based on current events and Doctorow has written a call-to-arms for a new generation of teens (and adults). What are we willing to sacrifice for our safety? Do terrorists succeed when they fill our daily lives with terror? Is the safety of all more important than the privacy and rights of one? These are tough questions, and the book will leave you thinking long after you put it down.

The book also has fantastic crossover appeal. I see it being a big hit with adults and teens alike. I wouldn’t recommend it any lower than 8th grade, honestly, due to some true-to-life teen sex scenes. However, I think high schoolers will devour this book. It will also make for some great discussions!

Mulling things over

Count on a review of Little Brother by Cory Doctorow tomorrow.  I literally just put it down, but I need some time to digest it.  Know this though- I loved it.  And I wish it had been in print when I was in high school.  I plan to tell all of my techie high school classmates about it.  I just need more time to mull over the ideas and the afterwords.

Newes from the Dead by Mary Hooper

Last night I had trouble falling asleep. I place the blame for this entirely on Mary Hooper’s creepy novel, Newes from the Dead, which I finished right before bed. Just look at that cover! It’s enough to give you nightmares!

The entire time you are reading Newes from the Dead you have the chills. You know, those involuntary shudders that take over your body, making it hard to turn the pages?

Anne Green is a servant girl in 17th century England. Her family is poor, so she lives in the big house a few villages away. While life is not easy, she is content. She even has a suitor, young John the blacksmith. However, when the teenage son of her master begins flirting and making promises to her, she is flattered and sometimes even flirts back a bit. However, she knows he is only being silly, until the day that he makes an unwanted advance against her. He promises her that he loves her and will raise her up to new heights…he will even make her a lady! All she has to do is give him the one thing he wants. It’s just a silly little thing, not even an issue. He fills her head with promises and wild dreams, and she succumbs. However, this begins a torrid one-sided affair, which she immediately regrets. There is no passion, no sweetness, no love in their encounters. Her young master continues making promises, and is also very jealous of her suitor, John. She is forced to break John’s heart when she ends their relationship. Only days later, when her young master, Geoffrey, heads back to school, Anne discovers she is pregnant.

Though she tries to eliminate the pregnancy, knowing that the stain of losing her virginity will forever humiliate her and her family, she is not successful. She is determined to hide the pregnancy until Geoffrey comes home, when she will tell him and he will set things right. This thought keeps her content, until Geoffrey does come home, but not alone. He has brought his new bride-to-be and Anne realizes he is a liar and she is doomed.

All of this would make a wonderful book on it’s own. However, it doesn’t stop there! When Anne gives birth to a stillborn, premature baby alone in an outhouse, she is discovered and accused of infanticide. When she tells her master that his son is responsible for her condition, she ends up in jail awaiting trial on charges of murder. Anne is a simple girl, who believes that the truth will prevail and she will be set free. She is naive and trusting, unaware that Master Reade is a magistrate and holds her fate in his hands.

Anne is found guilty and hung for her crimes. Her body is donated to science for dissection, as is the normal custom for the poor. However, her story only begins there. When the doctors begin the dissection, it is discovered that she is alive!

The story is told in alternating chapters by Anne, in a coma of sorts, reliving her experience, and by Robert, a scholar with a stammer who is struggling with his own views of life and death.

I can not accurately describe the creepiness of this book. Mary Hooper has captured a perfect voice for Anne, and you really do believe you are right alongside her when she begins to awaken in her coffin. You feel for her and are outraged by the rash judgement of the judge and jury in her trial. It seems hundreds of women were prosecuted for infanticide in the past, because proving they had not killed their newborn was harder than saying they had!

Even creepier is the fact that Anne’s story is true. Mary Hooper includes a great author’s note and even a copy of one of the pamphlets made announcing Anne’s miraculous resurrection.

This is a great book for reluctant YA readers. It deals a lot with sex, so I am not sure I would recommend it lower than 8th grade, but I could definitely see it being used in high school history classes. It is very high interest, fast-paced, and frightening!

Summer Reading continued

Thanks to everyone for the great responses to my summer reading rant!  I am so glad to see that I am not the only person who is upset with the static, stagnant lists handed out by too many schools across the country.  I am also thrilled to hear from so many others that their districts are not like that. I love hearing about what is and isn’t working in your schools.

There are a lot of great ideas being kicked around in the blogosphere right now.  I think we, as bloggers, are in a prime position for affecting change when it comes to summer reading lists.  I am thrilled by the passion and ideas that my rant seemed to dredge up.  I am looking forward to working on a few of these ideas and seeing if we can make enjoyable summer reading an important part of growing up!


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