Writing Activities for Your Classroom

One reason I find my job as an English teacher meaningful is because I truly believe that a person’s ability to clearly communicate, both in person and in writing, is key to success in almost every field. Even a math major in college is going to have to write a handful of papers. Even a science major will be required to compose lab reports. My aunt, an interior design major who has successfully worked in that field for decades, wrote more papers than she ever imagined she would during her time studying the field in college.

Similarly, in their careers, most of my students are going to be asked to write at some point, whether it be e-mails, memos, letters, blog posts, social media updates, or newsletters. Very few professional jobs that don’t require a strong ability to communicate exist.  For this reason, my students and I complete what I am sure they feel is an exorbitant amount of writing. Below are some of the activities we (or at least I!) enjoy and find beneficial.

For Journals

Every Friday, my students spend ten minutes at the beginning of the class period composing an informal journal-writing assignment. I provide a prompt, but it is a suggestion; they can write about whatever they want. I read and respond to every student’s entry. While I do correct writing errors I might come across, mostly, my responses are personal in nature, and relate largely to the content. The Friday journal entries are an informal, fun way for my students to practice their writing without the pressure of a grade, and for us to get to know each other. Almost all my students enjoy writing in the Friday journals–and I enjoy reading them. Below are a few of my staple prompts.

Right Now I am…

Over the course of the last two years, I have participated in several Life in 10 Minutes workshops. Each session begins with a “Right now I am.” Essentially, writers/students write the phrase “Right now I am…” and roll with whatever comes next. It proves a good way to get any distractions, stressors, etc. off our minds so we can focus and be productive.

What I Wish My Teacher Knew About Me

I often use this prompt fairly early in the year as a way to learn important information about my students–information that could help me understand them better, teach them better, and motivate them better. I simply ask them to answer the question: “What do you wish your teachers knew about you?” I have learned which students’ parents are suffering from cancer, which students help financially support their families, which students believe they are visual learners, which students struggle with English but love science, etc. I believe this also fosters a sense of trust and openness between each individual student and me, and that helps build rapport in the class as a whole.

20 Questions

This prompt also provides a way for me to learn about my students–but also allows them to learn a bit about me. I instruct them to write 20 (school appropriate) questions for me to answer–but they must also provide their own answer. For example, they might set it up like this:

What’s your favorite color?

Me: Red

Mrs. Creasey:

They can also ask questions to which they would not yet have answers, and simply provide an explanation. For example:

Where did you go to college?

Me: I hope to apply to JMU, UVA, and GMU.

Mrs. Creasey:

In each case, when I read the journal entries, I answer all students’ questions and comment on some of their answers.

Evaluate this Course

Admittedly, this can be a scary one, because ‘ya can’t please ’em all,’ but despite the barrage of complaints and criticisms it can sometimes open you up to, it is more often extremely valuable and helpful. Near the middle of the course and sometimes again at the end of the course, I ask students to evaluate the class. I tell them to consider elements such as amount of homework, rigor, usefulness of various assignments, meaningfulness of various assignments, group work, projects, classroom atmosphere, etc. I also ask them to provide any suggestions they might have. Sometimes, they have really good ideas that I can incorporate for future students.

Advice for Future Students

One of our last journal topics of the year requests that students, having survived the semester, write a letter to future students giving them advice on how to succeed and get the most out of our class. I tell them ahead of time that I plan to anonymously incorporate their advice into a Power Point to show to the following year’s students during their first week of class (which I do). This can be a very enlightening entry to read, as it reveals what was most challenging, difficult, and meaningful to the students. Students also enjoy the authenticity of the assignment.

For Revising/Self-Awareness

Sometimes it seems students think every writer magically wrote the perfect draft the first-time around and never had to proofread, revise, or struggle. They fail to see that writing is often a messy process, and that just because you wrote something, doesn’t mean you’re done writing it. Often, there is a lot of rewriting to be done before a product can be called complete–or at least complete enough. Below are some activities to help students understand the value of the process, as well as how to engage in it.

W.O.W Writing

W.O.W is an acronym for “Watching Our Writing,” and it’s an activity designed to help students become more self-aware writers, as well as more adept revisers. You can tailor it to focus on any area(s) you wish, depending on the needs of your students. For example, maybe you are trying to teach them to replace adverbs with strong, precise verbs. Maybe you are trying to teach them to avoid to-be verbs in favor of more specific verbs. Maybe you want them to make sure they have included enough credible research in a paper, as shown in the sample chart I created and share below.

W.O.W Sheet for Research Paper

Writer’s Memo

A Writer’s Memo is an excellent way to help students identify their own purpose when they write, as well as to write deliberately and thoughtfully. When my honors students write their Gothic short stories (see below), they are instructed to attempt to emulate the works we read by either Poe, Faulkner, or Gilman, and to identify at least three Gothic elements they will incorporate into their story. In conjunction with writing this story, they are required to write a Writer’s Memo. In their memo, they have to explain, with textual support from their original stories, which author and work they emulated and in what ways, as well as what three Gothic elements they included and how. This forces them to thoughtfully engage with their own creative process, and analyze their own writing–not to mention hopefully write with a greater sense of purpose and direction.

Thank-You Letter

One way to teach the proper formatting of a letter, as well as to help students become more aware of the many people in your building who go above and beyond to help, is to assign them a thank-you letter. Each year before Thanksgiving, my students pick a teacher, coach, administrator, or other school employee to whom to write their letter. The day before our Thanksgiving break, they turn the letters in to me, and I deliver them to the designated recipients chosen by my students. The students appreciate the authenticity of this assignment (someone is actually going to read their writing other than me!), and I enjoy delivering the letters. This would also be well timed during Teacher Appreciation Week.

For Comprehension, Connection, and Application

Three purposes writing can serve in the classroom, regardless of discipline, is checking for and supporting comprehension, fostering retention, and applying concepts learned. Below are some assignments that can help achieve those goals.

R.A.F.T writing

R.A.F.T is an acronym for Role Audience Format Type, and the activity can work well for any subject area or discipline. It allows students to engage with class material, exercise creatively, and show understanding (or lack thereof, letting you know what to remediate), as well as provides an outlet for supported peer evaluation. An example is below.

RAFT writing assignment

Gothic Short Stories

This assignment allows students to demonstrate an understanding of Gothic elements and the Gothic genre, an awareness of author’s style and technique, and their purpose as an author. It also allows them to write creatively, which most find enjoyable. After we read and study a poem and story by Poe, a story by Gilman, and a story by Faulkner, students are assigned to pick one of the pieces and authors we read to emulate in their own, original short story. They are to use some of the same Gothic elements, as well as some of the same literary techniques, but to craft their own original setting, plot, characters, and theme. The Writer’s Memo, explained above, works in conjunction with this assignment.

Vocabulary Stories

After assigning new vocabulary terms to study, assign students to write an original short story, mandating that they correctly use each of their new vocabulary words in the story.

Literature Portfolios

This assignment requires students to actively engage with their reading material, as well as to draw connections between assign texts and the world at large.

For the former goal, students must keep a Reader’s Journal that consists of the author’s use of motifs, symbolism, theme, and indirect characterization. They must also choose what they believe is a quintessential passage from the text and explain its literary significance.

For the latter goal, they must write four connection pieces over the course of the semester:

  • Connect to World
  • Connect to Art
  • Connect to Literature
  • Connect to Life.

The Connect to World assignment requires that they connect the assigned text to a current event, and explain the connection. Connect to Art requires students to explain how the assigned text connects to a work of art, which could be a painting, photograph, sculpture, statue, digital artwork, etc. Connect to Literature asks students to elaborate on a parallel they see between the assign text and another novel, or a memoir, autobiography, song, poem, biography, etc. Finally, Connect to Life asks students to relate the assigned reading to their own experiences.

For Creative Writing

In my twelve years of teaching high school English, one resounding request I hear from students is the desire to do more creative writing. Below are some ways to incorporate it (preferably after students are already comfortable with poetic devices).

Recipe Poetry

Recipe poetry is a great way to work on deciphering a nonfiction text, completing math (such as fractions), and thinking creatively. To see the step-by-step plans for teaching a recipe poetry lesson, click on “Recipe Poetry” above.

Ligne Donne and Kasen Renku

Writing ligne donne (shared line) poems and Kasen Renku poems are a great way to foster cooperative learning and get your entire class involved in the writing process. To see lesson plans for these poems, click “Ligne Donne and Kasen Renku” above.

Perspective Poem

For this assignment, students look at a photograph. Instruct them to pick one item in the photograph and write a poem from its perspective. Then, have students read their poems to each other and guess what item in the photograph the poem told from.

Story Circle

This is another great way to get the entire class involved in the writing process. Tell students to put their desks in a circle, and get out a piece of paper and a writing utensil. Instruct them all to write “It was a dark and stormy night” or “It was the first day of summer break” or some other opening line of your choice on the first line. Then, set the timer for five minutes and tell them to write until the timer goes off, when they must drop their pencils–even if they are mid-sentence. Tell them to pass their papers to the left. Give them a minute or two to read what the student before them wrote. Then, set the timer for five minutes, during which they should add to the story.  Continue this process for as many cycles as you left, warning students before the end so they know they need to write the ending. At the end, return the stories to the originator, and allow students to share with the class on a volunteer basis.

 

 

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Lesson Plans: The Crucible, A Scavenger Hunt through Salem

I’ve been reading Arthur Miller’s play The Crucible with high school English students since I first began my teaching career in 2006. I’ve been teaching Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter for almost as long. A few years into my career, I went on a campaign to convince my family that we should spend part of our summer touring around Salem, Massachusetts. I wanted to experience first-hand the place I had been reading about since I myself sat in a high school English classroom studying these works, and I knew I could gather material that would enhance my teaching of the play, the two fascinating and terrifying time periods it explores (the Salem Witch Trials and the McCarthy Era),  and the novel. For reasons I don’t remember, the trip didn’t happen, and years went by–but this past summer, my aunt and uncle moved to Cape Cod, and when I visited them in June, they were kind enough to help make my years-long dream of visiting Salem a reality (though it meant about as much time in the car as it did on the streets of Salem!).

Witch House Purple Flowers
The Witch House is one of the many sites my students “visit” on their scavenger hunt of Salem through the halls of our high school.

After visiting, reading about, and photographing The Nathaniel Hawthorne Birthplace, The House of the Seven Gables, The Custom House, The Salem Witch Trials Memorial, The Old Burial Ground, The Witch House, and several other points of interest, I felt exhausted, educated, intrigued–and a little like there was still so much to see, and so little time! Still, I had gathered tons of interesting information to share with my students and satisfy (or pique!) my own curiosity, and I had taken dozens upon dozens of photographs to share with my classes come September.

But what to do with this information and these photographs? Sure, I could throw the photographs up on the screen and give my students the “My Day in Salem” lecture. I could put the photographs and information into a Power Point, Prezi, or Google Slides presentation. I could print them off and pass them around the room.

But none of this was good enough. None of it even approximated the real thing.

Victims' Memorial
The Witch Trials Memorial in Salem, Massachusetts

 

About a month went by, the photos still on my phone, the information still in my head, before I realized that what I really wanted to do was, well, take my students to Salem…

This, of course, was not as realistic as a “My Day in Salem” Power Point. But it would be  so much more effective!

So what if I mimicked the experience to the best of my ability…by turning the halls of our high school into the sidewalks and streets of Salem, Massachusetts? I typed an e-mail to my principal, and with her approval and support, set about creating my Salem Scavenger Hunt. With the help of my colleagues, the plan went smoothly this fall. So smoothly, in fact, that two of my colleagues created their own subject-specific scavenger hunts for their classes. This spring, with the help of Erin Ford, our school’s resident technology genius, I’m confident it will go even better. Erin has helped me incorporate technology like augmented reality to enhance the experience and further engage my students. Using the app HP Reality, formerly Aurasma, our scavenger hunt is going to come to life–to approximate an actual visit to Salem as closely as possible.

 

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Throughout our reading of the play and the novel, my students were still referring back to things they had learned in the scavenger hunt. It was far more effective than a lecture, worksheet, or presentation would have been. As much as possible, it brought the places, the people, and the time period alive for my students. The plans are below. I hope you and your students will get as much out of this as my students and I do!

Below is the original, more “analog” version of the scavenger hunt, which uses photos I printed and laminated from my trip.

A Visit to Salem Scavenger Hunt.docx

Thanks to Erin, you can find the technology-enhanced version below. It will require you to download the HP Reality app and set up your own augmented reality. You will still use the photos available in the analog version above, but when students use the app and hold their phone over specific photographs at each site, they will see videos, articles, etc. relevant to that site (once you have created your specific Aurasma).

Scavenger Hunt Rules

Following the technology-enhanced scavenger hunt, students are then asked to create a presentation using what they learned. They could also do this in the less technologically involved version, as well. Find a template here:

Travel Log

Regardless of whether you opt for the more analog version or the more technological version, you will need:

  • enough copies of the rules/worksheet packet for each student
  • colleagues willing to chaperone your students in the hallways
  • photographs of the sites, placed ahead of time at various locations around the school
  • enough copies of a map of your school, marked with the locations of the sites, for each student or each group of students.

My execution of this technology-enhanced version is slated for February, and I can hardly wait to see how it goes!

Witch House IV
The kitchen of the Witch House, where the trials initiated.

Poe’s “The Raven” and the Importance of Poetic Devices

raven-2
   While I don’t  have a “pallid bust of Pallas” just above my classroom door on which a raven could perch, I do have a ceiling-mounted projector, and my own raven quite effectively presides over the classroom from there. Side note: my students are always delighted to learn the Baltimore Ravens are named after Poe’s poem.

With Halloween less than a week away, my students and I are delving into Gothic literature with the likes of Poe, Faulkner, and Gilman. One of the Gothic pieces we read is Poe’s familiar poem, “The Raven.” Typically, my students are enthusiastic about the Gothic unit in general, and, as poetry goes, they like “The Raven.” Because they are already predisposed to enjoy this poem, I use it to illustrate the importance and purpose of poetic devices–especially since one question I field almost every year goes something like this: “Why is poetry so complicated? Why can’t he just say it?” Of course, I could answer that “just saying it” takes away from the art of the poem, takes the beauty out of it–but they don’t always particularly care about that. I have found it much more effective to show them why the poet can’t “just say it” by teaching what many of the various poetic devices are, and then stripping the poem bare of them.

One question I field almost every year goes something like this: “Why is poetry so complicated? Why can’t he just say it?” Of course I can answer that “just saying it” takes away from the art of the poem, takes the beauty out of it–but teenaged students don’t always particularly care about that. I have found it much more effective to show them why the poet can’t “just say it,” by stripping the poem bare of all its poetry.

The literary devices we cover include alliteration, allusion, assonance, consonance,

raven-poe-bust
In the courtyard at the Poe Museum in downtown Richmond, Virginia, one can see this bust of dark romantic, Edgar Allan Poe.

metaphor, symbolism, juxtaposition, internal rhyme, rhyme scheme, imagery, and personification, just to name a few. After I provide definitions and examples of each of these, we listen to a reading of “The Raven” by Christopher Walken, and I instruct students to follow along on their own copy, in the margin labeling any poetic devices they notice.

 

Once Mr. Walken has finished his  reading of the poem, the students and I go through each stanza, labeling the rhyme scheme, drawing boxes around all internal rhymes, and pointing out all the poetic devices we labeled as we listened.

Paraphrasing essentially strips the poem to its simplest and least artistic form. The plot–the bones–remains, but the beauty is gone, leaving the poem a sort of skeleton, all of the flesh having fallen away. A paraphrase does perhaps make the basic information more digestible, but the language is stilted and artless without the poetic devices.

The next step in this lesson is to assign students to small groups, and assign each group three to five stanzas of the poem to paraphrase. This paraphrasing essentially strips the poem to its simplest and least artistic form. The plot–the bones–remains, but the beauty is gone, leaving the poem a sort of skeleton, all of the flesh having fallen away.

raven-courtyard
Some couples exchange their vows in the courtyard at the Poe Museum in downtown Richmond. Here, it is set up for an April wedding.

Take the stanza below, for example. It includes internal rhyme (denser and censer; lent thee, sent thee, and nepenthe), alliteration (Swung and Seraphim; foot-falls and floor; tufted and tinkled), consonance (foot-fall, tinkled, tufted, and floor), and imagery (we can imagine the scent of perfumed air and the jingling sound of little angel feet scampering across the floor).

 

Then, methought, the air grew denser, perfumed from an unseen censer

Swung by Seraphim whose foot-falls tinkled on the tufted floor.

`Wretch,’ I cried, `thy God hath lent thee – by these angels he has sent thee

Respite – respite and nepenthe from thy memories of Lenore!

Quaff, oh quaff this kind nepenthe, and forget this lost Lenore!’

Quoth the raven, `Nevermore.’

A paraphrase of this stanza does perhaps make the basic information more digestible, but observe how much more stilted and artless the stanza becomes:

Then I felt like the atmosphere changed; it was scented

as if angels walked across the room with perfume or incense.

‘Wretch,’ I yelled, ‘some master or demon sent you

Rest – rest and relief from my memories of Lenore!

Drink this merciful relief, and forget dead Lenore!’

The raven said, ‘Nevermore.’

After all groups have finished paraphrasing their assigned stanzas, we read the paraphrased versions aloud, in the order in which they appear in the poem, to get a complete sense of just exactly what poetic devices do for a poem.

From there, we go on to discuss the symbolism of the raven, as well as to examine the Gothic elements used in the poem, such as suspense, the dark side of humanity, etc.

In addition, I always offer extra credit in conjunction with this unit. The assignment requires students who opt to participate to visit the Poe Museum in Richmond and write a one-page, double-spaced paper about the experience.

 

Lesson Plan: Recipe Poetry

The school year is winding down, and my students (and I!) are feeling a bit squirrely. We just took our last test of the school year on Zora Neale Hurston‘s Their Eyes Were Watching God, and there are a mere six regular school days left before final exams. So what do we do with this odd in-between that doesn’t allow enough time for another full unit, but is certainly too much time to descend into the pit of meaningless movie-watching day after day? The answer is: We write.

Now, tell that to most students, and they cringe. But I’m not talking about five-page-research-paper-in-the-MLA-format writing. I’m talking about fun writing. I know, I know. If my students remember what an oxymoron is, they’d apply it to the term “fun writing.” And of course, as a writer, I’m a bit biased; I think almost all writing is fun.

But I think my students did have fun writing today. Here is what we did:

Recipe Poetry

Time:

60-70 minutes

Objective:

Students will: analyze nonfiction writing; analyze authentic texts; review and identify verbs; write using strong, specific verbs; write creatively, informally, and for enjoyment; analyze the structure and elements of an authentic, nonfiction text; work cooperatively; engage in the creative process; think critically, creatively, and abstractly; share their written work aloud

Materials:

several sheets of notebook paper, composition book, or spiral notebook for every student

writing utensil for each student

several copies of cooking magazines or various copies of different recipes

Steps:

  1. Put students into groups of three or four.
  2. Pass out magazines or recipes, so that each group has two or three magazines, or at least six to ten individual recipes.
  3. Give students five minutes in their groups to look through the recipes together, and instruct them to write down all the strong, specific cooking  verbs they come across.
    IMG_6608-1
    Some of the verbs my students pulled from the recipes they used for inspiration

    Each student should keep his or her own list.

  4. After five minutes, ask the students to call out the verbs they wrote down, and write them on the board for the class to see.
  5. Next, give students five minutes to start a new list. This time, they should write down all the units of measurement they see in the different ingredients lists.
  6. After five minutes, ask the students to call out the units they wrote down, and write them on the board for the class to see.

    IMG_6609
    Some of the units of measurement my students noticed in the recipes they read. Note the more unique ones, like “sprig” and “stalk.”
  7. Next, give students three minutes to examine the structure and format of the recipes together. They should write down elements they notice most or all of the recipes share. This should include items such as: prep time, cooking time, ingredients list, steps/process/procedure, servings, etc.
  8. After three minutes, ask students what elements a recipe should have, and write the elements on the board for the class to see.
  9. Explain to students that in a few minutes, they will write a recipe poem. A recipe poem is a poem that explains how to “cook” something abstract, such as a certain type of person, a certain emotion, or an experience. Give them some examples: a recipe for success, a recipe for a best friend, a recipe for the worst day ever, etc.
  10. Give students five minutes to brainstorm together in their groups. They should write down experiences, types of people, and emotions they think they might want to describe by way of a recipe poem.
  11. After five minutes, ask students to call their ideas out, and write them on the board for the class to see.

    IMG_6607
    A few of the topics students volunteered to share with the class, about which they planned to write their recipe poems. I myself found “superhero” and “patriot” particularly intriguing.
  12. Remind students that their recipe poem should include all the elements of a recipe, and be formatted like a recipe. Instruct them to pick a topic, but not to tell anyone else in the class what their topic is.
  13. Give students about 15 minutes to write their recipe poem, allotting more time if needed.
  14. Once everyone has finished (or mostly finished) a recipe poem, instruct students to go around in their groups and read their recipe poems aloud to their group members, still withholding the subject. After each student reads, his group members should try to guess what his recipe is for. After each group member has guessed, the poet can reveal what his topic was.
  15. After each person in each group has had a chance to share her poem with her group, ask willing students to share their recipe poems aloud with the class.

My students really seemed to enjoy this activity–so much so, that we actually have to finish tomorrow because so many students were so eager to share their poems with the class. We ran out of time!