Friday, December 14, 2012

Shop the Pig

Shopping at Piggly Wiggly - Click for photo gallery

After earning money, clipping coupons, and creating lists, students were ready to hit the aisles of the local Piggly Wiggly grocery store on Monday.  The sixth grade class met with a number of parent-volunteers to purchase nonperishable food items as well as toiletries.  After items were boxed and loaded onto a bus, they were donated to the Hope House, a facility aimed at providing necessities for the homeless of Milwaukee.  This is my second year participating in this service project, and both experiences have been humbling.  The generosity of the students, their parents, and the employees of the store is immeasurable and, undoubtedly, welcome at this time of year.

Composition students switched modes in their Writing Circles today.  For the next few meetings, the small groups will be known as Publishing Circles.  Writers searched through their previously written drafts in order to find a piece that they wanted to consider a little more seriously.  They were able to solicit advice regarding their choice from their peers, who had heard the pieces before. These Writing Circle drafts, also known as "starts" or kernels, will be developed into more significant pieces.  By dedicating a piece for publication, the writer is making a commitment to revisiting, revising, and editing for a larger audience.  Ultimately, students will post their pieces to Kidblog where their readers will have the opportunity to bless, address, or press their work.  Stay tuned to learn more!

After focusing on the background knowledge needed to appreciate Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry, students began reading the novel in earnest this week.  Readers were expected to annotate actions or words that revealed a character's personality.  It is my hope that this will lead the students to develop a deeper appreciation for a character's motives and actions.  Like the sharecropping simulation, my goal is for them to empathize with the victims in Taylor's powerful novel.

Friday, December 7, 2012

More Than Unfair

"This isn't just unfair, it's more than unfair," expressed a student this week while reflecting on her experience with sharecropping. Throughout the unit, students completed short reflections about what they were learning and how they were feeling. Over and over again, I heard about the imbalance of the system as well as its inherent unfairness. Daily, on the hallway bulletin board, I posted spring crop prices, fall harvest yields and prices, and a running record of individual profits. The groans, lamentations, and exclamations that I heard were evidence of their growing discontent. They were invested in their rented plots and quite critical of my earnings as a landowner. At the same time, they started to appreciate the unpredictability of Mother Nature as well as the market. Finally, at the end of the simulation students blogged more thorough reflections. In reviewing their posts, it was clear that they were empathizing with the real sharecroppers. One summed it up quite well, “I feel really sorry for what had happened to those people who lived at that time and I feel angry at the landowners. I wouldn’t think that someone would have such a cruel heart to want to see someone else suffer and be in pain. I think that what these landowners did is unjust and should’ve never happened. I also think that these sharecroppers had no freedom, because they were being controlled and they shouldn’t have been. I just think that this wasn’t right.” Another wrote, “During this simulation I almost felt played or scammed. I do not feel like I was treated fairly at all. I also felt really nervous at points while also scared because if we actually have to provide for our families, I would not survive.”

After students were finished blogging, I surveyed them regarding the effectiveness of the simulation. Anecdotally, they felt that they were able to walk a mile in the shoes of another and would have missed that opportunity with more traditional instruction. Anonymously, students were asked to respond to the following questions: What would have made the sharecropping simulation better? What could Mr. Dunning have done to improve his instruction? Multiple threads emerged. To begin, students wanted the simulation to last longer. Additionally, they wished that I had included living expenses and that I had thrown more difficulties their way in order to make the experience even more realistic. After reading their responses and completing my own reflection, I am convinced that the activity was a success and look forward to using my experience and their advice to improve this unit for next year.

The mantra of "show me, don't tell me" was the focus of our revision process this week, and composition students worked on adding specific details to their definition essays.  When writers offer accurate details, they create focused pieces in which readers can make clear pictures in their minds.  Likewise, the writer demonstrates expertise and knowledge regarding a topic when he or she uses details that are accurate, precise, and original.

In addition to revising their definition essays, students began planning personal narratives.  Inspired by the 1950's radio series, This I Believe, hosted by Edward R. Murrow, students will explore the values that inform the decisions they make in their daily lives.  They worked this week to define the term 'values' and began to determine which ones were held most dear by their families.  By the middle of next week, students will begin drafting personal narratives about their most fundamental beliefs.  I expect it to be an enlightening experience.

Friday, November 30, 2012

Shopping Lists and a Simulation

Preparing for Hope House - Click for Gallery
This week, sixth grade students worked feverishly to put together shopping lists, clip coupons, and secure funds for the annual Hope House service project.  One of their biggest challenges was narrowing down the thousands of food choices offered in a typical grocery store.  Students began by working within a number of parameters.  First, they were discouraged from purchasing anything that they would not eat themselves.  Next, with the exception of bread and some hardy produce (apples, carrots, and potatoes), only non-perishable food items were allowed.  Along with that, students were advised to make choices that would go the distance.  For example, cinnamon-raisin bread may be a delicious treat, but it is largely relegated to one meal - breakfast.  Whole-wheat bread, on the other hand, is more nutritious and could be used at any of the three meals.  Finally, students were asked to plan out breakfasts, lunches, and dinners.  They needed to consider all of the food groups for each one, while creating appetizing and complete meals.  For the upcoming week, students will continue to collect money and finalize their lists.  Then it's on to Piggly Wiggly!

After a couple of shortened weeks due to conferences and the Thanksgiving holiday, composition class is tying up some loose ends.  Students should be in a position to submit their definition essays for assessment, after another round of writing conferences next week.  At the same time, Six-Word Memoirs were finalized this week.  Students created a JPEG of their memoir on Wednesday and submitted it to me on Thursday.  Borrowing some of Apple's creative magic, I will create an iMovie that contains each one. The class also focused on a new writing strategy this week - power writing.  Every other day, students used the website,, to help increase both writing stamina and idea generation.  The site randomly selected a single word and displayed it on the SMART Board.  Writers were given just one minute to write what ever came to mind about that word.  Once the minute was up, words were counted and tracked as a means to monitor growth.  While it was certainly a quantitative task, by no means were students allowed to forget writing conventions.  One habit to which good writers adhere is writing as correctly as possible on the first attempt.  Although it was a challenging exercise, students were excited to do it and eagerly gave it their all, each time.  After monitoring and coaching students this week, I am ready to join them as they power write on Monday. 

In order to fully appreciate the historical context of Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry, it's important to understand the quandary of the newly freed slaves following the Thirteenth Amendment.  Freedmen were despised by white landowners and found themselves without money or job prospects. Because of hope, or maybe out of desperation, many quickly found themselves bound to a legalized form of slavery - sharecropping.  Some 147 years later, it can be difficult for people to empathize with this hopeless situation.  So that they might understand the struggles and challenges of sharecropping, literature students began a multi-day simulation in which they became tenant farmers on my expansive plantation.  They rented and farmed 10 acre plots for exorbitant fees and at the whim of both Mother Nature and supply and demand, just as those freedmen did so many years ago.  In no time at all, many found themselves hampered by severe debt or hanging on by a thread.  As they discussed their progress, students revealed that they felt scared, anxious, worried, and angry.  Those are feelings that I would have been unable to elicit through a simple demonstration or PowerPoint.  With the simulation lasting two more days, students will have some difficult choices to make.  I am eager to review their final reflections and interested to see how their participation in this activity will inform their interpretations of the novel.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Grandparents and Special Friends Day

Acknowledging writing by 'Raising the Roof.' Click to view gallery.

In this season of gratitude, I'd like to say that I am thankful for Grandparents and Special Friends Day here at USM.  Being able to witness this special occasion as both a parent and a teacher has provided me with a unique perspective.

Since the weekend, both of my Preprimary sons had been counting the hours until Grandparents and Special Friends Day.  "How many more days until Wednesday, Dad?  Is Grandparents Day tomorrow or the day after tomorrow?  When are Grandma and Grandpa coming to school?  Are they coming tomorrow?"  These questions, among others, were asked more times than I was able to count.  With barely contained anticipation, my PKer was out of bed and dressed before I finished showering this morning - an unusual occurrence at our house.  And, of course, the drive in this morning was peppered with excited concerns and questions from both boys regarding the logistics of the day.  While dropping them off at their classrooms, I became a little misty realizing how fortunate we were to have a close and healthy family. After an activity-filled morning, my oldest summed up the success of Grandparents and Special Friends Day,  "That was the best school day of my life!"

As a teacher, Grandparents and Special Friends Day provides me with an unmatched opportunity - intergenerational learning.  In composition class, students and their guests wrote and shared Random Autobiographies.  From writing about simple ideas like favorite colors and numbers, to more complex ones such as life experiences and personal symbols, it was a wonderful way for everyone involved to learn a little more about themselves and the people with whom they were sharing the day.  Literature classes explored storytelling.  Participants were asked to identify significant, historical events that they believed changed their lives.  Once identified, students and adults shared the stories of those singular moments.  Similar ideas surfaced in each group.  The lunar landing, JFK's assassination, the birth of the iPad, 9/11, the Civil Rights Movement, and the fall of the Berlin Wall were just a few of the many topics explored throughout the morning.  It was fascinating to listen to the stories that have shaped our lives and our world.

The Grandparents and Special Friends Day Committee deserves special thanks.  By organizing this amazing event, they have provided the school community with an experience that is priceless.  A day like today makes me realize just how fortunate my family is to be a part of the USM family.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Conferences and ERB's

It was great seeing so many of you at conferences last week!  I truly appreciated the opportunity to sit down and discuss your children's progress and learn a little more about how we can become better partners in their education.  When I turned off the lights and closed the classroom door Thursday night, I took a moment to reflect on what I had consistently heard over the last two days.  Clearly, you want a welcoming environment where your children enjoy learning and where they feel secure in sharing their thoughts and ideas.  At the same time, you desire teachers who have an interest in knowing your children as individuals.  What are they starting out with? Where could they go?  Their likes, needs, dreams, and fears are pieces of the puzzle necessary to helping them reach their academic potentials.  Finally, throughout the two days, I heard that you are trying to find the delicate balance between letting go and the need to manage your children.  In the end, I believe that we share the same goals and we want the same outcomes for your children.  We have a great opportunity to work together and ensure your children's continued school success and I look forward to watching them grow throughout the rest of the year.

Testing is underway this week in the sixth grade.  Monday through Thursday, students will follow a modified schedule, dividing their time between the ERB and their regular classes.  Knowing that the week can be stressful, the sixth grade team incorporated a variety of breaks into each day.  From daily physical education to regular morning snack time, students had many opportunities for movement and fuel.  In between tests, teachers led classroom brain breaks to help focus, energize, and stimulate the mind.  These activities help to strengthen neurological pathways as well as engage both sides of the mind.  The video clip below is an example of a brain break.

In between it all, we are still moving forward in literature and composition classes.  Students are presenting their book projects in literature class this week.  From newscasts to iMovies, I have been impressed with the text-to-world connections students have been making as they demonstrate their knowledge of the enduring understandings found in The Outsiders.  Once presentations have been completed, we will resume our study of the background knowledge needed to fully appreciate our next novel, Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry, by Mildred Taylor.  Composition students have started their exploration of the narrative writing genre.  Throughout second quarter, we will analyze mentor texts and practice a variety of narrative writing tasks.  We are beginning with the six-word memoir.  This type of short story was inspired by a legend involving Ernest Hemingway.  Supposedly, Hemingway was bet that he couldn't write a story in ten words or less.  He came back with: "For sale: baby shoes, never worn."  Hemingway's memoir has inspired countless writers to take the same bet.  This week, composition students will meet the challenge. So will I!

Friday, November 2, 2012

Pumpkins and Projects

Pumpkin Decorating - Click to view gallery
As a way to celebrate fall and take part in a community building exercise, advising students decorated pumpkins.  Starting last week, the kids formed teams and explored crafting websites that provided ideas for no-carve pumpkin designs.  Once they were inspired, teams worked to reach consensus on a design and then sketched their blueprints.  After finalizing a plan, material-gathering duties were assigned and teams prepared for this week's decorating festivities.  Thanks to the generosity of parents, classes were provided with pumpkins and students were able to enjoy cookies, pretzels, and apple juice while executing their design plans during advising class.  By the end of the period, we had two M&M pumpkins, a rainbow and cloud pumpkin, and one festooned with melted crayons - four great examples of student creativity!

Working on a book project - Click to view gallery
The Outsiders book project work was in full swing this week.  With these final assessments due on Wednesday, students were busily crafting detailed responses and presentations to S.E. Hinton's timeless story.  Could the novel 'unteach' prejudicial thinking?  Which ideas from the text remain relevant today? Are things 'rough all over' just like Cherry said? Some worked in groups while others worked on their own to uncover deeper meaning by connecting the text to their lives and the world around them.  Making these types of connections encourages students to draw on their prior knowledge and helps to improve critical thinking skills.  Final assessments are expected to be neatly done, logically organized, and grammatically correct.  Even more importantly, they need to provide a thoroughly elaborated response that includes multiple examples from the book as well as text-to-self and text-to-world connections. Not surprisingly, project types are running the gamut.  From skits to iMovies and posters to Prezis, students are embracing the task and developing many great ideas.  I look forward to viewing them next week.

In composition, students spent significant time drafting their definition essays and some have started to share their writing on Google Drive.  What may have seemed simple at first, proved to be more challenging as writers were faced with exposing the nuances of unexpectedly challenging terms.  Through multiple peer and teacher conferences, students began to develop organizational patterns for their ideas, and they started to look for examples from their own lives to help give substance to their writing.  At the same time, writing circle work is proving to be a much anticipated activity.  There is a definite buzz in the air when students arrive on Friday, drafts in hand and eager to share.  As both an observer and participant, I have watched students' response and feedback skills improve along with their writing.  In a few weeks, we will be switching to publishing circles and writers will be expected, with the guidance of their groups, to take a piece public.  It might be a little scary, but it will also prove to be a very rewarding experience.

Friday, October 26, 2012

Ignore the "Yucky Voice"

Jane Kelley at USM - Click to view gallery

This past Wednesday, sixth graders had the amazing experience of meeting Jane Kelley, author of Nature Girl and The Girl Behind the Glass.  Before Mrs. Kelley presented to both the fifth and sixth graders in the theater, sixth grade composition students talked with her more intimately in the Middle School Commons.  She shared many of the details of her writing process and, in doing so, validated what is being taught in composition classes.  To begin, she discussed the importance of the Writer's Notebook and how she uses it to gather and write through her ideas.  Mrs. Kelley stated that often her best ideas do not come when she is writing, but rather when she is walking.  She takes daily walks for inspiration and to get her creative juices flowing.  On a personal level, Mrs. Kelley allowed us a peek into her private writing environment and schedule.  It's hard to imagine, but she writes upwards of eight hours a day at a table looking out of her Brooklyn apartment window.  Often, her cat, Blackberry, walks back and forth across her papers and her laptop. Most importantly, Mrs. Kelley emphasized that writing is rewriting.  She described how revision excites her because it's like solving a puzzle.  "My dad was an engineer and I think I got it from him, " she explained. "I like fixing things and problem-solving."  She went on to state that she is grateful for rewriting because she can relieve herself of the idea that a piece has to be perfect the first time out.  It was wonderful to hear a professional writer confirm what students have been learning in class.

Once both grades assembled in the theater, Mrs. Kelley read aloud from Nature Girl and described some of the inspiration behind the story.  Throughout the novel, Megan, the protagonist, battles the "yucky voice" in her head - the voice of self-doubt.  Mrs. Kelley explained that this is the voice talking in our heads giving us all the reasons we will never reach our goals and dreams.  She quoted Sylvia Plath, "The worst enemy to creativity is self-doubt."  Rather than being intimidated by the blank page, Mrs. Kelley said we should be excited by it.  "Everybody has to start any creative process the same way - a blank page," she explained. "It's exciting because you can fill it with your ideas and plans."

Without a doubt, Mrs. Kelley encouraged some aspiring authors on Wednesday and, if nothing else, she inspired many of us to ignore the "yucky voices" in our heads.  She made me feel like I have novel inside just waiting to be written!

If students have any additional questions for her, Mrs. Kelley would welcome an email at

Playing Password - Click to view photo gallery

In preparation for The Outsiders vocabulary quiz, students spent some time reviewing this week.  Robert Marzano indicates that one of the most effective ways to review is by playing games.  Luckily for us, this proved to be a great opportunity to play Password.  While one student sits with her back to the SmartBoard, her team tries to get her to guess the vocabulary term projected on the screen. The clincher was that only the guesser could use words, the rest of the team was relegated to acting.  Not only was the game fun, but it was challenging and it forced students to activate different schema in order to be successful.  Students took the quiz on Thursday and can expect their grades on Monday.  After the three-day weekend, we will begin next week by working on The Outsiders book projects.

Friday, October 19, 2012

Which Did You Prefer?

 "I think the movie was amazing and I liked how in some parts they had things word for word from the book."

"If I had just watched the movie, I would have missed out on all that detail in the end." 

"The book was more vivid than the movie in the way that it described and had better examples of the characters' feelings" 

"Another reason I liked the book is because it made me feel like I was living in the moment and it was really happening." 

Those were just some of the many arguments that students wrote in defense of their favorite version of The Outsiders.  After critically viewing the movie this week, they had to decide on the version they preferred.  Not surprisingly, many advocated for the novel and its ability to engross the reader.  Over and over again, those in favor of the book cited their deep connections with the characters as the main reason for its superiority.  The feeling was not unanimous, however.  Many believed that the movie held the edge.  Those in that camp loved its intensity.  From its dramatic music to its visual appeal, the film adaptation of The Outsiders certainly earned its accolades.

After reading the novel and viewing the movie, there's just one thing left - assessment. Wrapping up The Outsiders Unit, students will develop projects based on the following ideas:
  • The Outsiders was published nearly 30 years ago, yet students still seem to relate to it today. What ideas in the novel do you find to be timeless? Explain.
  • Do you think reading The Outsiders would positively influence someone who is prejudiced against another class of people? Why or why not?
  • Do you agree with Cherry that “things are rough all over”? Provide examples from your own life.
  • What have you learned from this book that would be important enough to share with others?  Explain.
It will be exciting to guide them through this learning journey!

Making the Choice - Click to view photo gallery
Did you know that one dictionary lists 14 definitions for the word love? And those are just the nouns!  What exactly is love? Mr. Dunning loves his children and he loves chocolate ice cream, but it's not the same. As the sixth grade composition students quickly discovered, abstract ideas are complex and difficult to define.  Nuances are the name of the game when it comes to defining family, friendship, bravery, courage, strength, weakness, and love.  Students will be tackling these abstract ideas and others from The Outsiders as they work on their last expository writing piece - the definition essay.  After choosing a term, students started by looking at it from a variety of angles.  How could it be described?  What examples would best illustrate it?  What metaphor could be used with the term?  What conditions might cause the term?  What is the denotation (dictionary definition) of the word?  What are some synonyms for the idea?  How could the idea be sketched?  What is it not? With their peers as their audience, students will draft their extended definition essays next week.  Inevitably, we will all learn how complicated abstract ideas can be!

Friday, October 12, 2012

Farewell, Ponyboy

Heart Map - Click here to view photo gallery.
One of the greatest difficulties students face when they are writing is getting started.  'I don't know what to write about,' is a frequent refrain in the language arts classroom.  That is why it is so important for students to have a wellspring of readily-accessible topics.  One recurring mini-lesson in composition is generating ideas.  The fact is, kids have more topics on hand than they could ever use.  The key is unlocking those topics.  Earlier in the year, students created a list of their interests, pet peeves, concerns, personal causes, and areas of expertise.  We called these our writing territories.  This week, students created heart maps.  After drawing an outline of a heart, kids then filled it with people, journeys, secrets, milestones, and events that they hold dear.  By using techniques like writing territories and the heart map, writers tap into the vast resource of their experiences and flesh out meaningful seeds to grow their ideas.  Encourage your children to replenish their topic resources.  When they are struck by a new idea or an interesting experience, kids should pause and take a moment to add it to their lists.  It doesn't need to be written about now, but it could prove to be useful later. 

Sketching to Understand - Click here to view photo gallery.
The sad news this week is that we had to bid farewell to Pony, Darry, Two-Bit, and the gang.  Upon finishing the novel, students discussed how this is a book of hope.  In fact, as one particularly insightful student put it, "Hope is on every page, because this is Pony's story."  Next week students will start work on their assessments and spend some time comparing the film version of The Outsiders to the book.

One of the ways that students are learning new vocabulary is through their reading.  The Outsiders provided a wide array of terms for students to add to their repertoire.  As I am sure you can imagine, how vocabulary is taught should be systematic and based on solid research.  The Marzano method of instruction is both powerful and intuitive and has a lasting effect on student comprehension.  I have adapted this method for my classroom and have found it to be quite successful in increasing student vocabulary. I begin by providing a description, explanation, or example of the new term.  Part of this involves asking students what they already know about the term in order to help build an initial understanding.  Once I have introduced the term, I ask students to restate its description using their own words.  I often ask, "What does it mean to you?"  As students are creating their own descriptions, I circulate throughout the room to check for misunderstandings and misconceptions.  This is also a great time for students to share their new descriptions with a partner or in small groups.  Next, students need to draw a symbol, picture, or graphic to represent the term.  This is a very important step in the process, as it requires them to process information in a nonlinguistic manner.  As you can see in the photo above, students are encouraged to share and explain their sketches with the class.  In addition to the sketch, I also ask them to come up with an example of the term.  It is my hope that they can make a connection to the term through something that they have seen or experienced.  Finally, students are also encouraged to begin to think of ways in which the newly acquired term can enter their written and verbal communication.  I love to hear the terms used in our discussion or even find the terms used in their own writing!

Sunday, October 7, 2012

EdTechSandyK: Parent Concerns in a 1:1 iPad Initiative

I ran across this Sunday morning and felt that it might be valuable even though our sixth graders are not 1:1, yet.  It is excellent advice for any parent who may be concerned about the amount of screen time they may be observing at home.  Please feel free to share.

-Mr. Dunning

EdTechSandyK: Parent Concerns in a 1:1 iPad Initiative: Used With Permission  Under a Creative Commons License Last Sunday, I received a note via the contact form on my blog that was a first ...

photo credit: <a href="">courosa</a> via <a href="">photopin</a> <a href="">cc</a>

Friday, October 5, 2012

Fishbones and Claims

Fishbone Diagram

Did you know that some people eat gorillas as a cheap protein source or even as a status symbol?  Neither did the sixth grade composition students, until this week.  After reading "Gorillas in Crisis" by Kathleen Donovan-Snavely, students learned this and a myriad of other reasons as to why central and West Africa gorillas may be in trouble.  Working individually and in small groups, their task was to determine the root cause of this trouble as well as its possible effects while using a fishbone diagram like the one above.  Finally, students drafted individual summaries employing the fishbone diagram as a way to keep their ideas organized.  Mastering the summary is beneficial because it requires students to write clearly and concisely without resorting to plagiarism.  In addition to their summaries, students met with their writing circles on Friday.  Each circle had picked a topic last week, and students shared their drafts for those topics with their group members.  Writing was only limited by the topic and class-wide pieces reflected a variety of genres.  Circle members provided positive feedback for each writer in the form of "One thing I liked about your piece was..." Each week the groups will learn and practice additional kinds of response, and eventually the writer will get to choose which type he or she desires.  I have to admit, it was a little nerve-racking for me as I had to share my writing with a circle as well!  My topic for next week - animals.

Many students finished The Outsiders this week.  While they will need to have the book read by Monday, some just couldn't help themselves.  And can you blame them?  The last few chapters have had all of us on edge and biting our fingernails!  In addition to learning a number of new vocabulary terms, students wrestled with some big questions this week.  Should Cherry have helped the greasers? Who's most at fault for what happened to Johnny? Is Darry setting a good example for Ponyboy and Sodapop by joining in the rumble? Should Two-Bit have given Dally his knife?  These questions framed a group project that required students to reach consensus on an issue and to use evidence from the text to support their stance.  Each group had to present their opinion to the class and then were open to further discussion and questioning.  By practicing how to strengthen assertions using textual evidence, students gained a more profound understanding of a character's motivations.

Friday, September 28, 2012

Sharing and Acknowledging

Sixth Grade Field Day. Click picture to view photo gallery.
The week began with sixth grade's annual Field Day and everyone had a blast! We focused on community-building as students rotated through various activities that encouraged collaboration and group effort.  From Monkey in a Tree to Keep the Ball in the Air, everyone had an opportunity to be a part of something bigger than themselves.  It didn't hurt that we had a warm autumn day, either!

Peer Response.  Click picture to view photo gallery.
Composition centered on working with others as well.  After spending time drafting their comparison pieces and learning about block organization, students practiced their peer response and specific feedback skills.  In pairs, writers and reviewers looked for strong comparison points, author's purpose, word choice, elaboration, and clarity.  After receiving feedback, students returned to their work and began revising.  In their Story Grammar books, students analyzed how sentence tools add detail and interest to basic sentences.  Once again, they learned from the greats: Frances Hodgson Burnett, Thomas Rockwell, and Walter Dean Meyers provided excellent examples to study and mimic.  Finally, writing circles had their first official meeting on Friday.  As Jim Vopat, author of Writing Circles, states, "[Writing circles are] small groups of students meeting regularly to share drafts, choose common writing topics, practice positive response, and, in general, help each other become better writers" (1).  Once a week, for the remainder of the semester, groups will meet to share and respond to each other's writing.  Students will practice collaborative revision, editing, and publishing.  Additionally, finished work will be shared and celebrated.  Their first get-together involved instruction in working as a group, meeting consensus, and choosing a topic.  By next week Friday, each group member will be expected to bring a working draft to share with the group for peer feedback.  Every week, I will join a new group and become a part of the process.  Next Friday I have to bring a piece about bicycling.  I think I have the perfect accident - I mean idea!

Raise the Roof. Click picture to view photo gallery
One common way to respond to a poetry reading is by snapping your fingers.  In literature class, students were given that option along with many others as they listened to each other's work.  Before sharing their "Nothing Gold Can Stay" response poems, readers had the opportunity to tell their audience the type of acknowledgement they wanted.  Options included Roller Coaster, Fireworks, Shooting Star, and Sandpaper Kisses to name a few.  Needless to say, it was a hit and it gave students the extra courage needed to read.  In their Daybooks, students analyzed a short nonfiction piece titled, "It's All in How You Say It."  The true narrative chronicles a young girl's realization that her people are grossly misunderstood.  Not only did the piece thematically complement The Outsiders, it allowed students an opportunity to practice what an author is inferring about the main idea.  Speaking of The Outsiders, the end is near and the predictions are flying.  Will Johnny die?  Will Pony and his brothers be separated?  What will happen during the rumble?  Could the Socs and greasers reconcile their differences? At the same time, students explored the dangers of labeling, considered the significance of limits and rules, and examined the relationship between Johnny and the gang.  Wrapping up the novel next week will certainly be bittersweet.

Friday, September 21, 2012

Comparing and Responding

This week in composition we used our Story Grammar books to review subjects and predicates.  Students were reminded that the topic of the sentence is the subject, while the comment about that topic is the predicate.  Students analyzed sentences from Christopher Paolini, Jack London, Beverly Cleary, and many other authors.  Some sentences were quite complex with as many as four subjects and three predicates!  Having a solid understanding of the purpose and function of subjects and predicates will go a long way toward helping students construct better sentences.  Additionally, we began our study of comparison writing.  We took a close look at infographics and writing samples in order to develop an understanding of the purpose of this type of writing.  We also evaluated the effectiveness of each example by looking at what worked well in each one.  Here are two intriguing examples of comparison pieces that we looked at this week:


By the end of the week, students were brainstorming topics to compare and they were organizing their current knowledge.  Some realized that they may have to do a little research in order to insure that they have accurate details and specifications.

During literature class, students studied S.E. Hinton's use of Robert Frost's poem, "Nothing Gold Can Stay."  They considered the significance of Hinton's poetry choice as well as Ponyboy's intent when he recited it for Johnny.  We analyzed the poem by looking at its structure, language, rhythm and rhyme scheme, and it's theme.  With their apologies to Frost, students composed response poems in the spirit of "Nothing Gold Can Stay."  Topics for the poems had to focus on change and ideas ranged from the seasons and growth to friends and time.  Their work should be ready for publication early next week.

Friday, September 14, 2012

Homecoming Week

What a week!  From the excitement of our first all-school pep rally to Back to School Night, the middle school has been abuzz with excitement.  There is no question we have certainly had our fun this week.  That being said, the students' dedication to their school work remained strong. Click the picture below for more Homecoming Week pictures.

Homecoming 2012
In composition, we began the week analyzing and mimicking sentence structures used by the masters.  By breaking fantastically written sentences into their parts and then imitating them, students were able to learn by observation and practice.  And who better to teach us about great writing than J.K. Rowling, Katherine Patterson, Madeleine L'Engle, and Roald Dahl?  Students were excited to share their newly created sentences, especially if Mr. Dunning was the subject!  We also continued work on our How-To pieces.  We paid particular attention to using elaboration and details in order to convey a clear and concise message.  Additionally, we began to practice positive response.  Students learned how to give specific praise as well as constructive feedback.  While it will certainly take some time to master those skills, the class was off to a good start as they shared and commented on each other's pieces.

During literature class, we read Ray Bradbury's short story, "All Summer in a Day."  Students discussed how to make valid predictions and then did so as they read the story.  Many astutely pointed out the connection between the protagonist in The Outsiders and the one in the short story.  We also finished Chapter 3 and Chapter 4 of The Outsiders.  Chapter 4 is considered the turning point of the novel, and students recorded passages that they felt were significant.  For each one, they needed to provide evidence of their thinking.

Advising class was dedicated to Dodec presentations.  This community building activity was a great opportunity to learn a little more about each other and to practice our speaking and listening skills. Click on the picture below to see more pictures from the presentations.

Zachary's Dodec

Friday, September 7, 2012

Making Connections

This week, students spent time learning how to make connections to what they are reading.  This skill is particularly important because connections allow the reader to develop a deeper understanding of the text, relate to characters, and understand motives.  At the same time, being able to connect with a text exposes its relevancy in the present, regardless of when it was written. Since The Outsiders was first published in 1967, students often ask why we still study it today.  This is a great question that can be answered, in large part, by whether the message of the story is still relevant.  By making connections to other texts, themselves, and the world around them, students began to understand the significance of what they read.

We started the process by considering what it means to be an outsider and an insider.  Students analyzed aspects of their lives where they felt they had fallen into one category or the other.  They also looked at social groups in the school and evaluated whether they were welcoming or exclusive.  Answers and thoughts varied, but in the end, students felt that USM is an example of a safe, kind, and welcoming environment.  Students also discussed judging others by appearances.  Though many felt it was wrong, there was an overwhelming admission to having done it.  Lastly, the classes addressed the issue of violence and why teenagers seem to be more violent today than even 10 or 15 years ago.  Many felt that teen violence could be attributed to a number of factors: environment, exposure, poor problem-solving skills, and a lack of self-control.  It turned out to be a deep conversation, but a rewarding one, nonetheless.

As students delve deeper into The Outsiders, they will continue to wrestle with these issues and confront the present through the past.  Check out more pictures of our discussion by clicking on the picture below.

Discussing The Outsiders

Friday, August 31, 2012

Welcome Back!

Margo's Calligram

 Welcome back to another exciting school year at USM!  After settling in last week, students really got back into the swing of things.  In composition, we started to learn a little about each other and ourselves by creating shoe calligrams.  Calligrams are words, phrases, and even poems visually arranged to look like the object they are representing.  After thinking about nouns and adjectives that students felt described themselves, they created similes and metaphors that exemplified those words.  At the same time, they considered how those nouns, adjectives, similes and metaphors might also be similar to a shoe.  For example, if I described myself as sleepy, quiet, and a little lazy, a loafer might be a good representation of those characteristics.  I am as laid-back as a loafer.  Quiet, methodical, and in need of a nap.  Once the students had numerous descriptive phrases, similes, metaphors, adjectives, and nouns, they began to arrange them in the shape of their shoes.  Check out the one above or click on the link to the right for more examples.

Blackout Poetry

In literature we created found poetry using pages from The Lightning Thief.  Specifically, students created blackout poems.  These poems are crafted by using words or phrases found on a page from the novel.  By blacking-out the surrounding text, students were able to create new meaning. As you can see, they turned out beautifully!

Friday, April 6, 2012

April 2 - April 5

As we are winding down traditional Greek Mythology, we are ramping up for a modern twist: The Lightning Thief.  Starting on Monday, students engaged in numerous pre-reading activities designed to encourage collaboration and background knowledge.  Yesterday, students had written (no talking allowed) discussions involving the following questions:
  1. Do you believe in anything that science can’t prove -- such as magic, or ghosts, or creatures like the Loch Ness monster?  Why or why not?
  2. You have been granted one magical item of your choice. What would this item be, and what power would it have? Explain your choice.
  3. Have you ever learned something in school you were absolutely sure you would never use in your life? Explain.
Each question was placed in the middle of a large sheet of butcher paper and students posed questions, wrote reactions, and responded to others using their favorite markers.  It was amazing how intense discussions and arguments could be while the room remained silent!

Students are also beginning the process of writing their own myths.  Each myth needs to explain a natural phenomenon and contain a Greek god or goddess.  Beyond that, students have the freedom to use their creative juices.  It will be exciting to read their original myths