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Lessons For Teaching Essay Writing Digitally!

If you're looking for a way to teach text-based writing DIGITALLY for middle school, then you need to read this post!

With “back to school” looking like distance (digital) learning or at least blended learning, I began to think how I would teach writing to my middle school students.

I know that students need a structured plan to develop a well-organized, logical piece of writing with proper citation, so I went to work!

First I started with writing texts. This way I could ensure they were meaty enough without being too long.  For the informative unit, the text set is based on National Parks and Monuments:  Mount Rushmore and Pipestone National Monument.  For the argumentative unit, the texts are based on the lost city of Atlantis.

Text-based DIGITAL Essay Lessons that are Ready to Use!  Just assign through any learning management system!

Then I made some notes. The idea is students can use these to look back on whenever they write an essay. The notes I made are interactive guided notes on Google Slides. They’re a blend of traditional two-column notes with fill in the blanks for key ideas on the right and spaces for picture flaps to serve as memory cues on the left.

You don't need a course on how to make essay writing lessons digital, you need ready to use lessons for your middle school students!  Find out about them here!
Next, I made videos that match the notes and embedded them into the slides. Besides revealing the words that go in the blanks on the notes, I explained and showed how to read and mark the text, how to cite evidence, how to write commentary, and more! 

The best part of the videos is the fact that students can watch some or all of the videos as much as they want. This is great for students that are learning English. Plus they serve as a great reference for later on down the road.

Together the notes and the videos teach the writing process, introduction paragraph, body paragraphs, counterclaim paragraph and argumentative essays, and the conclusion paragraph.

The writing process section teaches students to read the prompt, flip the prompt (by turning the prompt into a thesis “skeleton”), and read mark the text. Later, after we have gone through all the pieces and parts of an essay, the writing process will pick back up with planning, editing and revising.  There is a video for planning AND for learning how to use the planning to write the essay!

How would it feel to have 2 weeks of lessons done (per unit) and to know that you have set a firm foundation for writing essays in a distance learning/blended learning situation?
The introduction paragraph section teaches students the hook, the bridge transition sentence, and the thesis.  This is a foundation of the minimum of what an introduction must have.

The body paragraph section teaches students to write a topic sentence, evidence citation sentences, commentary sentences, and a conclusion sentence that flips the topic sentence.

In the argumentative unit, the counterclaim paragraph section teaches students to feature the other side, affirm with evidence, underscore the essay's position, cite evidence, explain with commentary and write a conclusion sentence.

The conclusion paragraph section teaches students to affirm the thesis, trim the point, and end with a call to action.

All together there is a lot of video instruction with texts, digital guided notes and self-grading Google Forms quizzes along the way.

How would it feel to have 2 weeks of lessons done (per unit) and to know that you have set a firm foundation for writing essays in a distance learning/blended learning situation?

Try a FREE SAMPLE of my argumentative unit by clicking here.

Try a FREE SAMPLE of my informative unit by clicking here.

If you’re ready to save time, energy, and frustration by trying to make all of this yourself, you can get these units for 35% off by clicking here and using code 35OFF2020. This is the lowest price these units will ever be as this price is just $1 more than the matching sets of paper-based notes.

I hope these units help you teach your middle school students how to write a text-based essay through distance/blended learning and give you more time to be available for your students!

Thanks for stopping by!

Middle School Social and Emotional Learning At Home

This post is sponsored by The Allstate Foundation.  All opinions are my own.

Help your middle school students develop their social emotional skills of teamwork, empathy, communication and many more using the ideas and activities in this free guide from The Allstate Foundation!  #sponsored

This school year, I taught a social skills class for students with special needs. We focused on broad topics like self-awareness, self management, and more. Within those areas, students learned skills like teamwork, empathy, and communication. For example, we defined empathy as “showing others that you understand how they feel“. Many students do not instinctively know how to do this. As a result, they inadvertently upset others. When this happens, the struggling student typically does not understand why others are upset. This leads to feelings of anger or sadness that can carry over into many, if not all, other parts of their life and negatively impact their social lives as well as their academic lives.

As you can see, for these struggling students, these types of social emotional skills have to be directly taught through examples, step-by-step plans, and practice to avoid these kinds of negative results. However, once we were in a distance learning environment, it was challenging to actively practice the skills in “class” and even more challenging to fully trace the development of those skills with my students.

We met online, but it was so different than meeting in person at school. I tried to engage the students in conversations to determine how they were managing their emotions and offer encouragement. Then I tried to promote the interactions between the students in the class to help them with communication and maintaining their relationships through this online “class”.  It was the best I could do and it didn’t last more than an hour a week due to our school's policy to balance the many other online lesson students had to attend. Since it’s such a tough class to teach remotely, I have often wondered what I could possibly send home to their families to help them support their students with their social skills.

I was not having much luck finding anything suitable as most resources out there are for teachers or students and not families, but then I was made aware of the 'Happy, Successful Teens' Social Emotional Learning (SEL) Parent Guide from The Allstate Foundation. Not only does it provide practical ready to use ideas like ways to say things to encourage self management, questions to ask to get conversations going, and specific things to try to make problem-solving interesting, it’s FREE! Honestly, it’s almost like a summary of my class. So it’s perfect to send home to support my students at home and it’s especially timely now that the school year has ended to keep the learning going during the summer. You can get your own free copy by clicking here!

I am so happy to have this resource because social emotional skills are critical for student success and almost every aspect of life.  This guide helps me help my students even though I am at a distance and I think it will help my families feel more connected and able to support their students too.

This post was written as part of The Allstate Foundation and WeAreTeachers SEL Parent Guide campaign, and sponsored by The Allstate Foundation. All opinions are mine. The Allstate Foundation empowers young people – and those that guide and teach them – with social and emotional skills to build character and transform lives. Learn more at www.allstatefoundation.org .

The Wild West of Distance Learning

These are my top 3 Middle School Distance Learning Tips after my first week in the Wild West!

I have added a new hat to my collection of teaching hats.  Introducing my Distance Learning Wrangler hat!

It's been a wild first week, but I have learned a lot:

1.  Less is more

We have been instructed to have 2 lessons per week with assignments that last no more than 30 minutes per day.

Some teachers are filling each of their 30 minutes per day.  I am taking a less is more approach.  I have posted 2 videos with a matching worksheet and one small 10 question "quiz".  Students have 7 days to complete them. As a result, I have had 100% participation and completion!

It's the less stress approach for me, my students and my students' parents.  I have even been thanked for it.

2.  Give everyone a little grace.

This is new for all of us.  We will make mistakes.  Some things will work great and others....well, not so well.  It's trial and error here in the Wild West and that's ok.

We will need time away from "school".  We cannot be on the computer for all the hours.  Make sure you take time away.  I have honestly found being on the computer all day is actually very tiring!  All.those.emails.

When giving that grace, we all need encouragement.  I made these little digital "postcards" to send to my students:

Free Verbal Encouragement Postcards to give your Middle School students some inspiration during distance learning!

They're available in my Resource Library!

3.  Think outside the box

My principal actually told us there is no box.  He wants us to try new things.  Think of new ways to deliver instruction.  So I have been thinking...

The first issue is that there is too much "out there" to look at and explore.  What we all need is a simple plan:

1.  What do we want the students to learn?
2.  How can we deliver the lesson?
3.  How will we know if the students are learning it?

NOW we can plug in the new digital tools and have FUN with it!  Yee Haw!  Some of the digital tools I am currently tinkering with are Nearpod, Flipgrid, and Padlet.  I already use Quizlet for vocabulary and Quizizz for review.  

But then again, Less is More - which is why I have focused on making videos to deliver my instruction.  Live lessons are fun, but students have too many to keep track of.  After the lesson, I include a notes or activity page (maybe I'll insert some new cool digital tool here) and a short Google quiz.  Requirements met!

Did you know you can record your voice in a PowerPoint presentation?  Click Slide Show then Record Slide Show.  When you're done recording, save the file as an mp4.  That's a video file!  Now you can upload your video to your LMS (Learning Management System) like Google Classroom or Canvas or even YouTube (if you want to impress your cowpokes).

I have been busy making these videos for my students and have converted many of my paper-based lessons into digital:

Easy to implement distance learning reading lessons for Middle School!

These lessons are ready to go with links that can be shared in any Learning Management System like Google Classroom or Canvas.  Click here to see the bundle which will show you all the individual lessons.

You can also check out my public YouTube playlist of videos that I use as introductions to many of my lessons by clicking here.  

I hope some of my experiences help you with your own Wild West Adventure.  Follow me on Instagram for more of my wrangling!  :)

Thanks for stopping by!

Middle School ELA Help for School Closings: E-Learning Resources

Need help preparing for Middle School E-Learning?  There are many free resources here to get you started!

As you may know, I am a teacher too - I'm still in the classroom and in my 26th year.  That means I understand all too well how difficult school clsoings and the idea of remote learning will be for all of us.

That's why I reached out to all of you who follow me on various social media outlets and asked what you need.

Many shared that they are concerned about test prep and teaching writing.  A group of secondary ELA educators have joined together to bring you a shared folder full of ELA resources that can support your e-learning journey.

Get FREE Middle School ELA E-Learning Resources in this Shared Folder up to May 1, 2020.

As you may also know, I am the co-admin of the #2ndaryELA Facebook group.  This community has many shared resources also available in a shared folder.  These resources, however, are not exclusively digital.  Even so, they may help you with designing your own.

Join the #2ndaryELA Facebook group which gives you the resources you want from the teacher community you need!

Last, but not least, there are resources in the resource library on this blog.  I have just added a free argumentative essay video where where I go through the entire process of writing that kind of essay using texts from NewsELA and a prompt based on our state's test (I am in Florida).  I include the prompt and links to the texts so you could choose to use this with your students if it suits you.

Great video for teaching the text-based argumentative essay with embedded counterclaims remotely!

I also converted a citing evidence lesson into an e-learning lesson that you can get for free by clicking here.  

Help your middle school students learn how to cite evidence with this FREE e-learning lesson!

I sincerely hope these things help get you through the next few weeks and that you stay strong mentally and physically!

Thanks for stopping by!

Top 3 Ways to add Student Choice into your Middle School Classroom

Need more engagement from your middle school students?  Try adding in one of these 3 ways to incorporate student choice into your classroom!

I get the most engagement from my students when they have some control over what they are learning or how they are learning it.  

But when I say "student choice" do you picture chaos and problems?  Or do you think "It would be nice, but it's not practical"?

I am here to tell you that student choice can be both structured and functional.

How?  Well there are a few ways actually...

1.  Using Centers or Stations

If you have ever tried centers before in a middle school classroom, you have probably experienced a lot of off -"taskness".  This could be because you tried to set up tables around your crowded room that made it difficult for you to see everyone in the room at the same time.  Or it could be because the accountability wasn't quite right.

Here's what I suggest:  to make centers work in middle school, bring the centers to the groups.  

1. Put all the items needed for the center in some kind of basket or bin and have just the baskets or bins rotate from group to group.
2.  Give each student a checklist of the centers with a specific question (or questions) that they will have to answer upon successful completion of the tasks.
3.  Give a very specific time frame and use a timer to stick to it.

These 3 simple steps make centers a much more viable option to set students up for success.

But what does this have to do with student choice?  Well, in my classroom, I have let students choose their groups.  And then you know that question I said I would add to a checklist?  I used that to create a little friendly competition in my room between the groups.  

To do this, I randomly asked students the questions from the checklist.  If a student gave the correct answer, their whole group got a point.  If not, then the whole group lost a point.  I kep a running tally for a period of time and the group with the most points won bonus points on a test or a tardy pass or some other kind of pass.  

The students chose the groups so they had to choose wisely.  ;)

2.  Using menus or choice boards.

In my class, I like to use menus for remediation and enrichment after the students have taken a quiz on a concept.  Students who scored 80% or higher get an enrichment menu while those that scored less than 80% get an enhancement menu.  

The menus look identical but have different choices on them. I limit my choice to two.  One is more analytical and the other is more creative.  There is a rubric so that students know how it will be graded.

On menu days, I review our class agreements (rules) and set every clear expectations about time.  We begin by reading the menu choices silently.  Then I ask students to raise their hands at th end of that time if they are unable to make a choice.  Those are the students that I visit right away and have them choose a slip of paper from a basket that either says "1" or "2". The idea is that if they can't choose, a choice will be made for them (important life lesson!).  I use a visual timer and orient students to it during the work period based on the time frames I gave at the beginning of the class.  

Check out the theme unit inside my resource library to see an example of how I use remediation and enrichment menus first hand!

This is very successful because students are working on what they need to be successful and they have had a say in how they are learning it!

3.  Project-based Learning

Menus could be seen as a form of project based learning as they are kinds of mini-projects.  But there are also much longer term projects that one could choose to have his/her students complete.

I used to have a day that I called "Workshop Day" or "Investigation Lab" Day.  Whatever concept we were working on - say theme for example, there would be a list or projects that a students could choose to do to process that information and demonstrate understanding. My advanced students particularly loved this assignment because they felt like they had more control - and they did.  Of course, I provided a rubric and generally speaking students met those requirements with very little issue.  

The students that struggle with this, are usually my lower level students.  They need more structure in the form of a checklist or in a very structured project like this one:

Have your middle school students complete a project based learning research project with a twist by researching a trip for their Pine Cone Pets!
Learn more about this project by clicking here!

This is a fun research project with a twist  - students research a trip for their Pine Cone Pets!  My 6th graders had a lot of fun making their pine cone pets and then planning out the trip with full directions.  

Certainly there are even more ways to add student choice into your middle school classroom but these are my top 3 that have been tried and tested in my real middle school classes.  I hope they help you increase engagement in your class too!

Thanks for stopping by!

Accommodations, Modifications & Differentiation - Oh My!

Get the scoop on accommodations, modifications and diferentiation with some tried and true teaching ideas!  #strategies #intheclassroom

As a support facilitator for students with special needs, I am teamed up with a few different teachers each year.  The questions I am asked always revolve around the difference between accommodations, modifications and differentiation.  

The difference between Accommodations and Modifications

Accommodations are listed on a student's IEP (Individualized Education Plan), 504 Plan, or ELL (English Language Learner) plan and are designed to assist the student in attaining grade level standards.  Accommodations change HOW the student learns.  They are things like extra time and oral presentation of items and answer choices and are specificially listed on the plan. 

For example, Sally is reading below grade level.  During the class study of a specific non-fiction text,  the teacher has Sally listen to the text.  Sally is still listening to the same grade level text and so there has only been a change to HOW she is accessing that text.

Modifications, on the other hand, are changes to WHAT is expected to be learned.  This likely means that students with modified curriculum are not working on grade level standards.  

For example, Jordan is reading below grade level.  During the class study of a specific non-fiction text, the teacher gives Jordan the same content written at a lower grade level.  Now Jordan is no longer working on grade level.  This changes WHAT Jordan is expected to learn.

I admit that it is tempting to change what you expect from a student with special needs or who is learning English, but those students need those grade level standards if they are expected to take grade level state assessments.  This is where differentiation can help!

So where does differentiation fit in?

Differentiation is essentially creating multiple pathways to reach the standard.  They are different from accommodations because these are instructional methods.  Differentiation can be things like:
Menus are one way to give middle school students a different pathway to mastering the standards in the classroom.  Read on for more!  #strategies #ideas #teaching
Menus from my FREE Theme Unit.
  • guided notes
  • using acronyms
  • menu options for demonstrating understanding
  • word banks
  • fill-in-the-blank "cloze" assignments (free examples in my resource library.)
  • processes being broken down into steps
  • Using Google Read and Write to have text read aloud and to convert speech to text
  • Using Cooperative Learning Strategies like Kagan Strategies
  • Using other physical movement "games"/gallery walks

These are, in essence, new ways to do ordinary things that provide pathways for students to learn content, experience different ways to process that information and produce various products.  

Notice that none of these options changes the expectations of learning the standard.  They just provide many ways to get there.  

Do these take time?  Yes, they do!  If you work with a team or PLC, I hope that each person is willing to help create some of these items.  Although, I know they are probably just as overloaded as you are.  I get it.  I'm still in the classroom too.  What's helped me is that I've been in the classroom for while now (I'm in my 26th year of teaching) so I've made many differentiated things over the years and have quite a collection at this point.  Reaching all learners is my passion and that's why I do what I do here.

Here are some of my ready-to-go resources that utilize some of the differentiation strategies I mentioned above:

Argumentative Vocabulary Interactive Guided Notes

  • Reading Units with menu options for content, process & product that allow you to teach, reteach and enrich - all ready to go!

The Bottom Line

All students in a general education class should be working to reach grade level standards.  Some students have accommodations to help them reach those standards.  Some even receive the service of support facilitation.  Where I'm from, this means a person like me comes to their general education class as little as once per week and as much as 5 times per week to assist them with understanding and completing their work.  In the end though, mastery of grade level standards is required.  This can be achieved in multiple ways but not by changing what a student is expected to learn.

For the teachers with whom I work, this takes some of the pressure off of them because now they realize everyone should get the same information but how we deliver the information is where we can be creative and look for ways to help reach all learners.  

I hope some of the ideas I shared above give you some new ideas or can save you time as you work to help all students learn!

Thanks for stopping by!

Teaching Argumentative Essay Writing

Get some new ideas for teaching Argumentative Essay writing to your middle school students!  #strategies #ideas #tips

Having been in the classroom for 26 years this year, I have had a lot of experiences with essay writing.  I've been invloved in teaching using various programs, styles and state mandates.  As a result, I've tried A LOT of different methods and experimented with A LOT of different ideas.

However, there are some things that always remain the same.  Like the fact that students need to know basic vocabulary before they be expected to use that vocabulary.  I think far too often, teachers assume students know the definitions, when really they don't.  Good, fundamental writing never changes either. One will always need a thesis, evidence and commentary.  How one puts this all together can be a topic for debate, but overall, what I am sharing here has been the common thread throughout my teaching career.

Teaching Argumentative Essay Writing

1.  I always start with vocabulary for Argumentative Essays.  

We define words like cite, evidence, irrelevant, relevant, claim, opposing claim and so on.  We actually keep a notebook with these terms along with pictures to help us remember them.

I always start with vocabulary when I teach my middle school students how to write an argumentative essay!  #teaching #strategies

Then we practice with the words by playing dominoes. Students really need to have these words committed to memory before moving on to the next phase.  

2.  Next we focus on the structure of the Argumentative Essay.  

At my school, we currently teach text-based essay writing with a counterclaim paragraph.  So that means we have an introduction with a hook (background information), an arch (bridge/transition sentence), and a thesis followed by 2 paragraphs that provide evidence for the claim, 1 counterclaim paragraph and finally a conclusion.

I break down this instruction step-by step and paragraph by paragraph.  We start with reading the prompt, then flipping the prompt, and finally reading and marking the text.  We record all of this in our notebooks too.  

Then as we explore what needs to be in each paragraph, each sentence is broken down into what it must contain and the order in which it must appear.  This is the foundation.  Of course as students become more proficient, they will add in more word choice and voice to demonstrate their maturity.  However, until then, they need a formula to follow.

I teach my middle school students a step-by-step process for writing argumentative essays as a foundation.  #strategies #tips

My formula is:

Introduction =HAT  (Just like you put a hat on the top of your head, you put a hat on the top of your essay.)
Hook (background information about the texts)
Arch (Bridge transition sentence)

Body = ACEIT  (Ace it)
Answer with a claim and reason
Cite Evidence
Expalin with Commentary
Ingeminate (fancy word that means to repeat - repeat the cycle fo cite and explain with NEW evidence)
Top it off with a conclusion

Counterclaim = FAUCET (turn it up!)
Feature the other side
Affirm the evidence
Underscore the essay's position
Cite Evidence
Explain with commentary
Top it off with a conclusion

Conclusion = ATT (What's the last thing you grab before you leave home?  You phone, your AT & T!)
Affirm the thesis
Trim the point
The call to action

My notes use this formula and I also have a FREE Word Wall that matches this formula.  This helps my students not only remember key words but also the structure of the essay too!

3.  Finally, we practice!

Some people think practice means writing essay after essay. Nope!  That's too much for the students and W-A-Y too much to grade!  

So, may I first suggest collaborative essay writing?

This is a great way to practice argumentative essay writing without tons of grading!  #teaching #middleschool

This activity requires students to read and mark a text first and then work together to write an essay.  It is task card based and there is one task card for each sentence in the essay.  I put students in groups of 4 and taped a task card to each desk.    

Let's say, for example, that one of the questions asked "What is the best hook for this essay?"  The students would work together to choose the best answer and write the answer out in its entirety on their answer sheet next to the number on the sheet that matched the number on the card.  

When the group was done with all 4 task cards, I moved them to another group of cards.  When the students had filled in every box on the answer sheet, they had an essay!  Now all they had to do was divide it up into separate paragraphs using their organizer.

I used this activity with an all English Language Learner class and as we were completing this activity, all I kept hearing was "Oh!  Now I get it!".  I think this was because looking at the choices and having to talk it out really made them think!

Now that things are clicking, students are hopefully ready for the Essay Challenge!  

Give your middle school students this essay challenge with a reward and they will WANT to practice essay writing!  #teaching #ideas

This challenge requires students to go through each step of the writing process and write most of an argumentative essay.  As they complete each step accurately, they get your initials and one puzzle piece.  

By the end of the designated time (it was 5 days in my class), students earn whatever their assembled puzzle shows.  Some students only earned a few items but other earned the entire puzzle worth of treats!  Our puzzle was of "mud pies" - pudding cups with all kinds of mix-ins - but you could choose any reward!   The students were motivated by the challenge of earning all their puzzle pieces and they were learning at the same time!

I hope some of these ideas help your students experience more success with text-based argumentative essay writing.  They have helped my students earn perfect scores of "10" and many 6, 7 and  8s.  And this was not just my advanced students - my students with special needs and those learning English earned these scores too so I know these ideas work!

Thanks for stopping by!

Plan out your Argumentative Essay Writing Lessons using some or all of these strategies!  #teaching #ideas