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Top 4 Informative Essay Writing Teaching Hacks


Use my 4 Informative Essay Teaching Hacks to Help Your Middle School Students "Get it"!

As a special needs teacher, I am often asked what ideas I have for making content accessible for struggling students.  And essay writing is the most asked-about topic of them all. 

I think students think of writing as complete and utter drudgery because they just don't get it. Many times teachers give examples of writing and even complex acronyms to try and remember the order of items that need to be in paragraphs, but the students still don't “get it”.  
So what do I do?  Here are my Top 4 Informative Essay Writing Hacks: 

Informative Essay Hack #1:  Use the writing process

When I say use the writing process, I mean this:
  1. Read the prompt
  2. Flip the prompt
  3. Read and Mark the text
  4. Teach each kind of paragraph *
  5. Plan
  6. Write
* Number 4 isn't really part of the writing process and it's not something I teach my students as a step - it's just something I do when I am teaching essay writing for the first time each year.

I know there's a huge temptation to teach just the body paragraph first and I get that.  And I think when it's taught separately from essays completely, it can work.

For years, we taught central idea/theme and citing evidence as our first unit.  We would read a novel and keep a double-entry journal.  That worked very well for us in teaching students how to write an academic paragraph that later severed as a body paragraph.

However, to just throw up a thesis (that the students had no hand in writing) and then provide some kind of acronym and expect students to just "get it" is probably not going to work because it's not connected or grounded in anything. Students need to understand the process.

Informative Essay Hack #2:  Teach each kind of paragraph in the essay

This is from "step" #4 above.  As I am teaching essay writing for the first time in the school year, I pause before planning to teach/review each kind of paragraph in the essay.  I mean how can they plan if they don't know what belongs in the essay?

To do this, I created notes that break down the minimum number of sentences and what should be in each sentence.

For example, the minimum number of sentences in an introduction paragraph should be 3: Hook, Arch (Bridge/Transition), and Thesis. 

Step-by-step notes for each paragraph type in an essay is the way to help struggling Middle School writers "get it"!

Students have a definition and an example using the prompt and text we already used in steps 1, 2, and 3.

I continue this all the way through the conclusion and then we plan.

Informative Essay Hack #3: Use a great planning sheet

In my class, I use a special kind of planning sheet.  It's a kind of flow map with sentence starters. It visually shows the progression of the essay and doesn't leave too much room so students aren't tempted to write out full sentences.  

We don't encourage our students to write out full sentences because essay writing has been historically timed so we need to make sure our students have enough time to write out the essay.

Using an informative essay planning sheet with sentence starters with your Middle School students is a great way to get them on the right track!

Get a FREE copy of my informative essay planning sheet by clicking here.

Informative Essay Hack #4:  Practice without writing entire essays

Students need to practice their essay-writing skills, that's for sure - but to write a complete essay every time is just too much work for everyone!

Instead, I use 
task cards - Students can get up and move if you play Scatter!
digital puzzles - We have to include some digital in our lessons.
cloze activities - Fill in the blank review which could also double as a quiz
collaborative essays - get students working together
Essay challenge activity - as students complete the sections, they can earn a reward!  

I even have bell-ringers for a week that do nothing other than have students practice introduction paragraphs for example.  


I know all of these things can take a lot of time to create and prepare because it's taken me years to develop these things into activities that not only do the job but produce results as well!

I put most of them together in this 5 week curriculum:

OR if you just want to get the basics, try my fundamentals unit:

When you purchase items on my site, updates are always available and a link to re-download your purchase is sent directly to your email when they are made.

They are both available on Teachers Pay Teachers too:

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Use my 4 Informative Essay Teaching Hacks to Help Your Middle School Students "Get it"!

4 Great Results From Competitive Teams in Middle School


Find out the 4 Things that Made Competitive Teams Worth It In Middle School

There are many ways to run a classroom and in general, positive reinforcement systems work well for me.  I have written before about my ticket system that I have used for many years with great success.

But this year was... different.  Now that we are on the other side of the pandemic, students are... different.  It was time to change some things because I found that students didn't understand things like how to work with others, how to be unselfish, what it meant to be dependable, and so on.

Enter "Teams and Themes" from Jon Davis of The Courageous Classroom.  Mr. Davis does a phenomenal job of explaining a very well-thought-out system based on his experience as a Marine.  There are many tenets from that program that I use and some that I needed to simplify and adapt for my students.  

The basic premise is that students work in teams and each member of the team has a job - including team leaders - and they work to be the winning team of the month.  Winning teams receive coupon books that help them "hack the class".  Teams are awarded points for meeting our classroom agreements and for demonstrating the "Traits of Excellence".  They can also lose points when they do not demonstrate these things and can be required to complete reflections.

I have to say, the results have been rather amazing!

Competitive Teams Results:

1.  Teams Instill Leadership

The students who became team leaders genuinely took it upon themselves to be role models for their teams.  Not only did they remind their teammates to stay focused or to complete their planners, but they also intervened when other team members tried to get their team off track!   I think students genuinely like it when they are trusted to do important things.

2.  Teams provided a vehicle to teach important social skills

Students were struggling with learning how to work together and being dependable.  Teams allowed me to directly teach these skills and add them to our list of Traits of Excellence.

Students now know the expectations for working together to answer questions and that part of their success is about each person doing their part. 

So far our Traits of Excellence are:

1.  Unselfishness
2.  Dependability
3.  Integrity
4.  Judgment
5.  Endurance
6.  Knowledge

Students earn points for displaying these traits.  When they complete their planner, that gets them points for Dependability.  When they answer a question correctly, that gets their team points for Knowledge.

During Open House, parents were very impressed with the system and told me that their students were very invested in it at home too.  Apparently, the students talk about the teams and what they've been learning about the Traits of Excellence.  That just tells me that this is the way to go!

3.  Teams provide for some natural consequences

Students need to know when they have crossed the line.  Team Leaders provide the first warning, but when a student doesn't respond to their peer, then I step in and the team will lose points.  It's a natural consequence of not working with their team and/or their team leader.  This sets clear boundaries and sends an important message: We stand by the Traits of Excellence and expect everyone to live up to them.

Once a team member has been warned by the team leader, has lost points for the team, and yet still does not make a change, then it is time for a behavior reflection.   

I have used behavior reflections since the beginning of my career and they have had very positive results.  What I have done is create compositions that explain the infraction, why the infraction is troublesome, and then how the student can improve their behavior for the future.  

4.  Teams created more engagement

Once students realized that after a warning from their team leader, they would actually lose points for their team and that their team was not happy about it, students began to stop the extra talking and playing once a warning was issued. 

That in turn meant that students were more focused on our lessons and on gaining more knowledge so they could earn their teams even more points!

Also, once a new month began and students had earned coupon books, the competition ratcheted up because now teams could be even more strategic with how points were handled.  This is because the 4 team leaders from the winning team of the last month were each given a coupon to add points, take away points, remove a loss, and so on.  This created a whole new dimension!

And as an added bonus - my teams are fully invested in keeping their areas clean and picked up.  I hardly ever find paper or pencils on the floor anymore! 


So there you have it!  Teams are working wonders for me and my students!  The students are truly gaining life lessons as well as academic ones and are staying focused and on target.

Thanks for stopping by!

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Get your Middle School Students On Track with Competitive Teams!

Open House in Middle School


Change up the old Middle School Open House Routine with this fun and engaging idea!

Now that the first month is under our belts, we will soon have an Open House.  At my school, we have 15-minute periods so parents can travel their child's schedule and learn about the most important things to know for each class.

I don't know about you, but repeating the same thing with a plain 'ol PowerPoint six times is not, well, fun.  In fact, who knows if the student's adults are even listening to all that Charlie Brown speak!  

It's definitely time for something different!

So I switched up the old standard Open House routine!  I give a quiz to the adults. 

But not just any old quiz, one about our class that goes over all the most important things to know!  

There are 2 sides to the quiz - 1 side for the students to complete a day or so before the Open House and the other side for Parents/Guardians.  The idea is that after the students complete their side, they will fold it over and see what their adults know!

Students LOVE giving their parents a quiz and parents like a break from the old routine!  I provide some "cheat sheets" to adults who are struggling but students may not allow them to use them until after grades have been issued.  

It's fun to turn the tables and there are tons of laughs and "Ah-ha" moments.  Want to try it for yourself?  You can get an editable version of my quiz for FREE in my resource library!

Thanks for stopping by!

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Try Something New For Your Middle School Open House!

Helping Students Make Gains in Middle School ELA


Get several practical tips for increasing your middle school students learning gains

As we all know, school districts are consumed with standardized test statistics.  They use these statistics to charge teachers with ensuring that all students reach the achievement level set forth by the state.

It's a completely reasonable goal to want your students to reach a level of achievement that sets them up for success at every level.  However, it's not realistic.

Students in 2022 have many gaps.  

And it's not a simple thing to close those gaps.  It's not as if I just taught "this" or "that" differently then everyone would be caught up.  Some students are missing entire YEARS of concepts - as in they have no idea what it means to write a paragraph.  Some are struggling with social interactions.  Some are struggling with reading at grade level.  Some have all three issues. 

So to expect them to reach the standard Achievement Level for their grade seems like a tall order.  So, I like to focus on making gains - and the focus is on progress, not perfection.

This is how I help Students Make Gains

1.  First, I recognize that I can't fix everything.  

I tell folks that "I'm doing the best I can with what I have."  To me, that means I'll give the students everything I've got, and I expect that they will make progress, but may not meet that achievement level goal.  And that's ok, at least in my book, because I do not have a magic wand.

2.  Next I look for ways to break things down.

When I asked my students who knew what the theme of a text was, all students raised their hands.  But when I asked each one to explain how to find it in a text, they couldn't do it.  All they knew is that was the main idea - kinda.

So I thought about how a person would go about finding the theme of a text (sort of a metacognition thing) and then wrote them down,

What I had created was a kind of recipe or formula to follow to get the theme:

    1,  Read the story and pay attention to the story elements.
    2.  Ask yourself: "What does the reader learn from reading this story?"  (The answer is the theme!)
    3.  Turn the theme into a question.
    4.  The answers to the question in #3 are the supporting details.

Once we began to apply this formula, the lights were on and it was as if a fog had lifted.  Get a FREE copy of the theme notes (and the rest of the unit) by clicking here.

So naturally, I set about breaking all the standards down much in the same way.  This definitely contributed to my students making learning gains because now they had a plan to follow to use with any text.

3.  Lastly,  I created opportunities for differentiation through centers and "labs".

Centers (or Stations) can be a pretty effective tool to help students make gains if they are created with specific activities in mind. By this I mean, since I know my students are - let's say very active - students, then I know the centers cannot be worksheets.  They have to be involving students in creating something.

  • A trick to keep this managed - the centers rotate instead of the students.  I just put all the materials into some kind of bin and the bins move from group to group.

Centers can help students to make gains because you can group students that have similar needs and then deliver an activity that is specific to those needs. What can be difficult about centers, is that generally, you are creating the lessons which can take a lot of time.  I am currently working on creating centers for each of the first 8 reading standards.  Sign up here to get the first center for theme for free as soon as it's finished.

When I say "labs" do you think of Science?  I am not talking about experiments here - I'm talking about an opportunity for a student to work independently at his/her own level. 

To achieve this, I've used things like Boom cards, Scholastic magazines, and programs like Lexia.  I even created my own Leveled Writing Lab.  This involves students taking a diagnostic and then being placed at a color level where they work on skills that they show challenges with and gradually move up levels all the way through essay writing.  

The Leveled Writing Lab works to help students make gains because each student gets what they need and then they gradually build their skills to meet grade-level standards.  What's more, this is totally motivating because everyone likes to level up!  Click here to learn more about this product on Teachers Pay Teachers

I'm currently working on a Lab that focuses on each of the 8 reading standards.  It will work much in the same way as the Leveled Writing Lab but instead of writing skills, it will be focused on theme, central idea, citing evidence, point of view, text structure, interpreting words and phrases, media literacy, argument analysis, and character/ideas development.  Click here to sign up to be the first to know when it is finished and get a free sample.

I hope that this helps you help your students to make gains.  Just remember that doing the best you can means you'll work to incorporate things that will move the needle but that you have a life too.  :)

Thanks for stopping by!

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Don’t spend hours searching for that great idea you found.  Just pin this to your favorite classroom Pinterest board so you can quickly and easily come back when you are ready.  You’ll be glad you did!

Find some great Middle School Reading and Writing Intervention Ideas here!

Stop the Missing Work Avalanche


Prevent Missing Work from Piling Up With These Ideas

My middle school students are master procrastinators!  They will put off absolutely everything and anything to the absolute last moment and then expect me to work some extensive overtime on their behalf. 

Now don't get me wrong - I want the students to master the standards and be able to show that mastery through their work.  But let's be honest, completing work after the unit test seems a bit well, too late,  don't you think?  

So I came up with a plan to prevent the missing work avalanche!

1.  Students must use a paper planner. 

I say paper planner because while students say they are using a digital one, there's no way to check it and hold them accountable.  And this is primarily what they need - someone to hold them accountable. 

The paper planner comes out each and every day and is on each student's desk while students are working on their bell work.  I walk around and inspect the planners to see if they have written the work they need to complete in the planner. If they have, I stamp it.  A full week of stamps gets a reward in my reward system.

2.  Students need accountability.

It's not enough just to write in the planner, students need to create a plan to get the work done.  

As soon as a due date has arrived and the student's work is missing, I have the student complete contract for missing work with a new due date.  I snap a picture of that contract and send it home to be signed and returned.

If the new due date comes and goes, then I call the parent that signed the contract and let them know that the work is still not done as per the contract.  I give them one final opportunity to get it in for the next day (or perhaps by the end of the week depending on the circumstances).

Once students see how serious I am about the contract and contacting parents, they generally begin to take on the accountability for themselves because they realize I'm not going to give up.

3.  Positive Reinforcement

Some of my students (well, maybe most) need a little something to get them motivated.  Since I like to focus on making progress, I give my students stickers on a reward card as they get work completed.  Students who have no missing work also get rewarded!

The reward cards are attached to my version of the "Super Improver System" from Whole Brain Teaching.  See more about that by clicking here.

Ready to give it a try?  Get a free copy of the missing work contract by clicking here!

Writing Skills Improvement in Middle School


Solve the problem of teaching writing skills to middle school students who are performing at all different kinds of skill levels with the Leveled Writing Lab!  It's a full differentiation and intervention solution!

As a teacher with 28 years of experience in the classroom, I needed a way for all of my students to be working on sentence, paragraph, and essay writing skills at the same time.  So I created the Leveled Writing Lab with the idea that all students would gradually build their skills and confidence so that they could be better equipped to tackle grade-level standards such as essay writing.

Solve the problem of teaching writing skills to middle school students who are performing at so many different levels with the Leveled Writing Lab!

How To Make Teaching Summer School Easy


Press the Easy Button with this interactive and engaging plan for Middle School ELA Summer School!

For many years at the beginning of my career, I taught summer school.  As an ELA teacher, we naturally studied a novel.  I remember teaching "Freak the Mighty" and "Max and Me and the Time Machine".  

What I discovered was that it is hard to get students into a book during the summer.  We did some pretty fun things with the book, but they struggled to stay with me.  They needed more to keep them going.  They needed involvement.

So I began to think about this quandary and over the years, I've come to realize that the solution is two-fold:  Use short stories and project-based learning.

1.  Short Stories are perfect for summer school because they are, well, short. They seem more accessible because of their length.  And these days you can find audio for them rather easily too!  Plus, they pack a powerful educational punch in less than 20 pages.

2.  Project-based learning gives students choice.  Anytime students have a choice they are much more engaged.  They feel invested because they made the decision to do the assignment.  Combine that choice with group work and now every middle school student is "in".  

So how did I combine these two to make teaching summer school easy?

The Student Forum

The Student Forum is a culmination of reading and writing exploration.   This is what I do:

1.  Students take a multiple intelligences assessment.
2.  Students are grouped by their strengths.
3.  Each group chooses a short story from my list.
4.  I teach summary skills.
5.  Each individual in the group reads the story, and creates a summary.
6.  I teach plot diagrams.
7. Each group creates a plot diagram.
8.  I teach group work skills (including attentive listening)
9.  I meet with each group and give them 2 project choices based on their strength.
10.  Students choose a project and then individual roles for the project.
11.  I teach research.
12.  Each member of the team completes research about the story and/or author that relates to their project and turns in an individual report.
13.  Students use the information from their reports to create the group project.
14. We hold the Student Forum where each group sets up a table and presents their work.

There's a few more details (like what each group brings to the presentation and what will be created) but this is the basic outline.  And students practice reading skills, writing skills, research skills, and presentation skills all in the space of one month.  It's powerful to see how the students blossom and get into their projects.  It's equally as fantastic to be a true facilitator by presenting the information and then watching the students take that and apply it to their projects.  

It's taken me years to pull all of this together and every year I feel like it gets better. If you want this month-long all-in-one solution (with FOUR PowerPoints, Notes, Checklists, and EDITABLE Lesson Plans) for your summer school, click here!

Summer School has never been easier with this all-in-one reading and writing project-based curriculum for middle school! All the work is done - including PowerPoints, notes, and Lesson Plans for important skills such as plot diagram, summarizing, researching, and group work!

This resource will make teaching summer school easy!  Your students will love having choice and some independence which fosters engagement and you will love your role as a facilitator!

Thanks for stopping by!