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6 Steps for Teaching Essay Writing


Need a plan for teaching middle school students how to write essays?  Use this one that has 28 years of experience behind it!

The beginning of our second semester is largely focused on Argumentative Text Analysis and Argumentative Essay Writing in my neck of the woods.  I have students from the most capable to the least capable all in one room at one time.  It can be tricky to make sure everyone gets what they need which is why I have put together this plan to do my best to get the job done well:

1.  Set Writing Goals

I use a special goal sheet that we keep in our toolkits to help students not only examine the state rubric, but also to create an action plan that will guide their progress.  You can read more about this and get a free copy of my goal sheet by clicking here.

2.  Teach Vocabulary

It's super important for everyone to begin with a common vocabulary.  You might think words like "cite" and "commentary" are firmly embedded in your students' minds, but some of them may have forgotten.  I use a special vocabulary sheet that differentiates for all levels so that those that do know the words can demonstrate that while others who do not know the word can (hopefully) learn it:

The perfect vocabulary worksheet for to reach all learners in your middle school classroom!

Get a free blank, editable copy in my resource library.

3.  Teach Structure (Organization) - "I Do"

I teach essay structure in a very step-by-step way using fill-in-the-blank notes and examples.   

We first start with the pre-writing process where we:

1. Read the prompt

2. Flip the prompt

3. Read and mark the texts

For each step above, there are notes and examples using a prompt and text set.  Then I do the same for the sentences that belong in an introduction in a new set of notes, the body in yet another set of notes, and the conclusion in a final set of notes.  (I also do a separate set of notes for argumentative essay counterclaim paragraphs when I teach argumentative essay structure.)

Then we move into the introduction where I teach students a special acronym for both Informative and Argumentative Essays:

H - Hook

A - Arch (Bridge)

T - Thesis

Just like you put a hat on the top of your head, you put a hat on the top of the essay!

Next are the body paragraphs.  I have a special acronym for these too!

A - Answer to the prompt with a reason from the thesis

C - Cite Evidence

E - Explain with commentary

I - Ingeminate (repeat) the cycle of cite and explain with new evidence.

T - Top it off with a conclusion

One special kind of body paragraph for Argumentative Essays is the counterclaim paragraph.  The idea of this paragraph is to pour on the convincer for the essay's position!

F - Feature the other side (the opposing claim)

A - Affirm the opposing claim with evidence 

U - Underscore the essay's position (refuting the opposing claim)

C - Cite evidence (for the essay's position)

E - Explain with commentary

T - Top it off with a conclusion

Lastly, is the conclusion:

A - Affirm the thesis

T - Trim the Point

T - The Call to Action

What's the last thing you grab before you leave your house?  Probably your cell phone - your AT & T which is why you need AT & T before you leave the essay!  :)

4.  Practice Structure (Organization) - "We Do"

After each section of notes, we practice what we have learned.  So for example, after the introduction notes, we practice writing introductions.  

After all the sections of notes and matching practice items have been completed, then I have students complete some practice activities for the entire structure like a Cloze Activity, Color By Fact Activity or a Digital Puzzle.

Need ways to practice essay writing knowledge without writing an essay?  Try one of these!

Once the students have learned all the parts of an essay and have practiced those parts, I teach them how to plan.  It doesn't make much sense to plan the parts of the essay until they know what all of those parts are!  

5.  Put it All Together  - "We Do"

Now it's time for the students to put this all together in an essay - but not just any essay - this is a collaborative essay!

It's easier than it sounds - basically, students work together to write an essay using task cards!

Collaborative Essay Writing is a great way to help your struggling middle school learners!

I made a prompt and text set.  Then I made a task card for every single sentence that belongs in the essay with a matching answer sheet.  

The task cards are taped to the students' desks and they work in groups of 4 to answer the cards.  The answers are the sentences that belong in the essay.  Each task card is numbered and students write the complete sentence answers on their answer sheet in the matching number space.

As groups finish their set of 4 task cards, they rotate to a new group of 4 more task cards.

By the time students have filled in all 28 spaces on the answer sheet, they have a skeleton essay!

Then using the organizer/checklist, students mark where paragraphs should be on the skeleton.  Now they can write out a final copy.  All essays should be the same which means easy grading for the teacher!

6.  Put it All Together - "You Do"

Now it's time for students to put all that they have learned together into one essay that they write independently.  But that doesn't mean it has to be boring!  I like to call this a "Challenge Essay".  

Use this challenge as a culmination activity for your middle school essay writing unit!

This challenge requires students to go through each step of the writing process and write an essay.  I allow students to use their toolkits and notes.  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 others 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!

Ready to try these things with your students?  I have 5 weeks of these activities PLUS 5 weeks of editable lesson plans ready to go in these bundles:

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Use this well developed plan for teaching your middle school students how to write an essay!

Setting Writing Goals in Middle School


Give your middle school students a plan for essay writing success!

When I begin our argumentative essay unit in my middle school class, it's usually late January (after we learn how to analyze an argument) and I always start with a pep talk.  First I ask the names of the teams that are going to play in the Super Bowl.  Then...

Me:  "So when the (two teams that are going to be in the Super Bowl) are getting ready, do they say 'Man!  This stinks!  I don't want to play in the stupid 'ol Super Bowl!' ?"  (I walk around and kick at the floor with an exaggerated tone.)

Students:  "No!" with sincerely incredulous looks on their faces. (They probably think I might have just lost it.)

Me:  Right!  Of course not!  Instead, they run around screaming "We're gonna win because we're the best and we're awesome and the other team doesn't stand a chance and when we win, we're gonna go to Disney World!"  (And I literally scream this like I was a football player.  So then they would be sure I'd lost my mind!)

But then I'll say "Our big state test is like our Super Bowl - a Super Bowl for writing.  You should be excited to go in there and win by showing that you are the best!

After that pep talk, students need to take ownership so we set goals.  Now, these goals aren't just wishes and dreams, these are going to be those writing "sit-ups" and "push-ups" I talked about in my pep talk.  We are going to make a plan of ACTION.

1.  Determine the score goal

I give students a worksheet that we keep in our writing toolkits and we first discuss the best score possible on the assessment.  In Florida, it is a 10.  That's a perfect score of 4 in purpose, focus, and organization, a perfect score of 4 in support and elaboration, and a perfect score of 2 in conventions.  We now examine the rubric carefully.

I discuss the fact that while we are all striving for a perfect score, that an 80% should be their minimum goal.  That would be a 3-3-2 on our rubric.

2.  Determine the challenges

Now I ask students to determine where the challenges are in terms of their knowledge in these areas.  We again look at the rubric and then I ask students to tell me what they think they don't know by coloring in the appropriate box on the goal sheet.

We will have practice items in class that match each of those challenges and the students will be able to record their progress on this sheet as we complete them.  I like to use color-coding with yellow for making progress, blue for mastered, and red for needs attention.  This will show students their writing progress at a glance and in my class, it's all about progress - not perfection.

3.  Determine the strengths

I strategically save the strengths for last because I want to end the activity on a high note with students feeling like they do have knowledge on which to build.  There will be activities that we complete in class that will review some of these strengths and some that add to these strengths.  

We will refer back to this sheet often to show students that they are making progress and will be able to meet that 80% or higher goal.  If they think they can, they will!

You can get a free, editable copy of the goal sheet I use in my free resource library

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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!

It's important to set writing goals with middle school students before they begin writing essays to help them focus on progress, not perfection!

3 Top Tips for Starting a New Semester


Get back into the groove after a long break and set a tone for positive connections and growth with these 3 top tips for your middle school classroom!

The first day back after a long break can seem a little awkward.  Everyone is re-adjusting to the school schedule and being together in a learning community again.  To help make this a smoother transition back to school, I suggest the following three things to get the semester off to a great start:

1.  Have an ice-breaker

I give all students new seats in the new semester.  I do this because I want to give the idea of a fresh start to the students.  After they find their seats, then I like to ask each person to share one thing they enjoyed doing over the break. In my class, students have the right to pass, but I'll go around the room and invite each student to share.  

2.  Review class agreements

Next, we will review our class agreements (rules).  I write 11 questions about our class agreements on index cards and then the 11 answers on separate index cards.  (If you have more students, then write more questions and answers to match so that each student has a card.)  

Then I'll pass out one card to every student.  Now all students have to stand up and move about the room to find their "partner" -  questions will have answers and all answers have a question. :)

Once everyone has found their partner, we form a circle and each question partner reads their question and the answer partner reads the answer. I make any clarifying statements as necessary.  Once all partners have shared, we have reviewed our agreements and we return to our new seats.

3. Lay out the road map of the semester.

Now I lay out the plan for the new semester.  For us, it's working on analyzing arguments and then writing argumentative essays up first.  As we work on these standards, we'll also sprinkle in standards like point of view, interpreting words and phrases, and text structure.   Then we'll be reviewing informative writing and taking our state writing test.  After that, it's a direct focus on reviewing reading standards from the first semester to get ready for year-end exams.   Want to see the layout of my second semester?  Click here!

Students like knowing what's coming up and I think of this as the coming attractions. It's at this point that we talk about goal setting.  I like to talk about goals in terms of not what you WANT to do but what you WILL do.

In order for a goal to move from a WANT to a WILL, there have to be actionable steps.  It's one thing to say "I want get an A." but it's another to have a plan for getting that A.  

I model a plan using something from my personal life (like drinking more water) and I both show and encourage my students to make small steps as part of their plan because it's all about progress, not perfection.

After this discussion, we write our goal with our plan on the back of the new name cards on the desks.  Now the students' goals and plans are front and center every day.

This is a great way to get back into the groove and set a tone for positive connections and growth.

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Pin This Post for Later:

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!

Use that first day back to school from break to set a tone for positive connections and growth!

How to Analyze An Argument


Use this 4 step process to teach your middle school students how to analyze argumentative text before they begin to write argumentative essays!

Soon, my middle school students will be learning about writing argumentative essays.  In order to be prepared to do so, we must first learn how to analyze an argument in a text.  There are a few steps I always follow:

1.  Read and mark the text.

Part of this is helping students t understand the difference between "pro" and "con".

Many students get confused with this concept because they forget that it's the writer's reasons for or against something and not their own.

To help them keep it straight, we use a T-Chart.  The pro information goes on the left - which is also labeled reasons the author is "for" whatever the text is about.  The cons go on the right - which is also labeled what the author is "against".

As we read the text, we are sure to keep our pro and con facts clear by putting the text and paragraph numbers under the correct column.

2.  Identify the argument

An argumentative text is designed to get the reader to think a certain way and take a side.  It is critical for students to understand this and then be able to recognize:

a.  what the two sides are

b.  what side the author is on

3.  Locate supporting details.

Once the students have established what the argument is and what side the author is on, students should locate facts from the article that back up this position.

4.  Evaluate for objectivity.

The text may be persuasive but should be devoid of opinions in order to be valid.  So the last step in analyzing argumentative text is to determine if the argument is based on facts or opinions. 

If it based on facts, then the argument is valid. If it based on opinions, then the argument is invalid.  

Sounds simple enough, but this may be easier said than done. I outline my entire unit in this post and also offer it as a printable resource that walks students through determining and argument as well as evaluating it with scaffolded notes, practice activities, an assessment and more in this unit:

Struggling to find an interactive way to teach your middle school students how to analyze and evaluate argumentative text? Save tons of time with this easy-to-use unit that comes with everything the teacher needs to Teach, Reteach & Enrich based on R.CCR.8/RI.8 and is fully differentiated, project-based, and engaging! Comes with editable lesson plans!

This always sets my students up for success before we begin writing our argumentative essays.  Now they know how to tackle the text before they begin to write about it.  I hope this helps your students too!

Get a free copy of my analyzing arguments digital anchor chart with all my other reading standards anchor charts by clicking here!

Thanks for stopping by!

Top 3 Activities to Use Before A Break


Keep your middle school students engaged and learning the last few days before break with these activities!

With only 2 weeks before the Winter Break and mid-year testing, my students need educational but fun things to do!  So I put on my thinking cap and this is what I came up with:

1.  ZAP game

This is an easy no-tech game you can make by simply writing questions about any topic you've covered in class on strips of paper.  Throw in 3 strips that also say "ZAP".  To play, divide the class into 2-4 teams.  Determine which team goes first.  That team sends a representative to pick out a strip.  As long as it doesn't say ZAP, they have a chance to answer the question as a team.  If they get it right, they get 10 points.  Then another team has a chance to choose and answer a question and so on.  Anytime ZAP is drawn, that team loses all their points.  The team with the most points wins!  What do they win?  Could be some bonus points or a small piece of candy or even some time to listen to music.

If you are reading "A Christmas Carol", I have a free ZAP game that reviews the plot. 

ZAP is the prefect A Christmas Carol activity for middle school students on the last few days of school before the break!

Click here to get this free ZAP game!

2.  Slide

This is a game I made up myself.  You write questions and answers on index cards.  Then divide the class in half. Line them up at the front of the room with one half facing the other half.  Give one line of students the answers and the other line of students the questions.  

The students with the questions read their question out loud to the student with the answer. If the student answers correctly, they switch places.  If not, they remain in the same position. Then I call "Slide" and the question students place their card on the floor and move one place to the right.  After sliding, question students pick up their question and repeat the process.

This one gets kids up and moving!  They love it because it's something different.  I love it because I can use task cards, index cards, vocabulary or really anything and get them involved in their learning!

3.  Color By Fact 

This one is more low-key than the last two.  I love to put on some calm music, pass out the crayons and let them color.  But not "just" color - color by fact.  This means that there is an image to color but the key asks the students to color certain spaces certain colors based on whether the information provided is true to not.  For example, it might state "If the theme is 'never give up' color all the spaces labeled with a 2 green."  

Here is one I made for informative essay structure:

Middle School Students will review the informative essay structure when they use this activity to color with a purpose!

These 3 activities will keep your middle school students engaged and learning - which will not only save your sanity but may also help keep your administrators happy too!

Thanks for stopping by!

4 Reasons to Use Middle School Project Based Learning


My favorite reason to use Investigation Lab PBL in Middle School ELA is #4!

Do you like the idea of middle school project based learning (PBL) but think there's not enough time to properly implement it?  I thought so too until I made Investigation Lab.  Investigation Lab allows students to complete projects tied to the standards using any text read in class.  It's amazing practice for students for 4 reasons:

1.  It's once a week.

Students get one day a week to take the driver's seat with their own learning.  It's an ongoing process throughout the marking period and I set the deadline up right from the beginning and stick to it unless someone has an excused absence.  This is especially since many of the projects may need to be presented to get full credit.  Since this is only once per week, you still have 4 other days to read and write!

2.  It's standards-based.

Every project is tied to a standard.  If you are teaching theme/central idea as well as character and idea development for the first 9 weeks, then students would only be given those options to use with any text that you have read in class.  In this way, they are practicing using the standards - a necessary skill for standardized tests.

3.  It's highly engaging and interactive.

Students love Investigation Lab.  Why?  It allows them to have some choice over how they are learning.  I think we teachers can relate to that. I think we'd all rather attend the PD we choose rather than the PD we are required to attend.  Plus, the students will be making something and showcasing their strengths in their product.  

4. It's differentiation at its finest!

Each student can choose their own path to reach the standard.  And each student can create their own product.  No two products have to even be similar to get full credit.

Want to try a free sample?  Get a free copy of a project list for the theme standard in my free resource library.

Or if you are ready to give Investigation Lab a try with all the materials done for you, click here.

Are you looking for a fun and engaging way for your Middle School students to practice their knowledge with the reading standards? This middle school project based learning set of 91 different projects is perfect for getting even your most reluctant learners on board!

Thanks for stopping by!

How to Use Middle School Project Based Learning

Learn how to implement Investigation Lab PBL in your Middle School ELA class in just 4 easy steps!

Getting students engaged takes equal parts of relationship building, motivation, and interactive activities.  The reward is genuine learning - the kind that lasts throughout the year.

To make this happen, I have implemented some middle school project-based learning that I call Investigation Lab and this is how I use it:

1. Introduce the concept of the Investigation Lab.

I explain to my students that once a week, they will have the opportunity to show what they know by choosing a project from a list that is based on the standard(s) that we are studying.  

We will review classroom expectations as per our agreements and I will tell them that they can choose to create the project based on any story we have read (or will read) in the class.  I show a few examples and then connect them to the next step - the rubric - as examples or non-examples.

2.  Go Over The Rubric

I give a very specific rubric that ensures that each student will turn in quality work to get full points.  There is a reflection sheet that each student turns in with any project that asks them to first "grade themselves" using the rubric.  

As I go over the rubric, I also show examples of quality work and examples of not-so-quality work and use the rubric as my justification.

Students keep a full-page copy of the rubrics in their folders/notebooks so they can track their points and I keep a page of rubrics for each student for each quarter as I grade them.  

3. Give Details On Points and Deadlines

Next, we go over how many points need to be earned in the marking period and what the deadlines are.

Project point values range from 10 points up to 50 or so points depending on the amount of work that must be done to complete the project. If a student has an entire grading period and will have 1 day per week to work on projects, I usually require students earn 100 points per grading period. 

Some projects need to be presented.  I create a presentation day on the last Investigation Lab day of the marking period and have students sign up for who will go first, second and so on.  I set the due date for all projects one week earlier.  This way, if someone has extra time as per their IEP or 504, it's built into the schedule.

4. Go Over The Housekeeping

Lastly, we go over what materials are available to them, where they will store their work from week to week, and how / where to hand in their work.

Students must turn in a reflection sheet with their work that tells how many points they believe their work is worth based on the rubric.  It's always interesting to see their rationale for their grades.

I keep all of the materials like scissors and glue, as well as the student reflection sheet in one area that I call the "Investigation Lab Station" so that everything is easy to find.

Investigation Lab Station for Middle School Project Based Learning!

Now, one day a week, students have time to work on their projects, receive feedback on graded projects, and talk to me about their progress.  I love being able to walk around the room and talk to the students about their work. It's fun to see what they are thinking and to continue to not only facilitate learning but build those relationships.  

Get a free sample list of projects for theme in my free resource library. Or if you are ready to implement Investigation Lab in your own classroom, all the resources are done for you!  Just click here.

Are you looking for a fun and engaging way for your Middle School students to practice their knowledge with the reading standards? This middle school project based learning set of 91 different projects is perfect for getting even your most reluctant learners on board!

Thanks for stopping by!