Rough Draft Thinking

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Sometimes I Forget That Kids are not Grownups April 23, 2012

Filed under: Education,reading,Uncategorized — bvanetten @ 2:44 am

It’s dumb, I know. But sometimes I forget. And it’s my number one frustration as a teacher. I make the repeatedly stupid mistake of expecting thirteen year olds to act like rational, mature, logical human beings. And they’re not.

And especially not at this time of year. It’s been getting harder to keep their attention and to focus them throughout an entire lesson. The “I don’t care”s and “I don’t wanna”s have become louder and more frequent as the weather has become warmer and the end of the year within sight.

So what to do?

I just started teaching a unit on The Giver, that middle school favorite. And it’s the first unit that I had responsibility for putting together, which is exciting. The students had a lot of reluctance to start the new book (what else is new), but we have been working on active reading skills (mainly annotating the text on post-it notes which are checked daily instead of reading quizzes), and although they are still vocal about their distaste for annotating, they are getting into the story. Part of that is due to the fact that The Giver is a kick-ass book. But the other part is definitely due to the fact that they are understanding it better because they are paying better attention because they have been spending so much time on the post-its.

This week (three weeks into the unit), I introduced the final assessment of the unit, which is a group project in which they create their own utopia and create an advertisement to convince others to move there. The assignment gets them to work on persuasion and well as compromising skills, in addition to critical thinking skills as they try to figure out what they need to live and the problems that might arise with “perfection.” I made a work schedule that is built into the lesson plans so that they would have plenty of time to meet with their group members and develop their ideas over time, rather than them trying to do it all at once at the end of the unit. The conversations they have about trying to create a perfect society will be as important as the final project that they turn in. I wanted their final project to be the result and reflection of several weeks worth of developed and evolving thinking, rather than a frantic evening’s worth.

Thursday was the first day that they had time to meet with their groups, and I was surprised by how well it went (after they stopped whining about their assigned groups, that is). Each student has a “brainstorming” packet that has questions such as “Where does your society get food?” and “What do they use for money?” Each session for working on the project has particular questions for them to address as a group to get them thinking about how they want their society to function.

One group I listened to was designing a society that would live under water protected by a large dome. Before I stepped in to question the logistics of this, I let is play out with the other members of the group. One asked, “What happened that people have to live under a dome?” and a second wanted to know how they would get sunlight to grow food with. While all the group members were committed to the underwater paradise idea, they were challenging the practicality of one another’s ideas and cooperatively helping to develop them.

Although they have only spent about 20 minutes working on the project so far, they are already very excited about the plans they have, especially since I told them we would have a competition. Because part of the assignment asks the students to employ persuasion skills, after the groups complete their advertisements, each will present them to the class, and the class will vote on which society they would most like to move to (they can’t vote for their own). This has added new incentive to really make the final product impressive. Their excitement has me excited, and it’s the first time they really focused on something in a while.

So I have to remember that kids are kids, and they aren’t adults. That they can be silly and dramatic and immature, and sometimes it makes me want to kill them. But they are also creative and funny and surprising. It’s also what makes working with kids more fun than working with adults.


In (mild) Defense of Bib Cards April 13, 2012

Filed under: Education,Research Projects,teaching writing,Uncategorized — bvanetten @ 7:28 pm

I had this response to a post (“What the Hell is a “Bib Card”?) from one of my peers from school:

“This post stuck out to me because I am currently embarking on a research paper unit with my students on Richard III and the curriculum would like them to do bib cards along with their papers! My CT and I are already considering cutting them, but after reading this, I’m not sure if we should! I agree with you that some of those steps in the process are ridiculous or even out of order, but I do think that there is something to be said for helping students learn to plan and organize themselves better, writing in steps and stages instead of in some flurry all at once. Jeeze, I still have to work on that and I’ve been in school for how many years? But really, what is the point of bib cards? I could see an annotated bibliography being more helpful, a list of sources to get approved by the teacher or at least referenced, but I myself have used bib cards before and I don’t know that they help me organize things any more than simply taking notes or highlighting articles does. Frankly, I think they may just be a waste of time. Like you said, choosing topics, learning how and what to research, teaching proper citation techniques, actually taking the TIME to work through the important stages of the writing process–that’s the important stuff. I suppose sometimes we have to just buckle down and do what the curriculum says (and clearly we are doing so…and willingly) but seriously, bib cards have got to go!”

So, perpetuallearner44, I have been thinking about this.

Now that I am on the other side of this project monster, I may have amended my position. MAY have.

Being the recycler that I am, this 10 bib cards, 20 note card thing appalls me. Especially when kids are writing nonsense on a card just to hit that magic number of 75, and they aren’t actually writing down anything that could help anyone write anything. And let’s get real, teachers. We can’t take the time to go through and make sure every kid wrote something meaningful on every card.

And here’s a newsflash: They KNOW that. That’s right. They know about our limitations on holding them accountable and they will exploit them every chance they get.


Some of these kids really don’t know how to do research. They don’t know what a “note” is. And they really don’t know how to organize them into something more than a random jumble of facts. The proper use of a quotation? Don’t even go there.

In this matter, the note cards help. Students can take the cards and physically sort them into piles of like information. And from there, they can come up with topic headings, which can be written directly on the card. It’s not so far of a leap from there to an outline with headings, and before you know it, you can think about a thesis. For many students I worked with, having their notes separated into physical categories made it much easier to sort and organize their information for relevance.

Then I discovered what my teacher calls the “place mat” (because of my deep loathing of the goofy and irrelevant names teachers come up with to describe the work children do, I want to be clear that I DID NOT COME UP WITH THIS NAME. I stubbornly called it an “outline graphic organizer” for the entire unit, even in the face of total student conversion to the other name.)

The place mat, as you might have guessed, is a graphic organizer for helping students fit their research into the categories of a basic outline. My teacher calls it a “place mat” because it is printed on an oversized sheet of legal paper, so it looks like a place mat (I guess). It looks sort of like a family tree. At the top is a box for the research topic, spawning from that in the tier below were 3 boxes labeled “main ideas.” Each main idea had three bubbles below it labeled “supporting details,” which would define the subtopics. Below each one was a box the size of an index card. As students sorted their cards into piles on the place mat it became much easier for them to fill out the graphic organizer’s blank spaces. This information eventually was translated onto a traditional roman numeral-style outline.

Watching the kids pair their thinking with a physical action got me thinking. The bib cards seem stupid to me. But I also know how to write an outline that I can actually use to write a good paper. Maybe if I was still acquiring that skill, the bib cards might make more sense to me.

So take a line out of every student paper I have ever read: IN CONCLUSION, I think the bib cards might have some merit. But they need to be used very carefully, with specific instructions and guidance. We need to teach students how to use them, not just complete them. And as with everything we do in the classroom, it really won’t make any difference at all if we don’t show them why   bibliographic information is useful or necessary.