Rough Draft Thinking

Just another site

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.


Abraham Lincoln – President, Rail-Splitter, and Grammar Teacher March 13, 2012

Filed under: Abraham Lincoln,Education,reading,teaching writing,Uncategorized — bvanetten @ 7:52 pm

I needed to teach a grammar lesson with two instructional constraints. Students needed a refresher in using commas in order to write thesis statements for a research paper, but the lesson also had to be contextualized in the Civil War content that they had been researching for several weeks. We began by discussing the functions of commas when speaking and writing. Students immediately noted a difference in the functions that commas serve in writing and spoken word. They emphasized that when reading a comma aloud, one should “pause” and “take a breath.” The noted that this gives the listener (as opposed to reader) time to process information and an indication of what information the speaker finds important. They were less sure about when a writer should use a comma, but agreed that it is an indicator to the reader of pauses.  I then introduced to them the idea of using commas to create a list in writing; using commas to separate individual items on the list.

To test our idea of reading commas, I gave every student a copy of “The Gettysburg Address” with all the commas removed. I then proceeded to read the speech to them without using any of the comma punctuation. This was actually extremely difficult to do, as punctuated pauses come naturally to us after so many years of exposure to speech patterns. When I asked students what they thought about my speech they told me I “did it wrong” because it sounded “weird” and “rushed.” After some discussion we were able to come to the conclusion that there were no commas in the speech and that they were the cause of the rushed feeling of the speech. I then told students that I was would read them a copy of the speech in which there were commas, and their task was to follow along on their copy, inserting commas where they heard them. I tried not to exaggerate the pauses, and I think that on the most part, I was successful. Most students were able to get most or all of the commas that were on the original copy.

What was interesting, however, is that many students added more commas than I had written on my paper. When we talked about the discrepancies, they argued that I had paused or taken a breath in certain places, and that the commas “counted.” To expand on this idea of ‘correct’ vs. ‘incorrect’ pauses, I told the students that the copy of the speech I had was not the “real” speech Lincoln gave, as there is not “real” speech. Being one of hundreds of Presidential speeches he gave, Lincoln had no idea that this particular address would become so famous. It was less than three minutes, and he wasn’t even the keynote speaker at the memorial dedication at Gettysburg. He wrote the Gettysburg Address on a scrap of paper, which he threw away after reading. The “real” copy of the speech we recognize today was recorded by journalists present at the dedication who heard the speech and reproduced it for the newspapers. There are several competing versions of the speech recorded that day with slightly differing punctuation.  The one I gave students is the most commonly reproduced because it was later signed by Lincoln as a souvenir for a friend (known as the “Bliss Copy”). Students were fascinated by the idea that although the words were Lincoln’s, the punctuation was added by the journalists listening to his pauses and breaths. They enjoyed comparing their listening experience to that of the journalists at Gettysburg.

We talked about which lines had increased emphasis when the commas were inserted. One of the most important and obvious is the final line of the speech, in which Lincoln notes that, although the cost of the War had been great, it was essential “that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.” Not only is this the most powerful line in the speech and the commas provide great emphasis to his words, they also denote a list of qualities that describe the government he argues is worth fighting to protect. This transitioned into talking about the ways in which a thesis statement is a list. Either a list of things the paper will address, or a list of qualities or examples that prove or describe a point. I projected some sample thesis statements for students to look at. They then pulled out their outline graphic organizers that we had been working on in order to identify they major ideas that should be listed in the thesis.

Students really enjoyed working with a primary document that related to the independent researching they had been doing in class. Not only exposure to the speech bring the content alive for them a little more, it was a new way of thinking about punctuation for many of them. Not only did it help them form thesis statements, but it inspired them toward more powerful voices in their own writing they were working on for their research topics. It was an inspiring lesson for me to teach because even though I taught it three times in one day, the conversations about the grammar in a two minute speech still varied in each class. It was nice to teach a grammar lesson that had a conversational element to it.

If you’re curious, below here you will find a copy of the Gettysburg Address with no commas, followed by the Bliss Copy. Read it aloud and see if you can guess where the punctuation goes.



“Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation conceived in Liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.

Now we are engaged in a great civil war testing whether that nation or any nation so conceived and so dedicated can long endure. We are met on a great battle-field of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.

But in a larger sense we can not dedicate — we can not consecrate — we can not hallow — this ground. The brave men living and dead who struggled here have consecrated it far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note nor long remember what we say here but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living rather to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us — that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion — that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain — that this nation under God shall have a new birth of freedom — and that government of the people by the people for the people shall not perish from the earth.”

The Gettysburg Address

Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.

Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battle-field of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.

But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate — we can not consecrate — we can not hallow — this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us — that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion — that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain — that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom — and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.

President Abraham Lincoln

Gettysburg, Pennsylvania

November 19, 1863


What the Hell is a “Bib Card”? February 20, 2012

Filed under: Education,teaching writing — bvanetten @ 1:46 am

If you know the answer to this question, you were probably recently in the 6th grade.

This week, we began a research unit. Each student chose a topic related to the Civil War that they will conduct a research project on. Of course, being the Abe Lincoln-lovin’-honorary-Illinoisan that I am, I was excited to begin this unit. I also believe in a process approach to writing, ‘a la Peter Smagorinsky, which is how the high school and middle school have chosen to teach research writing to students. The students were provided with a workbook at the beginning of the unit that breaks the writing process down into steps and provides a calendar that details when each “step” should be completed. This makes it much easier for students to approach the task of producing an essay.

Only problem is, some of the steps are dumb.

Case in point: Step 1 is “Brainstorm a Topic.” Since Social Studies isn’t getting to the Civil War for another month, this was going to be difficult without giving the students any background information. [insert first ever practical use of History master’s degree here].

Step 2 is “Write a Thesis Statement.” Ah yes. All good, reasonable, knowledgable writers go directly from choosing a topic from an arbitrary list of topics they know little to nothing about, and then immediately form a thesis claim. Tell me more, workbook.

Step 3: “Assemble a Working Bibliography.” I don’t know about you, but it makes total sense to start doing rudimentary searching on a topic after I have already decided what my research will discover.

Step 4 is “Take Notes;” Step 5: “Outline.” No big deal.

Step 6: “Write Body Paragraphs.” Uh huh. Easier said than done.

Step 7: “Write Introductory and Concluding Paragraphs.”

Step 8 is “Edit and Revise.”

When my mentor teacher gave the workbook so I could start planning the unit in more detail, my inner historian researcher was highly offended. So was the part of me that believes we are teaching young people to be productive and thoughtful members of society by the time they reach adulthood. I believe it is actually irresponsible to be teaching students that they should draw their conclusions about a topic or argument before knowing ANYTHING about it. And for the majority of my students, they won’t end up writing papers or conducting research, it’s true. But they will have the power to vote and make important decisions, and they shouldn’t be in the habit of doing so without being fully informed.

Then there was the calendar. 1 class period to find books that might be useful. 1 class to take notes on the topic. 3 to outline. 1 to write THE ENTIRE BODY. And 4 to revise. Mind you, the curriculum designates 3 weeks to this project, so I guess we are just supposed to show reruns of Jersey Shore on the extra days?

I wouldn’t say I’m God’s gift to writing instruction, but I figured I could do a little better than that.

So I kept all the steps to pacify my students’ future high school teachers, but I rearranged the order to pacify my own convictions about writing. I moved Step 2 (Write a Thesis) to between Steps 4 and 5 (“Take Notes” and “Write and Outline”). I gave the most amount of days to taking notes, outlining and to writing the body paragraphs. I gave students a copy of the calendar because I wanted the students to SEE which steps are the most important based on which have the most time dedicated to them.

So on day 1, I gave them a powerpoint presentation on the Civil War, and then let them choose from a list of topics that was provided by the school librarian (who is an invaluable source of help when putting together a unit like this). So far so good. Everyone had a topic and there was only one short argument about who chose “weapons” first.

Then came Step 2: Bibliography. To do this, the workbook instructs students to complete 10 “Bib Cards.” That’s where the title of this entry comes in. I consider myself an educated person. I am capable of conducting research and writing about it. I did not know what a bib card was.

I don’t know this for a fact, but I assume that “bib cards” originated sometime back when libraries still used card catalogues. The students take a stack of index cards and record bibliographic information on them. Anyone who knew me in my History Dept. days knows that I am all about proper citations. But this bib card stuff is crazy. There are all these specific rules that the students are graded on that they get all caught up over indents and colons and there is no emphasis put on the WHY we need citations. I think that teaching proper citation techniques might make more sense after students understand the research process a little better. After doing the bib cards with the students, I don’t think they are as worthless as before, but I remain unconvinced that they are the best way to teach this to young students. They take a lot of time for not a lot of results.

While working on this post I was talking to my best friend who is a totally smart lawyer, and she didn’t know what a bib card was either. So the moral of the story is: you don’t need to know what a bib card is to be a lawyer, but you need it to pass 9th grade history class.

Ok, so I will teach it.


Please Pass the Books February 12, 2012

Filed under: Education — bvanetten @ 9:27 pm

I’ve been writing a lot here about ways to interest kids in reading. Last week I had a really successful activity toward motivating kids to  read that I want to share.

The day before, I told the students we were going to do a Book Pass activity, and asked them to each bring 1-3 books that they have read and enjoyed with them to school the next day. The day of, I provided each student with a “Book Pass Log,” which provided space to record a book title, the author of the book, and the name of the person who recommended it. Each student put their books on their desks and then walked around the room, perusing books. If they saw something that looked good, they could write it down. I told them that the next time they tell me that they don’t know what to read, or they can’t find anything that looks good, I will remind them to take a look at the list they made during the Book Pass.

It was pretty awesome.

It accomplished what I hoped for (getting students to talk about the things they choose to read and see how much variety there is), but I was surprised by how smoothly it went. I was initially upset because in my first class, less than half the students actually brought anything to share. Luckily though, the activity lends itself well to this situation (which is good, because lesson plans that rely too much on student cooperation and preparation scare me because they are so out of my control) because, although there were fewer books to look at that I hoped for, all the students could still participate. The students who do like to read become the stars of the show during an activity like this, and gives them a little opportunity to show off what they like and to engage with their peers about it. There were certainly some desks that had a higher concentration of students crowded around them, and particular names kept showing up on logs, and those same students were eager to move around the room to see what others had brought. I only had one student with a bad attitude the whole day (he informed me that he was so above his peers in reading ability that they couldn’t possibly have brought anything to interest him). I love the way this activity works toward creating an inclusive environment and also provides opportunities for students to serve as experts in reading and taste.

I also participated in the activity, and the students were excited when I stopped at their desks to write down titles they had brought with them. As a teacher, it’s a great way to see trends in what students are reading and what is currently popular (which is especially good for people like me, who don’t read a lot of Young Adult fiction for fun. It was also a great bonding experience when I came across students who brought books I have read and could have a conversation with them about it.

And the evidence that this had a measurable effect on reading in the classroom? Several students brought copies of books in the Hunger Games trilogy (Suzanne Collins), which sparked conversations about why it was so popular. Students who had brought them were excited to find other kids who had or were also reading it, and made students who haven’t yet get interested. The fact that it is a series and that it is being made into a movie also helps to catch student interest. When we went to the book fair this week, several of my students bought copies of it and one student asked to borrow my copy before the Book Pass activity was even over. There are at least three kids reading it in every section I teach now.


Connecting With Kids About Reading January 24, 2012

Filed under: Education,reading — bvanetten @ 5:27 am

Laying Groundwork for Literacy Community Building January 17, 2012

Filed under: Education,Literacy — bvanetten @ 4:10 am