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.


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


How Can I Help You? March 7, 2012

Filed under: Uncategorized — bvanetten @ 10:48 pm

In every class there is at least one challenging student. Behavior, grades, attitudes, abilities, whatever it is. The immaturity and the bad attitudes I can handle. There is one student though, who baffles me. He’s not rude. He’s not loud. He doesn’t stress me out just by walking into the room. But he is failing English and as far as I can tell, he doesn’t care. There is really nothing that seems to interest him that I have found. I was so worried about this kid.

Then two weeks ago, while the rest of the class was trudging through those research note cards, we had to have a discussion about why he hadn’t even begun. He had a simple answer. He didn’t know how. In addition to the lessons I myself had given on using books and internet sources for information, I know that the research writing process the school enforces is taught in sixth and seventh grade, so I knew this wasn’t entirely new information. Planning to challenge him with this fact, I asked him who his 7th grade language arts teacher was.

“I don’t remember who my teacher was, it’s been two years since I was in 7th grade.”

The fact that this kid is repeating the 8th grade explains a lot about his motivation and behavior. The fact that I only found out because the kid told me makes no sense.

That day in class, I took the time to go over the assignment with the student one-on-one, and we set a goal for what he would accomplish in class the next day. I suggested that instead of sitting with his friends, he sit at a table with me the following day so that he could ask for help when he got stuck. To my surprise, not only did he agree, after that he always chose to sit with me in the library.

One day last week I asked him if he was in danger of failing 8th grade again. He said he was, and I told him that I didn’t want Language Arts class to be the reason he couldn’t go to high school next year where he belongs. Since the first day I took the time to encourage him, this kid has rededicated himself to the class. His work is slow. Painfully slow sometimes. He is still very far behind the class, but he is doing everything he needs to do. In the last week he has almost completely caught up on the project. After months on entering zeros in the   because he never turns anything in, I was able to give him grades on the first two parts of the research unit, which raised his grade to a 77.

The next day in class I asked him if he had checked his grades lately. He said no, because they are always so bad. I asked him what his mom thinks about his grades. He replied that she is always mad at him, just like the teachers. When I told him his grade was at a 77 in the class I thought he was going to choke. He could not believe it. Since he has seen the positive benefits of his hard work in the form of a passing grade, he has stayed committed to working on the project every day. Sitting with him has given me the chance to get to know him, and him a chance to trust me a little more. The difference that two weeks has made has astounded me. Two weeks ago this kid pretended he couldn’t hear me when I spoke directly to him and didn’t bring a pencil hoping that would be an excuse not to work. Now he seeks me out to ask questions and get feedback, and avoids his friends whom he knows will distract him.

On Friday, I asked him for his mother’s email so I could let her know how he was doing in class. He replied that he didn’t think a teacher had ever emailed his mom about something good. I told him that he had worked really hard, and that he deserved acknowledgement, and his mother would probably like to hear about it.

His mother’s reply was ecstatic, emphasizing how meaningful it was to hear something positive about her son, and how rare it is.

To date, this has probably been my best teaching moment. I know that I have made a real connection with a student that has the potential to have real positive benefits in his learning life. It’s been so long since he had someone encourage him, and I had no idea until 2 weeks ago.

On Monday morning I asked him if his mom told him that I emailed her. He said that she baked him a CAKE. That was the first time I’ve seen that kid smile all year.


A Drawing is Worth a Thousand Words – and Laughs February 7, 2012

Filed under: Uncategorized — bvanetten @ 8:53 pm

This week the kids drew pictures of idioms, and the results were pretty funny



Try it, You Might Like It! January 28, 2012

Filed under: Uncategorized — bvanetten @ 8:30 pm

I am determined to get these kids to give reading a chance.

More realistically, I want to get them to think differently about reading than they do now, which is that reading is a boring activity that teachers force on innocent children. This Literacy Community project is essential for meeting that aim.

This week I introduced the students to two new long term projects that we will be working on together through the end of the year. The first is a series of book talks which the students will give in class. They were immediately opposed to the idea because they are incensed any time they are asked to speak while standing. On Wednesday, I modeled the book talk, emphasizing that the point was to share a book you like with the class, and a synopsis so the other students can decide if the book might be something they might like reading. I told them that as a class, we seemed like we are in something of a slump when it comes to finding things we like to read. I used The Hunger Games to model what they are supposed to do when they give their own. After I was done, many of the students were asking me if the school library has copies they can read, which I took as a sign that they will respond positively to book talks. [If I can find the video of me modeling it, I will post it below]

I decided that three students will give talks every Friday afternoon. I told them I would let them volunteer, but that everyone had to go by the end of the year. In all three periods I had enough students volunteer to cover the first and second weeks, which surprised me. The student book talks went really well, and I was shocked when some of my students who are the least engaged on a normal day were the first to volunteer. I was also pleased that the other students were respectful and clapped for the students who talked to the class.

The second project I introduced is a class discussion forum on I wanted to use, but its blocked on the school’s network, so we make do. On Friday I had the kids sign up for accounts while we were in the library. My idea is that I will post discussion questions on our class forum and the kids will have to respond once a week. The first question is, “Who is the greatest character in a book of all time?” My hope is that if they spend time on there, they will be exposed to the vast variety of literature that is available in the world, as well as to a social world of people who enjoy reading and willingly engage in discussions about what they read. Unfortunately, the website is not very user-friendly, and I the kids were a little bit frustrated trying to use it. That project is certainly in the experimental stage.

The bottom line is, most students associate reading with homework, and have it in their heads that they don’t like to read. Which means that even when they come in contact with literature they might like, they ignore it. I am endeavoring to institute projects and opportunities in my classroom that break down that attitude, and encourage students to change the way they think about reading.


Hi my name is… January 6, 2012

Filed under: Uncategorized — bvanetten @ 8:53 pm

Hi. My name is Bonnie and I am interested in almost everything. I like books, and nail polish, and Martha Stewart. I firmly believe that Back to the Future is the best movie of all time, and  I grew up in LA and went to college in Chicago and now I live in Pittsburgh. I have a Masters degree in what can loosely be described as Pirate Studies, and I know more about History than is useful on a day-to-day basis. Now I’m almost grown up, and I’m about to be a teacher. I’m currently doing my student teaching and getting a second Masters at the University of Pittsburgh, so I spend most of my time and energy on teaching these days.

Rough Draft Thinking is what we would do and say if we thought no one was listening, or we were sure no one would judge us before we had a chance to think through our ideas. This almost never happens in real life, because we are trained to always be ready with final draft thinking. When we think we will be criticized or evaluated, sometimes we spend more time worrying about refining our speech and impressing others than we spend on the thought process. That’s why I’m calling this space Rough Draft Speech; it’s a place for thinking through problems and ideas without the threat of being held to early versions or conclusions. This is something I need while I am thinking about my ideas about teaching, and it is something I hope I can teach my students how to do in their own lives. That, and naming the blog “Dear Diary” seemed kindof weak.

Keep Calm and Rock on,