Writing

Source Credibility with Forms & Autocrat

Before I begin, I must give full credit to Catlin Tucker, who gave me the idea a few years ago to ask students to fill out a form arguing their source's credibility.

Helping students understand if sources are credible is not an easy task, but it's an important one as we teach them to do research. Despite being "digital natives," looking for source credibility isn't something that comes naturally to them. I think a big part of it is they want the first source they find that gives the support they need to be the one they use. Sadly, there's a lot of garbage on the internet, so that's not usually the case. 

We start by examining the CARS Checklist for credibility when finding sources. (I'd like to ask McGraw-Hill to fix the typos on this article so that my students stop telling me it's not a credible source as they read that typos often make something not a credible source.) As they read this year, I asked them to fill out a simple table to note the things they should look for in each section of CARS. 

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Now that they're writing a research paper, they're filling out this source credibility form, which asks them to shows evidence of the credibility, accuracy, reasonableness, and support. Honestly, they hate it. They think it's a waste of time, and I just had to send them an email reminding them to fill it out before they use the source in their essay. However, I believe the little bit of extra time is so important in teaching them to find a worthy source. (Make a copy of the spreadsheet of responses in order to copy the form for yourself.)

Once they fill out the form, I use my newest tool obsession: Autocrat. I know I'm a little late to the party, but I love how Autocrat can give students (and me) their form responses in a Google Doc or PDF format. It uses a template like this to match tags with form submissions. You can view a tutorial by Jay Atwood here.

Once they get their Doc of responses, there's only one blank left: the MLA works cited entry. Since they already have the source URL, my students use their Easy Bib Add-On to create this entry right within their document. And when that doesn't work, they hop onto Calvin College's KnightCite & input the information themselves. I love how easy this is and only wish they understood how much easier this is than consulting the manual and doing it yourself. 

Creating Thesis Statements

A few weeks ago, my 8th graders and I did some hexagonal thinking around the comments Suzanne Collins makes on American society in The Hunger Games. I love teaching this book because most of my students have already read it, but they haven't read it with the same depth with which we explore it in class. 

After finishing the novel this week, they did some more hexagonal brainstorming. Some worked in small groups and some worked as individuals as they tried to get ideas flowing for their essay analyzing one of Suzanne Collins's critiques. 

When we build thesis statements in my classroom, we look at this triangle: 

In this case, our context was both The Hunger Games and the United States. The subject was the area they were exploring, from poverty to fashion to government to beauty to violence. Finally, they need to make an arguable claim: What did Suzanne Collins comment about that subject? They work to craft, yes, craft, a beautiful sentence weaving those things together. 

This morning I drank my coffee, opened up their Google Docs, read their thesis statements, and was wowed. Here are a few of the beauties: 

  • In her novel The Hunger Games, Suzanne Collins displays general America’s lack of privacy as a result of government agencies through the Capitol’s surveillance of Panem and the Hunger Games. 
  • In The Hunger Games, Suzanne Collins criticizes America’s unnatural beauty standards through the people of the Capitol’s outlandish appearances. 
  • In The Hunger Games, Suzanne Collins uses the Gamemakers’ hunger for action throughout the televised Games to denounce the way the American entertainment industry finds the need to captivate an audience through violence.

Boom. From eighth graders. Beautiful. It's so cool to see how much they've grown as writers (not to mention people) since they came to me in sixth grade.

As we continued to write today, I was jumping in and out of Docs, and I found myself constantly going "hmmm..." out loud. I love how students make me see new things in the literature, even though I've already taught it a bunch of times. Kids are the coolest. 

So thank you hexagonal thinking and those of you who have encouraged me in the exploration of it. The technique helped create some great thesis statements, and their topic sentences are looking just as fantastic. I'm legitimately looking forward to grading these essays.

Hexagonal Brainstorming

Back in December, I went to the Google Teacher Academy in Austin, Texas. As part of our experience, we did some design thinking, including some hexagonal thinking. It was one of my favorite ideas from GTA, but honestly, I kind of forgot about it... until last week. 

Last week was Ed Camp San Jose. I love ed camps because they generally draw some really smart people that I love, and they allow me to spend time talking with those smart people. Beforehand, Karl asked me if I had any session ideas, and after listening to a vox of his on Tracy Clark's session on hexagonal thinking at CUE, I suggested it. And so he brought some hexagon cut-outs, and we sat and thought with some awesome people about how we can encourage internal motivation in students. 

As we wrapped up, we began thinking of ways that we could use this method in our own classrooms. I really appreciated this about that day. I feel like a lot of conferences lately have been geared to tech coaches, but to me, there's something invaluable about talking to people currently in the classroom. We thought about using it for test review or thesis brainstorming or project brainstorming. 

So what is hexagonal thinking? Basically, it's using two-inch hexagons to create a web ideas, generally around some problem. So you start with a question, like, "How do we encourage students to be self-motivated," and you write an idea on a hexagon. It might say, "give an authentic audience," or "give students a choice of topic." As you place hexagons on the table, you look for how your ideas connect and place them next to the connecting ideas. So, for example, both of these ideas might connect to "create a connection between learning and a student's personal life." Over time they develop into a web like the one shown to the right.

And so today, after receiving my hexagon puncher in the mail yesterday, I tried it out.

My students are reading The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins, and we're analyzing the comments she makes on American society. I gave a 90-second tutorial of how hexagonal thinking works, and set them to work exploring these comments in groups of three or four. As they worked, I jumped in and added hexagons. I wasn't necessarily planning to get involved, but I quickly realized this was invaluable. I got to model to them finding depth in ideas and the ways that ideas are connected. 

After about twenty minutes, I polled the groups on the "main ideas" that they had surrounded by details. Almost every group had three: government, fashion, and entertainment. I had them take that section of their group's web, and move to a topic-based table. Then each student chose one of those tables that they were most interested in to explore. They found which hexagons overlapped and which ones expanded topics, and then they began to add more ideas. 

As we debriefed, we realized that we went into a lot more depth than we expected and decided that it would be really easy to create a thesis statement with all of these details fleshed out before us. Further, we realized that each of the three topics then expanded into sub topics that we could easily use as body paragraphs in an essay.

I think the biggest conclusion we came to is the power of many brains working together. As one student put it, "We found a lot more than if we were just brainstorming by ourselves or with a partner." Woot. This is totally the culture of teamwork I work to reinforce in my classroom. 

Playing with Voices

My first unit of the year with my sixth graders is on the Six Traits of Writing. Since I teach my students for three years in a row, this sets a great foundation for their middle school writing career. We develop a common language and have a lot of fun with it. I highly recommend Ruth Culham's Traits of Writing: The Complete Guide for Middle School if you're looking to get started.

This week we discussed voice and how that affects our writing. However, I was having a difficult explaining exactly what I meant by voice. But as with most of my best lessons, I had a great idea ten minutes before class was to begin.

We started by watching this video:

I love this video because of the reactions of all of the people. We talked about how people react when they're being helped and when they help others. Our school's theme for the year is "Love Does," and this video prompted some great discussion on what that looks and feels like.

But we still needed to play with voice. I gave them a very simple Google Doc through Google Classroom so that each student had his/her own copy. I started by asking them to pretend they were a five-year-old in the scene of the video. Then I gave them five minutes to write about that perspective. It was easy for them to do without even discussing what it means to have the voice of a five-year-old.

Then we debriefed, and that's where the awesome stuff happened. When I asked how they developed the voice of a five-year-old, they said things like, "I created short sentences," "I used simple vocabulary," and "I repeated the same things over and over again." Hmmm... that's interesting. Those are some of the same problems I see in their writing.

Next, we did the same thing from the voice of a 14-year-old. They began to identify that this meant they should bring in longer sentences and a more complex vocabulary (not to mention Instagram). They were having so much fun that I decided to put a twist on it: we added a column and decided to change the gender voice. Giggles of excitement filled the room.

As we continued to progress, students continued to identify how their sentence structure and vocabulary changes their voice. This perfectly reinforced my plea to some of them to increase the maturity of their sentences. Not only that, but they had fun doing it.

When we debriefed at the end of the lesson, one of my students exclaimed, "Wait a minute? This was just a scheme to get us to understand voice?!" Muhahaha. These are the moments that make me feel like a successful teacher. And now that I go back into Google Classroom, I see comments on the assignment from sixth grade boys saying, "FFFFFFFFFFFFFFUUUUUUUUUNNNNNNNN!" and "this was hilarious." They left the classroom understanding voice and excited about their writing. They were mad that they didn't have enough time to all share their writing in class. That's an #eduwin in my book.

On teaching writing

This is my last week with my first group of students at my current school. I've taught them seven periods a week for the past three years. I know them, and they know me. I've watched them grow up and mature in so many ways. They're ready to move on to high school, but I will miss their faces in my classroom.

I'm currently in the midst of grading their final essays. I'm burnt out. Exhausted. Overwhelmed. I've been dreading sitting down to grade essays. I often feel like it turns my brain to mush.

But today, grading essays is energizing me.

Because I didn't mandate a specific topic, each essay is unique. Students are analyzing the comparison between Panem in The Hunger Games and America. Each essay has a unique viewpoint and a unique voice.

The internet gives a surprising variety of sources. Each essay has to have at least two outside sources, that share the American point of view. I'm learning things as I read what my students found in articles, books, and tweets.

These students have grown so much in their writing. I'll be honest: teaching sixth grade writing drives me crazy. Many days I borderline-hate it. It's a slow start, teaching textual evidence and parenthetical citations. In seventh grade, we seek to move to analysis instead of summary, and it's hard. It's hard for me; it's hard for them. Over the three years I loop with my kids, I assign a lot of writing. And that means I read/grade a lot of writing. Now, with Google Docs, I'm even reading it before I read it. It often seems a never-ending battle. But reading these essays today, I realize there's hope. My students have improved. A lot. A lot, a lot. Even my weakest writers in sixth grade are producing quality essays that I'm legitimately enjoying reading. Their sentence structures. Their ideas. Their analysis. There is hope.

So as it turns out, our hard work pays off. Consistently high expectations, continual feedback, and teaching and re-teaching do make a difference.

Thank you, Class of 2014 for sharing your insight with me. It's been a pleasure to teach you these three years, and I can't wait to see how you continue to grow. Come back and say hello, and send me an essay now and again. I'd love to see what you write!