One of the funniest writing professional developments I ever attended included a live demonstration of the teacher following written instructions for making a Peanut Butter and Jelly Sandwich. By following only the instructions on the paper, the teacher ended up making a huge mess. The point was to show that we often forget some important specifics when writing a “How To” paper. YouTube’s Josh Darnit has a video you can show your students to get the point across without having to stick your own hand in a jar of Jiffy. He assigns his children the task of creating “exact instructions” for making a PB&J sandwich, and chaos ensues.
I showed the video to my students in Robot Camp, and they immediately understood the connection – that programmers can’t assume the robot or computer knows what they are thinking, and if something goes wrong you need to go back and fix your mistake instead of blaming it on the device.
You should note that this particular video is labeled, “Classroom Friendly,” and I can attest that it is appropriate. I can’t vouch for any other Josh Darnit videos or “Exact Instructions” on YouTube.
Dave Eggers, award-winning author of books such as A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, explains in his 2008 TED Talk, “Once Upon a School,” how he conceived the idea of a tutoring and creative writing center that would be part of the community, a place that would offer one-on-one help to the students in the area with writers who would volunteer their time.
The center, with its pirate storefront and ever-increasing list of dedicated tutors, was a success. It grew into more centers around the United States, providing “under-resourced communities access to high-quality, engaging, and free writing, tutoring, and publishing programs.” As quickly as it has grown, however, 826 National has an even more ambitious goal – to provide its inspirational creative-writing resources to teachers everywhere. To that end, the company launched “826 Digital” in November of 2017, a website that offers innovative “sparks” and lessons ready to be used in classrooms to galvanize generations of writers of all ages. Aligned with the Common Core, the unique activities include field-tested resources from Dave Eggers, educators, and volunteers at 826 National sites.
826 Digital is a “pay-as-you-wish” site, which means that teachers can become members for free or whatever they choose to donate. With lesson titles like, “MIRACLE ELIXIR: INVENTING POTIONS TO CURE BALDNESS AND OTHER THINGS THE WORLD NEEDS RIGHT NOW,” students cannot help but be intrigued and motivated to write. Sparks like, “CHEESY POP SONG POETRY,” and “MONSTER SCATTERGORIES” will contribute to a classroom environment of humor and creativity.
Your students may not be able to go to the original 826 Valencia pirate store, or the Brooklyn Superhero Supply Company, but you can make your own classroom into a writer’s room that encourages imagination by accessing the great resources available at 826 Digital.
thinkLaw is a curriculum that aims to teach critical thinking skills through the use of real legal cases. The program’s founder, Colin Seale, won the “Shark Tank One Day Challenge” in 2016. thinkLaw is aligned with US standards for grades 5-12, but some of the lessons can be used with younger students. To purchase the full curriculum, you will need to contact the company. However, you can download a free sample and purchase other segments on the Teachers Pay Teachers website.
When looking at the free sample that is offered, “The Chair,” I realized that it fit in beautifully with an ethics discussion my students and I conducted last week about Tuck Everlasting. In the story, one of the main characters (spoiler alert!) hits another character over the head with a shotgun. At the time, we talked about whether it was ever okay to hit someone and, if so, under what circumstances is it acceptable? “The Chair” walks students through a real legal case from the 1950’s, in which the aunt sued her 5-year-old nephew for pulling a chair out from underneath her. Students learn legal terms such as: plaintiff, defendant, liable, and battery. They find out the four criteria for the legal definition of battery, and weigh the evidence to determine if the nephew should be held liable.
When it comes to Depth and Complexity, this thinkLaw lesson incorporates many of the icons: Multiple Perspectives, Big Idea, Details, Ethics, and Trends, to name a few. Students are polled a few times throughout the lesson to see how their thinking changes as they get more information. After learning the outcome of the case, they are given a similar case to analyze using their new skills.
At first, I couldn’t quite gauge the interest of the students. The conversation was hesitant, but everyone seemed to be absorbed in learning more. (There are 7 students in this class.) It wasn’t until recess time that I learned the impact of the lesson…
Me: “Okay everyone. It’s recess time. We are going to have indoor recess because of the weather. You can play foosball, Osmo, or one of the other games.”
They moved toward foosball, and then one student said, “Let’s have court!”
Suddenly, furniture was being moved, parts were being assigned (judge, attorneys, plaintiff, defendant, witness), and a new scenario was proposed. For the entire recess time, with no input from me, the students applied everything they had just learned to their imagined court case.
Instead of playing foosball.
Kind of funny when you think about it. Holding court during a recess. (very bad legal pun – sorry)
Experienced teachers know that we often don’t know what has made a real impression on our students. If we do find out, it may be years later when a student visits and says, “Remember when…?” This time, however, I received immediate proof that this lesson is likely to stick.
Want to find out who won the real legal case? Download the free sample for yourself here! Also, check out some of their other lessons (not free, and I haven’t reviewed them) that could be great for this time of year, including an MLK Jr. one, Valentine’s lessons, Superbowl, and Winter Olympics. (I’ll be doing, “Always Watching” with my 5th graders next week because it ties in so well with The Giver.)
It is not uncommon for GT students to dislike writing. I was intrigued recently when I saw the article, “Why Do So Many Gifted and Talented Children Hate to Write?” Although the article does not give any scientific evidence, it does suggest that it can sometimes be difficult for gifted students to gather thoughts that make perfect sense to them and go through the excruciatingly slow process of organizing and communicating those thoughts on paper (or screen). I like to compare it to asking an adult to write down the instructions for tying a shoelace or walking. Sometimes we just know things, and we don’t find it pleasant to try to tease out the details.
The above article suggests a writing exercise that turns the task into more of a challenge. I haven’t tried it with my students, but I have learned that giving them unusual rules or restrictions often seems to motivate them more than unlimited freedom (which usually just paralyzes them). This article from Alice Keeler also recommends adding constraints to writing, and she provides a spreadsheet template to help this process.
Unexpected topics can also stimulate ideas. You can find some fun video writing prompts here. “Writing Sparks” from Night Zookeeper offers random topics. (Click on “Create Spark.”) Different perspectives can also galvanize student writing. And one of my favorite online tools that has never failed to intrigue my students with its incredible illustrations has been Storybird.
Writing can be a challenge for anyone. Students with high I.Q.’s are not immune to academic difficulties. What may be perceived as laziness can often be just a matter of fear of failure. With a bit of creativity and lot of support, students who “hate” to write may discover a strength they didn’t know they possessed.
Last Thursday, Richard Byrne shared an absolute treasure trove of Google Drive templates created and shared by Darren Maltais. You can click the link above to read Richard’s post. One of the templates that you may want to consider using in the near future is “ELA 12 Days of Christmas,” which offers 12 different creative writing ideas, along with examples. Whether you plan to use some or all of these, you should definitely make a copy of this to help you and your students make it through this occasionally overwhelming time of year! (I particularly like the Facebook example with comments from Buddy the Elf and Rudolph!) By the way, if you would like math activities for the 12 Days of Christmas, you can try this.
When my students were working on their cardboard mini golf courses, I casually suggested using a Makey Makey to make things interesting – and realized that I hadn’t yet introduced this group of kids to the wonders of this invention tool. When I saw a post from Colleen Graves about making interactive stories and poems using Makey Makey and Scratch, I knew this would be the perfect project for my 4th graders. They are studying literary masterpieces right now, and learning about figurative language. It seemed to be a natural transition from discussing onomatopoeia to designing simple Scratch programs that would allow us to add sounds using the Makey Makey.
After teaching some of the basics of Scratch, I showed the students an onomatopoeia poem to which I had added some heavily penciled symbols (the graphite will conduct if you lay it on pretty thick). I attached the Makey Makey to the symbols and my computer, and started my Scratch program, reading the poem and pressing the symbols at the appropriate moments. Then the students got to choose their own poems from some I had printed out to program in pairs. They got to share their creations on Seesaw, and were pretty excited about the way their projects turned out.
This was just the beginning. Now that the students know the concept, they will be able to apply it to poetry they will be writing in the next couple of weeks. I’m hoping to also guide them toward creating more complex artwork using copper tape or conductive paint for the Makey Makey triggers.