Category Archives: Instructional Delivery: Plan and Progress

Writing Basics – Finally Finished!

Alas, we come to the close of yet another essay! I think all teachers of high school students grow tired of the writing process just in time to get a pile of papers to take home and read over the weekend.
When I was in school, we graded using the Harbrace. This time, I will be getting to use PARCC rubric just as soon as I can find a printer-friendly version. Anyway, so how did the essay end?
When I left off with my last post, we had just blown up an essay only to put it back together in looking at the order of sentences within a paragraph.
Our next step was to complete a peer review process. I have played around with a few different things, and I find students tend to think the essay is “fine” and make few corrections or suggestions. This time, I created a worksheet to guide the process in which the students had to find the key parts of each paragraph, rate them 1-5, and complete the frame of “One thing I really liked about this paragraph was…” and “One suggestion I have is…” I explained that N/A, IDK, and nothing were not options for the task, and I found the students actually did decent on this. The writing was so much better it was amazing!
Another idea to consider for the peer review is a group of 4-5 students. One student focuses on the thesis statement with a specific color ink, one on topic sentences, one on citations, one on whatever other element the student was expected to complete. They then sit in a group and literally pass the paper around with a timer to see that each essay has been reviewed by a group of peers, each with a very specific task.
When we finished the peer review yesterday, I told students it was time for a dose of accountability and reality. See, any teacher who has ever assigned an essay and tried to make parts of it homework knows there are kids who know the next day they cannot move forward without the previous part so they drag it out as long as possible. Not this time. I explained the dreaded BLUE BOOK we all saw in college. I had them raise hands to show me who was not going to have the revised draft completed by the start of class today so I knew how many to purchase. Then, I stuck to me guns. Students without the entire outline and essay were not allowed to get on the computer. Additionally, they had to sit separated to encourage focus and drive.
Then, I made a deal with our amazing librarian so that I could use a conference room attached to the library computer lab and set it up like a break room. Students who finished the final copy were admitted to take a break in the break room with some celebratory cupcakes and beverages. I also created and presented “SWAG” awards to the students to take home and show their parents. They were so excited it was worth all of the work.
In the end, I received all but three essays. Successful end to Writing Basics? I think so.

Files/Resources used during this lesson plan:
1. Expository Writing Pack is available at This bundle includes adaptable .doc and .ppt files for use in working through an Expository Common Core Writing Task for mood in plot, but you could adapt it to any text you desire.
2. Peer Revision – I will post this as soon as possible. I have a few deadlines at work and several essays to read.
3. SWAG Awards – Students Working to Achieve Greatness. I posted the certificate at

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Writing Basics

After completing the prompt analysis and gathering a diagnostic writing sample, we began teaching the writing process. There was a time when we were supposed to focus on 6+1 Traits of Writing, but I have the sneaky suspicion the focus on those elements left much to be taught in consideration of structuring a paragraph. Next, we were to look at WICR with the AVID focus on writing. After seeing what the students had, we decided to break it down to writing basics.

First, we looked at MLA formatting for an outline. Believe it or not, this seemed like the first time the students had seen an outline. I anticipate they would not see the point of an outline because most students hate using them. After looking at outlines, creating an outline on how to create an outline, and using “Bath Time” to create an outline, the students saw how using an outline would help them to focus their writing and not leave any steps out in the process. You see, “Bath Time” is about giving a dog a bath but the writer forgets the key step of actually getting the dog in the bath. While readers can infer this has happened, we talked about how vital that step would be if it were changing the breaks on your car or setting the beat when laying some freestyle.

Next, the students took their writing diagnostic papers and tried to create an outline based on what they did. This was an amazing step because the kids were able to see the missing components for their own writing and identify steps for revising the essay to better address the prompt. I had them complete the missing steps of the outline, but I did not let them make changes to the papers yet. That would come later…

Our focus was support and elaboration, so I had the students create an essay from a series of sentences. I took an essay and cut out the sentences one by one for the body paragraphs. I knew the activity would be tricky because it tested so many objectives rolled into one: writing, organizing ideas, having a solid introduction, topic sentences, and conclusion just to name a few. They were asked to read the sentences to identify the subject of the overall essay. From there, I had them look for the thesis statement, but that evolved into looking for topic sentences because the students used the topic sentences to find the thesis statement. Next, the students used the sentences as a word sort by topic, and then they used transitions and context clues to arrange the sentences. I had a prize for the first group finished, making it game-like in nature.

All in all, I would say the focus on support and elaboration was a success. Our next steps will be to finish edits on the essay, complete a peer review, and type the final essay on Friday. Then, we get to move on to the rest of the communication standards – rhetoric, persuasive devices, and logical fallacies.

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Resuming the Writing (with a snow day on the side)

The week is over for us, and we managed to complete the Common Core expository writing assignment. Amazing success – all but two students completed essay. The two who did not complete it had everything except the conclusion. Now, this worked because of a little motivational strategy I like to refer to as, “The Goods.” Any time we have a major project or essay due, I have some sort of treat for those who complete it. Such a tiny thing to do, but it means a lot to the students. Today I had brownies.

After turning in the essay, we went to the computer to take the digital Common Core Discovery Education Full Year Test B. Here is the interesting thing about this: We have massive data reports due on a regular basis, but the school/state has not officially transitioned to Common Core yet. The test, therefore, is at a much higher text complexity and proves more of a challenge for many of the kids. I believe all but one student tried his or her best, and I am looking forward to seeing the data. Yet this begs the questions because Common Core assessments tend to not be adequate in predicting mastery of the Tennessee State English I EOC. Based on what I know, I think the data will show lower than what I might have anticipated when the students take the EOC benchmarks. Additionally, I have worked diligently to teacher the RUNNERS reading comprehension strategy and the RAMS testing strategy. I have gone so far as to make students write on the test and REFUSED to give them a scantron until I saw evidence of RUNNERS and RAMS on their tests. I have, as a result, seen great growth over the few years I have used these strategies. Unfortunately, on the computer screen, the students were unable to complete RUNNERS and RAMS. Additionally, the question is on the screen but the passage and not, discouraging students from verifying the answer by consulting the text. And then the readings are incredibly long for the few questions asked. I look forward to the data, but I am skeptical of its predictability.

Alas, the weather has taken a plunge, and we have another snow day tomorrow. I have not used a snow day ever (child of the South), and it is a complete thrill to get to have a snow day to spend with my family and working on stuff for school over the break.

Happy three-day weekend to us!

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Writing: Diagnostic Assessments in Common Core Style

Getting students to write is challenging enough, but throw is a typical state writing assessment prompt and all chaos ensues. One thing I have noticed in eight years, two states, and three schools is that, for some reason, behavior and attendance suffer during writing. When it comes to research papers, it is even worse. With Common Core, though, we want to try to include the citations and text-evidence of the typical research formatting because this is what will help them more in college. Knowing how to back up an argument, even verbally, is going to help them in all aspects of life, so it can’t be ignored.
I started the year by having students take a survey of their past experiences in ELA. Two questions stood out when thinking of what to do to assess their writing:
1. What activity to you like least in an English Language Arts class?
A: Of the 16 students present, 13 students said writing.
2. What do you hope Mrs. Kirk does differently to help you this year?
A: Of the 16 students, 9 said some version of “Help us write better.” One student said, “Don’t assign essays you don’t teach us.”
Clearly, these students have a strong hate for writing. So what am I to do? I know I can increase motivation if I can get them to believe in themselves and see me as a resource, but getting to that point will be a challenge.

Thus come the next week of instruction: Chunking a Writing Assessment.

Step 1: I wanted to give the students a writing assessment, but I quickly realized this might lead to a revolt without proper scaffolding. First, I asked students what they hated about essays. Students agreed the prompts “never make sense,” and that gave the starting point. First, I used the gradual release to model how to break down a writing prompt. I looked at a prompt and broke it down for the students. I modeled by reading it, rereading and annotating it, paraphrasing it, and listing starter ideas. Next, we did one together. Finally, I let the students choose between two prompts to analyze with the knowledge they would be expected to actually write an essay on the prompt they chose.
> Interesting realization: Not a single student in the class knew what “expository” meant, so I did a scale back and had students take notes on the four modes of writing.

Step 2: I didn’t want to give students too much help with the essay, but I needed to make them feel they could be successful. I reviewed thesis statement with the students, and we broke it down to topic+argument/opinion=thesis statement. Students then wrote a proposed thesis statement to guide their writing. At this point, student had to commit to writing the essay on one of two texts. While the content and assignment was the same, the story could be chosen by the student in order to create higher motivation and provide a better assessment of student ability prior to teaching a thorough writing unit.

Step 3: Verbally, we reviewed the basic structure of a five paragraph essay. With this fresh on their minds, we looked back at the prompt to plan what we might need to use as main ideas for each body paragraph. As the prompt was reviewing the mood as reflected in the plot, students determined they were going to break the story into beginning, middle, and end. Students then reviewed their plot maps of the proposed texts (both stories) to see which one they understood and could explain to a partner the best. This was helpful because 4 students ended up deciding to switch to the other text before getting too far along.

Step 4: Looking at the evidence they gathered from the beginning, middle, and end of the text, we went back to our prompt analysis to see if we were ready to write the essay. Luckily, students reread their annotations and noticed they needed to include the mood aspect of the writing. Students were using words like “sad” and “happy” on their evidence, so I did a short version lesson of using a higher-level of vocabulary. I also found out I needed to do a short teaching of what mood actually is.

Step 5: Students were given a generic outline suggestion to serve as a checklist for writing the essay. For example, under “Introduction” students were reminded to “Have a hook to get your readers interested,” “Include the TAG (Title-Author-Genre) when writing about literature,” and “Did you have a solid thesis statement?” Students were then released to write the essay in one hour as that was the time which matches the actual assessment.

The student reaction to the CC writing prompt was intense. Part of me felt like breaking down the prompt and creating a writing plan was cheating, but the purpose of this semester is to help make Common Core accessible to our students. If they shut down, they won’t learn anything. In order to raise the bar successfully, it is my job to help scaffold the material in a manner which students can understand and feel they can master. I wanted this lesson to take one class, but it ended up taking two classes to help the students properly. They will have to take a district assessment next month, so hopefully the time taken in this activity will stick and prove helpful on their assessments.
As much as I freak out about pacing with my students this semester, I feel for the teachers and students who will be implementing CC as a directive next semester when the stakes are much higher than they are right now. I feel my students’ frustrations, and I hope they believe me when I tell them this will be helpful to them next year. While I support the idea of a common curriculum to put all students at the same level of academic expectations across the country, I worry about teachers leaving students behind in the fury of the year. Also, I worry about how the teachers will break down the objectives and what skills will be a part of the objective and what skills will be forgotten. I wonder if this was a plan we needed more time to plan for in terms of having students prepared for the jump, and I wonder how scores will look with the first round of CC Achievement Testing. Other vocal spokesmen of CC have said implementation with result in a lower score for students, and I wonder how this will affect the students and the teachers.
When entering a round of increase academic standards, I guess there is no perfect way to bring about such educational reform in a manner that does not hurt anyone involved. As I continue my struggles for this semester in terms of implementing CC and doing that which is best for my students, I will have to put forth more effort and work harder than ever before. We can do this. I know it.

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Recapping and Review the Literature Strand

Academically, the mission for this week has been two fold: recap literature objectives and review typical EOC-styled testing stems. What did we do and how did we pull it off? Here’s a summary of the bundle. While this plan originally was to take three days, I felt I needed a fourth day to make sure the students had a very thorough understanding of the skills and the text itself in order to write the essay.

We started out by completion of the Common Core Story Preview. As I learn more about Common Core and compare that to the more specific objective we currently use, I feel like I need to stick with some combination of both. I also feel like I need to continue to try to find additional information and resources on implementing CC in terms of meshing the skills and developing the content to hit as much information as possible.

The lesson started with a Common Core Story Preview activity. By using this, I did not tell them what to expect or what would happen. Instead, I used a guiding worksheet and timer to have students preview the text and text features for characters, setting, conflict, and any other story information. I also provided some words from the text for students to use in making a 25-word GIST statement of their story prediction. Students then shared their predictions.

Next, I gave an introduction to Richard Connell. First, we looked at a photo of him with the dates he lived. I planned to have students judge him and tell me about his life based on his picture and the story preview in order to work on life skills, but given the time constraints I decided that would be too much of a side bar to entertain. Instead, I gave a bulleted list of facts and included the tidbit about use of the same set to film the original “MDG” and “King Kong” in studios in order to save money. I connected this information by showing a video clip of the island in the more recent “King Kong” to get students to visualize the text.

Our data shows we really need to work on vocabulary, so I have come up with a vocabulary strategy to try to help students see how to use context clues. I’ve noticed they know words when they hear them, but they may not be able figure them out just by looking at them. Basically, they look at the word and I have them raise hands if they know it. Someone says the word and we see who knows the right definition to the term. Next, we look at the sentences and make a prediction about the meaning. I have students give evidence and justify their thoughts using the sentence. Some sentences are not helpful, and I modeled using the previous or following sentence in those cases. Then, I show the real definition. While this takes a lot of time, I hope it will help the students be able to do this on their own on other texts as well as the EOC test.

Finally, we read the text and use a reading guide. I always have students track the story with a story guide which requires the page number on which the answer can be found or inferred. This helps hold them accountable for using the text to provide evidence from the text as well as acts as a resource for gathering information in the event we are going to write an essay on the text later. At first, they hated this. When the first essay rolls around, I know they will appreciate having those pages to go back and get quotes for the paper.

After reading, we discussed the story in terms of the plot. I had two versions of the story analysis form for the students. In an inclusion class, I had guiding questions through the plot map itself and we talked through each component of plot as we can to it in the text. At some parts, we would talk through it and I used questioning to help the students come to the correct answers. This was challenging because my goal was not to give them a single answer. All in all, I think I did much better than normal at this. One of the students called me out and said he was frustrated because other teachers will just give them the answers if they ask enough and I would not give in and give it to them. He said he hated me for this, but when I called his mother for a positive call that afternoon, she told me he told her about the situation and she respected my position on not giving answers.
In a standard class, I gave graphic organizers to guide the analysis of the Focus Five (plot, character, conflict, setting, and theme). I planned to have students complete this in stations with me rotating around to help the students, but they were incredibly confused over the vocabulary and style in which the text was written. This made analysis of the plot difficult for them. Instead, I redrafted the plan and took the plot component out of the stations. I modeled the expectations by completing one step for the character and setting sections. Students completed that much more successfully, and then we came together as a class to review those parts and work through the plot together. Then, students completed SWBS and Theme Statements individually as homework.

We did not have time to assess the story on Friday, so we will review the story, share our SWBS and Theme Statements, and then move into assessing the reading with an EOC-Style Reading Quiz next week. I designed the quiz using possible EOC-stem multiple choice questions. I will update this entry after giving the test, but I anticipate a much higher level of mastery of plot after this plan for reviewing the elements of plot the students were expected to have mastered in eighth grade. Of course, I will have lessons to recap these skills, but at least I now know where the students stand in these skills. Also, to get a writing diagnosis, I have created a CC writing assignment for the students to complete.

UPDATE UPON COMPLETION: Students did decently with analyzing the plot, setting, conflict, and characters of this text. I think all five key elements are sort of “in your face” with this example. I am interested to see what students know when looking at another text because the data from the testing was not as great as I had hoped. I have come to a few conclusions which will greatly affect my future testing: 1. students do not seem to know simple vocabulary; 2. students do not appear to be able to break down complex test questions. As we move on to the writing assessment, stick with our journey to academic excellence.

Now that I have updated what I did with this one, I will get back to planning for the rest of the story. Any suggestions?

Files/Resources from this entry:
1. MDG Bundle – Now available is the MDG Bundle at This is a huge file, but you can see what I did with it over the course of a week. Plus, the way it is set up, teachers can pick and choose which parts of the packet to use.