Thursday, May 30, 2013

Write Right with Great Beginnings!

"Finding Forrester" movie cover
In the movie, Finding Forrester,(image from amazon.comSean Connery plays William Forrester, an agoraphobic author.  A Pulitzer Prize winning novelist, he has become a recluse. After a misunderstanding, he mentors a young man from New York's mean streets, Jamal Wallace, played by Rob Brown.  Because of an outstanding test score, Jamal is accepted into a very posh Manhattan private school.  Forrester shows Jamal how to find his voice in his writing and how to develop his confidence in his academic and personal life at Mailor, the private school. Jamal forces Forrester to confront his prejudices and fears so he can live the life he put on hold after a family tragedy.

In one scene that proves to be a pivotal point in the plot, Forrester has Jamal sit at a  typewrite and just start to type while he does the same thing. The aging author begins to type immediately, while Jamal just sits there. When Forrester finally notices that his protege is doing nothing he asks why.  Jamal says that he, "can't think of anything to write." With typical Connery scoffing, Forrester says, "First write from the heart; then write from the head.

This quote became a mantra for my students- creative and expository writers. Over-thinking creates a what they said (writing from the heart) with the how they said it (writing from the head).
Middle and high School ELA Lesson Plan- Finding Voice in Writing
jumbled mess of ideas bouncing around the brain resulting in such an idea mess that Writer's Block sets in. As Forrester said and as I reiterated to my students daily,  "Just write what's in your head, even it it doesn't make sense at first." I  explained  that eventually some sense would come to the piece and the students could cut, paste and revise both the contextual what they said and the grammatical how they said it.

After explaining this to his protege, Forrester grabs a folder of his writing and gives it to Jamal. He tells him to choose one manuscript and to start to type it until his own words begin to flow. The young man does this and ends up with a piece that Forrester claims, "You made this your own."

This Great Beginnings! activity follows this same premise. Students choose one of twenty-five first paragraphs from a variety of published authors, type or write it on their own papers, and then create a complete story from that point. They may just use the author's idea from the hook that they chose and totally change the setting, characters and any other information, or they can use the paragraph verbatim. In either case, they should include a parenthetical citation at the end of the paragraph that they used, before they continue their story, in their own words.

Middle and high School ELA Lesson Plan- Finding Voice in Writing
You choose the minimum length (I suggest 1500 words at the very least) and the maximum. I never gave a maximum, but told students to, "Write until you have finished saying what you need to say." The time frame depends on what else you are covering in class, how much of the class period that you want students to spend on it after the first day and any other parameters that you need to consider.

My creative writing students spent forty-five minutes to an hour (we followed a 90-minute block)  three days every other week (two days on alternate weeks) for a month. Any other time that they needed in order to complete the assignment they had to carve out of their days. My English students spent thirty minutes of the period writing, and completed the rest of their stories outside of class over a one-month span.

Along with the twenty-five Story Starts, students will fill out a 12- point Story Notes sheet to help guide them through their writing and to help them learn how to use each element of literature. Teachers receive a full page of Teacher Notes with  the necessary Common Core
Middle and high School ELA Lesson Plan- Finding Voice in Writing
Standards and Bloom's Taxonomy standards and the who, what, when, why and How for the lesson.

With Great Beginnings! students will expand their understanding of the elements of literature from an author's point of view instead of only the readers' point of view. This knowledge will help them add depth to their reading comprehension as well as to their creative and narrative writing skills.Download it from:

Here is an interesting piece of trivia. Rob Brown (Jamal Wallace) answered a casting call for a walk-on role in this movie. He only wanted to make $100.00 to pay his cell phone bill. The director liked him so much, that he chose Brown for the co-lead. The role made Brown a star. I guess that he never had to worry about paying his cell phone bill again.
Middle and high School ELA Lesson Plan- Finding Voice in Writing

How do you help your students to find their writing voices? Please share some of your writing activities here.

Happy Teaching,

Monday, May 27, 2013

Attention! This is a Test of the American Educational System

"Do Not Disturb" exam sign
April showers might bring May flowers, but these months also drench students, teachers, administrators and parents with a torrent of state standardized testing. School days (and Saturday mornings) are crammed with reviews, work sessions and tutoring for these exams as well as for the SAT, PSAT, ACT, IB, and AP tests. 

Countering this plethora of assessments, are protests against the attitude that testing is be all end all for education.  Like the proverbial squeaky wheel, these protestors are oiling the public’s attention with their arguments. The past few months, every time that I open The Washington Post, read a status report on Facebook or listen to parents, teachers and young people stress, rant and/or rave about this testing fact of life, I can’t help but think:
Spring has sprung, the tests have ‘riz
Who’ll be the winners of this testing biz?

And, yes, testing is a big, Big, BIG business. People get paid substantial bucks to create, to print and to grade these evaluations.  Every year, teachers get paid leave to travel to the state the companies choose to read and rate the essays, as do retired educators or various other assessors. We can’t forget the tutoring companies that promise major gains in scores if kids take their course, the lobbyists who push for federal money to subsidize the costs of the tests-including proctoring- and heaven knows what else that is involved centrally and peripherally with this industry.

For every school district, state or federal agency who bets the educational backs of this county’s children on a test score, especially state mandated tests, a group comprised of a combination of students, parents and teachers protests their existence.

From student Opt Out groups in Oregon to teens dressed like zombies in Providence, Rhode Island; from teachers boycotting standardized tests in Chicago to those doing the same in Seattle; from national and state award-winning teachers to top-notch teachers in the classrooms leaving education because of the emphasis on test-taking and not learning, and from parents opting their elementary-aged children out of the state tests in Virginia and protesting in Texas to a Facebook page,, people invested in America’s schools are crying for a return to learning for knowledge’s sake not for the sake of proficient test scores.

Pro-standardized testing groups say that we need country-wide academic guidelines. I agree. Parents and children need to feel assured that wherever they live a quality education is waiting for them. As Woody Guthrie said in the lyrics to “This Land is Your Land” that he wrote and sang in 1956,
From California, to the New York Island
From the redwood forest, to the gulf stream waters
This school (my paraphrase) was made for you and me.”

On the other hand, teachers, parents and students are right in demanding that education should be about
Testing answer sheet
inspiring children to love learning, to strive for knowledge in all areas, and to cultivate their minds with layer after layer of critical thinking skills. If schools followed these teaching goals, they would arm their students with the understanding and the skills to pass any test shoved at them because they would be able to read proficiently, comprehend intelligently, analyze perceptively and write wisely.

We shouldn't worry about how students in other countries score on some worldwide test because they test selectively and we test ALL of our students.  Our children’s education should always come first.

We shouldn't allow one test that might or might not be in accord with the books and texts used in every school in the state to dictate the future for our students. Our children’s TOTAL education should always come first.

We shouldn't permit lawmakers, politicians and others who have NOT spent time (or if they have, it was years ago) in the trenches caring for and about their kids day after day after day, like teachers and parents, decree educational policy. Our children’s education should always come first.

As with any significant issue, two impassioned flanks exist, each with worthy and valuable arguments.  Both sides need to communicate with each other, because as any English teacher leads students to understand while reading story after story, “The lack of communication leads to tragedy.”  

If we want our children’s academic gardens to thrive and to blossom with a bouquet of knowledge and a love for learning that will benefit them throughout their lives, we must yank out any weeds that threaten to destroy America’s educational system.

Our country’s future rests in the strength of our educational systems. If we are to keep it in peak condition, we must “Teach our children well” (Graham Nash 1970).

Until next week,

Thursday, May 23, 2013

Collaboration, Curriculum and a Contest, Oh my!

Happy Thursday, colleagues.

Today's blog follows a different path. First, I am thrilled to share the blogs and Pinterest pages  of seventeen awesome teachers who I have been privileged to learn from and share teaching ideas and matters of life with over the past year or so. 

I met them through a variety of teaching and social venues such as Facebook, Teachers pay Teachers, Pinterest and this blog.  If you aren't following their blogs or Pinterest boards, you are missing a wealth of teaching knowledge from English Language Arts, to Foreign Language to Math and to Art! If Shakespeare were to paraphrase his famous quote, he might say, "Hie thee to these blogs and boards and ye will not fail but will thrive!"

Middle and High School Teacher blogs

After checking out these Savvy Sixteen teachers (I'm the 17th and you know about me already), scroll on down for my Thursday Freebie, Nonfiction Analysis: Reading and Writing Activity.

It's not a sexy vehicle like a Maserati Gran Turismo, but it's stylish, smart and refined, like a Modern Steel Metallic Honda Accord Coupe. Lastly, check out a cool contest from Compass Publishing.

Introducing:  Sixteen Savvy Teachers

The Tutor House

Bio:  Hi!  I'm Adrianne from The Tutor House.  I love tutoring and creating engaging lessons for math in reading for grades 3-8!  If you've ever thought about starting your own tutoring business, you should come on over to The Tutor House!

Follow Adrianne of The Tutor House on Pinterest.

2PeasAndADog Blog

Bio:  Hi Everyone! It's Kristy from 2 Peas and a Dog. I am a Canadian middle school teacher who loves to pin and blog about things related to Grades 6 and up.

Follow Kristy of 2 Peas and a Dog on Pinterest.


Bio:  Hiya there!  I'm Jamie but you may know me as MissMathDork! I am a lover of all things mathematical!  Patterns, sequences, geometric shapes, if it's mathematical, I'll find a way to make it fun!  Want to see some of my ideas? Check out my ideas and pictures at!  You won't be disappointed!

Follow Jaime of Miss Math Dork on Pinterest.

Bio:  Hello, there. I’m Charlene Tess from Simple Steps to Sentence Sense. Grammar is my specialty. I have always loved taking sentences apart and putting them back together, and I successfully taught my students using the simple steps method for over three decades. Visit my blog to get helpful tips on grammar, usage, and writing.

Follow Charlene of Simple Steps to Sentence Sense on Pinterest.

Bio:  Hi! I'm Kim from Teaching Math by Hart. I am forever planning and thinking of new and innovative ways to teach math to my students. Why, you ask? Believe it or not, I think learning Math should be FUN and it should be REAL! If you are looking for some ideas to engage your students in math class, come check out Teaching Math by Hart - in the middle years classroom! Pinterest.

Tammy Manor!

Bio:  Hi my name is Tammy and I've been teaching high school English for 13 years now. I know that teaching can be very stressful. My school is constantly changing the book list and I've taught every grade 6-12 as well. As a result I have unit plans for a large variety of novels, plays and memoirs. Come check out my store on TpT for a variety of ELA materials. Follow my blog for teaching related posts.

Follow Tammy on Pinterest.  

Bio:  Meet Sabrina, author of A Space to Create.  Find teaching resources for art teachers and classroom teachers alike. My art lessons teach students the creative process enabling them to build confidence and have amazing results.  Come visit my blog A Space to Create! (K-12)

Follow Sabrina of A Space to Create on Pinterest.

All Things Algebra

Bio: Hi there!  I'm Gina from All Things Algebra.  I have taught Algebra and Pre-Algebra for seven years and have a passion for creating activites and games that engage my students.  If you are interested in finding ways to have more fun in math class, head on over and check out my blog!

Follow Gina of All Things Algebra on Pinterest.

Bio:  Hi there!  My name is Amy Brown and I write a blog called "Science Stuff."  I am a 29-year teaching veteran of biology, chemistry and AP biology.  I love science and I love kids, so I have the best job in the world!  Hopefully, I have passed my love of nature and the environment on to many students.  My blog has tips and tricks for teaching science as well as a lot of free science teaching materials.  I hope to see you there!

Follow Amy of Science Stuff on Pinterest.

Numbers Rule My World

Bio: Hi! I’m Krystina from Numbers Rule My World. I love incorporating hands-on activities and technology into the classroom for Math: grades 7-9. If you’re looking for great ideas about math then you should come on over and check it out at Numbers Rule My World!

Follow Krystina of Numbers Rule My World on Pinterest.

4mulaFun Blog Fan

Bio:  Hello, my name is Jennifer Smith-Sloane. I am a Middle School Math and Special Education teacher. I have a strong passion for differentiated instruction to meet the needs of each learner in and out of my classroom. I love seeing the light in a student's eyes when something finally clicks and I do everything that I can to make that happen as often as it can.  Visit my blog 4mulaFun!

Follow Jennifer of 4mulaFun on Pinterest.

Innovative Connections

Bio:  Hey! I am Ann Marie from Innovative Connections. I enjoy blogging about various topics: Projects and lessons going on in my classroom, ideas I've learned or ideas I've thought of at the most random of moments (At 2 a.m. when I can't sleep, I can come up with some stellar ideas), teaching resources I find beneficial to fellow teachers and/or bloggers. Due to the wide range of grades I've had the pleasure of teaching, Innovative Connections caters mostly to language arts but loves to share and collaborate with teachers/bloggers of various grade levels.

Follow Ann Marie of Innovative Connections on Pinterest.

Bio:  This is Madame Aiello, author of Teaching FSL. Although I've taught other subjects as well, French as a Second Language has always been my passion. My focus is the higher grades, since I taught high school originally but teach grade 7 & 8 since six years ago. I share lots of resources, blog about second language teacher specific topics as well as those that apply to all teachers.

Follow Madame Aiello of Teaching FSL on Pinterest.

Liz's Lessons
Bio:  Bonjour! Hola! I'm Liz from Liz's Lessons. Languages are one of my passions, and I love teaching with technology. I create fun lessons for teaching secondary French, and Spanish. I also make formative assessments and technology activities in English, that can be used in any secondary classroom. If you are looking for some engaging activities for your classes, be sure to stop by Liz's Lessons!

Follow Liz of Liz's Lessons on Pinterest.

For the Love of Teaching Math
Bio: I'm Andrea Kerr from For the Love of Teaching Math. It is my mission to change traditional math classrooms one game and activity at a time. If you like to incorporate hands-on, group activities and games into your classroom, check out For the Love of Teaching Math!

Follow Andrea of For the Love of Teaching Math on Pinterest.

Addie Education – Teacher Talk

Bio:  I'm a middle / high-school teacher and I love to create ELA, Social Studies and Geography related resources.  I blog at Addie Education - Teacher Talk... come on by and see some of the fun things I do with my students.

Follow Addie Education on Pinterest.

Bio:  I'm a high school English teacher in a 1:1 school who loves books and fostering creativity. My blogs are Mrs. Orman's Classroom and Hunger Games Lessons. I share my teaching resources on TeachersPayTeachers.

Follow Tracee Orman on Pinterest.

Peruse any online teaching group or magazine and you are bound to find a conversation about Common Core Standards and their emphasis on informational nonfiction reading. This is a beast just waiting to be conquered.
Middle and High School ELA Lesson Plan
My FREE posting, Nonfiction Analysis: Reading and Writing Activity, is one way all of you perceptive and shrewd teachers can calm this creature and create classes of students proficient in reading comprehension, writing, and language usage.

Although all programs of study require core whole-class nonfiction readings, as often as possible, students should choose nonfiction informational reading that hooks their personal interest. The kids will be more inclined to want to read a topic of their choice (ownership) which will lead to the desire to express their thoughts and interpretations clearly and coherently. Their reading and writing proficiencies will blossom and solidify. This is a win-win teaching/learning idea for teachers and students.

This FREE 8-page product offers:

1. Almost 2-pages of Teacher Notes and teaching suggestions.

Middle and High School ELA Lesson Plan: Teacher Notes

2. A Student Directions page that lists Types of Articles as well as Types of Newspapers, Magazines, Online article sources and Texts.

Middle and High School ELA Activity:Nonfiction Analysis: Reading and Writing

3. A detailed analysis worksheet for note-taking
Middle and High School ELA Analyzing Lesson Plan

4. A Ten Sentence format page so students can write a summary of the article using information from their notes, and

Middle and High School Summarizing Lesson Plan
5. A format for students to expand their writing proficiency by turning a summary into a full-length essay.

This FREE Common Core and Bloom's Taxonomy aligned activity should be used with any core nonfiction reading as well as for raising reading comprehension thinking and writing skills proficiencies. Download it from

Who doesn't love the, "Will I win?" shivery anticipation of a contest?  Compass Publishing has one that will light your book bags on fire.  Check it out:


As I said on my Facebook  page yesterday, "What's to LIKE about Brigantine/Compass Publishing? Awesome teacher resources that make sense but don't cost teachers a lot of cents are two reasons. Another one is their Sweepstakes. LIKE their site and enter the Sweepstakes to win some great teaching resources."

That's it for this Thursday, my friends. Thanks for stopping by. Be sure to check out the Savvy Sixteen teachers,  today's FREEBIE activity and a terrific Sweepstakes.

Happy Teaching,

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Making Memories-A Yearbook Spread Activity

One of the highlights of the students' school year is receiving their yearbooks. They pore through the pages to see how many times they were mentioned, to groan or giggle about how they and their peers were depicted and to critique the photos, all with the same intensity that we wish they showed for the books they studied that year.

With this Making Memories-A Yearbook Spread Activity, they will be able to combine their understanding of the characters in a book that they studied that year with their ideas for the "Perfect" yearbook spread.

    Not only will they work individually or in pairs to choose a fiction or non-fiction book, but they will also select a Spread Idea such as:
    Middle and High School Yearbook Lesson Plan

    1. Student Life
    2. Community
    3. Clubs and Activities (choose one)
    4. Sports
    5.  Leadership
    as well as a Spread Presentation Theme, such as:

    1. Memories
    2. Last Will and Testament
    3. Senior Superlatives
    4. Movers and Shakers
    5. Theme of their own (with teacher approval).
    These Spread Ideas and Spread Presentation Themes are only a few examples.  Students can create their own for their perfect two-page spread.

    Students can complete this project individually or in pairs. If you want to offer another option, group students in teams of 4-6. After selecting a book that they studied in class this school year, and the characters to depict, each pair in the quartet or sestet will be responsible for one spread and should choose a
    Middle and High School ELA Yearbook Spreadsheet Activity
    Spread Idea and theme. Each pair can add to the same theme or select a different one.

    The characters that each group chooses to depict can be the same,  or a selection from all of those that the author portrayed in the book. Each two-page spread must develop, in pictures and text, four characters, though. Their spread idea is up to them, but they must include all of the ways an author develops a character: 

    •   By what the author says
    •  By what the character says or how he/she acts
    • By what others say about the character
    • How the character thinks/speaks of him/herself. 

    The finished assignment must offer evidence for the choices such as actual quotes from the book or in the student autograph texts that are included on the layout.  The students' reasons for their choices should not appear on the layout, but must be typed in an explanatory paragraph format that will be stapled to the layout.

    Criteria for grading are clarified on the Project Grading Rubric which is included on both the Teachers Notes page and the Student Directions page. Students will share their spreads in five-minute oral presentations
    Middle and High School Yearbook Activity
    where they will address their Spread Topic and Spread Presentation Theme, the characters as well as  how they depicted them, and the reasons for their choices and representations. After each presentation, have students staple their spreads to a bulletin board.

    Keep your students motivated, inspired and on-task with this engaging end-of-the-year activity that is aligned with Common Core Standards and Bloom's Taxonomy. Download it from:

    Happy Teaching,

    Sunday, May 19, 2013

    Teachers' dreams will never be deferred. How priceless!

    Connie grading papers at her desk in Rm 216
    Teaching was not my first choice for a career.  My adolescent dream featured me as a journalist, and not just any anchorwoman, but the female counterpart to Peter Jennings, the object of my major celebrity crush. When I realized that I could never, ever be able to probe someone’s feelings/ responses at the onset of a devastating tragedy, or push to the front of a media mass to gain a coveted interview with a star from any walk of life,  even though my role model did both with compassion and grace, I decided to slip through the side door of education and become a teacher.

    The mores of my era (women were pushed to become teachers, librarians, secretaries, nurses or flight attendants), my passion for books and my love for writing led me to the teaching path. A bit of a nudge from my father’s admonition, “You need something to fall back on if something ever happens to your husband,” propelled me toward my teaching certificate, too.

    Never mind that I was a junior in high school and much more interested in the dating pool than the teachers’ lounge.  Fathers’ career choices weren't challenged that often in small town America in the early ‘60s, and I wasn't the person to start a revolution.  Plus, while researching a degree in Library Science, I had fallen asleep reading about the classes on the Dewey Decimal System.  I knew that I had to find another way to indulge my bookaholic addiction.

    By the time that I sailed out of my Teaching of English class a few years later, my father’s pressuring for my  career path, even though his reasons were wrong, was spot on correct. My mind overflowed with lesson
    Indiana University of Pennsylvania emblem
     ideas that would motivate and inspire students.  They would wave their hands in the air calling for, “More, please, Teacher” instead of passing notes about who was doing what with whom, sleeping  or daydreaming.
    I was free now, to plan units for novels that I was eager to share with teenagers, for preparing lessons on how to write right and how to fall in love with words.  Oh, I realized that I would have a program of studies to follow, but that was just a skeleton of ideas that I would be free to flesh out.  Naturally, I would be allowed my autonomy.  Right?

    Designs for setting up my classroom -linear rows vs. small groupings- in a modern school building where the sun always smiled and where students yearned to learn danced like sugarplums through my head. My mother insisted that teaching was my calling. And it didn't take too many lessons where I witnessed the, “I get it!” spark in the eyes of students for me to agree with her.

    Then I crashed into the Reality Wall, that invisible force field that surrounds every K-12 school-public or private.  My teaching career flight- not a non-stop trip-took off in a highly regulated boys’ reform school, touched down in a facility for adolescents with emotional issues, stopped briefly at a school for between-the-cracks students who weren't succeeding due to personal issues, and finally landed in the realm of public education.

    At each stop, parents wore the “You don’t have to listen to her, she’s just a teacher” attitude on their sleeve.  Administrators micromanaged their staff’s every lesson and pushed for synchronized plans and teaching methodology instead of respecting the knowledge and professionalism of the teachers that they hired. They all tried to poke holes in that euphoria bubble that enveloped me that long ago day when I skipped down the steps of Leonard Hall after my Teaching of English class.

    They failed to puncture my passion for creating lifelong learners, though.  Instead they kindled my teaching fire.

    As the ‘60s moved into the ‘70s and ‘80s, free-flowing classrooms where students could study The Literary Value of Comic Books, and where John Wayne movies edged out Ernest Hemingway novels ruled. Teachers were friends instead of leaders or mentors. This bandwagon broke a wheel, though, giving way to the ‘90s and the new millennium’s rise of state and then national education standards. Decision makers on the Federal, state and local levels started pushing for a one size fits all academic framework. 

    “Who cares about right brain-left brain-whole brain research or theorists who have reliably proved that teaching and learning styles are as varied as the flavors of Ben and Jerry’s ice cream?” these bureaucrats scoffed when teachers, parents and students cried out their dismay. “We must all be on the same page!”

    These educrats still failed to puncture my passion for creating lifelong learners.

    Teacher Education
    They are succeeding, though, in sucking the air out of those who dream about leading a classroom one day, young people who don’t work for superficial accolades but would appreciate some sincere compliments for their career choice and not have to hear, “You want to be a what?”

    They are succeeding in driving away young people with the fervent desire to help students the way teachers inspired them, but are uncertain if the future of education will endorse synchronized teaching over a respect for their knowledge and skills and for choosing the right curriculum and best methodology for their students.

    They are succeeding in causing doubts in the minds of future instructors who choose teaching, even though they fully understand that the pay is not even close to the time and energy they will spend for their jobs, but don’t welcome the comments that they might as well have lit a match to their tuition checks for all the remuneration they’ll receive in academia.

    The realities about their profession that educators face do threaten to strangle the zealous visions of those who dream of someday stating with pride, “I am a teacher”.  Thankfully, though, the Nicoles and the Jennies and the Dans and the Matts understand that the, “I get it” light is priceless. They are the force of the future. They will rekindle the esteem and deference once afforded to teachers in this country and that still is prevalent beyond our shores.

    Their dreams will not be deferred- by anyone, anywhere, any time. And, oh, that is priceless.

    Until next week,


    Thursday, May 16, 2013

    Five Ways Writers May Customize Character

    Back in 1964, Barbra Streisand sang, "People, People who need people, are the luckiest people in the world," for the musical, Funny Girl. Although she was addressing how much humans need companionship from other humans in her iconic song, she could  just as well have been singing to writers, too.

    Obviously fiction authors need people. Where would Moby Dick be without Ishmael, The Shining without Jack, The Color Purple without Celie or Othello without Iago? Non-fiction writers' stories
    Middle and High School ELA Lesson Plans- Customizing Character
    would be drab and lifeless without people to create word pictures from the writers' thoughts and opinions.

    The conundrum questioning whether Characters were created before Plot is as strong a controversy for writers as the Chicken vs. Egg argument is for any enquiring minds.

    My story ideas have always germinated with a person, one involved in a contentious situation for sure, but still, a person. A Fine Line, my young adult novel about teen dating abuse was the result of one too many adolescent girls showing up for class with bruises. When I asked Jennifer,  a fifteen-year-old with deep purple-green-yellow bruises stair-stepping up her arms what happened, she said, "My boyfriend and I had a fight... but it was my fault."

    "Hold it right there," I said as I held up my hand, palm out, to ward off any more attempts she might offer to excuse her boyfriend's actions.  Over the next few weeks, as we discussed teen dating abuse and possessive, obsessive relationships, my story was born.  But first, first I needed a person to showcase.

    This person would show herself through her thoughts, words and actions, which would be seen, heard and analyzed by the other people in the story, ergo, I needed rising action and a climax and falling
    Middle and High School ELA Lesson Plans: Customizing Character
    action and a resolution. Yes, I had to have a plot, too. Without one how would the character reveal the "me nobody knows" hiding beneath her bruised skin or behind her sad eyes?

    And so the conundrum continues. The only way that I know to answer it is, "Character and Plot are separate by definition but so tightly meshed in action that one could not exist without the other". Like a phoenix from the ashes, a character emerges from the plot, but a plot wouldn't subsist without people to bring on the conflict.

    For this post, I want to deal with the separate, but all-important development of Character. Students need to learn how to develop a character in a series of word pictures-Kodak moments- so to speak. They can do this by exploring the person forming in the attic of their brains. They need to not only be able to describe how the person looks (physical being) but to dissect their person just like marketers do. Why for example, does Person A like Crest toothpaste and person B like Aqua Fresh?  What does this selection show about each individual? Why does Jill love dogs, the bigger the better, and Jack adore furry angora cats?

    Middle and High School Lesson Plans: Customizing Character
    And if...if students are to create these Kodak moments in readers' heads, than they must learn how to Show, not Tell. Few people like to be told anything; they want to toss around the facts, details and opinions shown to them and come to their own conclusions.

    I used to give students a few words and they had to show this person, such as: woman and park bench. Students new to this ultra-important Show not Tell writing commandment would respond with something like, "The old woman sat on the bench in the park." Now that was a complete sentence, but what did the reader see? Was the woman old, young, rich, poor?  Was she thrilled with life or beaten down by it?

    Veteran writers would pen, "Mabel clutched the iron arm of the splintered bench with her gnarled hand for support and winced as her hips creaked into a sitting position. Tears wound through the wrinkles creasing her face as she eased a stained envelope from the torn pocket of her grey sweater."

    Yes, this example uses over 4 times as many words, but it creates a clearer word picture. After the author would read it  aloud and write it on the board, I would ask my students to copy it down, to close their eyes and allow a picture of this woman to form in their heads, and then to write 2-3 sentence Showing more about her: Why was she so sad?  Did she live alone? Where? What kind of a place? Who was the letter from? Did she cherish it or did its words fill her with dread?

    A word picture will make readers ask, "More, please." It will pull them into the lives of the characters and the plot/conflict.  It will make them wonder, to be thrilled or saddened or angered. It won't make them shrug with indifference and respond, "So?" as a telling sentence like, "The old woman sat on the bench in the park" does.

    Today's FREE activity allows writers to unlock the secrets that make their characters unique individuals. With the five Warm-Up topics, students will learn how to customize each character with  specific, focused word selection and to create word pictures by Showing, not Telling. It is aligned with Common Core Standards and Bloom's Taxonomy, and comes with a detailed page of Teacher Notes as well as a suggestion on how to use this product with literature that you are studying in class. Download it from:
    Middle and High School Lesson Plans-Customizing Character
    How do you help students to develop character in their writing?  Please share your ideas here.

    Happy Teaching and Writing,

    Tuesday, May 14, 2013

    Building Strong Comprehension Bones-It's Elemental

    Classroom Freebies Manic Monday

    Anyone who knows me as a teacher, understands how passionate I am about verbs being the backbone of creating word pictures, but that's a Thursday blog topic. Today is Elements of Literature Day on Teach it Write.

    My feelings about how the elements of literature form the structure of any piece of literature-fiction and narrative non-fiction- are equally as fervent, though. Oh, each module can be a stand-alone entity, but one that would topple over with anything more than a wisp of air. Together, though... together these elements form a resilient structure that will support any in-depth study of literature and withstand the huffing and puffing from any skeptical wolf, no matter his or her costume.

    Middle and High School ELA Lesson Plans-Analyzing Novels PowerPoint
    Years before my book, The House of Comprehension was even a seed in my brain, or had taken root in my publisher's garden of teachers' resources (, I created  a  presentation called, The Elements of Literature Power Point. This morning, I revised, clarified and updated this slide show. Not only is it now more visually pleasing for teachers and students, offering clearer content that teachers can use as their lessons' starting blocks, but it is also FREE.

    English Language Arts teachers can utilize this slide show with their literature studies in a variety of ways. Here are two:

    1. Present the whole show at once  as an introduction to the elements, or
    2. Present each slide when its concept is the topic of the lesson.

    Taught together with the text they are studying, teachers will help their students build  personal houses of comprehension by showing them how to expand their knowledge, to enhance their perception of the
    Middle and High School ELA Lesson Plans-Character PowerPoint slide
     structure of texts, and to develop strong reading skills that will last them a lifetime. Students will become experts in analyzing:

    1. The complexity and quality of the literary structure 
    2. The importance of the setting to the story
    3. The way characters mesh and clash to form the plot
    4. The story's flow and the possibility for the characters' growth, and
    5. How the tone,  theme,  symbols and point of view enhance the story, creating the subtext necessary for depth and meaning. 

    This FREE ten-slide presentation enables teachers to help students to analyze literature in depth. Each slide
    Middle and High School ELA Lesson Plans-Plot PowerPoint slide
    offers a visual lesson for Setting, Characters, Plot, Conflict, The World the Author Creates, Theme, Symbols, Tone and Literary Terms.

    Teachers can show it as an overview or reinforcement lesson before analyzing a short story, a novel, narrative non-fiction, or as each element is introduced. I used this in English classes as well as Creative Writing classes when students were writing fiction.

    By coordinating this FREE presentation with any literature study, teachers are ensuring that students are building strong houses of comprehension. This slide presentation addresses the Common Core Anchor Standards for Literature (R 1, 2,3, 5, 6 and 10) and Bloom's
    Middle and High School ELA Lesson Plans- Author's World PowerPoint slide
    Taxonomy's Remember/Understand, Apply, Analyze and Evaluate thinking skills.

    Download this Free PowerPoint from: and start a whole town of durable comprehension houses, with each structure revealing character, strong design elements and depth.

    Happy Teaching,