Tuesday, November 1, 2016

Engage and Motivate Students with Argumentative Writing Lessons: "The Best of the Best" from The Creative Classroom


When I first began teaching in 2008, I was hired to teach 6th-8th grade Literacy Enrichment for students who struggled in ELA. There was no set curriculum for this elective class and I was given complete creative control over what lessons I taught. As a brand new teacher, one would think that the idea of three separate preps with absolutely no curriculum resources would be completely overwhelming; however, I was elated that I would be able to introduce my students to some of my favorite authors, historical events, and real life learning opportunities. It felt like every dream I had about teaching had come true!

What I quickly realized was that my students struggled immensely with writing, which led to  many of them either too embarrassed to put their thoughts into words or simply refusing to complete the assignment. I knew that I had to come up with a solution that would not only get my students interested and engaged in the content but would also allow them to experience success, which would help to motivate them. It wasn’t very difficult to come up with an idea to try in my classes. 

Introducing My Students to Argumentative Writing

If you have ever taught middle school students, it doesn’t take long to realize that they are very opinionated and have no problem sharing their opinions with you. In fact, many of them not only loved to share their opinions, but would openly let others know when and why they disagreed with a differing opinion on any subject. I used this bit of knowledge to my advantage when I decided to introduce my students to argumentative writing. 

I used three simple questions at the beginning of class to get my students curious and interested in the concept of argumentative writing. Once my students realized that I was going to teach them how to create ways to share their opinions on real world issues that were supported with evidence that people could not dismiss as simply being a teenager’s opinion they were hooked. 

I had achieved my first goal, but I also knew that creating and supporting arguments would be a difficult task for many of them to successfully complete. My students needed a trial run in creating arguments that I could use to identify trends in writing and individual student weaknesses to ensure that my future classroom instruction would be purposeful. For our first attempt, my students read an article from Scholastic Magazine entitled “You Danger”, which dealt with the debate on whether Youtube should be responsible for the repercussions of the dangerous videos that users post on the website. After we finished reading the article, my students engaged in the best whole group discussion that I had heard in my classroom all school year. They were using evidence from the article and their own personal experiences to support their opinions on who was to blame for the dangerous videos. I knew that they could verbally express themselves using the text  and personal experiences, but could they translate that into their writing?  

As I predicted, many of my students struggled with creating a strong one paragraph argumentative response. The majority were able to state their position successfully and more than half of them were able to pull at least one relevant piece of text evidence to support their position, but very few of them were able to make connections or explain how their text evidence supported their position. I decided that since so many of them struggled with the one paragraph response that I needed to put on the brakes and find a strategy that would fix the issues my students were having.

Creating a New Game Plan

Our school had been using the Better Answers Writing Strategy as a pre-writing tool to help students craft writing responses, but it was simply not helping my students with their arguments. They needed something that was more defined and broken down into smaller pieces. The PEEL Writing Strategy was just what my students needed! It closely resembles Better Answers, but it breaks the middle part into two pieces: evidence and explanation. I created a teacher model for the PEEL organizer and used it to introduce this pre-writing tool to my students. As I monitored student’s progress during their independent work time, there was an immediate difference in the quality of work. The breakdown of PEEL made writing expectations more clear for students and they were able to see the difference between a piece of evidence and explanations. There were still many issues that needed to be addressed before my students were ready to write a multi-paragraph response on their own, but I noticed an overall improvement in their revised argumentative response. The majority of responses were developed more with 2-3 pieces of relevant text evidence and attempts at explaining why that evidence was important. I made sure that when I was leaving feedback on their revised responses that I highlighted and praised them for their growth and improved writing more than focusing on the mistakes that were still present. I needed them to know that I was proud of the growth and effort that they had put in and that we would work together as a team to grow even more.

Using Differentiation and Strategic Grouping Strategies 

Another bonus of having my students first write a short argumentative response was that I was able to create differentiated resources for their multi-paragraph writing tasks that would help address the specific problems that I discovered. One modification that I made was simply reducing the amount of evidence and paragraphs that needed to be included in their argumentative writing responses for my lowest students. I also utilized the Opinion-Proof Strategy that made it easier for my students who were struggling to identify relevant text evidence to support their position. The Opinion-Proof Organizer gave my students a position on the debate they were researching and required the students to find relevant evidence to support the opinion. I modified this strategy to include a third column that required students to explain how their piece of evidence supported the position. This third column really helped students evaluate their evidence and figure out if it was the best piece of evidence to help prove that their position was correct.

In addition to the modifications that I made to the multi-paragraph argumentative writing resources, I also used the information that I gathered from the one paragraph responses to create effective grouping structures in my classroom. On the first day of the argumentative writing tasks, I grouped students based on how well they did on their one paragraph argument. This grouping structure made it much easier to effectively monitor and facilitate learning. After the first day, I used the student work from that class period to determine grouping structures. Each group had a specific purpose based on what I saw in the student work. For the students who did not struggle during the previous lesson, they were grouped together and allowed to work independently at their own pace. If there were students who struggled with one aspect that could be fixed with written academic feedback, I grouped them together and made sure that I touched base with them at one point or another during work time. For the students who struggled and needed more guidance, I grouped them together based on what they specifically struggled with in the previous class period. These students would either work in a small group with me where I could closely monitor their progress and provide immediate feedback or we worked on a mini-lesson intervention that was designed to address the problem. It did take quite a bit of time and prep to analyze student work, create groups, and an intervention plan each day, but the success that I saw was definitely worth it. Not only did my class run much smoother because everything was organized and done ahead of time, but I saw the growth and successes that were happening each day with my students. 

Reflections & "The Best of the Best" 

The work that I did with my students that first year helped to not only give my students a solid foundation of writing skills, but it also helped shape me as a teacher. It taught me that learning is not an overnight process with immediate success, but a never-ending process that contains many obstacles and even more successes. I had the necessary tools and experience to create learning opportunities that would help all my students feel successful and experience growth.  I just needed to be patient and determined to do what was needed to help my students’ reach their full potential. In addition, I learned to never stop looking for that one strategy or resource that could be just what you need to turn things around for your students. Throughout the years, I  have continuously revised my argumentative writing units to include new strategies like the Double Entry Journal to help students research, modifying the Four Square Organizer strategy to include elements of the PEEL Writing Strategy, or having my students take more ownership by analyzing writing prompts and writing samples to create their own criteria for success.

It was through these trial and error learning experiences that I came to create my favorite product line, the Common Core News Debate series. Each performance task in this product line is filled with research-based, classroom-tested reading and writing strategies that will help students and teachers experience success throughout each task. I have included not only the differentiated resources that I have used to meet the different learning needs of my own students, but also the teacher models and resources that I used in my own classroom to demonstrate expectations and the thinking required to complete these tasks. In addition, each task focuses on a real world issue that is extremely relevant to middle and high school students. The topics range from school uniforms and homework to later school start times and video game violence. There are plenty of topics that will surely get your students excited to share their positions on these relevant issues. Another added benefit of this product line is that teachers have two types of writing compositions that they can introduce to their students:  the traditional multi-paragraph essay or an argumentative letter.
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You can learn more specific information and see product previews for individual products in the Common Core News Debate product line by clicking here to visit my store, The Creative Classroom on TPT. Head on over there on November 1-2 to save 20% off ALL argumentative writing products!

While you are visiting The Creative Classroom, be sure to download your FREE copy of my newest resource, Become a Writing Expert: Guide to Analyze Prompts and Writing Samples! This classroom-tested tool will help guide students as they deconstruct their writing prompt to identify what the prompt is asking them to do and allow students to analyze strong and weak writing samples to record the characteristics of both. After students complete these two steps, they will then be able to create their own criteria for an exemplar writing response. This tool will be an immense help during Task #1 of any Common Core News Debate Units.

Thank you for stopping by to read all about how my own classroom experience with engaging my students and helping them be successful through argumentative writing lessons helped inspire me to create "The Best of the Best" argumentative writing resources. Don't forget to enter the Rafflecopter for a chance to win a TPT gift card and check out the other amazing blogs from Secondary ELA Teacher-Authors as they share their "Best of the Best"!



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Sunday, October 16, 2016

Secondary ELA Seasonal Blog Hop: The Creative Classroom Shares Tricks & Tips




As an ELA teacher teacher, one of my favorite times of the school year is October. Not only is it the point of the year where you finally feel like you are settled in and have routines finally figured out, but it’s also the time of the year that I get to introduce my students to some of my favorite authors and spooky short stories! While my excitement always grew over thoughts of introducing a new group of students to the works of Edgar Allan Poe, W.W. Jacobs, and Ray Bradbury, a slight nervousness also crept in when I thought about how complex these texts can be for both proficient and struggling readers. What could I do to help bridge the gap and help my students to successfully navigate these stories? 

Searching For the PERFECT Audio Version...Does It Even Exist?

Obviously, I knew that I would incorporate close reading strategies to help my students tackle these stories. In my classroom, our first read was always focused on answering the question “OMG! What happened?!?” so that I could see which students got the gist of the story and which students were struggling to comprehend the big picture. In addition,  the majority of the time we would listen to an audio version of the story during our first read while students had a copy of the text in front of them.  I always tried to find the most interesting audio version that I could because let’s face it no one, including me, wants to listen to a monotone voice tell a story let alone one as thrilling and suspenseful as “The Cask of Amontillado” or “Monkey’s Paw”. 

In September 2013 as I was preparing for my upcoming unit, I was browsing through the audiobooks on iTunes and listened to several previews that bored me to tears. It seemed like my mission to find an engaging audio version for “The Cask of Amontillado” was going to be unsuccessful until I clicked on an audiobook entitled “Nightmares on Congress Street, Part IV” by Rocky Coast Radio Theater. Within seconds of hitting play on the preview button, I knew that I had found a winner! Everything about this recording, from the intense and spooky music to the performance of the actors, was perfect. It’s like the stories that I loved so much had truly come to life. Once I purchased the file, I sat mesmerized as I listened to both “The Cask of Amontillado” and “Monkey’s Paw”. What was even better than how these actors brought these tales to life was the fact that they did not change the source material and make any major deviations from the original text. Talk about an English teacher’s dream come true!

Introduction to Edgar Allan Poe + Rocky Coast Radio Theatre = HUGE Success

I was so excited for the first day of reading “The Cask of Amontillado” and letting my students hear the radio theater audio version of the story for the first time. As it began playing and the mysterious music began playing, my students started looking around and I saw smiles already on some of their faces. By the time that we had got to out first stopping point in the story, I knew that I had found a winner. Each time I asked a question, there were tons of volunteers who wanted to answer my question or ask one of their own. Many of the students kept begging to start the story again. The level of student engagement and enthusiasm was absolutely unbelievable and it remained that way throughout the entire first read of the short story. This trend continued through every class that I taught that day and I could not wait to read through my students’ exit tickets to see their answers to “OMG! What Happened!?!”.  Normally, when I shifted through the exit tickets after a first read, there was a good majority of students who were not only struggling with the big picture, but they had difficulty even piecing together small parts of the story; however, I began to notice that about half of my students were able to give me a general summary of “This guy Montressor was mad at Fortunato and decided to brick him into a wall to get back at him” or “The narrator is crazy because he killed Fortunato just because he was jealous of them”. Even my struggling readers, many of whom were my SPED students, were able to piece certain scenes together and show the smallest glimpse of comprehending this difficult text. My inclusion co-teacher and I were simply amazed by how big of a difference the radio theater audio had made in our student’s comprehension level. The excitement and progress that my students had made on day one continued throughout the entire unit.  

This positive learning experience was an eye-opener to the power of engaging audio versions of literature. I set a goal for myself that no matter how long it may take me or how many different Google searches I had to do that I would do everything I could to find the most entertaining and student friendly audio files that I could. Not only would it help break up the monotony of reading the same story six times a day, but it would also motivate my students into becoming better readers.  You are in luck because I'm about to share links to my favorite audio versions of some amazing short stories.

Here are just a few of my FAVORITE audio versions for some spooky short stories:







I hope that these audio versions help transform your short story units and engage your students!


Secondary ELA TPT Halloween SALE

Once you've finished checking out all these awesome blog posts head on over to my TPT store to save 20% off ALL Spooky Short Story resources on October 16th and October 17th! 





Don't forget to check out the other Secondary ELA Teacher-Authors' blog posts to get more tips and tricks to make this Halloween the best year yet!

Monday, September 5, 2016

Restoring Hope: Love For Louisiana Teachers Fundraiser


On August 11th, 2016, a stationary weather system resulted in torrential downpours with upwards of two feet of rain that devastated several parishes across South Louisiana. The extreme amount of rainwater, close to 7.1 trillion gallons of water, caused rivers, lake, and other bodies of water to reach and exceed flood stages in the following days. In the blink of an eye, the water began rising and encroaching upon not just areas that typically flood, but the flooding waters found their way to places that had never even had the threat of flooding before. The widespread devastation of the rising water quickly destroyed countless homes, businesses, and schools.


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As the water began to recede and people were allowed into the areas that were flooded, the full extent of the damage was visible. For many people, they lost an entire lifetime of memories and personal treasures. While the loss of personal property and people's livelihood were tragic, an equally tragic loss was the impact that the flood waters had on area schools. There are over 30 schools, both public and private, across several parishes that suffered significant water damage to their campuses. Livingston Parish alone had 15 public schools that suffered water damage with at least 8 schools that experienced extensive damage that will take months to repair. While the school buildings will have to be repaired to be safe for students and staff to return, this work will be done and funded through the individual school systems, but what can be done to help the individual teachers replace their classroom materials, personal items, and everything else that made their classrooms whole?

I'm pleased to announce that I have joined forces with an amazing group of Teacher Authors from Teachers Pay Teachers to create a fundraiser, Restoring Hope: Love for Louisiana Teachers. The core team behind Restoring Hope is comprised of Kristen from Teacher Playground, Andrea from This Literacy Life, Shannon from OCD in First, and Stephanie from The Creative Classroom. We came together and created the fundraiser as a way to help our fellow Louisiana teachers rise up and rebuild their classrooms. Our fundraiser has been made possible by the generous donations that we have received from 90+ TPT sellers that include high-quality products ranging from Kindergarten to High School. In total, there are six product bundles available and four donation options. The TPT store will go live on Tuesday, September 6th, 2016 and will remain open for at least 30 days. You can click the banner below to visit our store and support Louisiana teachers by buying product bundles or simply donating money to the fundraiser.




Where will we be donating the proceeds raised from the fundraiser?

One of the biggest pieces of this fundraiser was trying to decide where we would donate the money we raised for Louisiana teachers to ensure that it would be fairly and equally distributed to those in need.100% of the proceeds that are made through our TPT store will be donated to the Associated Professional Educators of Louisiana's Disaster Relief Fund. This organization is donating 100% of all money that they receive to public and private schools teachers who lost some or all of their classroom materials due to the flooding.









Our team knew that we wanted to say THANK YOU to all of the amazing teachers who have supported our fundraiser by purchasing a bundle or donating money. Shannon from Blogs Fit For A Queen has graciously donated a FREE BLOG DESIGN. When you purchase one of the bundles from the Restoring Hope: Love for Louisiana Teachers TPT Store, you can enter for a chance to win! All you have to do is complete the form that is attached in the product bundle or donation page by October 15th, 2016.


We would like to take this opportunity to send out a huge THANK YOU to our sponsors who have donated resources to the fundraiser bundles. Without your help and generosity, none of this would have been possible. 

Sunday, July 31, 2016

Start The #BEST.YEAR.EVER with help from the TPT Secondary ELA Sellers!



Can you believe that it's time for another school year to start? No matter if this is your first year or your twentieth year teaching, the Back to School rush can be chaotic and overwhelming. Let the TPT Secondary ELA Sellers help you have the #BEST.YEAR.EVER! Join us in celebrating the TPT Back to School Sale. Visit the stores below during the #BEST.YEAR.EVER! TPT Sitewide Sale to save up to 28% off of products on August 1st-2nd:


Saturday, July 30, 2016

Tips for the #BEST.YEAR.EVER and Giveaway from The Creative Classroom

Can you believe that it is already time for another school year to begin? It can be a time of great excitement with a little bit of chaos and overwhelming feelings, no matter how many years you have been teaching. Well, I'm here to help you jumpstart this new school year with some helpful tips and a fun giveaway to make this the #BEST.YEAR.EVER!



Enter The Creative Classroom's #BEST.YEAR.EVER Giveaway to win $10 TPT Gift Card, $10 Shopping Spree to The Creative Classroom, and a product of your choice from my store. The giveaway runs between now and ends on Monday, August 1st, 2016. Check out the Rafflecopter below to enter for your chance to win!





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Stay tuned for even more ways to make this the #BEST.YEAR.EVER in the coming days! :)

Sunday, May 22, 2016

Calming the Year End Chaos Tips for Success



If you are like me, the end of the school year can be a chaotic and energy-draining time period. There are so many things to get done-like paperwork, end of the quarter exams, keeping your students' focused and engaged. It can seem like a circus act to juggle all of these things at once. Sometimes it feels like it will never end, but the light at the end of the tunnel is oh-so close.

The end of the year for me has always been a time for self reflection of what worked and what didn't. This was especially true when I taught Literacy Enrichment, an elective class for students who scored below average on our state ELA assessments. There was no set curriculum so I created EVERYTHING that we did in our class for 6th-8th grade. It was easy for me to determine what I thought was successful or a great lesson, but what about my students' thoughts on the lessons and activities? Sure I had asked for feedback from them here or there, but did I really give them a chance to really reflect on the things that we did and what helped THEM? I sat down that afternoon and created an End of the Year Survey for my students' to complete. (Click here to download a FREE copy of this survey!)

 I had my students complete this activity during one of the last weeks of school and I was amazed at their view on the things we had done and the honest feedback that many of them gave. It was so nice to read about their favorite activities or short stories that we did (it was no surprise to me that Edgar Allan Poe's "The Tell-Tale Heart" and "The Black Cat" were among their favorites.). 

As I sat reading their comments, I began to think about how this would help me shape and revise my curriculum for the next school year. It was then that a light bulb went off in my head. If they were giving me such awesome feedback and advice, what type of advice would they give to future students who would be in their shoes next school year. Let's face it, we can give advice until we run out of things to say, but how powerful would it be for students to be the ones giving that advice on how to survive a new school year. I worked throughout the night developing a writing assignment that would allow my students' to take the life lessons that they had learned during our year together and share these experiences and advice with the future students who would be in my class. 


I introduced the Letter to a Future Student Activity to my classes during the final week of school. At first, they looked at me like I was crazy. Did I really expect them to write multiple paragraphs during the last week of school!?! That all changed once I explained WHY they would be writing these letters and that there was a real life purpose to this assignment. I let them know that my plan was to seal their letters in individual envelopes and that each of my new students would get one of their letters on the first day of the new school year. Even my most reluctant writers worked hard to create a multi-paragraph letter that contains tips, tricks, and helpful hints for making it through that next school year. Many of my students would call me over to check over their letters and give them some feedback. Some even asked if they could type their letters because they didn't want their messy handwriting to stop someone from being able to read their letters. I was so impressed with the level of thoughtfulness and hard work that they put in.

This was absolutely the best end of the year activity that I have ever done. I loved being able to give these letters to each new group of students, especially my new 6th graders who were terrified on that first day of their middle school experience. It helped to calm some nerves and also led to some laughs from the humorous stories that my former students had told in their letters. Below is one of my favorite letters from one of my former students:


Without a doubt involving my students' in these two activities helped give me some valuable feedback and information to use as I worked towards planning a new school year out. It also allowed me to show my students how much I valued their thoughts and opinions. This helped cut down on the normal end of the year behaviors and helped end our year on a positive note. 

I hope that you found these two tips helpful in calming the overwhelming chaos that occurs at the end of the year. The end is oh-so near so make every moment with your students count! You've got this, teachers! I hope that you have a GREAT rest of the school year, whether that be days or weeks left and that you have a restful and relaxing summer vacation! :)



More End of the Year Survival Tips
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