Tag Archives: student writers

Week 36 – A Pop Essay to Make You Foam at the Mouth


As the year is winding down, I’ve been wanting to assess my students on the writing process when left totally up to them.  I also wanted to know what they took from the movie “A Knight’s Tale” that we watched in class as part of our unit on the middle ages.  (We watched a safer, denuded, and cleaned up “airplane” version.)   So when they came back from recess, I said, “Okay, Pop Essay!  Get out binder paper and your notes.”


Using your notes and the True/False list you made while viewing the A Knight’s Tale, outline and write a first draft of an expository essay.  You have one class period only.

 Here is your prompt:  How historically accurate is the movie “A Knight’s Tale”?  Describe the most important moments that are accurate and explain why, and then describe the most interesting  moments that are inaccurate and explain why.  What conclusions can you draw about our popular notion of the middle ages based on the film?

Do your outline here.


The students never batted an eye.  They all got out paper and their notes, and we looked at the prompt.

We took a minute to “deconstruct” the prompt.  First I asked them where we would find our thesis statement.  We underlined the first question.  I explained that they would need to turn it into a statement, but clearly I need to go over it again because one student used the question as it was written.

Then we numbered the jobs that the prompt was asking to be answered.   We put a 1 at “describe” and drew an arrow to what we were to describe and circled it: the important moments.  Then we put a 1a at the word “why” to remind us to give examples and reasons.  Then we put a 2 at the second “describe” drew a circle around the words “interesting moments” and drew a squiggly line under the word “interesting” to make it clear that “important” and “interesting” are two different concepts.  Then we put a 2a at the word, “why”.

Then we looked at the last sentence, and students were relieved to see the word “conclusions”. They accurately connected the word to a conclusion paragraph.  You don’t need to do it that way, but it does make a nice way to wrap up your thoughts.

Then I introduced the idea of the magic number 3.  They need two sets of moments.  Emphasis on the plural.  I told them that it is always useful to pick three ideas to support their thesis.  This meant that with a topic sentence they would be looking at about seven sentences for their body paragraphs.  Each moment must be supported.  The three moments plus three examples plus one topic sentence equals about seven sentences.  That gave them an idea of the length of the paper.

I wanted them to give me strong outlines, and so I told them that they needed to make the outline specific enough that if they didn’t finish the paper, I could still give them credit based on what they were planning to say as shown in their outline.  One the other hand, I warned them that they didn’t want to make the outline so specific that they didn’t have time to write it.  Only one didn’t get to write.  But his outline is amazing.  (We’ll work on it.)  Some finished early.  I told them that in this case, they need to check that they were on topic, then do as much revision as possible before the essays are picked up.  They needed to think about legibility, grammar and mechanics, idea and content, organization, word choice, and voice.

It takes time to master timed writing. They should not beat themselves up because they didn’t finish, but to consider why they hadn’t.

Instead of posting several essays, I thought I could get more student’s work up if I cherry picked some paragraphs and moments that I found to be most interesting.

Here are some openings:

The movie “A Knight’s Tale” focuses on medieval times.  But is the movie accurate to history?  In this paper:  What is accurate?  What is inaccurate? and why?

How accurate is the movie “A Knight’s Tale”? This movie is about a squire, the helper of a knight, named William, and how he changed his stars.  Which means that he went from squire to knight.

Is “A Knight’s Tale” historically inaccurate? Or is it both?  Let us find out.

And some 1st body paragraphs:

This will be the accurate section of my paper.  Training daily is a huge part of a knight’s  life.  That is how they have lots of power to hold these huge swords (not always big swords, but heavy).  Courtly love is love in the nobility.  One of the rules is when you speak to your lover, you will foam at the mouth.  The Black Prince is a real character.  His real name is Prince Edward.  He is famous for his victories.  He does help other kings and, yes, he does tournaments.  There is still many more. 

First of all, this movie had a lot of accuracies, some unexpected.  There was, in fact, daily training for all knights.  William wasn’t doing a lot of extra training. All the rules of jousting and the stuff that happened (including getting hurt) did happen.  This is important because it was actually unwarped despite how silly it sometimes seemed.  William also followed the rules of courtly love.  That is very important because to some people could see that it would be crazy how one would follow and constantly think about another.

Now I will describe a few accurate parts.  Most of the dances were accurate, but not all of them were.  This was important because William got closer to the girl he liked.  Only widows having men’s job (blacksmithing) was accurate.  William needed a good blacksmith.  People were hanged.  Roland uses this to show William what could happen to him.

First, I will discuss the accuracies of this movie. First on accuracies is Knights.  Knights had to have people pay them taxes so they can go to a tournament.  Also, in Europe, if you are not of noble birth, you cannot be a knight.  Next is Ulric von Lichtenstein.  Ulric was an actual character from history who was a knight.  Next is apprentices.  Most children were apprenticed around the age of 7.

And some 2nd body paragraphs (I didn’t give the whole paragraphs for some of these because there was a lot of repetition.)

This next paragraph is about how inaccurate it is.  They filled the lances with pasta.  The makers did that so they could have an effect.  The blacksmith put a Nike symbol on the armor.  First, they didn’t have Nike, and second the blacksmiths did not put a symbol on armor (as far as we know).  They did not know what people looked like back then.  For example, the Black Prince, we don’t know what he looks like.

Now I will explain three false moments.  One of them is that David Bowie did not exist then.  He was born very recently.  The outfits for women were very inaccurate. They looked like “Star Wars” clothes!  The lances broke.  They wouldn’t have been able to afford so many.

Next,  the inaccurate moments.  They had no trial for criminals.  When William got arrested, he went straight to public humiliation.  They also filled the lances with linguini.  I would not expect to see that in the middle ages, but it did add pop to the jousting.  Finally, the women used hair dye.  We know that women would dress their hair elaborately, but did not color their hair. 

Finally, roses were pink and white, not deep red.

They did not eat turkey legs.

First, in the middle ages, there was no hair dye and women would have worn their hair up and covered.  I know this because we have watched many middle ages documentaries and they said exactly that.

And for some conclusions:

Not thinking historically, this movie was funny and exciting.  If we had not learned about the middle ages, everyone in the class would think that the middle ages wasn’t all that bad.  They also would think most knights were mostly too snobby and proud to congratulate anyone else.  If everyone had thought these things, they would be totally wrong.

I learned that some movies are accurate and some aren’t.  Example, this one was more accurate.  I learned and saw some of the rules of courtly love. Like when the two lovers, William and Jocelyn, are talking and William is tripping over his words and you can hear him.

I am very pleased with the results.  The students’ voices come out loud and clear while strongly reflecting what we learned in class.  They also had little problem transferring the writing process to a quick essay test.  So, yay, yay, and yay.

So, here’s to Heath Ledger (god rest his soul), people having fun with History, and whoever created the essay.  Add them all up, and you get statements like “when you speak to your lover, you foam at the mouth.”



Week 34 – My Students are Brilliant


So there.

I just finished grading my students’ Humanities papers.  I can’t believe the work they’ve done.  Their papers are thoughtful, insightful, and mostly grammatical.  They have each grown along a trajectory that is uniquely their own.  After I hand their papers back, I will put several final drafts up with their permission.

We only have 21 work days left until the end of the year (not that I’m counting), but I feel that I’ve been especially blessed to have such solid group of students when I’m in my last year of (teaching) middle school.

And I think it really is.  I signed up for the first class of the doctoral degree.  It starts a month after school lets out.  When I was on campus turning in paperwork and asking lots of ridiculous questions, I couldn’t help being giddy.  I love teaching, and I love my students, but I know that where I really want to be is on a college campus as either a student or a professor or both.

I know that being a classroom teacher is what has motivated me to move forward with this decision.  It’s yahoots like the ones I have now, and the ones I’ve had before who make me face up to this “life-long learner” business.  I want to know more, and I want to help others know more.  I owe a pretty big debt of gratitude to the years and years of students, parents, and co-workers who have made me understand the importance of being honest to yourself.  And honestly, I’m ready to move on.

But before I do, I’d like to officially thank my students.  You’ve made me most of who I am today.

Thank you.

Week 28 – Anchoring Helps Me Float


Jain, our math teacher, just told me that while she was working with our students on peer evaluations for a math project, the students suggested that they evaluate each other in a similar way to how they do in Writing class.  She asked me how I had ingrained in them such a fair way of working with each other.  (Inside I’m jumping up and down with joy!  It’s not often that we get a win like that.  We always wonder whether or not the work we do goes in one ear and out the other.  So it is really awesome to get feedback that tells you that what you are doing works and is transferring to other areas of their lives.  Score!! <– Seriously, notice the two exclamation marks.)

What she is talking about is called “Anchoring”.  I learned it at a conference when I worked for the Gilroy Unified School District.  GUSD called in Education Northwest to show us about the 6+1 Writing Traits.  Now, I know I’ve sung their praises before so I won’t go there again.  However, over the years, I have continued to use their anchoring process with very little changes.

Here’s how it works:

1) I give all students a rubric which states various levels proficiency on a trait.  We read it through, and although they will tell me they understand it, their understanding is tenuous at best.  They need to see it in action.

2) I provide students with a model paper.  These papers are unadulterated (as in, no adult has done anything to the actual work) student created papers.  They are all middle and high school writers.   It means a lot to my students to see work from people their own age.  I’ve been doing this long enough now that I have amassed a fair number of student papers, but I also still use papers provided to me at that conference years ago.  It is important that only the work can be seen.  Students will make inferences based on name, gender, length, even type-face, and date.  I also never improve a paper or mangle one.  Students can always tell when a paper has been mucked about with, and they won’t take it seriously.  I learned the hard way to be honest with my yahoots if I’ve edited a paper.

3) This is the point where I give the lecture on treating each scholar with respect.  And I give it every single time.  Every.  Single.  Time.  A student with a low score is often working just as hard as a student with a high score.  We’re not in the business of assigning personal worth.  We are in the business of evaluating a paper for the quality of the writing so that the writer can make it a better paper.  Even a paper with a high score can be improved.

4) Students read the paper and decide what the quality is.  They are not allowed to confer with neighbors at this point.

5) Once all students have offered a preliminary score, they go to small groups where they must come to consensus on a score.  They argue back and forth about why they are giving it the score and point to where on the paper they see those traits.

6)  Once all groups have come to consensus, the I light up the overhead projector, and we argue our points.  I mark the paper as we discuss.  Again, students argue back and forth defending and proposing until the whole group is pretty well convinced.  I allow myself to be persuaded in one direction or another, and I tell them so.  Sometimes, it makes sense for us to start at the top and work our way down the rubric looking for evidence as we go.

7)  In the end, I am the ultimate arbiter in the fate of the paper, and the students know this, but grades are not tied to the score they receive.  They do not receive an A for a 5, a B for a 4, a C for a 3, a D for a 2, or an F for a 1.  This would be damaging in the extreme.  I know how hard my students work because they write their papers mostly in class.  Often times the student who received a 3 is working harder than the student who received a 5.  I reward students’ willingness to change and improve the paper and give them the feedback they need to do this.

8) (Gosh, this is a lot.)  When we all agree to within a point or half-point, I hand out another paper, and we do it all again.  We anchor paper after paper until I am confident that students are seeing the traits within the paper and are offering feedback which is consistent within the rubric.

9)  Finally- the golden land – handing students each others’ papers for scoring.  They do the same process except they do not confer with others.  They read the paper twice.  They mark it to show evidence.  They write the evidence where they see it on the paper.  They give it a score for the whole, and they conference with the writer upon handing it back.  Students work with me if they are struggling to score the paper.  Also, students come to me to arbitrate if they feel they have been unjustly scored.  (I find it interesting that they are more likely to come to me if they feel the reader has not said enough to them about their paper.)  Then the homework is to move the paper up the rubric.  Students are told not to expect a great leap in scoring.  It is a process that takes time and effort.  Going from a 3 to a 3.5 or a 4 is an appropriate expectation.

Idea and Content took two days.  Organization took almost a week.  Word Choice and Voice will vary by the needs of the class, but I’m fairly certain that they will go quickly because of the prior knowledge that students have amassed. 

For a different subject, it may be worth the time for the teacher to ask his or her students to make the rubric.  (Honestly, I would create the rubric (or a couple of rubrics) and bring it in for students to develop.)  Also, finding models and non-models can be very difficult, in which I might break my rule about creating them for this purpose.  But I would still be honest with students about it, but then I would make copies of student work for the next time I taught this lesson.

Week 9 – Scare Us, Scare Us, Scare Us More


Neil Gaiman is my hero.  (For today.  I go through heroes like someone who goes through a lot of things very quickly.)  He wrote a scary short story called “Click-clack the Rattlebag” which Audible.com put on their website, and they made a donation every time someone downloaded it.  (I have no idea what the donation is for.  I could go research it, but I don’t have the time.)  As soon as I heard about this I had to check it out.  Many of my students know Gaiman’s name.  They’ve read The Graveyard Book, Odd and the Ice Giants, and one has even read Good Omens.  Talk about a win-win-win situation.

I am not a fan of scary literature — I’m still scarred from reading Cujo for one of my students (due next week.)  But this really is a wonderful little story.  Not too frightening for the younger ones (or me), only about 12 minutes long, and it really illustrates what is best in scary stories.  Once I heard it, I knew I had a lesson plan in the making.

When students arrived in the classroom, they were asked to brainstorm the attributes of the scary story, as a genre.  I didn’t want to lose time, and so we didn’t go over what they had written, yet.  Instead they listened to a story I had written a few years ago.  It’s nowhere near the caliber of Neil Gaiman’s story, but it does the job.  When I was finished, students added, subtracted, or just continued to think about the traits of a scary story.

Again, I allowed them to stew while I played for them Gaiman’s offering.  They were entranced.  When the story was over, like all good stories, they wanted to talk about it.  I never, ever, let them do this.  I always make them write down whatever it is they want to say.  They were so electrified that a few remarks were blurted out anyway, but they settled down to the  command, “You have one minute — write.”  You see, authentic literary analysis comes from that need to share.  That need to see if others shared your experience.  And they wrote.  And then they shared what they wrote.  I tweeted Neil Gaiman (he asks you to before he reads the story) and told him what they thought.  “Very well written,” was the consensus.

After that I directed them back to their bellwork and asked them if there was anything they wished to add to the their list of things a scary story needs.  Then we put it on the board: It needs to build suspense.  It needs to have an atmosphere where it is hard to see (gloomy), it needs to have a real or hidden threat, it needs to have a sense of hopelessness or foreboding.  It needs to have a surprise ending.  Stories are often (but not always) written in first person for that sense of immediacy.  (Notice the dearth of sparkly vampires.)

Once we all agreed on these traits, I asked students to write their own stories.  I’ve never seen heads go down so fast.  All writing implements were coursing across the paper.  Some students finished early and asked to write a second story.  Mostly, they wanted to read their stories aloud.  When just about everybody had finished, we did start reading them.

At one point, one of the students raised her hand and pointed at the clock.  We had three minutes until the day was over.  I told students to put away their work.  There was a wail of, “Noooo!!!” that I’ve never heard before.  I told them that the day was over and they had to go home.  It was Halloween.  The response?  “Noooo!!!”  Amazing.

Here are two of their pieces:

Student A:

I was sitting on the couch when John came over and sat next to me.  He said the story around the dinner table was a pretty scary one.  The one about Old Man Jenkins.

“Yeah, but it’s all junk,” I said.

“Well,” said John, “We’re leaving tomorrow.”

When I woke up, John had packed up for me.  He said, “Come on, let’s go!” 

We got into the car.  About 5 minutes in I said, “Since we are going to the barn, I’ll tell a scary story about Harold the Scarecrow.”  We loved to tell scary stories.  I told him that Harold would be used as a target for shot gun practice, and he wanted revenge for being so badly treated. 

When we got to the barn, I said to John, go in and check it out.  It was all dark.  I teased him and said, “Harold will get you!” but he was already gone.  Nailed to the door was a flap of skin waving in the breeze.

He is sticking closely to the pattern set up by Gaiman, but it is clearly his own story.  Mimicry is no bad thing.

Student B:

Pant, pant, pant.  “Why did I ever do such a thing?”  thought the girl.  “Mom specifically told me not to do it.”  They were coming closer every second. 

“We will get you Cherry! Mwa, ha, ha, ha, ha!” said the monster behind.

Earlier that night…

Cherry went out to trick-or-treat with her other teenage girly-friends.  Before Cherry left the house her mom told her something very important.  “Cherry, please don’t go to the graveyard.  It is haunted!”

“Sorry mom, we already made plans.”

“If you go the vampires will come alive.”

“Seriously mom? Vampires.”

“They are real. I went to the graveyard when I was your age and I got bitten.  It was so bad, I thought they defeated me.”

“That is so lame, and plus, how did you get better?”

“Your father killed every single one and the venom disintegrated out of my body.”

“Let’s go, Cherry!” said May, one of Cherry’s friends.

“Bye, Mom! I love you,” Cherry said just before leaving. 

“Oh, please keep her safe, you wonderful spirits,” said her mother, worriedly.

They went to the graveyard, but Cherry didn’t go in.

“What’s wrong, Cherry?  Too scared?” said May.

“No,” Cherry said with anger.

“Then come on in.  It’s fine!” said her other friends.

Cherry went in for two minutes, but to her it felt like two hours.  She turned around and saw them.

NB: We didn’t discuss the prohibitive nature of scary stories, but it is clearly bouncing around in their heads.

Just like how the kids wanted to discuss the bellwork, I think the fact that students wanted to talk about the writing they heard, and then write and read their own work, speaks to the communicative nature of writing and reading.  It’s absolutely primal.