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Recognizing the Effects of Modeling and Practicing Writing Strategies for Eighth Graders: Writers Notebooks, Literary Essays,

and Short Stories

Kelly Arnold
Action Research Inquiry Project ETAP690L: Dr. Noreen Benton December 2011

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Introduction: When I walked into the classroom to meet my cooperating teaching for the first time in May I was terrified, excited, and confused all at once: Terrified because I would be teaching full time, without a partner to fall back on; excited because his classroom was tech-savvy (unlike my previous low-tech, no-window, chalkboard and VHS classroom); And confused because he was giving me free reign to create any unit I wished. Reflecting on that experience now, I should have been more grateful because the chances of having free reign and so much technology are very limited. However, this gave me the benefit of being able to create an intellectually stimulating, yet engaging and interesting unit for my students. I asked for a starting point because I had no idea how large or small of a unit I should be creating. After brainstorming for a while we decided on a fiction unit incorporating Paul Fleischmans Whirligig, a literary essay, and a short story creative writing piece. Before this, I had no experience with this book, but decided to take on the challenge; I thought it would be a great way to learn with my classes. When developing the unit I kept circling back to the idea of connecting these three different elements. How could I have students read this book as a way of modeling the writing process without having them all write the same realistic fiction story about a kid in school? Also, how could I help develop student literacy skills of analyzing, synthesizing, and evaluating texts and helping them see the connections to the real world? The way my cooperating teacher had explained this seemed impossible; I would incorporate some sort of reading, writing, and discussion into every block so that students were continuously developing these literacy skills. I didnt see how I could simultaneously have students reading a book, discussing the book, and then writing something that had nothing to do with the book.

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However, after observing my cooperating teaching and seeing his approach to the classroom structure, I was able to develop a way to accomplish these goals I had set. Using their writers notebook to brainstorm, the Whirligig text to model, and various activities as practice, I was able to create a unit around the generative theme of fitting in, which encouraged students to develop their understanding of this theme in a variety of ways.

Research Questions: How does modeling various writing tasks with secondary sources inform how students will develop their own writing? How can analyzing a specific piece of literature (class reading) help students develop a piece of writing? Are there differences in student writing when teachers select the topic versus when students have complete control?

Purpose: I know that when students are told to create a short story (or any type of creative writing) they are intimidated because of the open-endedness; they want structure, requirements, and some sort of guidelines. Especially in eighth grade, students are used to receiving essay prompts, guidelines for writing assignments, checklists for requirements, etc. If students are given very basic general prompts, or no specific topic at all they hesitate, ask questions, and sometimes physically cannot begin because there is some sort of roadblock in their mind. Students want structure; they want to complete exactly what the teacher asks of them. If the teacher neglects specificity students begin to panic. I observed this in my first placement at Albany High School, and I observed it this entire experience at Farnsworth Middle School. Location, grade, gender, personality dont seem to matter; all students want structure.

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Therefore, rather than feeding students guidelines and requirements, I wanted to create a unit that would naturally facilitate their desire and innate ability to create a short story based on their own interests. Students would use the classroom learning as a means of scaffolding and practice for their story; the inquiry into Whirligig and other sources would serve as a model for their final creative product, also demonstrating their literary skills. In this case, the focus is taken off the content of the novel and directed towards the structure, purpose, and overall development of the story. The analytic piece then comes in when students are asked to develop an extended response essay in which they analyze the main character. Keeping with the theme of fitting in, students are asked to analyze the various ways they perceive the main character growing throughout the novel. Although this is the analytic element of the unit, students are also inquiring into the purpose of the text, the authors intended audience, and the methods by which the author creates meaning. Students use these tactics in their own short story to portray and address some worldly idea.

School Context: This semester I taught at Farnsworth Middle School in Guilderland. The students at FMS receive many benefits that are instilled within the school itself. The average class size is 23 students per class, many times with a reading aid present. The racial and ethnic origin of students is overwhelmingly white despite the proximity to Albany and Schenectady which are extremely diverse. About 85% of students at FMS are white, 4% African American, 2% Hispanic, and 8% Asian. As for school performance, about 75% of FMS students are meeting the NYS standards for English Language Arts. As of 2010, FMS has a larger percentage of students achieving

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performance levels of 2, 3 and 4 for eighth grade ELA compared to the entire Guilderland School District and the average of NYS public schools (NYS Report Card). At FMS I taught four sections of eighth grade ELA. A vast majority of my students were white; I had five ESL students who received extra help daily during their access period. In one class I had roughly ten students that went to the resources room every day during their tutorial period for AIS reading. And in total, I had about eight students that had specific IEPs which include guided notes, alternate location testing, and modified tests. A majority of my students live in a mostly suburban residential area. Many of them live on the same road as the school in the numerous apartment complexes and town houses. A handful of students live closer to Albany in lower-income apartments. Many of my students also live in the Altamont area which is a somewhat wealthy area. Despite the varying degrees of socioeconomic status, students seem to co-mingle amongst each other regardless of wealth. The schedule at FMS is broken down into 13 modules, each varying in length from 10, 30, or 40 minutes. Some of those mods are then combined to create blocks for 80 minute core classes, or left as shorter periods for access, tutorial, and other elective classes. The school itself is set up in teams, or houses. There are four houses: Mohawk, Haiawatha, Seneca, and Tawasentha. Each house has its own house principal and a teacher for each core subject for each grade (6-8). The school is extremely knowledgeable about its students and dedicated to the success of their students. House principals and core subject teachers in each team meet once a week to discuss the progress of students, upcoming events, and any other relevant issues. The team structure allows teachers to make connections among their units in various core classes and also to plan for interdisciplinary lessons and events. It also allows teachers to develop personal relationships with each of their students and for the team to recognize the

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progress (or lack thereof) for each student in the team. If one student stands out for any reason those teachers can decide if a parent conference is an appropriate next step in helping that student achieve success. Students are genuinely set up for success at this school. The team structure, speaking from my experience, helped tremendously in fostering the literary skills students need for success in all classes; the teachers were able to work together to develop lessons that would help cross-curricular literacy skills.

Teaching Context: For this unit of study students were asked to read Paul Fleischmans Whilrigig and participate in collaborative learning groups. In these groups, students studied various literary elements by analyzing them in various contexts; students brainstormed ideas for their own writing using their writers notebook, discussed the literary elements present in their class reading, and also analyzed other sources such as media clips or other short readings for a better understanding of the writing process. Simultaneously, students were brainstorming, planning, and writing their own short story using these in-class activities to develop their writing. Students had several opportunities to workshop and self-assess their writing, as well as receive feedback from peers. Before the final draft of their short story was due students submitted a complete revised draft which was graded and returned to them for revision purposes. They then chose whether or not they were intent with their story or if they would like to revise to regain credit. Overwhelmingly I was surprised with the outcome and interest in this unit.

Data Collection:

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In order to analyze the effects of modeling and practice on students writing I needed to determine various factors about their previous reading and writing experiences. At FMS students learn through collaboration and exploration of themes in various settings. Rather than reading multiple class texts throughout the year students are only required to read two class texts, Fleischmans Whirligig and Karen Hesses Out of the Dust. The rest of the reading is comprised of articles, passages, short stories, and other written sources determined by individual teachers as well as independent reading selected by the student and done mostly outside of school. The goal for eighth graders is 25 books for the year which is closely monitored by the teacher and used for classroom activities. The first data I wanted to collect was the type of reading students like to do. As an activity for their independent reading, students had to complete a reading recommendation slip which was placed on our I Recommend board in the classroom. Of those recommendations roughly 55% were realistic fiction, 30% fantasy and science-fiction, 10% mystery, and 5% nonfiction. Next, after giving students a while to brainstorm based on their personal interests and the popular culture surrounding their lives, I wanted to get a better idea of their plans for writing. After modeling and practicing a plot diagram using Grimms Little Red Riding Hood and Whirligig students were given the opportunity to create their own plot diagram for their story. The idea was for students to have a clear purpose for their story; they needed to provide a basic introduction that would serve as a hook for the reader, various conflicts for rising action, an intense climax with a turning point, falling action to wrap-up loose ends, and a conclusion that let the reader know where the protagonist ends off. Surprisingly students had a clear idea for their story and many of them had already begun writing it. This activity provided clear data as to

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what areas I needed to focus my lessons on. The overall outcome showed that students needed help developing (or defining) their climax. Many students had a climax that was somewhat intense, but then had some other, even more intense, event occur after that point. Based on this data, it was clear that I needed to spend time discussing and creating the climactic moment in their story. The final piece of data I needed was the overall assessment(s) of students short stories. The rubric (Appendix) used for assessing was developed based on the activities we practiced in class using Whirligig and other secondary sources. The primary criteria used for assessment dealt with character development, theme and purpose, literary elements including symbolism and figurative language, and proofreading. Each of these criteria were discussed, modeled, and practiced in class at length. Students had numerous opportunities to edit and revise their writing. And after being assessed students were given another opportunity to refine their story. Overall the class averages differed vastly for this one assignment. They are as follows: Original Average A class B class C class D class 69 62 74 76 After Revisions 73 70 88 89 % 4% 8% 14% 13%

Data Analysis Initially I had preconceived notions as to the outcome of these assignments. Right off the bat I could tell students were interested in reading about people and issues they could relate to. I was worried that their short stories would all turn in to similar stories about similar incidents

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from school from different perspectives. Based on their reading recommendations and the outside reading they were bringing in to class I began preparing to read 94 identical stories. This thought, however, helped brainstorm how I could get students to stretch their imagination and create stories they would actually enjoy writing and hopefully view less as an academic assignment. The first tool I used to help students develop a broad concept for their short story was their writers notebook. Luckily, students had already become accustom to writing in these when I took over the instructional responsibilities and therefore all I needed to do was set up the prompts for students. Each day, for the first couple weeks of the unit, I had students respond to prompts that would help them brainstorm ideas. At the time, students were not aware (or at least explicitly informed) that these entries would scaffold their short story. I developed these prompts based on our analysis of Whirligig and based on their reading preferences and recommendations. I wanted students to begin with writing that they knew, something they were comfortable with and that they enjoyed. Some of those prompts were as follows: Write about the following: The difference between fiction and reality? Fiction has to make sense. Tom Clancy Chapter 1 in Whirligig ends abruptly; Continue writing: Very slowly, he closed his eyes and. . . . Develop a list of character traits. Choose three of those traits, create a character and describe your character in as much detail as possible. It was the worst consequence ever! Describe what happened. ___(name)___ woke up and was confronted with the biggest problem of his/her life Describe your protagonist; create a list describing your character using words that being with every letter A-Z.

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The purpose of these prompts was to allow students the opportunity to write creatively with small tasks before they had to tackle the larger product. At first I was apprehensive about the entire unit because students were struggling to complete these prompts. Many students sat and stared at their notebook or began talking to a neighbor because they didnt know what to write. It was as if they were searching for the correct answer. They wanted to make sure they wrote the correct answer to the prompt. Once I noticed that students were having difficulty with these prompts I wanted to give them an opportunity to explore the various sub-genres in fiction so that they could begin conceptualizing their own writing. Students spent two days, one in the computer lab and one in the library, completing a sub-genre study (Appendix B) and researching five sub-genres of fiction: fantasy, science fiction, mystery, adventure, and one of their choice. The goal was for students to choose a sub-genre to base their story in. Again, this was another method of modeling and practicing these analytic skills we were working to develop. After completing their sub-genre study, I asked students to choose a sub-genre they wanted to focus on for their story. By doing this, I want giving them some structure, but still not any substantial guidelines. Once students had spent a few days developing ideas I gave them a graphic organize and very basic explanation of the actual assignment (Appendixs C & D). By this point many students were still somewhat unsure of their ideas, but many had begun drafting already. What I specifically noticed at this point was that if students had an idea they were already well beyond the brainstorming point and had plenty of ideas for conflicts and possible conclusions. Those who had a hard time completing this graphic organizer, however, were basically still at square one. Those students just could not grasp the concept of the assignment. They really struggled with not having clear explicit instructions and guidelines to follow.

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Finally, I had students participate in two plot diagram activities, one with Whirligig and one with Little Red Riding Hood. Students created plot diagrams explaining the main elements of a story: introduction, rising action, climax, falling action, and conclusion. The purpose of this was for students no practice the steps for creating a story, and also to see the difference between various types of texts. Little Red is very traditional, whereas Whirligig has a non-linear plot structure and is hard to follow at times. By analyzing these two texts students not only assessed each story but also became familiar with various strategies for writing. Once they completed this activity, students created a plot diagram for their own story. After reviewing their plot diagrams, I was pleased to see that a majority of students had at least a basic idea for their story. Using that activity I then could have students work with partners to brainstorm any area they were having trouble with. The most common trend I found among these stories was students inability to create a suspenseful climax in which some turning point occurs. Looking at a sample of these drafts (Appendix E) many students created exceptionally well developed stories in terms of grammar, mechanics, dialogue, etc. but failed to provide an engaging plot line. Unfortunately, this was a majority of the task: create a short story that has a clear purpose. In most cases, if the story lacked this crucial intense moment (the climax) then students were not able to portray their message or purpose clearly to readers. Alternatively, those who did provide stories with a suspenseful climax (Appendix F), regardless of their length, they were able to relay some message to their readers.


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Throughout this unit I was concerned with one thing: allowing students the freedom to write something they would enjoy. This was my goal because as long as students were writing, they were learning. The way to guarantee (or at least come close to) writing was to make the assignment seem like less of an assignment. Students are always attracted to technology and computers and therefore we spent a lot of time using computers, media, and other technology available to students. My goal was to help students develop literacy skills by writing and reading texts that interest students. I aimed to make this unit as student-centered as possible by allowing students to work in collaborative learning groups and learn through inquiry. Their writing was informed by the outside sources used to model the writing process such as Whirligig, Little Red Riding Hood and many other texts. Students then practiced these literary skills with writing prompts in their writers notebook. These prompts asked students to begin their thought process and create responses that demonstrated their creative abilities. Finally, students had to produce their own piece of writing which creatively and effectively used the skills they had practiced throughout the unit. To my delight students were excessively able to produce short stories that consciously demonstrated their literacy skills. Specifically, since the Common Core Standards are divided into three types of writing, argumentative, informative, and narratives, I wanted to focus primarily on narratives. Early in my placement, my cooperating teacher had explained the schools stance on writing; creative writing is minimal once students have entered middle school. I found this particularly interesting because I found that students loved the freedom to write creatively. However, the transition from the primary to secondary level is supposed to elicit a

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change in cognition from imaginative to analytic. Students begin developing literacy skills that allow them to think beyond the concrete and become abstract thinkers. After teaching this unit, however, I can absolutely argue that students can demonstrate these cognitive processes through creative writing. Accordingly, the Common Core Standards defines the various types of writing students should be about to demonstrate by the end of each grade claiming, For students, writing is a key means of asserting and defending claims, showing what they know about a subject, and conveying what they have experienced, imagined, thought, and felt. To be college- and career- ready writers, students must take task, purpose, and audience into careful consideration, choosing words, information, structures, and formats deliberately. They need to know how to combine elements of different kinds of writingfor example, to use narrative strategies within argument and explanation within narrativeto produce complex and nuanced writing. They need to be able to use technology strategically when creating, refining, and collaborating on writing They must have the flexibility, concentration, and fluency to produce highquality first-draft text under a tight deadline as well as the capacity to revisit and make improvements to a piece of writing over multiple drafts when circumstances encourage or require it.

Therefore, encouraging students to practice these skills using creative writing is a valuable strategy. Beginning with something that interest students or engages them in analysis is the best way for students to understand and comprehend the cognition the must demonstrate. Students necessarily need modeling and practice with secondary sources in order to develop these creative writing pieces and demonstrate their literacy skills. From the 94 drafts I received I can honestly say that no two stories were alike. By facilitating students thinking by using assigned prompts, they were better equipped to develop their own concept for their story.

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Common Core State Standards Initiative. National Governors Association Center for Best Practices and the Council of Chief State School Officers, 2010. Web. 1 Dec., 2011. NYS Report Cards: Farnsworth Middle School Accountability and Overview Report. NYSED.GOV. Feb. 5, 2011. Accessed Dec. 2, 2011.

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Appendix A

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Appendix B

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Appendix C

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Appendix D

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Appendix E

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Appendix F

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