Writing Instruction and Literacies

Revisiting and Exploring Tone in Nonfiction and Fiction

Last week, we engaged in some targeted mini-lessons and learning activities to grow our understanding of tone.  We had practiced analyzing tone earlier this fall, but since this is sometimes a challenging concept for 8th graders and because I knew they would have a constructed response about tone on their 2nd quarter benchmark, I designed a few strategic and new learning experiences around tone for my students.

Day 1

We first began by reviewing some notes on the differences between tone and mood.   In addition, we reviewed the differences between denotation and connotation and looked at examples of both.  Next, I assigned students picked a partner or trio group to do our table talk activity.  We began this activity by reading and watching this excerpt of the “I Have a Dream” speech by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Students were asked to work with their partner or trio to:

  1.  Identify the tone of the speech.
  2.  Identify specific word choices and/or phrases that created that tone.  Students also shared how the connotative or denotative meanings (or both) of their selected words impacted the tone of the speech.
  3. Groups shared out to the entire class their findings and reflections.

Day 2

The following day, students were asked to find a passage in their independent reading books OR to choose an alternate text I provided (a selection of poems or informational article).  Students then analyzed the tone, following the same procedure from the previous day.  I provided a thinking/drafting script for those who wanted to jot down their thoughts in writing first.  Students were asked to snap the passage they were analyzing and then post it in their Seesaw account.  Students could type a text book with their analysis, record an audio note of their analysis, or type a text note with their analysis.  They also labeled the word choices with highlights and/or arrows of the word choices they felt created the tone.  I provided a model I completed for them based on my reading of Ordinary Hazards by Nikki Grimes.  In addition, I provided a list of positive and negative tone words for students who were struggling to find the right word.

While this task may seem easy to us as adults, it really is challenging for many 8th graders.

Day 3

We did one more analysis activity of tone, but this time, students read an excerpt of an informational text I pulled from NewsELA.  I provided students a drafting template to help them compose a paragraph in which they analyzed the tone of the informational text excerpt.  This task was similar to the one on their benchmark.  Like the previous activity, I provided an optional list of negative and positive tone words for those who needed/wanted it.  For one of my classes, I gave the students of reading the excerpt alone; my 4th period class voted to partner read aloud the excerpt and discuss it before tackling the writing task.

Additional Learning Fun with Gimkit

Depending on the pace of completion, at some points over four days students had an opportunity to play a Gimkit game on tone.  As I shared in my previous blog post, I was able to see strengths and weaknesses in understanding of this concept as my kit included many “application” types of questions.

Overall, I felt these learning activities challenged my students and pushed their critical thinking/analysis skills in a variety of ways.  What are your favorite strategies for teaching tone to middle or high school students?

Powerful Practice: Read Aloud Reading Partners with Informational Text

One of the simplest but most powerful practices this fall has been read aloud reading partners.  I love the learning structure because it’s so versatile and can be used in multiple ways.

On a simple level, I used it last week when I lost my voice and needed students to review instructions for an annotation activity we were going to do in class that day.  I had students choose a partner and review the instructions together.  Then pairs summarized what they were to do with the learning task for that day.  They definitely internalized and understood the instructions much better than if I had just read them aloud and they had been passive receivers of those instructions!

Yesterday we did a learning activity to help students review a simple strategy to read strategically and find their textual evidence for an upcoming timed essay they will do on our second district benchmark assessment next week.  The task asks students to read two paired texts and then compose an expository or informational essay of some sort about those texts.

I pulled a set of paired texts through GALILEO, our state digital library; the paired texts are from the December 2019 issue of Scholastic Scope (citation at the end of this article):

I used a Sharpie to “chunk” and number sections of the articles to read before making a class set  to use.  I find that chunking and numbering sections helps the partner reading flow a little more efficiently since students can clearly see a section at a time.   I also created this hypothetical writing task:

Once students arrived to class, we followed these procedures:

  1.  Students selected a reading partner of his/her choice and sat either knee to knee, face to face OR side by side.  If we had an odd number of student, I did allow trios.
  2. Students took turns reading the passages aloud.  I gave the partners just one copy of the text for this activity to force them to listen a little more closely.
  3. Once students finished reading both articles, they raised their hands for the T-chart planning activity to do a treasure hunt for textual evidence that they would use in the essay prompt.

The last part of the activity was having groups share out their findings of the textual evidence and how we might organize that evidence into our hypothetical writing task.   We talked about how to use a T-chart to quickly note textual evidence/concrete details and then use them in our writing task on the assessment.  We then reviewed how we could use our paragraph writing structures we’ve practiced all fall with “two chunk” paragraphs ( we have practiced with scaffolded writing graphic organizers with sentence frames and sentence starters this fall) and how we might modify it for a timed writing setting of only 45 minutes.

I wanted to have students to read the paired texts aloud for a variety of reasons:

  1.  Students were forced to be more active readers and listeners and engage more closely with the text.
  2.  Students got an opportunity to practice their reading skills and speaking in a low-stakes setting.
  3.  Most students discussed each section as they read and took turns reading the “chunks” in both articles; they discussed with no prompting from me!  These short but important discussions are part of the meaning making process.

It was a jam packed class session but one I think that was successful and enjoyable for students, especially the Friday before our holiday break and on the eve of our district benchmark.   How do you incorporate read alouds or reading partners into your instruction with students?

Bartolomeo, Joey, and Jennifer Dignan. “Paired Texts.” Scholastic Scope, vol. 68, no. 4, Dec. 2019, pp. 16–21. EBSCOhost, search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=fth&AN=139777318&site=eds-live&scope=site.


Student Self-Assessment, Scaffolding, and Seesaw

Now that Seesaw is Chromebook friendly, I am incorporating it as a digital portfolio and space for reflection/self-assessment with my 8th graders.   Earlier in the school year, I walked students through signing up with their class code through their district Google accounts.  For our first entry in October, students captured and recorded their reflections on their best Quickwrite for Writing Cycle 2.

This year I have implemented a modified version of Sarah Donovan’s interpretation of Quickwrites.  Some days they truly are brief pieces of writing, but other days, they may be a little more structured and time-intensive.  I try to provide students choices with prompts and various types of writing purposes (argumentative, analytical, informational, descriptive) to grow their writing skills and to infuse meaningful opportunities to compose constructed responses.  A writing cycle may be anywhere from 4-7 weeks; sometimes the cycle stretches a bit longer because our literacy block is only about 50 minutes per day, and it is sometimes challenging to incorporate as many writing opportunities as I’d like.

We first focused on organizing our four Quickwrites and then writing a reflection about how that piece of writing showed growth in some way.  I crafted “I can” statements based on the writing and/or reading standards embedded in each Quickwrite:

Once students selected their best Quickwrite, they received a copy of the “I can” standards statements for that particular Quickwrite.  Next, I scaffolded their reflection by providing them a drafting template/graphic organizer model because students need support in articulating how they are growing as writers, especially if they are not accustomed to engaging in self-assessment.

Students composed their reflection drafts and then shared their written or typed drafts with me.  Once I checked their completed drafts, students were “cleared” to photograph or video their work and then record the reflection.  Students could capture their work in one of three ways in Seesaw:

  1.  Snap a photo of your best Quickwrite (the actual piece of writing) and record an audio note of their reflection “script” they composed with the drafting template.
  2. Video the work and read aloud the reflection script.
  3. Upload the typed copy of the best Quickwrite draft from Google Docs and then record the audio note of the reflection.

I modeled these processes for students and also provided a Google Slideshow for students to use for reference outside of class:

It took us about four days of class time to complete all of our work; a few students were given extended time if needed.  Students who wanted to use their phones and had parent permission to install the free app were allowed to use their devices if they preferred that method over a Chromebook; about 25% of my students chose this option.


I do think it is easier for students to use their smartphones with Seesaw, but the Chromebook option is still a good option.  Our biggest challenge was getting good photographs of their work with the Chromebook if students wanted to use that option with an audio note.  Aside from that issue, the Chromebooks were great for recording and for students who wanted to incorporate text labels and some of the other features students can use in Seesaw when posting their work.  As I’ve shared in the past, I love Seesaw as a formative and summative assessment platform, and there is something very powerful about hearing students discuss their work.  In addition, Seesaw is yet another way for students to practice their speaking skills.

I’ll continue to share how we are using Seesaw as we move through the school year.  If you are using Seesaw in your classroom, how do you incorporate into your instruction and assessment practices?

Supporting Writers in Progress: Paired Texts Study, Comparing/Contrasting, and Literary Argument Paragraphs

Earlier this month, we composed our first literary argument paragraph, a stepping stone to an extended piece of writing we’ll do in early November as part of our work from the writing unit, The Literary Essay:  Analyzing Craft and Theme.

Part 1:  Introducing and Immersing Ourselves in a Paired Text

Let me start by backing up into late September.  We had just finished our study of “Thank You Ma’m” and took a day to read/listen to “Kindness” by Naomi Shihab Nye, a great paired text companion to this short story.  We began by reading the poem together and took a second pass at reading it by listening to Nye read it herself.  For the first reading, I simply asked students to listen; on the second reading, I asked students to complete these tasks as we listened and read:

  • Read along as we listen.
  • Circle any words that get your attention as being descriptive or vivid or unusual.
  • Continue to think about the mood of the poem and the words that create that mood or feeling.

We then reviewed our annotation strategies notes from Cris Tovani and Beers/Probst.

Next, we listened to Nye tell us a little of the backstory about the poem.  I then asked students to complete three high quality annotations of the poem, showing them an annotated model I had completed for another poem to help them.  Once students had time to re-read and complete three annotations, I asked them to choose his/her best annotation.  We then used the whole group share structure “Everyone Up!“; students were asked to share his/her best annotation and the passage he/she annotated.  Finally, we completed our thinking with a reflection Ticket Out the Door (see last photo below).

Part 2:  Comparing/Contrasting the Paired Texts

Our next step was to compare and contrast “Thank You Ma’m” and “Kindness” using this marvelous graphic organizer from Stacy Lloyd.  I actually modified it a bit to help my students cover all the bases with their thinking points and included some scaffolding at their table to help them remember the terminology.  It took most students two days to complete this thinking task.

Part 3: Drafting the Literary Argument Paragraph

Our culminating activity that is a stepping stone to an essay we’ll do in about two weeks was composing a literary argument paragraph.  After students completed the compare/contrast activity, we reviewed the writing task 1:1, and I asked students to choose the claim statement he/she felt he/she could best argue.

Students received plenty of scaffolding to help them draft their paragraph; I provided highlighters to help them color code each piece of their draft.

I placed plenty of these at every table in my neon sheet protectors to help students as they drafted.

For those who needed even more scaffolding, I put together a graphic organizer to help them see each piece of the paragraph as they composed and highlighted.

The result was some of the best writing my students have completed so far this year.  As they completed their drafts, we conferenced, and it was so heartwarming to see their confidence in themselves and pride in their work!


These learning activities pushed my students’ thinking, and the culminating paragraph was a big step forward for my 8th grade writers.  How do you support higher level thinking and writing tasks?

Revising at Points of Need: Narrative Revision Stations

One of my goals this year as a teacher is to make room for revision stations and alternative ways of tackling revision.  I am proactive in providing ongoing feedback in real time through Google Documents, but toward the end of the year, I honestly felt I needed additional ways to help my students take more ownership of their revision AND editing work.  I wanted to do revision stations last year, but time always seemed to be the enemy, so I was determined to MAKE time for them in the 2019-2020 academic year.

I originally purchased a narrative writing revision station set of TPT, but after purchasing it and looking at the activities more closely, I realized it really was not a good fit for my kids, so I wound up designing my own.  Here are the stations I crafted:

  • Station 1: Dialogue Den, Part 1--finding and counting our number of beginning, ending, and middle dialogue tags.  We also formulated revisions to make sure we have a balance of each kind of required tag.
  • Station 2: Dialogue Den, Part 2–making sure we have opening and closing quotation marks around each piece of quoted speech and looking for errors with our dialogue with capitalization and punctuation.
  • Station 3: DIY Revision–Explode the Moment—taking a scene that is underdeveloped or rushed and revising for more detail and to really develop the moment in depth.
  • Station 4: STEAL Analysis–reading our draft and seeing where/how we are developing a character and showing a character trait through each part of the STEAL method.
  • Station 5: PQP (Praise, Question, Polish):  Exchanging drafts and providing feedback with PQP tickets (see photos below).
  • Station 6: Teacher Conference/Help–get 1:1 help with your draft from Ms. Hamilton

If students somehow finished early, they could work on their NoRedInk module on Formatting Dialogue and Flow Quotes + Capitalizing Quotes Mastery Practice.  

Getting Ready

The first step was to have students print hard copies of their drafts in our 8th grade computer lab since we do not have printing capabilities from our Chromebooks.  Last year, we could print from the desktops in the lab, but it wasn’t until last Tuesday I discovered student rights to printing had been removed as a money saving measure for ink and paper.  Students had to share their documents, and I had to print every single draft myself.  Obviously, this solution is not realistic for the long term, but I did it because students needed a hard copy for their revision stations.  I will say more about the importance of having a hard copy of drafts at the end of this post.

The other prep piece was setting up stations in my favorite new classroom purchase this fall, my plastic Target paper trays.   I also had to craft station instructions, make copies, and set up supplies in bins/baskets as needed for each station.  I came in early and stayed late to organize everything by table/seating area.

Day 1

I allotted two days for the activities and planned carefully.  However, I realized quickly after my first class that TIMED station rotations were not going to be a good fit.  Here is how I punted and tweaked the activity period by period on Day 1.

Period 8-1

We completed two TIMED station rotations in which students were engaged in various revision tasks.   Unfortunately, excessive talking and not following instructions were problematic today for several students, and War Eagle points were deducted for those who could not stay on task after being redirected.

Period 8-4:

Students were given starting stations and groups; they then worked at their pace and moved on to another station.  Most students completed two stations.  We will finish remaining stations tomorrow.

Period 8-5:

Students who were behind on the story writing assignment worked in a small group with Ms. Moore, my co-teacher, to get caught up today.  Those who worked with me completed Station 4 and Station 1.

Period 8-6:

Students worked on Station 1 today.  Most finished, but a few will need to finish tonight because they were having difficulty identifying their dialogue tags and/or following the instructions.  If your child did not finish Station 1 work today, that needs to be completed tonight.  Several students moved on to Station 4; a few are behind on drafting and were asked to work on the draft.

Day 2 and Cumulative Teacher Reflections/Observations/Takeaways

While these adjustments worked better than the way I tried implementing them in Period 8-1, something still felt a bit off.  I decided to put all the station materials at the center table, Table 6, and let students choose the remaining stations they felt would best help them revise their draft.  This adjustment sounds simple, but it proved to be extremely effective.  Students in every class were deeply engaged in their work and asking thoughtful questions as they worked through their station revisions.

Even my struggling students were giving 150% effort, and one even asked to stay inside at recess with me to work on her draft!  While Day 1 was not terrible, the energy and intention I saw students putting into their work on Day 2 was like night and day.  I think building in the choice element was essential, and this change gives me much to think about when I design revision and editing stations again.  I was impressed by the thought I saw students making into their station selections, and they are now acting on those revisions as we are engaged in polishing and revising today (Monday, 9/16) and tomorrow to get a solid final draft.  Most importantly, students were taking ownership of their revision and editing work and choices—the locus of control did not lie with me, the teacher, but instead, it was squarely on the shoulders of the writers.

One other observation I think is important to share, and that is the importance of having HARD paper copies for this kind of station work however you choose to approach it.   I noticed that many of my students do not spot errors or mistakes working online, but when they have a hard copy—especially one that is double spaced and printed in a slightly larger font–their eyes quickly discover careless typos and errors.

In addition, I am noticing that this year’s 8th graders seem to respond to written feedback on their hard copies of their drafts as opposed to the Google Docs comments even though I am writing the same thing.  I think there is something of value for them when I can draw areas and mark up a section of their draft in a 1:1 teacher conference that doesn’t translate to a Google Docs comment.  I purchased this feedback tool last year, but wound up never fully utilizing it; I would like to revisit it this year since my students seem to respond to the written feedback and markups a little better than digital feedback.  I’ll have to think more about this endeavor since printing student drafts is a bit problematic for now.

Last but not least, this method gave me the ability to spot patterns of student mistakes (primarily with placement of quotation marks, punctuating dialogue and dialogue tags, and capitalization errors with dialogue) very quickly so that I could provide some intensive and targeted help when students were ready to conference with me 1:1.  We will definitely continue to work on growing our skill level in this area.  I feel that these revision stations are an impactful and insightful means of formative assessment.

In my next post, I’ll share how we are wrapping up our draft, reflecting on our work, and sharing our stories.

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