1. The rules of writing
I always tell students that there are no set rules for writing and they can write whatever they like. I don't subscribe to the notion that all good stories must have, for example, an attention-grabbing opening, a turning point, a twist at the end and an extended metaphor. Incorporating these into writing doesn't automatically mean a story works, and you will read wonderful writing follows none of these rules. Pupils should be aware of what they are, of course, and why and where they might choose to use them, but it shouldn't be prescriptive.
That said, there are two rules of writing that I encourage them to follow. These rules are: "show, don't tell" and "all adverbs must die". Not the most original rules, perhaps, but if kids can master them their writing becomes much more powerful.
For "show, don't tell", I display a selection of sentences that tell the reader something and ask the pupils to rewrite them in a way that shows the same information. For example, "the man was angry" could become, "the man clenched his fists and hissed beneath his breath". It's about unpacking the emotions and finding ways to let the reader see the story for themselves.
When teaching "all adverbs must die", I concentrate on the importance of giving the power to the verb. "I ran quickly" becomes "I sprinted". "I shouted loudly" becomes "I screamed". Once pupils realise the potential in this, they quickly kill adverbs and load the power of the action onto the verb.
Not the most original method I'll wager, but this is tried and tested. Pupils divide a page in their jotter and give each quarter the headings likes, dislikes, motivations and flaws. These need to be explained and discussed; I use Homer Simpson and Edward Cullen as models. What makes these complex and rich characters? What makes them get out of bed every morning? What stops them from achieving their ultimate goals in life? How would they react in various situations?
Once pupils have thought about these characters, I ask them to complete the page in their jotter with as many pieces of detail as they can for their own character. They swap with a partner and, using another person's character notes, write a monologue beginning with the line, "I lay away, unable to sleep, and all because…" What is this new character excited about, or scared of? What have they done or what will they have to do? This exercise is always busy, exciting and produces promising and complex pieces of writing.
3. Video clips
There's something a bit weird about the idea of being a writer; it's a vague, wishy-washy concept for students. They don't yet understand the hours of admin, self-promotion, editing, graft, grief and rejection that writers go through. Many pupls seem to think writers have great lives, are fabulously wealthy and sit around all day making up stories, all of which go on to be published without much bother at all. So I always like to find video clips of writers talking about writing, sharing the pain they've gone through, their thought processes and daily routines. If you can find video clips of a writer whose work you're using as a model or studying in class, then this can really help pupils to engage with their work.
YouTube is full of interviews with writers, recordings of book festival appearances and spoken-word performances. Being a Scottish teacher working in Scotland, I use of a suite of videos filmed and hosted by Education Scotland, which features a number of writers discussing their inspirations and motivations, how to create characters, how to write in genre and how to redraft. The videos are all around five minutes long which makes them excellent starter activities; you can find them here.
4. Narrative distance
This can be modelled in class by the teacher projecting their work onto the whiteboard. Most pupils assume that once they've chosen a narrative perspective and tense, their narrative voice will take care of itself. But with a little coaching and training, maybe we can hone their skills and abilities that much more.
Narrative distance is the proximity of a reader's experience to the character's thoughts. How close will we get? A close-up narrative would allow us to share the character's complete thought process, hear their heartbeat, feel their discomfort. A mid-distance narrative would give us key insights into pertinent thoughts the character has, but not bother us with every detail; we would see the character going into a coffee shop and have to surmise their mood and personality by observing how they react and interact. This is more of a film director's vantage point. And for a long-distance narrative, we only see the character from a distance – in the midst of other people, operating in a vast and complex society. We would come to understand them from the way they move through the world and the opinions that other characters have of them. It's a bird's eye view.
There is a lot in here, and mastering these narrative distances would take considerable effort and time. But if pupils could get to grips with them and become comfortable in zooming in and out on a story, then they will have developed some intricate and powerful writing abilities.
5. Story prompts
The oldest trick in the book, perhaps, but still a good one. Writing Prompts is an excellent website full of creative writing resources to use in class. I get pupils to choose one at random, and as they write, I write. It's important to set attainable goals for this – agree that by the end of five minutes everyone will have written 50 words, say, including the teacher.
Plug away at this and I always check the class for any strugglers at the end of regular intervals; if someone is stumped, I'll ask them what the problem is, what they tried to start writing at the beginning, what their last sentence is, and give them a couple of options for where to go next. By writing together it's possible to get a whole class writing happily, and at some stage they'll be content and confident enough with their stories to want to be let free to write without being asked for regular progress reports.
Alan Gillespie teaches English at an independent school in Glasgow. He writes stories and tweets at @afjgillespie
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Sixth graders are new to middle school, and they exude an exuberant, bubbly confidence. They’re a pleasure (if sometimes a challenge) to teach, so we gathered 50 tips and ideas from our teacher community and around the web. Whether you’re a newbie or a vet to teaching 6th grade, we think you’ll love these ideas.
1. Start the year with an icebreaker.
Get to know your students right away—they’re likely new to the school as well as your class. Here are ideas for how to spend the first days of school from 6th Grade Tales, like creating a Goal Setting bulletin board inspired by John Green or a rousing game of Would You Rather?
2. Teach a growth mindset.
Put simply—some people believe that intelligence is fixed, while others think that it’s malleable and depends on effort. Your students who have a fixed mindset are the ones who see trying as a threat to their intelligence. Combat this by building a class culture that fosters a growth mindset. Check out this interactive quiz and TED Talks to learn more about “fixed” and “growth” mindsets. From Lessons From the Middle.
3. Ask the right questions.
Sixth graders (and most middle schoolers for that matter) aren’t known for offering up their opinions or thoughts as readily as younger students. Come prepared with questions that are easy and fun for kids to answer. Above are a few of our favorite introduction questions. And you can go here for creative ways to introduce yourself.
4. Know how to handle student differences.
Sixth graders often struggle to understand and deal with other kids’ behaviors. Here’s how one teacher handles it: “I often ask my 6th grade students, ‘Did he choose to be like that?’ if they are reasonable, they will say no, and then I say, ‘Well you have a choice about how you will respond to that, and that will show everyone what sort of person you are.’ End of matter.” —Amy K.
5. Tackle perception and identity.
If your students need a reset around kindness, or you want to start the year teaching 6th grade students about community, try this lesson. It engages kids in thinking about perception, identity, and how they treat others. At the start, students walk into a classroom covered with words that represent meanness, then they have a chance to change those words into adjectives that describe how they want to be remembered.
6. Be prepared for cyberbullying.
Sixth graders seem young, but they’re no strangers to the internet—42 percent of kids have been bullied online. Make sure you know how to address cyberbullying. One of the best ways to do so is getting kids to report it and address it by being “upstanders.” Use this cyberbullying information resource to introduce the topic with students and help them identify and define cyberbullying. NS Teens has resources for middle schoolers, and Common Sense Media has resources and lesson plans for you. We also have a bunch of bullying resources here.
7. Have a “No Name” rack.
When you’re teaching 6th grade, you’re bound to get a few (read: a zillion) papers with no name on them. Here’s a place to put them. From Ms. Fultz’s Classroom blog.
8. Include student photos in your sub folder.
Yes, this idea comes from a kindergarten blog, but we’ve known enough mischievous sixth graders who like to trade places to know that it’s a great idea to match student photos with names in a sub folder. From Keepin it Kool in Kinder.
9. Laminate your checklists.
“I gave my middle school art students a blank laminated flow chart titled ‘What do I do next?’ They used china markers to fill in the instructions while I told them verbally and also filled out one on the board. When they asked what was next, I told them to check the chart. It worked great! They can erase the chart when moving to the next activity.” —Abbie B.
10. Help students make up for lost time.
Put all the materials that an absent student will need upon return—homework assignments, worksheets, discussion notes—in one place. Then, when students arrive back, they can quickly select the material they missed without disrupting class. Learn more at Miss Klohn’s Classroom.
11. Check out “whole-brain” teaching.
Whole-brain teaching is an approach to classroom management that brings strong teaching practices into one approach. The focus is direct instruction, sharing, and immediate feedback, and it isn’t just for elementary school. The management techniques, like Class-Yes, the five rules, and Teach OK work for teaching 6th grade too. Watch how one teacher incorporates whole brain teaching into her sixth-grade classroom.
12. Use expert groups.
Group students into four equal “Expert Groups” that are strategically organized into heterogeneous groups by ability. Then, give each group a topic to cover or task to accomplish. After the experts have learned about their topic or completed their task, they move into new groups to share what they learned with each other. This idea comes from Go to Teach.
13. Give students choice in literature circles.
Sixth graders love literature circles, and they encourage strong discussion and ownership over reading. Build choice into your literature circles by providing them with a few novel choices and a blank calendar to plan out their reading. Check out our book lists here and here for middle grade books we love.
14. Build routine.
“It’s the nature of the middle school beast. You just have to get used to having to say the same thing day in and day out. We are 2/3 of the way through the school year and I still say, every day, ‘Turn around, look at the person behind you, take their paper, hand it up.’ Build routine and then stick to routine.” –Tracy S.
15. Bring your sense of humor.
Teaching 6th grade will try your patience. Students will exercise their excuses, their lack of rationality, their insistence on fairness, and developing sense of justice. The best way to deal with it is a healthy dose of humor. To start, find the funny in the things your students say (including the names they give you), and bring comics and memes in to reinforce your lessons and directions.
16. Seat strategically.
If you’re teaching 6th grade students you’ll soon discover they want to talk—to each other, to you, to anyone. So your seating chart will be key. Here are two classroom seating options: This seating arrangement ensures that students can all see the front of the room and each other. Making it as a Middle School Teacher arranges desks to provide for partner work, with desks labeled 1, 2, 3, or 4. This makes it easy to group students by number or have the evens or odds pair up.
17. Plan to let kids move.
If you don’t plan it into the lesson, sixth graders will fidget, squirm, or find an excuse to get out of their seat. Assigning them partners that require them to get up and move, passing out post-its that they can record answers on and post them on the wall, or having them stand during math fluency drills are all ways to keep them moving. Get more ideas from Making It as a Middle School Teacher.
18. Give students jobs.
Even big kids like jobs. And assigning jobs, like keeping the classroom library organized or managing the day’s worksheets, keep your classroom operating smoothly. Sixth-grade teacher Mrs. Beers upgraded her class jobs to have more sophisticated names like Project Manager and Technology Coordinator.
19. Don’t shy away from a theme.
“Kids will say silly things about a theme being childish, but if you watch them, they love it. Go with your gut if you choose a theme, your kids will love it.” —Laura K.
“My theme for teaching 6th grade was ‘Be More Awesome’ from Kid President. We watched his videos, set goals, and brainstormed ways to be more awesome as individuals, as a group, and in the community. We did service and writing projects and the kids and parents loved it.” —Sharon R.
20. Celebrate more than meeting standards.
“I make it a habit to celebrate everything. It is easy to become discouraged if your goals have to be ‘meet standards,’ ‘be proficient,’ ‘read at grade level,’ etc. In many classrooms, there are a few (or more!) kids who may not meet those goals during your year together. I tell my students that we celebrate moving forward. I try to recognize kindness and good character whenever possible, and I try to recognize those moments that matter in a different way. Whether it is having a pencil two days in a row, finishing a book, remembering 8 x 7 = 56, or using the word of the week in written or spoken language. In many ways, the encouragement buoys my spirits as much as the students’!” Get more teaching 6th grade tips on the Joy in 6th blog.
21. Get ahead of the piles.
Sixth-grade teacher blogger Joy in 6th uses a work basket to keep the papers from piling up. “The rule: No double basketing! I can’t re-box, re-pile, or re-hide the papers. I need to check them in or do whatever is required. I pretend there is a silent alarm that only I can hea r… telling me to do something with the papers since we all know more will be added to the basket soon!”
22. Don’t “friend” them.
Sixth graders sometimes think it’s a good idea to connect with teachers outside of class, you can consider it a compliment, but don’t give up your privacy. As one of our community teachers put it: “I just had a sixth-grade student (who left my classroom yesterday) try to add me on Facebook. That’s gonna be a big fat NOPE!” —Julia S.
23. Give students choice in how to present their work.
Sometimes you’ll want a traditional writing assignment to build their analytical skills. Other times, you may want to give students options. “I let my students work in groups and read part of a chapter and then teach it to the class. They do various things such as present graphic organizers, skits, raps, acrostics, etc.” —Brittney R.
24. Get crafty.
Even sixth graders like to make crafts, like duct tape hearts for Valentine’s Day, flower pens for Mother’s Day or 3-D shape flipbooks in math. Even better if crafts overlap with science concepts, like with this Pinterest board.
25. But don’t assume they can handle glitter!
“My sixth graders cannot handle glue or glitter. Found that out the hard way this year.” —Sharon R.
26. Start the movie projector.
Films are a great way to make history come alive or present another representation of a favorite novel. Some middle school movie recommendations from our community: Remember the Titans, The Color of Freedom, Pay it Forward, Rudy, Mad Hot Ballroom, October Sky, Stand and Deliver, Wild Hearts Can’t be Broken, Mr. Holland’s Opus, and The Boy in Striped Pajamas. All these films clearly present characters and themes that your students will remember long after middle school.
27. Do close readings of movies.
Help students apply the same critical thinking and analysis they do during close reading to movies by using short movie and TV clips. Have students watch the movie clips with purpose, and spend time analyzing the clips in depth. Here’s more on the idea from MiddleWeb.
28. Use graphic novels with struggling readers.
“Graphic novels help struggling readers and also helps with writing.” —Meaghan G.
Some great graphic novels to use with sixth graders, Bone: Out of Boneville by Jeff Smith, Dramaby Raina Telgemeier, and Lewis and Clark by Nick Bertozzi. (More novels from the ALA.)
29. Check out the mentor text list.
Mentor texts are passages or books that do one thing—dialogue, voice, etc.—really well. You’ll find mentor texts like The Raft of the Night of the Gargoyles on this list of mentor texts from Performing in Education.
30. Get your boys to read.
Struggling to get your boys to pick up a book? Check out Guys Read, a website set up by author John Sczieska with the goal of helping boys become lifelong readers. The good news, boys will read if they find books that interest them. The site also features book recommendations by other fave authors, Jack Gantos, Jeff Kinney, and Walter Dean Myers. We also love this list of poetry boys tend to love.
31. Have students do tabletop Twitter discussions.
Get all students to participate at the same time by spreading out butcher paper and putting a short passage from a book, a question, or information about a topic in the middle. Then, students respond by writing on the butcher paper and writing responses to other students’ contributions. From Conversations in Literacy.
32. Teach annotation.
Teaching 6th grade students strong annotation skills will prepare them for middle school reading. This video shows a sixth grade teacher modeling annotation.
33. Teach them to research.
Start students on the path to high school and college research papers with this series of Learn Zillion lessons and resources that teach students how to generate research questions, write a thesis statement, and write informational text.
34. Fill your shelves with novels.
Some favorites: Tuck Everlasting, Crash, Esperanza Rising, Bud, Not Buddy, and Stargirl. Find more ideas on this book list from a 6th grader.
35. They’re not too old for a read-aloud.
Sixth graders love a good read aloud, and an interactive read aloud can create a valuable shared reading experience. Here’s a list of favorite sixth-grade read-alouds from Pragmatic Mom.
36. Post the essentials.
Check out these 6th grade math essentials posters from Teachers Pay Teachers (free). Project the posters at the start of a lesson, and have hand-outs for students who need reminders nearby.
37. Hands-on, minds-on.
Check out this list of hands-on activities for math from Creekside Learning, like calculating area and perimeter with Cheez-its.
38. Get graphing dry-erase boards.
Check these out, they’ll engage students in graphing work.
39. Keep your math manipulatives.
“Get some manipulatives, like fraction circles, pattern blocks, power solids, geoboards, playing dice, spinners, etc.” —Gayle H.
40. Know the math breakdown for teaching 6th grade.
MixMinder has an overview of the Common Core State Standards and how they’re broken down for sixth grade. Use this to figure out where to focus your time when you’re lesson planning.
41. Don’t forget practice.
Teaching 6th grade gets a boost from online games (where kids already spend time). “IXL is online practice for math and ELA.” —Diana P.
42. Keep math centers moving.
Math centers are a great way to differentiate your classroom and engage 6th graders in math practice. Here’s how Middle School Math Man organizes math centers.
43. Assign an unforgettable math project.
Every 6th grader is wondering what they’d do with a million dollars, so let them try it out with The Million Dollar Project.
44. Stock up on math resources.
Sixth grade math covers a lot of ground, so you’ll want a lot of help at your fingertips. “We use Illustrated Math, the Georgia State resources, and EngageNY. Also brush up on Ratios.” —Ingrid S. You might want to bookmark this list of math websites.
45. Get ready to go back in time.
When teaching 6th grade, the social studies curriculum is often all about ancient civilizations. Here’s how one of our community members handled it: “We created cubes (made of poster boards and cut and glued with hot glue) to create an informational cube about Egyptians. They also were in small groups toward the end of the year and made commercials to try and get “tourists” to visit their location. They also made brochures of their civilization. They created a sarcophagus and they love that project. They do a medieval feast!” —Brittney R.
You could also take a cue from this teacher who turned The Odyessey into a fun school play.
46. Introduce debate.
“We do a debate between the Patriots and the Loyalists (with costumes). The kids LOVED this activity.” —Sherrie R.
If your students enjoy that, they’ll probably also love readers theater.
47. Schedule labs first.
“Try mixing up your teaching style by introducing topics with a lab first. Let the students get a hands-on feel for the material before any type of lecture is used.” —Christie E.
48. Read the newspaper in science class.
“Throw in current events as much as possible! My students love when a topic we cover relates to something happening now … For example, when we touched on viruses we took a day to discuss the truths and myths of Ebola!” –Christie E.
49. Give them the stage.
“I use a great company called Bad Wolf Press for plays. They sell short musicals (curriculum based). They are funny and you can be as simple as you like with costumes and scenery.” –Rhona C.
50. Use exit tickets for reflection.
As students complete their exit tickets, have them turn them in depending on how they feel about how well they understand the material. More on this idea from Class Organize.
Do you have any great tips for teaching 6th grade? Share them and we’ll do a second list soon!