Choose Your Own Learning Adventure: Enrichment Menu for Writer’s Workshop

I have encountered two significant challenges with my 6th, 7th, and 8th grade writers this spring:

1. I have a tremendous range in learning styles and abilities in each of my six writing courses.  Consequently, I have learners who always finish early, and I needed to find a way for them to use their extra time in a meaningful way and AVOID “busy” work.
2. Spring has sprung early in Georgia (as in 6 weeks ago), and students have struggled to stay focused yet energetic with their work as writers and learners.

My secret weapon for this March Madness? Enrichment stations. I have created a learning menu of nine different learning choices for students:

1. Vocabulary.com
2. NoRedInk.com
3. Creative Writing with Reader’s Theatre Scripts (may be done alone or with a partner)
4. Creative Writing with Tableaux (groups of 3)
5. Revising and Editing with Task Cards + QR Codes
6. Revising Task with QR Codes: Combining Sentences
7. Persona Poem (write a poem from the perspective of the topic or some aspect of the topic for our current unit of inquiry)
8. NewsELA Reading and Writing Club: Women’s History Month
9. NewsELA Evidence Detectives Club

I tried to craft a menu that had something for everyone:  individual work and collaborative work; creative endeavors that could tie into our inquiry units; review and practice activities for those who enjoy that kind of activity.

These activities are designed for students to work on when they finish work early; in addition, I’m setting aside one “enrichment day” a week to let them go more deeply into their selected activity. After doing an initial “test” soft launch with a few students, I took a day last week to do a brief presentation with all classes to help them think about their options and how our enrichment activities would enhance our learner experience.  You can learn a little more about each activity here:

Here is how I have launched the my “center” for students:

  • I have a “menu” placeholder with a brief description of the menu learning choice on back of my 2nd classroom door (see below).
  • Students then can get an informational handout on the selected activity to help them get started and move forward.  I bought a colorful cascading/hanging file folder organizer for $9 on Amazon to house the handouts.
  • Students let me know of their selection; if they need any help from me getting started, I provide it.
  • I have posted handouts with the QR code so that students can view the slideshow above at any time; it is also posted in our Canvas course.

Today was our first full “enrichment” day in my 8th grade writing classes (6th and 7th will have their day tomorrow).   We even had our first tableaux performance today on driverless cars which was an absolute HOMERUN!  I did not film it, but they students have agreed to do the performance again this week so I can video and share with all of you as well as my other students.  As you can see from the photos below, students are engaged with their selected learning activity.

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We wrapped up with a virtual Ticket out the Door through our Canvas course.

Here are some take-aways from my two 8th grade classes:

  • I’m learning to write complete sentences and more complex sentences; I am feeling more confident about sentence writing.
  • I’ve learned that acting out scenes is harder than I thought!  It is fun, though.
  • I *LOVE* tableaux!  It is so much fun!
  • I’m learning all kinds of new words!  I never knew learning vocabulary could be fun.
  • I like getting to work with other people and talking about our topic as we do our tableaux script and scenes—this has caused me to be understand our topic of driverless cars.
  • I was not expecting I’d need to go back so much into the text set of articles we’ve read, but it has been fun and helped me understand our topic better (this feedback was from the persona poem, tableaux, and Reader’s Theatre script projects)
  • Clauses are pretty interesting!
  • I like the mastery learning we do in NoRedInk.

So far I am thrilled with the feedback and the excitement I’ve seen from students about their selected project or learning choice.  What kinds of activities would you add to the menu for a writing class?  My plan is to continue to do enrichment for the rest of the year at least one day a week to supplement our current units of study and to give students something meaningful to do if they finish early.  I will refresh and add to the menu as we move forward through the last nine weeks of our school year.

Exploring Writing Craft with Noticings + See, Think, Wonder

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Because so many of my Creative Writing SOAR students indicated they were interested in writing longer pieces of fiction, I thought it would be both fun and meaningful to do an activity to help us explore writer’s craft and ways that writer’s begin works of fiction.  We began last Friday by taking time to read the first chapter (or chapters) of these works:

  • The Sun Is Also a Star, Nicola Yoon
  • The Secret Hum of a Daisy, Tracy Holczer
  • Goodnight June, Sarah Jio

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After students read the excerpts, they jotted down their noticings and questions using the graphic organizer below.

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We worked on this part of the activity for about 30 minutes last Friday and finished up during the first ten minutes of class this past Tuesday. Students then formed groups of three, and we reviewed the See, Think, Wonder strategy and discussed how our ideas could come from the individual activity and/or collective discussion.  Although some groups needed a little nudging to get the conversation going (they were sitting silently and not conversing or trying to do the activity without talking), all groups eventually warmed up and engaged in some meaningful discussions.  Groups worked for about 20-25 minutes, and then each group presented their ideas using their See Think Wonder poster they created.  Afterwards, each group hung their poster on the wall in the classroom.  We ended with a short discussion about each work; nearly every student wanted to read at least two of three texts!

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Today, I provided printed copies of interviews with each of the authors so that students could read more about each writer’s craft and approach to writing in the author’s own words.  Today we also did a final wrap-up activity to pull together our noticings as we try to read like writers.  


I borrowed this idea for synthesizing our noticings  from Allison Marchetti and asked students to complete this statement:  “Writers of fiction…”.  Here are the responses from my creative writers:

  • Create new worlds
  • Are quite descriptive
  • Use flashbacks
  • Partially base their work on their lives or life experiences
  • Use good “hooks”
  • Start in the middle of a story to get you to ask questions
  • Make you want to read more
  • Tie in their culture to their story
  • Have a lot of emotion behind their words
  • Can write in ways that are open to multiple interpretations
  • Provide backstory for characters without telling you the details directly (through actions, how others see that character)
  • Use descriptive details you might not expect
  • Use everyday situations and scenarios
  • Sometimes write in first person
  • May shock readers by starting with unexpected or startling events
  • Create a picture in the reader’s mind
  • Provide different points of view
  • Make you wonder if the story is actually real
  • Leave you hanging on the edge of a cliff at the end of a chapter
  • Make you feel gratitude or identify with a character/event
  • Use words to make the emotions REAL
  • Leave the readers with questions
  • Give the main characters conflicts to resolve or solve
  • Enhance something seemingly small to emphasize a point or scene
  • Connect readers to the characters
  • Develop characters really well

I will take this list and with help from the students, craft a poster that we can hang in the room as well as mini-version for them to put in their writer’s notebooks.  I think I will try this approach to introduce poetry and some genres of creative nonfiction works to the students in the upcoming weeks as they seemed to really enjoy it. How are you introducing genres of writing to your students?  How do you help your writers read like writers?

Introducing Zines with a Noticings Gallery Walk

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We are kicking off a new unit of study in the War Eagle Writing Studio as we begin to explore different kinds of informational writing.  I decided that zines would be an appealing point of access for my writers; students will be making and crafting their own zines on a topic on which they are experts.  Our zine making will be the first “bend” in this unit of study and is my modification I’m making to a Calkins Units of Study for Writing Workshop.  Our focus will be on crafting informational/descriptive zines or “how to” zines.  I have never crafted zines before with students, but this choice was inspired by the work my friend and fellow English teacher Kyle Jones has done with his high school students.   Thanks to DonorsChoose and the generous donations from friends and colleagues, we now have the crafting supplies we need to do our zine making!

Two of the most inspiring professional resources I’ve discovered in 2016 are Writing with Mentor Texts by Allison Marchetti and Rebekah O’Dell, as well as their blog, Moving Writers ( a blog that should be on anyone’s “must read” list).  The blog posts by Marchetti and O’Dell, as well as their team of classroom teachers sharing their innovative and insightful ideas for teaching writing, provide me a near daily menu of ideas to contemplate and strategies to try in the War Eagle Writing Studio.  One post from earlier this fall, “3 Simple Exercises to Help Your Students Read Like Writers,” inspired an activity I did with students this past week to introduce zines to my middle school writers.

I set up 9 “stations” around the room with excerpts of zines or mini-version of zines I found on the web.  Finding zines with age-appropriate content was especially difficult; I hope more middle school colleagues will share examples of student work and that students will have more opportunities to publish their zines through the web whether it be a PDF version or a web-based zine.  Using post-it notes chart paper, I labeled each station and taped on the pieces of zines or mini-versions of zines for students for our “noticings” gallery walk.

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Students first received a copy of a graphic organizer:  this simple handout identified each station and gave students space to record:

  1. Two noticings
  2. An interesting fact (content) the student learned through the zine at each station

After showing students some pictures of zine collections, I introduced the gallery walk by orienting the students to the locations of each “station” and explained to them that we would be moving around quietly in a random order to examine the zines or pieces of zines and capturing our noticings (we’ve done noticings activities before, so I did not need to review that concept again).  I also reminded them that they needed to channel their energy into writing and thinking and to keep only 2-3 students per station so that everyone would have plenty of room to work.   I also reviewed a list of questions to prompt noticings and kept these posted during the gallery walk.

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Students then took their graphic organizers and began visiting the stations.  Some classes needed the one class period to capture the noticings while my sixth graders needed a day and a half of class time to do this activity.  Every single class was focused on their inquiry work and engaged; even my classes that sometimes struggle with these kinds of learning activities were really into the activity!

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I followed up this activity by giving students to share their noticings with a Turn and Talk activity; students worked in small groups to share their noticings with a focus on four categories:  fonts/typography, use of visuals and text together, types of writing in the zines, and materials used to create the zines.    We then finished up with individual reflections in a Writer’s Notebook prompt that asked students to contemplate these four questions:

1. How would you define a zine?
2. What qualities did you notice about the zines today?
3. What questions do you have about zines right now?
4. If you could create a zine on any topic, what topic would you choose? Think about something you know a lot about or feel passionately about in your life.

Next week we’ll begin brainstorming what we know about our topics and begin thinking about how we might organize and “chunk” our ideas for specific pages in our zines.  We’ll then sketch out our own heart maps on our topics (inspired by the new book from Georgia Heard and this post in the Heart Maps Facebook group).    I then hope to try Angela Stockman’s wonderful strategy for identifying craft moves in mentor texts (for us, informational and how to writing in zines) to help students really be intentional and purposeful in crafting their zine compositions. Angela Stockman calls this “making the study of mentor texts more actionable.”

If you have crafted zines with middle school writers, what advice would you and your students give?  What strategies did you try?  I’d love to hear specific strategies you used to help students craft authentic zines with effective use of text and visuals.

Creative Writing with Color Poems

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A few weeks ago, several readers inquired about the color poems I did with my middle school students.  The “color poem” strategy/formula is one that I learned in a class on teaching poetry at the University of Georgia; it’s one that provides structure for beginning poets but is flexible enough for more advanced writers to run with and exercise their poetic license.

Until this year, I had only used this strategy with high schoolers; they typically picked right up on the formula.  I discovered this fall that some younger learners may need more scaffolding even if you give them concrete examples that you have written and examples from other students.  I modified my handouts to include the following materials:

  • A general overview of the assignment with two examples/mentor poems/texts
  • A “writing plan” that includes some reflection questions to help the poet get started with a second page that has a modified copy of the “formula” that students can use as a template if needed
  • A reflection handout that students can complete once they have finished their final draft

All documents are downloadable as PDFs below.

Here is a sampler of poems written by my students using this strategy:

Most of my students initially found this challenging but were pleasantly surprised by the quality of their writing.   In the end, many of my students were proud of their work (as they should have been!) because this was the first poem they had ever written.

Are any of you using this strategy or a variation of it with your students?  What do you do to scaffold students who might need a little more support to get started?