It must be Spring because I am planning out a new way to use a favorite Dr. Seuss book. My Ridiculous Essay assignment, which my 8th graders do every spring, make alternate use of "Green Eggs and Ham" and "One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Blue Fish." It's always one of their favorite essays to write because they are using their critical literary analysis vocabulary skills and applying them to a very silly story, which apparently makes the task more enjoyable because my students certainly reminisce about when we discuss their portfolios one last time before they graduate to high school.
This Spring (2015), I'm adding this new Dr. Seuss-inspired response to reading task that my seventh graders can learn and use as a substitute to the 25 instead-of-a-book-summary activities that they will be able to use as a substitute for any of the activities on Dena's Reading Bingo Activities. I always have a few kids determined to create an actual bingo but one of the five activities from the monthly card doesn't appeal to them, so this will be my first official "substitute assignment" if kids want to opt out of one task in their row or column and still earn an official bingo.
I teach my students to create a "character anatomy" from something we've read by first briefly showing them my Huck Finn example which resides in my personal reader's notebook. Once they understand the basics of the activity (writing ten different character labels that use book-supported details, which you can certainly modify to match what you're students are able to do at their grade level), we read the classic "The Sneetches," and they practice creating their own character anatomies with partners, labeling the parts of the two Sneetches I have in this picture at right. We paste/glue the picture (click on image at right to open and print it) in the middle of an 8.5 x 11" piece of typing paper, and students, working with partners the whole time, brainstorm and one of them writes a rough draft label for either of the Sneetches on a piece of lined notebook paper, then pass the paper to their partner who is in charge of writing the next brainstormed idea. When partners write in my classroom, the "pass the pencil" requirement in between each recorded idea is one that I am very strict about; I want to see two different sets of handwriting on the rough draft, and I want to see my students switch back and forth between "recorder" role and "head of brainstorming" role.
About three or four minutes into the partner-writing activity, I yell "Stop!" and falsely apologize with, "Oh hey, I forgot to hand you this checklist of my expectations about the ten labels. Before continuing and finishing, would you double check your work so far using the checklist, then take ten more minutes to make sure as many checklist items from my list of ten apply to your character anatomy?" I trick my kids a lot by "accidentally forgetting" to hand out my formative assessment tool rather than hand it right out at the start because it forces them to practice good revision skills for their good ideas that they have put down immediately but then have to double-checking their work against my rubric or checklist to see that they were close on some ideas but needed a bit of something extra to match my expectations. Many kids come to me in sixth and seventh grade with no knowledge on how to revise; if they change something and make it better during this process, I can point out, "Now that's what revision is! It's not checking your spelling and writing it neater; it's about making a good idea stand out even better."
My kids--I am proud to say--quickly learn the difference between revision and editing because I often make them start writing something, then conveniently forget to pass out my prepared writing requirements only after they have started writing rough ideas that I know will need "tweaking" to fit my requirements. As they "tweak," I point out, "What you're doing right now is what's called revision, which you should do to all your pieces of writing before turning them in, but don't always expect me to hand you a checklist. A writer learns to create his or her own personal checklist of things that have the ability to make rough ideas stand out and seem more interesting, more skillfully written.
Here is my adaptable checklist that I use with this assignment with my seventh graders. Admittedly, some of the ten challenges I dreamt up for the ten character labels don't guarantee that the students' partner writing will necessarily make the writing better, but they might, and they certainly push my students to remember small lessons in grammar and some writing challenges I often try to stump them with.
With checklist in front of them, student partners immediately start revising the three or four descriptors for the two Sneetches to make sure they match three or four of the requirements from the checklist; then, they use the remaining items on the checklist to craft as many more labels that they can create in 7-10 more minutes directly on the picture of the Sneetches. This is the first of two practice rounds for this activity before I have students do this task for a character from a book they're reading, so unless I have time, I don't see the point in making every team finish ten complete labels. Once every group has six or seven labels, though, I require them to stop and partner up with another pair. Using the checklist, they read each other's labels closely, trying to deduce which item from the 10-item checklist the other team's blurbs match. If there's time, we then team up with a different partnership and repeat the process. With this practice in place, the students have become fairly familiar with the ten items on my ten-challenge checklist.
A few class sessions later, we do a second practice session for learning this activity. It starts with me once again showing them my finalized Huck Finn example from my own reader's notebook. I pass out this scrambled up list of descriptions that followed all ten of the challenges (with the answers for teachers on the second page), and I let them deduce which description from my finished product match each of the ten challenges. There is usually some debate, but eventually, consensus is arrived at, and my students (without their knowing) have been "tricked" into reviewing my ten challenges for their ten descriptors.
Next, I pass out one of several cute-but-minimally-descriptive"anatomy pictures" I found on the Internet and let the students read over them after I have put them in a random group of three or four students. Using the same checklist from the previous day, in five minutes, each group must REVISE as many of the original descriptions on one of the Internet examples so that it says the same thing but to do it in a way that matches one of the checklist's requirements. I have a cheap extra credit prize for the group that cooperates best and revises the most in the five minutes; following that award, I have each group decide upon their best revision and share it with the whole class, letting the class try to determine which item on the checklist was used in the revision. It becomes a fun game that--again--gives my students one more exposure to the 10 writing requirements they must use if they apply this writing task to a character from a novel they are reading independently or that we are reading as a class. Here are the anatomy pictures from the web I found that you can use in this task too; a lot of these come from t-shirt companies:
Once we've practiced and shared and reviewed the checklist for this second time, I announce to my students that they now have a new option for writing about characters from the books we are reading. You can certainly require everyone to do this activity with a character or several characters from a shared class novel, or it can become an option for students when they are keeping an independent novel reader's notebook. I am currently reading Neil Shusterman's Unwholly, and I plan to do a character anatomy for whichever of the three main characters from the first book (Unwind) ends up being my favorite when this sequel comes to a close.
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