By Jim Delisle Ph.D., coauthor of Building Strong Writers in Middle School
As students transition from their early years of schooling to young adolescence, a rush of new emotions and thoughts leads many of them into a period of exploration and uncertainty. They yearn to fit in and find meaning in their lives, question their places in the world, and can easily become self-absorbed.
So what’s a language arts teacher to do? The best ones try to harness that intellectual and emotional energy by devising activities that tap into students’ nascent maturity. Let’s be honest: When many seventh or eighth graders hear that their assignment will involve a writing task, the groans can be deafening. Not for every young teen, to be sure, but enough of them have learned along the way that writing is so formulaic that it is an artificial exercise disguised as a meaningful task.
THAT’S about to change! When my wife Deb and I decided to write a book on middle school writing that matters, we wanted the activities to contain several elements:
- Personal expression, so that our students’ voices could be heard
- Open-endedness, to encourage both creativity and risk-taking
- Integration, using words to express both thoughts and emotions
- Fun, because, hey . . . it’s middle school, where playing around with ideas and words is a breath of fresh air in our data-driven schools
One of our favorite activities out of the 24 we include in our book is titled “My Personal Quote Shield.” We begin with the hook—a sneaky way to get our students curious about what’s to follow. As they enter the classroom, the board is filled with half-quotes, like these:
- “To be or not to be . . .”
- “Ask not what your country can do for you . . .”
- “The only thing we have to fear . . .”
- “Life is like a box of chocolates . . .”
Give students a few minutes to talk with classmates about how these quotes end and invite them to say (or guess) who said them. Following this, ask students for their opinions on the meaning behind these quotes, and mention how even a few short words can be timeless in their appeal—and meaningful for generations to come.
Now that you’ve primed your students with salient quotes, mention that this activity is going to involve finding a quote that is personally relevant to them from a real person or fictional character. They will find a quote (use any of the many quotation databases online) and type it, in large letters, on a sheet of paper. Have them attach this paper to a large piece of construction paper that is cut into the shape of a shield. Beneath the quote, they will attach a two- or three-paragraph essay explaining two things: how they interpret the meaning of this quote and why this quote is important to them.
Why a shield? Because a shield in the Middle Ages did two things: It identified a particular clan and protected the person holding it. Words can do the same: be both revelatory and protective.
Some of the quotes our students chose include these:
- “Be yourself ’cause everyone else is already taken.” —Selena Gomez
- “I think the thing to do is enjoy the ride while you’re on it.” —Johnny Depp
- “Respect for the rights of others means peace.” —Benito Juarez
- “You miss 100 percent of the shots you don’t take.” —Wayne Gretzky
- “No person is your friend who demands your silence or denies your right to grow.” —Alice Walker
One of our more memorable essays came from a seventh grader who quoted Siddhartha Gautama: “Do not dwell in the past, do not dream of the future, concentrate the mind on the present moment.” The essay that followed included these thoughts:
To me, this quote simply means that you can mope over mistakes in the past or look ahead to a different future. However, moping won’t change the past, and fantasizing won’t prepare your future.
I’ve made mistakes. For example, from the moment I was born I couldn’t see out of one eye. It wasn’t until late in my kindergarten year that I told my parents about my condition. When my mom asked why I hadn’t told her earlier, I told her it was because I didn’t want to have to wear glasses. If my bad vision would have been caught sooner, it would be a whole lot better now. Still, dwelling on the past isn’t going to change the present, so I moved on.
I often dream and worry about the future, like whether I’ll get decent grades in high school or if I’ll be able to get into (and afford) college. So, even though I could write a 500-word essay on how my life could turn out, the only thing I have control over is how I live my life today, which is why I like this quote so much. It backs up my personal beliefs.
Essay after essay, shield after shield, our middle school students’ hearts, minds, fears, dreams, and realities were displayed—literally—for others to see. Their writing takes on a personal meaning that is so often absent in traditional five-paragraph essays.
As an extension, students can post their quotes (or additional ones) on the school website’s weekly set of announcements. As an additional exercise, teachers can select their own favorite quotes and write essays similar to what their students wrote, posting them on a bulletin board near the school cafeteria or office. Trust us, they will get read!
Middle school essays don’t have to be dull. They can be filled with the lives of the students we serve, and when they are, we get to appreciate our students in unique and meaningful ways.
Jim Delisle Ph.D., is a retired Distinguished Professor of Education at Kent State University and a former middle school teacher. The author of 19 books, Jim currently teaches gifted ninth graders monthly at Scholars Academy in Conway, South Carolina.
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