Monthly Archives: December 2009

I just finished a successful, intriguing, enjoyable unit with my writing lab class, and I’m just busting to share a little bit about the experience, how and why we did it, and the results.

It all began near the end of the persuasive essay unit, when I was glancing ahead to see what else I had scheduled for my writing lab kids. As I perused the syllabus, my eyes swept over the answer: expository writing. I groaned a little inside. We were just wrapping up a research-heavy, academic jargon-heavy, crisp logic-heavy writing project. The thought of assigning some boring, report-like paper about facts seemed just a little too dull for this particular group. [Background: My writing lab kids are my absolute favorite class. They’re a mixture of English fail-outs, aspiring authors, English language learners, and “I just took this class for the heck of it” misfits. Coming from grades 10-12, they are a peaceful, curious group who will follow me pretty much wherever I ask them to go as writers. And many of them have major talent. I knew something else was in order.]

So, I created a Writer-Interest Survey with loads of different options for them to pick from for their next unit. We discussed, debated, voted, and debated some more. In the end, screenplay writing (you know, writing scripts for movies) was the clear winner. They really wanted to write their own short film scripts. So I said, “Ok. On Monday, we’ll start learning how to write screenplays.”  Having absolutely no idea how to teach screenplay writing, I knew I had a weekend of research ahead of me. I was blessed enough to stumble upon three fantastic teaching resources for screenplay writing. Using them as my scaffold, I went to town on planning a five-week screenplay unit.

RESOURCE ONE: Good ol’ Google. As it turns out, if you simply type the title of your favorite major motion picture along with the word “screenplay” after it, you can find the full script for most movies out there. [My search query was “Jurassic Park screenplay.] There are many online databases devoted wholly to collecting and making available screenplays that have seen success. Of course, you have to wade through these to find quality samples, since many of these screenplays are reproduced by amateurs. However, when you find a good one, it’s an invaluable resource, especially if you can pair it with the actual film clip.

RESOURCE TWO: Script Frenzy Young Writer’s Program. I discovered something wonderful in my quest for screenplay tips, and that’s Script Frenzy. Apparently, this program is open to all who wish to participate–it’s a challenge to write a complete, 100 page screenplay in the month of April. This is a challenge for adults (more specifically, crazy adults), but there also happens to be a modified program for students that’s accessible all year round, including a complete workbook with really nice teaching supplements. I can’t say enough about how awesome this completely free resource is. Here are two links to get you started:



RESOURCE THREE: Make your own Movie Poster! I also happened upon a fantastic movie poster generator on the web that allowed my kids to create super-cool, authentic looking promotional posters for their screenplays. You have to fiddle around a little bit to get the best results, and only .jpg files can be loaded as the main image, but once those two things are out of the way, students can come up with amazing results. Particularly when they take their own photo with a digital camera or scan in original artwork, the final result looks great. Here’s a sample poster I’ve made for your viewing pleasure… Click on the image for full-view.

Cool, huh? Try it by clicking HERE for the movie poster generator.

As the unit went on, we did all kinds of cool things: character development, realistic dialogue, avoiding cliches, identifying and blending genres, using media skills, applying a specific formatting style, how to construct a satisfying plot, time management, mimicking masters, finding inspiration, and action writing. And the students loved it. Whether they were penning comedies or psychological thrillers, they were all quite “into” their stories. Last weekend I had literally an armful of pages to take home–almost every student had met my daunting ten-page requirement. One boy even made a full-length, amazingly artistic trailer for his film. Some of my favorite film concepts were:

*A crochety old man, denied a discount at McDonald’s, seeks revenge by patronizing other various fast food establishments.

*An imprisoned man develops a close relationship with a fellow inmate as they attempt to make a jailbreak.

*The ghost of a teenager tries to come back to the living world, but only one friend can see him.

*A man struggling with mental illness decides to live his life through the identity of a deceased friend from childhood.

*An exchange student simply can’t handle the irritating antics of his host family.

Once again, I have had proven to me the fact that when students are doing something that they are interested in, they outperform even the highest expectations. During this unit, I wished I was in my own class so that I could do the project. It was so touching to watch them excitedly buzz around each other’s writing, asking “What are you gonna put next?” or “You know what I can picture here? Let me tell you…”  Next time I teach this unit, I might work in an actual film component as well. I highly, highly recommend trying out some screenplay writing. It may not be a very traditional thing to teach, but it makes reaching the state language arts standards as easy and light as a song. 🙂

P.s. If you’re in the Milwaukee area, Collaborative Cinema is another cool opportunity related to screenwriting. We had a guest speaker come in from this program, and he was great.

I’ve been teaching a unit with my seventh graders based on Mildred D. Taylor’s novel, Roll of Thunder, Hear my Cry. As I previewed the book, I found myself recoiling from the harsh depictions of racist violence, which are very true to what really went on in Mississippi in the 1930’s, ’40’s, and ’50’s. I wondered if my classroom–a racially disparate group of 12 year-olds–would be able to handle it. I’m not sure what I was so afraid of… I guess I felt like reading about those events really hurt me, and so perhaps it would hurt them, especially if they didn’t have the maturity to understand it. I was feeling similar to a group of parents who wanted to censor the book back in 2004, saying the content was too mature and disturbing for middle schoolers to be exposed to.

But then a little bell rang in my head. Why was I trying to shield these kids from the truth of what happened in history? If I did so, wasn’t I just playing accomplice to the thousands of sugared-over history textbook editions that have lain, guilty, in classrooms across the nation for decades? If I was nervous to talk so directly about racism in my classroom, with black kids and white kids, Latinos and Hmong, wasn’t that my own little contribution to racial tension in our own society? After this mental tug-of-war, I convinced myself that I would tackle it, and after an introductory explanation about the need for grown-up behavior, sensitivity, and reverence, we plunged in headfirst.

Best move ever. The responses from studying this novel have been the most heartfelt, complex, and complete responses I’ve gotten from my seventh grade. Not that it’s been without pain–for instance, when I was explaining how tar-and-feathering was a humiliating and excruciating “punishment” that whites inflicted on blacks for the most minor offenses, I was interrupted mid-sentence by a cocoa-faced, curly-haired girl with watery eyes: “But why would someone do that? Why would anybody ever think that was ok? What made them think that wasn’t wrong? It’s wrong!”  The only answer I could give her was, “I wish I knew the answer myself. To be honest, I really don’t know where racism or hate of any kind comes from. But it’s bad, bad, news and it’s really hurtful, isn’t it?”

One of the most interesting  lessons we did involved using poetry to talk about how race interactions were more complicated than simply pitting whites against blacks. For this activity, we analyzed Jeremy’s friendship with the Logan children by connecting it with Countee Cullen’s “Tableau,” which I’ll post here–


Locked arm in arm they cross the way/The black boy and the white

The golden splendor of the day/The sable pride of night

From lowered blinds the dark folk stare/And here the fair folk talk

Indignant that the two should dare/In unison to walk

Oblivious to look and word/They pass, and see no wonder

That lightning brilliant as a sword/Should blaze the path of thunder.


Here are a few of my favorite student responses to the poem:

I say what happened in the poem was two kids (black and white) fighting against racism. They were signaling out that skin color does not effect a person’s feelings. And when the lightning struck and cut through the segregation, it burned all thoughts of hatred and led people to think. If God made different races for a reason of hope, why was it used as a reason for bad individuality, segregation, and downputting of someone of another skin type or race? All races form the reason of life. People, living, and being are the cause of the new age. In Roll of Thunder, segregation was at full cruelty. But every action has its own special consequence.

I love this poem because I think it is so true about white kids and black kids becoming friends, without anybody having the right to say anything. Countee Cullen is impressing with this poem. He’s awesome!!

I see hope in the poem where they don’t care what people are thinking about them. I think that it would be unfair if we couldn’t hang out with someone because of their race or their religion. It’s unfair to judge people because of the color of their skin and it’s rude and cruel.

I think the poem is trying to say “don’t care about what people think.” If you think or know what you are doing, have trust in yourself and go for it. They are trying to tell us even when it is hard, don’t give up because we’ve come a long, long way just to give up. In the book, the blacks are going through hard times. A couple nice white people are trying to help them go through that and say something like, “What is the difference between us?” but without words.

I’ll end this post with the wisdom of Mildred D. Taylor herself, in her response to the attempted censorship of her novel. Here’s a quote from her, courtesy of the National Coalition Against Censorship website:

“As a parent, I understand not wanting a child to hear painful words,” Taylor wrote. “But also as a parent I do not understand trying to prevent a child from learning about a history that is part of America… I must be true to the stories told.”

Thank you, Ms. Taylor, for reminding us that we have to look the world straight in the eye in order to form our own opinions of it. Even if we’re twelve years old.

P.s. Every day, I am greeted at the door by a different child that whispers to me, “Ms. H, can I read first today?”  🙂