Stuff for Middle School Language Arts Teachers
Tuesday March 28th 2017

Mr. Coward’s Site for Teachers

This is It’s the teacher version of my seventh grade class page. It’s the result of 18+ years of junior high middle school teaching and 13+ years on the web. Feel free to take and mutate, but give credit where credit is due.

BULLETIN! Now with 8th grade material! I have a period of eighth grade this year, so I am dusting off and revamping my eighth grade shtuff. Stay tuned.

Have fun always.

(Mr. Coward has been teaching on the beautiful central coast of California since 1989. He enjoys fruitbooting, rocking, and teaching seventh grade.)


No Boring Verbs

One of my favorite things about teaching junior high is blowing their minds. One of my fave parts of the week is Fridays before the test, when we do Mental Floss. Middle schoolers: they can’t hit the curveball.

Like this:

“When the day after tomorrow is yesterday, this day will be as far from Friday as this day was from Friday when the day before yesterday was tomorrow. What day is it?”

All I asked was, “What day is it?” All the rest is obfuscation. But they always try to figure it out.

“OK, so. Day after tomorrow is Sunday, so yesterday is Thursday…wait…How can it be yesterday?”

And etc.

This class is also the first time some of them contemplate the whole time travel paradox thing.

“So if Stevo here is feeling all sporty,  joyriding in his stolen car back in the past, and accidentally runs over his mom before she’s his mom…”

“Ewww. Why would he do that?”

“He didn’t know it was her. And speed kills. Anyway, now what would happen? If she never had him…”

“He’d just disappear!” Most triumphant.

“So how did he travel back in time to hit her? If he was never born in the first place, how did he travel back and do it?”

“Wait. What? Wait…” And the eyes glaze over.

We do lots of paradoxes during “A Sound of Thunder.” The “I am lying” one gets ‘em every time.

This week’s torture came in the form of a writing exercise.

“How many of you have started to realize that if your essay is a little different or a little livelier or more unusual than the average duck’s essay, you tend to get a higher grade?”

Almost all the hands go up. But that doesn’t mean a thing. Most of the hands would have gone up if I had asked how of them had been to the moon. I just use that as a way of telling them to JAZZ THINGS UP A BIT!

“You do realize that if I’m reading 150 of these things, and I’m on number 97, and everybody is pretty much sounding the same, and then I come across yours, and your  new angle on things makes me think, “Hey, this guy is thinking,” of course the grade is going to be nudged higher…not exactly on purpose always, but that’s just how it is in reality. You know what I mean?”

So we work a lot on sentence variety and varied intros and some showboat techniques that their high school AP teachers will probably grind out of them, but make their writing a whole lot more fun to read. And it makes them more inclined to write.

I used to use this exercise very early in the year, sometimes on the first or second day. But some of them, in their noob naiveté, thought that I intended for them to write ALL their essays this way, and got really frustrated.


I haven’t used this one in a while since then.

One of the biggest issues in their writing is often their repeated use of boring, non-action verbs. I refer to these as verbs you can’t draw a picture of.

“What does is-ing look like? Go? What does go look like?”

They all start pantomiming walking and running and flying and etc.

“That ain’t going. That’s flying or running or whatever it is that Barney is doing with his fingers over there. That’s my point; verbs like that don’t add any action to your essay. You don’t go to the store. You slither or walk or ride or strut or cruise. So I’m going to take those boring verbs away from you, and force you to think outside the box, as they say.”

“I’m going to grade this assignment on only three criteria.
One: Did you write about one topic? I do not care what that topic is–cheese, your mom, the economy–as long as you stick to one topic.
Two: Did you get to the bottom of the piece of paper? This part is the old grade-by-ruler approach. If you fill the page, you get full credit (assuming you meet the third criterion ), you write half a pag, you get half credit and etc.
Three: This is the hard part. Did you use any of the following words?
any form of the word be (am, is are, was, were),
any form of the word go (went, gone, going),
any form of the word have (has, had, having),
any form of the word get (got, getting, gotten),
any form of the word do (did, done, etc.).

I will subtract one point for each of those words I find.”

OMG. I swear I could see the gears turning and the eyes bulging.

“Butbutbutbut…what’s left?”

“My brain hurts just thinking about it.”

Soon: The Aftermath.

(Reposted from Teaching the Outsiders.)

Nothing But the Truth II

My eighth graders are 2/3 finished with Nothing But the Truth, and while I’m lagging a bit on the Facebook wall thing, we did have a fine discussion today.

We’re getting to the point in the story where the wire services and talk radio morons are starting to pick up the story of Philip’s “patriotism.” I paused the reading today — we’re reading it live in class so it unfolds sort of in real time, and they can react to it without knowing how it ends — and we talked about free speech.

“Philip is claiming that it’s his right to sing, well hum anyway, the national anthem, even though the rule is to stand at silent, respectful attention. Is his right to free speech being violated?”

The answer was almost unanimously yes. I was a little shocked. We had talked about Phil’s motivation for the humming. The kids acknowledge that he started doing it so he could get kicked out of Miss Narwin’s class. And they still think he has a right to do what he’s doing.

So I flashed up on the big screen something I found at ReadWriteThink. It lists the three main Supreme Court decisions affecting the free speech rights of students at school, and breaks each one down in a paragraph. Here’s the link.

“The first decision says it’s all about ‘reasonable disruption.’ Is Philip’s humming causing a reasonable disruption? Does it violate the rights of other students to listen to the anthem with respectful silent attention?”


“Hmm. We’ll come back to that idea in a minute. Let’s look at the other two decisions first. The second decision is about political vs. ‘vulgar’ speech. This guy made a speech supporting his candidate for student government, and he used language the school thought was lewd-”

“What’s lewd mean?”

“Of a sexually suggestive nature.”


“Anyway. The Supreme Court sided with the school, saying that we should be teaching you ‘socially appropriate behavior.’ So even if your intentions are good, you can’t be ‘inappropriate’ as we call it around here. You can’t get up at an assembly and give a speech about how we should ‘f’in help those f’in starving African kids.'”

Now right about here, the conversation shifted. Suddenly we’re talking about the recent ban on those pink bracelets that say “Save the B_ _ bies” or something similar. It’s been a bit of a fad recently, and finally the word came down that said bracelets will now be considered dress code violations.

It’s a classic junior high loophole: “I’m just supporting breast cancer research.” (And getting to walk around saying b_ _ bies all day long.)

“I think that’s free speech! That’s not disruptive!”


“Mr. Jellyfish (our esteemed vp) says it all the time when I’m in his office. Take off you boo-”

“I get it. But that’s not the same thing. It’s not public. And anyway, very little of what Mr. J does would stand up to Supreme Court scrutiny. But this does bring us to the third decision. This one is about setting high standards for school related activities. So basically, would it be appropriate for the school to send home a flyer asking for help with their breast cancer research fund-raiser with the headline, ‘Save the B_ _ bies’? If so, then your bracelets might be protected speech.”

Two or three managed to slip the word in as they made their points. They really got into this one.

“But all we’re doing is support-”

“That doesn’t matter. Remember the f’in African babies?”

We went ’round and ’round on this one well into break time.

(reposted from

Facebook Wall – Old School

My eighth graders and I started Avi’s Nothing But the Truth today.

(Aside: I’m really going to be getting into this for a while, so you might as well go read the book, if you haven’t already. It’ll only take you an hour or two.)

And this morning, I thought of a last minute mutation for my “Facebooking” it real time experiment. The notebooks were going to be awkward for sharing, which is sort of the whole idea, so I was trying to think of an alternative that didn’t involve our IST department. Then I thought of an old web article I read about teaching kids about webpages and hypertext without using a computer. It involved putting an essay on the bulletin board (written rather larger than life), and then underlining the words that would be “links” and then running a string or whatever from each of those underlined words to another short piece of writing that explicated/expanded on the link word. And then those could be connected (literally) to other such pieces of writing or pictures or other materials. It was a very groovy way to illustrate the power of hypertext. (That’s what the ht in http stands for.)

Since my bulletin boards are still empty (I don’t really do posters with slogans about perseverance or lists of writing traits or “Good job!” type things; my bulletin boards are saved for end of novel projects, and my walls are all about me), I cleared a footpath to a big section, and set the stapler nearby.

Today, at the end of the period, after we had started the novel, and gotten only to Miss Narwin’s first letter to her sister, I handed out 5×7 index cards, and told one side of the room to write a “Facebook post” about Phillip, based on the few documents we had read so far, and told the other side to post about Miss Narwin, with both sides pretending they were in Miss Narwin’s class with Phillip.

On the bulletin board I stapled two signs; “Phillip” and “Miss Narwin.” I figure I will add characters as we go along.

“How many of you (sigh) Facebook? (Too many hands went up, but I guess that’s what I expected.) Well that’s our Facebook wall, old school stylie. Those notecards will be your posts. Always put a subject line, a date, and your name at the top of the ‘post.’ At first I will be the one stapling them to the board in some sort of order, with posts containing similar ideas grouped together. Then we will progress to you guys reading the posts, reading the documents in the book and posting further in the appropriate categories/areas. Eventually, I will ask you to ‘formalize’ some of your ideas into a longer format (blog post?). Sometimes I will give you something specific to respond to in your posts.”

I was literally thinking out loud at this point, but I think I might be on to something. The first round of cards/posts were very illuminating. Some are already leery of Phillip, some actually think he might be cool and funny. Some are sympathetic to, or even already like, Miss Narwin, some already think she should retire. And we’re not even past page 10.

OMG. I couldn’t have asked for a better set up. I can’t wait to start talking about this tomorrow.

(Reposted from

 Page 1 of 5  1  2  3  4  5 »