Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Photo Caption Contest

One of my favorite writing activities to do with students is to provide them with a photo and ask them to write a caption for it. Yesterday, I shared a photo of a squirrel that I found on Pinterest (of course!) and asked them to write away. Not only did they love the activity, we all loved the captions they came up with.

I told my students that I would choose a few of their captions and ask the world to vote for a winner. Unfortunately, there were just too many to narrow down the choices to even a top five. So, dear reader, I need your help. Would you be so kind as to select your two favorite captions in the form below? If there is no clear winner, then I'll create a second form with fewer choices.

Thanks so much for your help!

Saturday, January 11, 2014

Goodbye to Cliches Contest

Do you have one or two minutes to help me determine the winners in our Goodbye to Cliches contest? Last week I had my seventh graders rewrite some tired old lines and now we need your help to determine who gets the Smarties. I would really appreciate it if you, dear reader, could take just a moment and complete this form: Goodbye to Cliches Contest. And feel free to pass this along to all your friends and family members!
Thanks for your help!

Monday, August 19, 2013

Welcome to Seventh Grade!

Tomorrow is the first day of school for us. I've spent the last week getting my classroom ready for my students' arrival, and, as I was getting ready to leave the classroom this afternoon it dawned on me. I still hadn't written my "welcome back to school" letter for my students. And that was one thing I really wanted to do this year, so I sat back down at my desk and composed the following:

Dear Seventh Graders:

Welcome Back! Now that you’re finally in seventh grade I have to tell you something:

I’m so excited to get to know each and every one of you!

Not a day passed this summer when I wasn’t thinking about you and our seventh grade classroom (I hope you noticed I said “our” classroom because this space belongs to all of us!) I know I haven’t gotten to know all of you yet, but I do know at least two things about each and every one of you:

  • You Matter! and
  • You Are a Genius!

I believe it is vitally important that every student who walks through the seventh grade classroom door understand that they matter to me. But it’s more than that...you matter to so many people in your life. Stop for a moment and think about it.


How many people can you think about? Parents, brothers, sisters, aunts, uncles, grandparents, friends, classmates...and every single person here at our school. We ALL know that YOU matter! You are a person of tremendous value and you are loved. Never forget that!

Seriously...don’t forget it!

You Are a Genius! Each and every single person in this classroom has genius within them. You may not have found it yet, but I know it’s there and it’s my job this year to help you find it. So, start thinking about it...what is something that you are really good at? What can you teach all of us this year?

Have you figured it out? It’s important that you recognize your genius and here’s why:

We’re going to change the world!!!

So, repeat after me: “I am a genius and the world needs my contribution!” Keep repeating that to yourself all year long.

Welcome to Seventh Grade! It’s going to be an amazing year!

Miss McMillan


All credit for this idea goes to Angela Maiers who shared two letters that Arin Kress has written to her own students. You can read Angela's blog post here: Two Letters That All Students Should Receive. Thank you to both Angela and Arin for this wonderful idea! 

Monday, July 29, 2013

Let's Go, Team!

It's almost GO time for me; two weeks from today I'll be back at school preparing for a new year with a new group of seventh grade lovelies. This, of course, means that I will be working diligently these next two weeks (in between naps) to create a year of Wonder (our new school theme) in seventh grade.

I had the pleasure of giving a presentation on blogging to a group of teachers attending the MERIT program last week (you can find my resources here: bit.ly/McResources). When I wasn't presenting, I was able to attend a few great sessions including Roni Habib's session on creativity in schools. Thanks to Roni I have a pretty good idea of how I will introduce group work to my students this year. It begins with a video:

Before showing this video to students, I will ask them to keep in mind one question: What did it take for this group to create this video? After we watch it, I'll give them a minute or two to discuss the video with a neighbor as long as they brainstorm some answers to my question.

"Yes, I know it's cool...what else?"

I'm hoping they'll come up with answers that speak specifically to what it takes to work effectively in a group:

  • Communication. This must be clear, positive input, not destructive criticism. 
  • Collaboration. Everyone must do their part in order to create a quality product. 
  • Cooperation. Working well together often involves compromise. Get used to it!
And some non-C words:
  • Hard work. Do you think this group just showed up in New York and started filming?
  • Time. How much time do you think they spent practicing before filming? After filming...and filming again?

Do you have any other suggestions for introducing group work to middle school students? Please feel free to share them in the comments. Thanks!

Monday, June 24, 2013

Helping Students Choose2Matter - Part 2

An important aspect of helping students choose to matter is also helping them discover what they are most passionate about. If we want our children to change the world, then they first need to care about it. But caring about and fixing the entire planet is far too big of a task for one student or one group of students. We need to help our students find at least one thing that they are passionate about and then to focus on that one thing as a means to making real change.

Here's the problem: Students are rarely asked the question "What are you most passionate about?" So at the beginning of the year I use this question as a jumping off point for my paper blogging activity (you can read more about paper blogging here: Learning to Blog Using Paper). I explain to students that they will begin by writing one to two paragraphs on something that they are passionate about. And half the class stares blankly at me. This leads to a conversation on what it means to be passionate about something until we come up with a clear enough definition that the entire class understands. (It's usually something like "I know I'm passionate about something when I think about it all the time, when I talk about it constantly, and when I want to talk to others who are also passionate about it.")


Another activity we do that focuses on our passions is to create heartmaps for our writers workshop binders (I found this lesson via Scholastic: Writing From the Heart.). Not only does this help students think about the many things that they are passionate about, it can also provide a source of writing topics throughout the year (hence the placing of the heartmaps in our writers workshop binders). Here are a few examples:

Their ideas were pretty vague, "family," "friends," "nature," so I think next year I'll have them make two maps. The first one can be like those above, with fairly general ideas on what they're passionate about. The second heartmap will dive a bit deeper into these topics and I'll ask them to be a lot more specific.

Heartbreak Maps

During her Quest2Matter webinar on Classroom2.0 Live, Angela Maiers spoke about "heartbreak maps" as a tool to helping kids explore what breaks their heart about their world. Two days later I had my students get out their heartmaps and begin looking at them from an entirely new perspective. I asked them, "Now, what breaks your heart about these things that you are passionate about?" I provided them with an example of my own: "I am passionate about reading, but it breaks my heart that there are children in this world who will never hold a book in their hands."

That got us a bit off topic for a few minutes, but it was a wonderful conversation about reading and the number of books we were going to read over summer. I'm always happy to have these kinds of interruptions!

But back to the task at hand. Students were then asked to make a list in their journals about the things that break their heart. After a few minutes, when it appeared that some students were having trouble with the exercise, I had them discuss it in their table groups to try and generate new ideas. While they were talking I had the idea to have them create new heartmaps in their groups. These would be our heartbreak maps.

These were the instructions:

  1. In the center of your map, write and/or draw the things that you are passionate about.
  2. In the next level or circle, write and/or draw what breaks your heart about these things.
  3. In the final level or circle, write and/or draw your ideas for the ways to resolve these heartbreaks. 

And here's what they created:

Clearly I need to do a better job of introducing this activity as not every group included the first task on the list (write what they're passionate about). I also think I'd like to have them do this as individuals or in pairs or groups working on one idea at a time. If we would have had more time, I would have used this as more of a brainstorming activity to help all of the individuals in the group understand how to complete a heartbreak map and, hopefully, develop some ideas of their own.

No voice should go unheard. Often when working in groups too many beautiful voices are drowned out.


The next step for my students would have been to develop their own projects based on their heartbreak maps and then submit those projects to the Quest2Matter site. Unfortunately we ran out of school days with which to work together on this. My wonderful students, however, expressed a keen interest in working on a project or two over the summer. I'll be giving them a little push in that direction this week. Stay tuned.

To learn more about Choose2Matter, visit the following links:

To help with the Choose2Matter movement, visit Choose2Matter - Indiegogo

Thursday, June 20, 2013

Helping Students Choose2Matter - Part 1

Power to the Peaceful
As the school year began, way back in August, I placed a question before my students and asked them to consider it throughout the year: "How will you choose to matter?" At first I thought it wouldn't be a hard question for my students to answer. I teach at a Catholic school and our parish motto is to "Hear the Gospel and make a difference." They understand the idea of making a difference. We have school and parish fundraisers and we bring in donations of many types of necessities throughout the year (clothing, school supplies, food items).

But asking students "How will you choose to matter?" made it much more personal. The idea of making a difference was becoming a reality that would be placed square on their shoulders. And that was just a bit outside their comfort zone.

So I thought we should start with something that they would be comfortable with. I asked them to write about how they choose to matter to the people in their own lives: friends, family, classmates. And what they produced became our first bulletin board of the school year:

I loved reading their reflections on how they matter to their friends and families. There were comments about helping out around the house, helping siblings with homework, and sharing a smile with a perfect stranger.
"I matter to my friends because I respect them. I matter to my family because I stand up for them. I matter to strangers because I listen to them and respect them." 
"I matter to my friends because whenever they feel down or lonely, I am always there to listen and make them feel better."  
"By respecting my parents when they are busy, and spending time with my friends, I show that I care about the people I know and that, in this world, everyone matters."

International Dot Day

In my last blog post, Release Their Creativity, I wrote about how my students and I were preparing to celebrate International Dot Day in September. And part of that preparation involved discussing how each of them would "make their mark and make it matter." Students came up with a lengthy list of ideas of how they can make a difference in their world (which you can read in my previous post). Most of them were environmentally-minded ideas: a no-trash day, create going green brochures, turn off the electricity for an hour (Earth Hour). One of my favorite ideas was to smile at one person each and every day. A simple yet potentially powerful idea.

But the most poignant moment of Dot Day came when I grabbed a beach ball and a marker, and we stepped outside onto the lawn near middle school. When we were planning for Dot Day, one of the groups suggested having a ball that each student would sign their name on and then tell why they matter to the world. After they were finished, they would toss the ball to another student who would repeat the process. At first I thought this would be a fairly easy activity and we would be finished in ten minutes or so.

I was wrong.

It was much easier for the kids to write down their thoughts about how they matter to friends and family, even knowing that they would be displayed on a bulletin board, than it was to stand up in front of all of their friends and say "I choose to matter by..." To be honest, it was a little painful at first. I started things off by signing my name to the beach ball and saying, "I choose to matter by teaching and caring about middle school students." I tossed the ball into the air and the person who caught it had to do the same. Signing his name was the easy part. "I choose to matter by...um..."

And we waited. Uncomfortably.

Now, I should add that these are kids who are very comfortable around each other. Most of them have been together since kindergarten and they get along really well. Remarkably well! I wondered if perhaps some of their discomfort with this idea was because they didn't know me all that well yet. I think, however, that this idea was still too far outside of their comfort zone.

It wound up taking us almost 45 minutes to complete the activity. But I believe it was time well spent. Plus, we had a constant reminder of that day as the beach ball we had all signed sat in the back of the classroom all year long. Every couple of days or so, one student or another would pick up the ball, look it over, perhaps toss it up in the air, and then set it back down.

As International Dot Day is a celebration of creativity and the creative mind, we also spent a good part of our day making and drawing and painting. But our day definitely had one central theme:

The year was really just getting started. And so was our Choose2Matter campaign! In Part 2 of this post, I will share a few other activities we did during our year that helped my students begin to think of how they will "make their mark and make it matter."

To learn more about Choose2Matter, visit the following links:

To help with the Choose2Matter movement, visit Choose2Matter - Indiegogo

Sunday, September 9, 2012

Release Their Creativity

In preparing to celebrate International Dot Day this week, I asked my students to brainstorm ideas for what we'll do to "make our mark and make it matter." Working in their table groups, I asked them to come up with as many ideas as they could. After about ten minutes, I noticed that each group only had two or three ideas written on their papers. Having heard plenty of "we can't do that" comments while I roamed around the classroom, I realized they were censoring themselves and, therefore, inhibiting the creative process.

So I interrupted them and explained what I was seeing and hearing. I said, "Let's try something different." I put ten minutes on the timer and told my students they would have ten minutes to come up with fifty (yes...50) ideas. There were a number of gasps as well as comments like, "no way!" and "wait, is she serious?!" Of course I was serious! Am I ever not serious?!

Never mind. Don't answer that.

What transpired in the next ten minutes in my classroom was truly fabulous! It got rather noisy, but it was a noise filled with creative expression. I loved watching my students get excited - and rather competitive - about their ideas. A few kids were literally jumping up and down at their tables.

You're probably wondering how many groups actually got to 50 ideas. About half of them did. And the other groups had between 20 and 30 ideas each. Did we fail because every group did not come up with 50 ideas? Absolutely not! We went from a grand total of 18-20 ideas for the entire class to 310 ideas in ten minutes flat.

What does this prove? That when given the freedom to be creative, our students can quite literally astound us...and themselves.

So, if you're looking for some ideas to celebrate International Dot Day this year, I have a few suggestions for you. (Don't worry, I won't be typing up all of their ideas...that would make my hands cramp up!) Here are some of my students' ideas:

Let's start with the group that apparently hadn't eaten breakfast that morning. They suggest bringing in:
  • cakes
  • cupcakes
  • pies
  • cookies
  • ding-dongs
  • candy Dots
  • dip’n dots
  • donut holes
  • funcakes
  • Cheerios
  • Fruit Loops
  • cherry tomatoes
  • sliced cucumbers
  • brussel sprouts
  • pickles
  • bacon balls?

For our Choose 2 Matter campaign this year (some of these don't necessarily involve dots, but I love the way these kids think!):

  • Put up a bulletin board that says Choose 2 Matter in dots (on each of the dots we’ll each have written something or someone that matters to us).
  • Have a "bouncy ball" that we can pass around the room. Each student signs their name on it and tells the class why they matter.
  • Make Dot Cards and send them to people around the world to let them know they matter.
  • Create a “genius” light bulb out of dots. As Angela Maiers says, we are all geniuses and I tell my students that every day. (Be sure to read her Dot Day blog post here: Come Celebrate International Dot Day With Us)
  • Make and sell eco-friendly dot necklaces and donate the profits to Uganda.
  • Make Choose 2 Matter/Dot Day placemats.
  • Pass out “The Dot” book to people (a new version of World Book Night).
  • Plant flowers in the shape of the earth.
  • The Earth chair - made out of recyclable materials.
  • Create “green” brochures and newspapers.
  • Develop online video diaries about going green.
  • Celebrate Earth Hour - turn off all electricity for an hour.
  • Have a “no trash” day.
  • Smile at one person every day.
  • Write “Choose 2 Matter” on a cake for the President.
Make a ____ out of dots ideas:
  • Earth
  • book
  • The Bible (we're a Catholic school, after all)
  • American flag
  • Miss McMillan (hmmm...)
  • Our school logo
  • a dove
  • self-portraits
  • eyeball (maybe I shouldn't have told them about my eye surgery this summer)
  • smiley faces
  • a rainbow
  • the sun
  • the moon
  • the stars
  • peace sign
  • a duck
  • a heart
Miscellaneous ideas:
  • Write a haiku about dots.
  • Make a recycle sign out of bottle caps.
  • Create a mural or poster of "dot people" holding hands around the world.
  • Create a large chalk outline of a dot on the yard and have every student and teacher write their name inside.
  • Have each student dip a finger in paint and use all of our fingerprints to create an image (the Earth, a peace sign, a tree).
  • Hang a galaxy of star dots from the classroom ceiling.
  • Use buttons to create art.
  • Have a flash mob in front of City Hall in dot formation. (And you thought flash mobs were a thing of the past!)
  • Write a Dot Day anthem.
  • Have a Dot Day dance (I'm assuming that's what this group meant when they said "dot day dance." It could be that they want to create their own style of dance.)

One idea that I haven't listed here was created by one of my students before we even began brainstorming. She brought the idea to me a few days before this and we immediately got started on it. Each student created a small 8 x 10 poster of an inspirational quote that matters to them. I took a picture of each of them holding up their quote and will be giving the photos to Nicole so that she can take them home and finish her idea. She's going to create a paper mache globe and then put all of our pictures on it. Pretty cool, eh?!

I had the privilege yesterday of being a guest on Classroom 2.0 along with T.J. Shay, Maryann Molishus, and Heather Temske. We shared how we've celebrated Dot Day in the past as well as what we might be doing this year. Participants in the session also shared some of their great ideas, so you won't want to miss the archive of the show here: International Dot Day 2012 Preview. Be sure to also check out the LiveBinder of resources for the session; it's just filled with great ideas! Classroom 2.0 LiveBinder (Be sure you've clicked on the International Dot Day tab.)

However you choose to celebrate International Dot Day this year, find the artist within you, give your students the freedom to find their own inner artist (it's probably much closer to the surface than our own), and have fun!

"Make Your Mark; Make It Matter!"

I just had to add this picture to this post. Three of my students made a very special shirt for me for Dot Day: