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5 Ways to Keep Secondary Students on Task During Group Work


Most kids love to do group work. Not only does it break up the routine of a typical class, but it also allows them to be more social, to chat with their friends. That last fact is why some teachers shy away from collaborative work: the classroom gets noisy and students get off task. 

Noise is not always a negative thing, however. In fact, noise can be an indication that a lot of learning and engagement is happening in your classroom. Imagine if all of your students were involved in an activity that required critical thinking, discussion and debate. There would have to be a certain level of noise, right? In fact, a steady din can be a sure sign of learning.

I know, I'm talking about teenagers, most of whom love to socialize. I'm no fool - a lot of the time spent in groups is not focused and on task. It can be a struggle to make sure they do the work you want them to do. However, I believe so much in the power of collaboration that a little effort to make it work is very much worth it.  Below you will find five strategies that work (most of the time) in my classroom:




As a rookie teacher I made a lot of mistakes, and one of them was just sending my students off to do group work and expecting them to do it. It wasn't long before I learned that they needed more guidance. Now, before they ever work together in groups, I make it very clear what I expect. The first thing I tell them is that it's ok to chat and socialize -- as long as the task is complete. I point out that if they focus and get the job done, then they can relax for the remaining time. I also take the time to set the routine I'd like them to follow: pick up the desks when you move them so you don't disturb the class under us, appoint a group recorder to take down your answers, be sure to refer to your discussion starter bookmarks, etc.


One strategy I've adopted that makes a huge difference is modelling what an effective discussion looks like. I carefully choose some volunteers to help me with this -- a few keeners and a few quieter students. I put them in a circle in front of the room, and I lead them in a discussion. If students aren't contributing, I'll ask them what they think. When someone gives an incomplete answer, I'll ask for elaboration. And, if I disagree with one of them, I will do so 
Free discussion starters for group work
politely and tell them why. After a few rounds of this, I'll ask the class what they noticed: how did I act as an effective group member? They are always able to point out everything I tried to model. 

What is easy to see in others can be difficult to do on your own, however, so I give them each a copy of these "discussion starters" they can use it as a bookmark and refer to it when they get stuck. If you'd like to use these with your students, you can grab them for free here. They're editable, so you can tweak them to work with your students.



We do a lot of small group discussion in my class when students are trying to figure out a complex text or issue. When we do so, I want them to follow a process that not only gets them thinking, but also requires all students to participate -- I don't want one or two dominating while the others sit back and let them do so. Also, if I'm not clear about what I want them to do, they won't be very focused.

I've learned that I can prevent that by being very explicit in my instructions. I usually ask them to start with individual reflections, so everyone is engaged, and to share those ideas with a partner. After that, they engage as a whole group to complete whatever task I've given them.  I've just recently formalized some of these instructions on "collaboration placemats." I loved putting them together and I know the kids will get a kick out of using them too. You can grab them out here.


Collaborative placemats to guide student small group discussions



It's hard to argue with this one: if students find the topic engaging, they are far more likely to focus. If you give them a hot topic to discuss like legalizing marijuana or gun control, they will probably have a heated discussion. But, let's be honest, analyzing lit together is not always high on their fun-things-to-do list. However, if you give them the skills they need to do the work and provide them with a task that's challenging - but not too difficult - they will usually engage. I've written about ways I scaffold the skills my kids need to be successful before - you can read about it here.



I think this is THE most important thing you can do to ensure successful collaboration among students: it's crucial that you circulate among the groups, quietly listening and participating. Do so in a way that seems like you want to be part of the discussion, rather than evaluating it. If you hear something interesting, wait your turn and add in your two cents. If you want to steer them in a different direction, throw something out there that will shift their course: That's an interesting theory, but what about this? Have you thought about why character X did this? It's actually one of my favourite things to do, because not only can you help your students do better work, you can also get to know them better.

So, that's what I do in Room 213 to get quality work out of my students when they work together. What about you? I'd love to hear your tips and tricks.











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Building Writing Stamina and Skills

Our curriculum demands that our students  write for a range of tasks, purposes and audiences. We also want them to write so they can think things through, find their voice, and express themselves. The more they write, the better they will become at all of these things; therefore, we need to work on their writing stamina, giving them lots of opportunity to flex their writing muscle. 

Bell ringers and writing prompts

One of the challenges as an English teacher is to find time to do all of the things that we know work best for our students. We're constantly juggling reading and writing, skill building and enjoyment, research and critical thinking. We do this with one eye on the clock and the the other on the calendar, knowing too well that there's never enough time to do it all.

I knew that I was not giving my kids enough time to write -- other than the assignments I gave them -- so I created a series of writing prompts to change that. Now, writing prompts are nothing new for me; it's what I added to them that made them a more effective tool for increasing skill AND stamina.


Bell ringers and writing prompts

Kids start with some pre-writing and then they do a quick-write. After they collect their initial ideas, they look back at what they wrote and reflect on ways to improve it.  They are asked to look at ways to push their ideas further and to play with their diction and sentence structure. Some prompts have them experiment with different ways for leading into a piece of writing or using dialogue. I mix up  the instructions so it's not repetitive, but each one challenges them to find ways to reflect and revise.


Bell ringers and writing prompts

The prompts are pretty versatile. You can use them as bell ringers: on Monday have them do the initial response. Then, on following days, have them do one revision at a time. Or, use them all at once for skill building activities, or as inspiration for your writing workshop. 

Regardless of how you make use of them in your classroom, your kids will have the opportunity to write more and improve their writing. Seems like a winning combination!

Happy teaching.

Lesson Ideas for High School English: Engaging Your Students in Literary Analysis



1. TEACHING KIDS TO WRITE ABOUT LIT
and using scissors and crayons to do it

Literary analysis is hard, and writing about it is even harder. I teach IB and Pre-IB and even these (mostly) keen and able students struggle to write effective analysis that flows from one idea to the next. I've written before about how I scaffold the steps they need to analyze . In that post, I wrote of the need to let kids learn a process and that it's ok for them to struggle.  This semester, we've spent a lot of time focused on the both the process and the struggle and now it's time to get more serious about writing about lit.

Today, I'd like to share with you the things I've been doing with my classes to teach them how to write good literary paragraphs and essays.


I've learned over the years that good instruction is not enough. If I want my kids to learn to write a certain way, I need to give them a model shows them what I expect. This works even better when I find ways for them to interact with the model, beyond just reading it.

This week, we were finishing up A Separate Peace. They had done some group presentations on the themes of the novel, and I wanted to wrap things up with a paragraph that analyzes character. They were instructed to choose one character-istic of Gene or Finny, and to illustrate multiple ways Knowles developed this characteristic. 

I wrote a sample literary paragraph; then, I blew each sentence of the paragraph up, and cut them into strips. Next, I clipped the strips together in random order. The students went into their usual groups and had to put the strips back into their proper order.


It was the first time I'd ever done this, and I loved how it worked. The kids were having great conversations:  this strip must come after that one because the transition refers back to that idea. I think this goes here because it develops the point made in that strip. I was so proud to hear them using the language and skills that I had taught them. 

For homework, I gave them another paragraph that modelled what I wanted them to do for their assignment on character and had them label the following: 
my assertion, plot used for context, plot used for evidence, analysis and transitions. Had I thought of it, I would have given them crayons to colour each of these things, but unfortunately I didn't have that brainwave until later. However, I did colour-code my answer key, which I projected on the screen for them when we went over their work.

This approach is quite a departure from what I used to do in the early years of my teaching. I always used mentor texts, but they would be on a handout with the student instructions and we would just read through them together. Now, I make sure they have several opportunities to work with the model before they write.


2. PRE-READING DISCUSSIONS

Last year, about this time, I wrote about using my To Kill a Mockingbird discussion stationsand I think it's time to write about them again -- and not just because that's what my class is doing! No, I want to tell you about them because I know that they are a really effective way to get the students engaged with the text. More importantly, the cards allow them to discuss many different issues associated with the text in a way that a few pre-reading writing prompts never could.

Yesterday, as I floated around between groups, I heard students who were highly engaged in their discussions; I even had to tell a few to turn the volume down a bit, because they were so excited about their debate.  The sweet thing is that they didn't even know they were discussing the novel. But, when they do have their first novel discussion today, they will be able to draw on the ideas they explored during these pre-reading stations.

So, that's what's working in Room 213. Have you tried anything this week that you were excited about? Please share in the comments :)

Happy teaching!





































Not Ready to Go Paperless? Start with Less Paper!


Even if you'd love to go paperless, your school might not be there yet. Unless each student has access to technology all the time, you just can't make that environmental jump. However, while you're waiting and hoping for the day when your school does go paperless, there are several things you can do to use less of it in your classroom.

1. REDUCE the amount you use:
This is pretty obvious, but how do you reduce when we need to give our students information, and they need to pass in their work?

We do it by changing the way we give and receive information.

Google Classroom is an amazing platform for both of these things, as it allows both teacher and student to post online, and you don't need to have devices for each student to make this work. Our school is far from paperless. We have some Chromebooks, but not enough for students to use them all of the time. Still, every day I post notes, instructions and/or homework on Classroom, and students can access the information on their computers at home. Before we had access to Google Classroom, I posted these things on my class website and it worked just as well. Blogger and Wordpress have lots of free, easy-to-use templates that will allow you to create a site for your students.  

Classroom and teacher websites have another added bonus: because students can access the information they need online, they will not be able to lose it. You'll save paper, and extra trips to the photocopier for those students that can never seem to find their handouts.  (If you know that some of your students can't access technology at home, have some pages printed off and give them to these students as they go out the door, so as not to call attention to them).  

I also make ample use of Google Docs for assignments. Students submit their work to me and I give them feedback right on the document. I rarely take home a stack of paper assignments anymore. This is a good thing for the environment, but also for assessment. Google Docs allows me to give students a lot more feedback because I can type much faster than I can write.  I can also have very direct "conversations" with them about their work with the comments.

These conversations can happen via electronic exit tickets as well. Google Forms provides a slick and easy way to get feedback from your kids. 

There are also many digital lessons available now for students, including my favourite, 21st Activities for Any Text, a product that allows you to assess student knowledge of a text using social media templates -- all electronic with no paper needed.

There are other ways to reduce paper use, even when you do need to print something for your students. Ask yourself: does each student need a copy?  If you are just giving students instructions, project them on your screen or write them on the board. If you're doing group work, for example, one copy of instructions per group will do. Likewise, it may be possible, depending on the situation, that students sitting near each other could share a sheet of instruct-ions.  

You could also consider ways to condense the information. Set your handout up so you can cut it in half or create task cards (four/page) and cut your paper needs by a quarter! 


2. REUSE paper as often as you can:
One way to do this is to take handouts back in after the class has used them or at the end of a unit. This option requires a little organization, but if you get yourself some file folders or binders, you can have a collection of handouts that you can reuse every year. As an added bonus, this will save you the time you spend photocopying (and fixing the copier).

Another way to reuse paper will result in a cleaner copying room: if you need to make a copy of a handout for your students, do it on the back of paper that's already been used. If your photocopy room is like mine, there's no shortage of wasted paper lying around. Just create a stack and copy your information on the back of the unused side. When you pass your handout to the students, tell them to make a big X over the backside, so they don't get confused.  Those leftover sheets in the copy room are also perfect for cutting up and using as bookmarks.


3. RECYCLE paper and buy it back:
Ok. It's probably hard to buy back the paper that you have actually recycled, but you can be part of the process. Make sure you have a recycling bin front and centre for you and your students, and make it a priority that everyone uses it. When you buy your own paper, buy packs that are recycled, and point it out to your students. They watch what we do and any time we can set a positive example for them, they notice. Watching us take care to use as little paper as possible will teach them an important lesson that goes way beyond the class-room.

ONE NOTE:
While I wholeheartedly believe that we need to reduce our use of paper (and other things), I also think that there are times when kids should write by hand. In fact, I believe it's necessary for their learning. If you'd like to find out more, you can read this blog post.

Do you have any creative ways to reduce, reuse or recycle paper in your classroom? Please share with us in the comments!


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Celebrating Shakespeare

If you ask me, it's always a good time to celebrate The Bard, but on April 23rd, we recognize both his birth and the incredible contribution he made to the English language. Now I know that not everyone thinks we should still be studying his work in 21st century classrooms, but I'm not one of those people. You can read about why I think Shakespeare is still relevant in this post, or if you'd like to find ways to get your teens excited about studying his work, read on!


Introducing Shakespeare Learning StationsThe single best thing you can do to ensure success with Shakespeare is to think carefully about how to reel your students in. How can you hook them? Make them interested? What can you do to prevent the groans and eye-rolls when you start?  Spend some time thinking about what you can do to make them interested in the play you are about to study. And here's a hint: a long lecture about Shakespeare's bio and the Elizabethan theatre will probably not do the trick. Instead, find a way to actively engage them in finding out the information that they need to study the play. I'm a big fan of learning stations for this. First of all, they put the responsibility in the students' hands, but more importantly, they make them active participants in the learning process, rather than passive ones.


The reason I love Shakespeare so much is that had his finger right on the pulse of human nature. And because he understood what made human beings tick, it's so easy to make connections between the characters and themes in his plays to the lives of our students.

Get more tips and strategies for getting your kids excited about Shakespeare on the latest blog post by Room 213.
One of the most effective uses of your time when planning activities and lessons for a Shakespearean play is to spend some time up front thinking about ways to link it to real life. The more relevant you can make it, the more likely it is you will get buy in.

When you start Romeo and Juliet, for example, you could begin with some writing prompts: have you ever defied your parents? Had a friend or boyfriend that they didn't like? Have you ever done something stupid to help a friend? If it's Macbeth: have you ever done something wrong, even when you knew it was a very bad idea? Have you ever gone against your conscience because of peer pressure? Get the kids to write about these things even before you start talking about Shakespeare. Have a good class discussion about things that they find interesting, then tell them that they've just spent some time digging into some of the major themes of the play.  Trick them a little ;)

Once you're further into the play, ask students to work in groups to brainstorm ways that the plot or characters are similar to people or situations in their own lives -- you don't always have to do all of the thinking, and it's far more effective if they do it anyway.

You can also use more modern assessments to gauge your students' understanding of the play. Get them to use tweets, blog posts or other forms of social media to illustrate what they have learned.

Free Understanding Shakespeare Bookmarks!Language is usually the biggest barrier into Shakespeare. Students find it difficult and so they give up before they even give it a chance. We have to remember the important step of teaching them strategies for reading Elizabethan English and of using anchor charts while we study a play that they can reference for reminders.

I created some bookmarks that you can download for free to give your students. They can slip them in their books and use them when they need some help. If you'd like create a colourful language word wall, for your students, check this out.

I hope some of these tips can help you get your students a little more excited about Shakespeare. If you'd like to hear some more ideas about how I connect my kids to the classics, check out this post on the TpT blog.

Happy Teaching!





Introducing Poetry


Do your students scream with glee when you dive into poetry? I didn't think so. If your kids are like mine, they see poetry as a labyrinth they have to muddle their way through. At the very least, they think of it as pure drudgery.

It doesn't have to be that way, especially if you begin your study with poetry that is more accessible to students, and use activities that are more engaging than scansion. Don't get me wrong, I'm not saying that analyzing Victorian and Romantic poetry isn't worthwhile; I'm just suggesting that you might want to lure them in with something else first.

I like to start with Billy Collins' Introduction to Poetry. It's relatively easy for students to understand, yet it has a variety of poetic devices they can identify and discuss. Most importantly, the poem deals with the different ways that students and teachers approach poetry. Here's how I roll out the lesson:

1. START WITH A QUICK-WRITE
Ask students how do you feel about poetry? Discuss and record some of the words and phrases that they use on the board or a piece of chart paper.

2. MAKE A COMPARISON
Ask students to write metaphors or similes that illustrate their feelings about the genre:            

Studying poetry is like...
Poetry is...

2. DISCUSS THE POEM
Give the students the poem and read it to them. After, ask them to read it again and identify the poetic devices used by Collins. Have them do a turn-and-talk to someone beside them to discuss what they've found.

During the full class discussion that follows, direct the discussion to ensure they've identified the devices that Collins uses to create meaning. Essentially, in the first five stanzas he suggests that studying a poem should be an experience of exploration and discovery. He suggests that a reader may have to look at it in a different light and to listen to its sound. Or, like a mouse in a maze, the reader must figure out how to move through the structure of the puzzle in order to come out the other side. He also invites the reader into a poem, to feel his way until light can be shone on its darkness. Refreshingly, he says he wants his students to just skim "across the surface of the poem" and just enjoy it. Finally, the tone shifts in the last two stanzas, when the speaker reflects on his students' approach to poetry. For them, it's an experience of torture, for they want the poem to confess its secrets, without them actually getting inside it, to figure out what it means.

After you're sure they understand the meaning and have discussed the effect of Collins' techniques, ask them if the ideas in the poem match their experience with studying poetry. If so, why? Is it how it should be?

3. LET THEM THINK AND CREATE

Have students write their own free verse poem that captures their feelings about studying poetry. Ask them to use some similes and metaphors to capture the ideas they want to get across to the reader. If they need a nudge, tell them to start with The teacher takes out a poem and...

If you'd like some more engaging activities for poetry, you might like to check out my Poetry Games and Activities. And, when it's time to start analyzing, my Poetry Learning Stations break the process into manageable chunks and help students focus on the process of interpretation. It gets them moving too!

Happy Teaching!



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Getting Your Teens to Actually Read




This is a serious issue in secondary classrooms when the required reading is longer and can't be completed in class. There are not enough hours in the semester to get it all done as it is, and besides, kids read at such vastly different rates that some are finished long before others. It means that students just have to do some reading at home. But, we all know that creates another issue, because many will come unprepared to do the next day's work. It is a true conundrum.

Strategies to motivate kids to readI wish I could tell you that I had the secret. I don't. I struggle with the same issues every day. I do, however, have a few strategies that can help.

First of all, I start every semester with reading workshop. The best way to hook reluctant readers is to let them find a book that makes them want to read. And that's not necessarily To Kill a Mockingbird or Lord of the Flies. I still do a full class novel, but not until later in the semester, after the kids have had a chance to read books that they have chosen for themselves. My hope is that by then, they are more willing to read something that I've assigned, because they've learned to enjoy reading.

Another thing I need to do to ensure that my students actually read is spend some time on their favourite Internet sites. You know the ones I mean:  Sparknotes, Schmoop, E-notes. I've written about this before in my post about keeping kids off Sparksnotes, so you can read more detail there. Essentially, if I keep asking questions or using assessments that they can answer without reading, then I'm part of the problem. Text-Self and Text-Text questions are good for this. Find a poem or an article that relates to something in the text and have them show their knowledge of character or theme by making connections between the two. Or have them illustrate how a character is like them or someone they know. These things are a lot harder to "Google."

In reality, though, I ask my students very few questions about the texts they read. Instead, I teach them how to take notes and require them to come to class with notes made on the night's assigned reading. I tell them ahead of time what they should be looking for and have them "start a page" for each element. For example, if we're reading Mockingbird, they will write Atticus, Scout, Jem, etc. at the top of a page. On the page entitled "Atticus", they will take notes to track his character. They do the same with themes or motifs that I tell them to track as they read.

Strategies for critical thinking about textBut wait...how do I make sure they actually do this? During each class, the students will meet to
discuss what they believe to be significant about each section. At the beginning of each class, I do a quick check to see who has their notes done. Those who didn't do the homework can't participate in the group discussions. I either send them to the library or cafeteria to finish, or leave them at their desks to do so. Basically, they can't just sit in the group and benefit from everyone else's work; they need to do it themselves.  The first few times I do this, there will be a huge group of students who have to sit out. However, after they catch on that I mean business, the group quickly dwindles. It really works.

Aside from this note-taking strategy, I have a lot of critical thinking exercises I do with the students that require them to actually read and understand the text. In the picture to the right, students are doing a write-around exercise that requires them to discuss the purpose of a chapter and to build on each other's ideas. I also like them to choose a title for a chapter or section and give a rationale for why they chose it. Each of these requires a deeper understanding of the reading, one that is hard to fake. And, when students come to class knowing that you're going to give them work that requires that kind of understanding, they are much more likely to do the work.

Now, I'm no fool. I know that there are still kids who don't read and rely on the Internet or movies to do their thinking for them. But, you know what? There will always be those kids. Unfortunately, we won't get them all. I do find, though, that these strategies hook more of them into reading.

Do you have any tried and true tips for ensuring that your kids read? Please share in the comments!