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Grading Conferences: Maximize learning AND reduce your grading load!

Use grading conferences to maximize learning AND reduce your grading load.

Last week, I wrote about ways to make time for conferences. The focus for those conferences was on skill building and assessing whether or not your students are getting the concepts you want them to learn. But how can you use conferences to cut down on the grading you do after school?

You actually grade the assignment right there, in class, in front of the student.

I know, it sounds daunting. But, if you can make it work, it's a beautiful thing. First of all, you don't take any grading home. It's all done in class. Second, and most importantly, the kids get SO much more out of the feedback process than if they just read written comments, especially if you have your conference with a computer on hand (I'll explain that in a bit).

So before I go on to show you how you do this, let me make it clear that you should not try grading conferences unless you AND your students are used to the whole concept of conferencing. For you to have the time and focus to do this, your kiddos will need to be used to the routines and expectations of conferencing. If they are, you are ready to take it to the next level.

Use grading conferences to maximize learning AND reduce your grading load.
You also don't want to start this with a long assignment. It works best if you begin with something shorter, where you are looking at only a handful of skills. 

Let me show you how this works with an example from my class:

Next week, my kids will be writing a paragraph that analyzes the effect of point of view and perspective in the individual novels they are reading. I want them to have a clear introductory statement and an effective conclusion. They will also need to back up their points with multiple details and two properly embedded and cited quotations. I'm scaffolding the skills they will need to write a full literary analysis later in the semester,  so I want to ensure that they have the basics down.

Each kid will submit his/her paragraph to me on Google Classroom and during the conference, I will read it out loud with the student (I suggest that you do this while the other kids are doing group work, so they aren't listening. Or, if your kids are good at this conferencing thing, pull the student out into the hallway. That's what most of our teachers do). I like reading it out loud, because both the student and I can hear how well the paragraph flows.

Use grading conferences to maximize learning AND reduce your grading load.

As we go through it, I will point out the things they did well: great topic sentence! It's very clear and focused.  OR That's an excellent quotation to back up that point. I will also ask questions to lead the kids toward discovering where they could have done a better job: So, you made your point, but what's missing? What should come after this? OR This is a great quotation choice, but what's missing here after the quotation mark?

With these questions, you can teach or review, right on the spot, the skill that they need to work on.

Here's the best part. When the student answers these questions, s/he can fix the issues on the spot - or at least write a note to themselves: I need another example here. OR Citation. They can type these notes right into the text - or write it in the margin if the assignment is hand-written. This process becomes even more powerful if you follow it with another assignment where the kids can practice what they have learned. In my case, a few days after we finish these conferences, my students will write another paragraph explaining how one character trait is developed in the protagonist in their novel.

Use grading conferences to maximize learning AND reduce your grading load.

Now, I know what you're wondering, because it's the same wonder I had when I heard about this process the first time: how long does this take and how can you take so much time from directing the other students?

The time part is the easiest to answer: because I do this with short assignments, it only takes about five minutes. I have a clear focus and resist the urge to get pulled in another direction. For example, I'll ignore grammatical issues or poor word choice - unless that's the skill I want to target. This is a powerful strategy, folks, because the kids are focused too. It's also incredibly powerful because you know the kids heard the feedback. It's not crumpled up in their back pack somewhere, wasted and ignored.

The second question - what are the other kids doing? - depends a lot on how you plan things. First of all, as I said earlier, don't do this unless your class is used to the idea of conferencing. Then, you need to have some activities ready to keep them busy. This process will take you several days, so you'll have to design your class around that. If you're already workshopping, it won't be that hard, as kids will be used to working independently or doing some peer feedback while you are busy. It's also a great time to give your kids some collaborative activities to work on while you conference. As I said, I'll be doing this next week, and my kids will be either reading, working on the draft of a narrative essay, or doing some of the group activities I use to introduce that assignment. During each class, I will take breaks between conferences to make sure everyone is on task, or to ask questions.

Tip: one strategy I use during this time is to put a clipboard on a desk near the door. If students have a question while I'm conferencing, they record it there, and I can deal with it quickly when I'm on one of my "breaks."

A final thought: teachers worry about what the other kids are doing during a conference. It's true, that they won't be as focused as they would be if you were there. However, the benefits gained from the conferences are so great, that they far outweigh the little bit of off-task time that might occur while you're doing them.

So, there it is. I hope you can see how it all works, and that you can find a way to try it with your students. Mine always tell me they learn so much more when I give them direct feedback like this, which is so very wonderful. However, it's not as wonderful as that free time you'll have because you've done your grading during the school day!

Let me know if you have any questions!

How to Make Time to Conference

Tips and strategies for conferencing with students.

So you want to conference with your kids, but you just can't find the time?

You all know that I'm a huge fan of conferencing with kids. There are several very good reasons for that: conferences allow you get to know your students, to teach more effectively, and to reduce your grading load.

The problem is that while you take fewer papers home, you need to do more organizing and managing during your classes. 

And that isn't always so easy to do.

However, I can tell you, unequivocally, that it is so worth it. I've told you before that it's been a game-changer for me as a teacher - but even more importantly, it's helped my students learn so much more than what I used to do. (If you aren't convinced, you can read more here: Five Reasons to Start Conferencing Now).

If you are convinced of the beauty of the conference, but just aren't sure how to work them into the crazy-busy that is your day, I've got some strategies for you.

Let me show you how I make it work:

1. Get Focused & Organized First
This, for me, is ultra-important. If I don't have a clear, organized plan, the conferencing doesn't go well; I just slip back into my old way of doing things and they go by the wayside. It has happened more than once.

Now, I have a list of skills that I want to focus on and corresponding forms that allow me to stay organized. The forms go into a binder that's dedicated to each class and it includes my notes and assessments for all of my students. These notes are invaluable when it comes time for parent conferences and report cards too!

This took some up front planning. There's no denying that. However, now that I have it all done, I can use the process with all of my classes in the future. There were growing pains in the beginning, that's for sure, but now conferencing is just another part of my daily routine. 

If you'd like to use my conferencing forms, you can check them out here:

Reading Conference Guides
Writing Conference Guides

2. Decide How & When to Conference
I'm well aware that the practical application of conferencing is harder than just sitting at your desk planning to do one. 

There's that huge number of students in your class and the short amount of time to conference with them.

There's the fact that you don't teach in Utopia where your students will work quietly and diligently while you're busy with one student.

Tips and strategies for conferencing with students.
My reality is no different than yours. I've conferenced with small classes and huge ones. I've done it with "good" classes and ones that challenged me every day. However, I have some strategies that I use to help me make it work, regardless of which class I have.

First of all, I have my trusty binder to keep me focused and organized. I know whose turn it is for a conference and how many students I can fit into the class time, based on the activities I have planned for the day. 

This part is pretty important. You need to have a plan for what the rest of the students will be doing while your attention is elsewhere.

Every class is a little different, but mine usually begin with a writing prompt or some other bell ringer. Then, I do a mini-lesson and give kids a task to do based on the lesson. At some point in each class, the kids will be reading and/or writing independently. And, several times a week, they will be working in groups, having discussions or working on some sort of activity.  Each of these scenarios offer me different opportunities to conference. The only time I need to be in the front of the room is during the mini-lesson; otherwise, I'm free to work with students.

But how do I keep them all working? Read on, but first, click here to get a list of ideas for activities that your kids can do while you conference.

3. Train Your Students
As with anything we do, we want our kids to know how something is going to work and what we expect of them while we're doing it. I find that if I don't put in the time teaching and reinforcing these routines, then things will inevitable fall apart. When I do, students will eventually get to a place where the class goes just the way I want it to.

I have to stress that you just can't skip this part of the process. Put in the time to teach and reinforce at the beginning of your semester, and it will pay dividends to you for the rest of the year.

First of all, students will need to know what happens during a conference and what to do to prepare for them. Always tell them the day before that it's their time to meet with you, and make it clear what the focus will be, so they can get ready. When they come to you prepared, the conference goes much more quickly, allowing you to get through more in a day. At the beginning of the year, if a student comes to me unprepared, I send them back with instructions to be ready the next day. They soon get the message that I'm not going to accept a lack of preparation.

Tips and strategies for conferencing with students.

4. Dealing with Too Many Students:
Just like you, I've had to deal with too many kids in my classroom. It's frustrating, but there are some things you can do to make sure you get to conference with all of them.  One of the easiest ways is to have "Quickie-Conferences." Choose skills to focus on that can be assessed with a one or two minute chat. For example, you might focus on mechanical issues and ask each kid to show you where s/he has used a semi-colon properly. Or you might ask them to show you where they have used dialogue in a narrative. They can quickly show you, and you can assess (and check off) if they have done so correctly. If not, you have a quick chat with them and then move on to the next student. Put your class list on a clipboard and note the skills you want to conference on, and take it with you as you circulate.

Another way to deal with bigger numbers is to conference with small groups. Set up some chairs by your desk and speak to small groups of three to five all at once. They still get some focused attention from you, and you can reach more students during one class.

I hope I've given you some strategies that you can use to create regular conferencing time in your classroom. Don't forget to sign up to get a "cheat sheet" of tips and strategies for conferencing.  And, you can check the links below to get more feedback strategies:

Use Better Feedback Strategies: Students will learn more and you'll work less!

Tame the Grading Beast

Making Feedback Descriptive and Meaningful

Assessment Checklists

Differentiation in Secondary English: workshop is the answer

Last week, I wrote a post for The Secondary English Coffee Shop about why and how I use mentor texts with my students. I received several questions about how to differentiate using this strategy, so I figured I need to write another post.

The simple answer to whether or not you can differentiate with mentor texts is a resounding "yes!" Mentor texts, and all aspects of reading and writing workshop, can be tailored to suit individual students needs. Without a question, when you use a workshop approach with your students, differentiation and scaffolding is an integral part of the process. 

Let me show you how this works with an example:

1. The Mentor Texts and Mini-Lesson: Last week, I gave a lesson that focused on how writers use imagery to establish setting and create atmosphere. I selected two mentor texts that illustrated this - paragraphs from two different novels. When I choose the texts, I take them from the YA books on my shelves, and I look for short examples that very clearly illustrate the focus of the lesson.

Students first read the mentor texts to look for the writers' moves. I'll tell them to pay attention to how s/he uses words for effect. Students will make notes on their own and then discuss their conclusions with a partner. Then we will discuss it as a class. During this time, if students have not recognized the imagery in the passages, I'll start guiding them toward it by asking questions. Finally, I'll give a quick mini-lesson that reviews imagery and its effect on setting and atmosphere.

Some students will get it right away, while others may have trouble just recognizing imagery, let alone being able to explain the effect it creates. But that's ok, because we aren't done yet.

Next, students will read their novels. I'll tell them to watch for places where their writer uses imagery to create an effect and to place a sticky on one of the passages they find. At the end of the reading period, I'll either tell kids to share their example with a partner, or ask for volunteers to share the examples they found with the class. Next, students will get out their notebooks and experiment with creating atmosphere with imagery in their own writing. In each case, students are starting from where they are. They are reading books at their reading level and so can look for examples in a text that they don't find overwhelming - as is often the case with some of our full-class novels. When they are writing, they will all be at a different place - some will be experimenting with multiple types of sensory imagery while others may be struggling to create a single visual image. And if they do, it may not contribute to atmosphere at all. 

While they are doing this, I will circulate with my clipboard, and ask each student to show me the example they marked in their novel and/or in their writing. I use a scale of one to three to record where each student is (three is exceeds expectations, two is proficient, and one is needs work). Each column is focused on one skill, and is divided in two for reading and writing. These "quickie-conferences" give me a snapshot of where students are and what I need to do next.

2. Design your next lesson around the needs of the students. The snapshot I get from my quickie-conferences tells me if it's time to move on, or if I need to review and reteach. If it looks like most of the class needs further instruction, I'll start the next class with more examples and another lesson. If only a handful of students need more work on the skill, I can do some small group or one-on-one instruction. 

Conferences with groups and individuals are an essential part of reading and writing workshop, one that makes differentiation easy. During writing time, when students are busy working individually, I'll pull a group of kids who need a little more work on something and give them a lesson. For example, I might be helping them with a mechanical issue like comma splices. Another group might need work on how to embed quotations. And it's not just the lower level kids who work with me in small groups; the kids that need a challenge will also gather and work with me on something that's more advanced. Everyone, regardless of skill level, will take part in small group instruction at some point.

The real magic happens in the one-on-one conferences. That's where the teacher can drill down on skills that each student needs to work on. It doesn't matter if they are at grade level or above; each kid works on what s/he need most. 

Let me illustrate how this would work with my imagery/atmosphere example: Tobey is an advanced student who has an insightful understanding of what he reads and his writing is exceptional. During our conference, we will chat about the setting of the book he is reading, The Poisonwood Bible. He'll show me a passage and then I'll ask him about the effect that Kingsolver creates. He'll be able to easily illustrate this, so then we'll turn to his writing. We will examine a passage where he's used a lot of visual imagery to effectively create a tense scene. But, even though he knows what he's doing, I'll challenge him to try to add different types of sensory images to the passage - perhaps some auditory or tactile ones. 

My next conference will be with Lindsey, who struggles with analysis and writing. She's reading Everything Everything and she can identify examples of imagery, but has a difficult time articulating how they create an effect. I will work with her on this, asking her questions that help her analyze the quotation she's chose: I imagine each book traveling on a white conveyor belt toward rectangular white stations where robotic white arms dust, scrape, spray, and otherwise sterilize it until it’s finally deemed clean enough to come to me. I will ask her why Yoon may have repeated the word "white," or why would the robotic arms "dust, scrape" and "spray" the book? Hopefully, she will be able to tell me that the author is emphasizing the sterility of the room. If she can't, we'll look at another passage and I'll model my thought process so she can see how I work through the analysis. When Lindsey shows me her own writing, she will have used some visual images, but they don't create a strong effect. She had been trying to create a scary scene, but it wasn't very spooky at all. I'll prompt her again with questions or give her suggestions and then ask her to try again and show me what she's come up with at the end of class. Lyndsey may never reach a high level of analysis, and her writing might still be quite basic, but the one-on-one time with me pushes her a little closer each time.

These conferences take time, and you do need to put effort into establishing routines and expectations at the beginning of the year -- but it's so worth it. You can watch students grow at their own rate, each one getting what s/he needs to learn and grow. 

I hope that answers the question about mentor texts and differentiation. If you still have questions or concerns, drop them in the comments!

If you'd like to read more about the way I blend reading and writing workshop, check out this post. And, if you'd like to get tips and strategies delivered from me to your inbox, sign up here.

Tame the Grading Beast - Work smarter, not harder

I think it's a pretty safe bet to say that grading assignments is the least favourite part of your job. 

I know it's mine.

I've spent countless hours just dreading the idea of attacking a pile of papers and even more hating the process of reading them. 

But you know what? I don't mind it nearly so much anymore.

That's because I've had a number of AHA moments over the years - some of them from my own discoveries and others from fabulous PD - that have helped me see and do things differently.

For many years, I had the belief that I had to justify a grade rather than help students learn. I wanted to point out every single error so students would know exactly where they went wrong. But most of those comments never got read. The only thing most of my kids saw (or cared about) was the grade at the top. 

The rest was just wasted ink and hours of my life that I'll never get back.

Things I know to be true:
It's taken my almost three decades to get to a place where I can honestly say that grading doesn't make me crazy anymore, and it's because I've come to accept these five things:

  • A paper covered in teacher comments is overwhelming and kids DO NOT read it all.
  • Another thing that students don't read is all of the details in a  rubric. 
  • Piles of comments that focus on what students did wrong are discouraging. 
  • Descriptive feedback that shows students how to improve is MUCH more helpful.
  • Less is more -- for us and them
These realizations on my part do not mean that I've dropped my standards. Not at all. In fact, I can confidently say that my students are now learning more, and their writing is even better than when I was red-pen-and-rubric crazy.

Here's what I do now:

Taming the grading beast: tips for middle and high school English teachers who want to cut down on the time spent on grading.
First, I decide which skills I will focus on and assess, and I keep it it simple.  As I said above, I used to feel that I had to justify a grade and I assessed everything in a paper -- their content, analysis, idea development, sentence structure, diction, mechanics, etc. Not only was I worried about justifying, I also thought the kids would ignore these things if I wasn't laser focused on them. However, I've found that not to be the case. And don't get me wrong: I still want my kids to work on all of those things, just not necessarily all at once - at least not until later in the semester when I want them to bring it all together in final assessments.

So, after a lot of experimenting and observing, I feel like I can pass on these suggestions for cutting back on the time you spend grading.

Tips to tame the grading beast:

1. Decide which skills you will focus on in the assignment. I'd suggest one to three at a time. For example, maybe you want the kids to get better at idea development and transitions. If so, make that your focus. Perhaps you're teaching them to paraphrase research and to embed quotations. Grade those skills only.

2. Ask students to highlight where they have attempted to master that skill. Use comments on Google Docs or post-its on paper for them to explain either why they think they did well, or why they are still struggling. This does two things: it helps you quickly find the part of the assignment you want to assess, AND it puts the responsibility for proving skill attainment in thestudents' hands - right where it should be.

3. Create a checklist or comment bank that has all of the comments that you wouldusually make for that type of assignment. You can get your kids to help you make it up, which is a powerful strategyregardless, be sure to share it with them before they finish the assignment, so they know what you are assessing.

4. Read and assess the assignment. My students know that there are basics that are just expected at 12th grade - organization, one idea per paragraph, polished good copies, etc. They will be assessed on those things, but I will give feedback on the focused skills only -- descriptive feedback that feeds forward. However, make sure this feedback is on your checklist - or in your comment bank. Then, you can quickly give that feedback.  

5. Provide opportunity to use feedback. This, my friends, was the game-changer for me and my students. Once I made this a priority, their writing got better. It's just that simple. And, yes, I was worried about the time that would take, but I'm not any more. That's another blog post that you can read here.

I hope that you can find something in here to help you manage your grading process, so that it doesn't take up too much of your time. Please drop any comments, questions, concerns or tips in the comments!

Final Assessment for Reading and Writing Workshop

If you use a workshop approach in your high school English class, what do you do when it's time for finals? Do you still give an exam?

My department has been going through an evolution with this over the past number of years, and I feel that we are finally at a point where we have an authentic final assessment that puts the focus on the individual student's learning, one that is more in line with what we do every day, rather than an assessment that was designed for a different approach we no longer use.

So what do we do?

Our finals are happening this week (the end of January), but the process begins just before the Christmas break with the multi-genre project. Students explore a question or idea through reading and writing. They use their reading to look for answers and evidence; then, they write about their conclusions in both a formal essay and several pieces of creative writing. (You can read more about the process on this blog post).

The reading component of the MGP is passed in a few days after the kids return from break, which gives me time to give them feedback and return it before they begin preparing for their final assessment. 

The writing component comes in a few days before the end of class. As they are working on this, students are instructed to go back through all of the feedback they have gotten over the semester to ensure that they are continuing to improve their skills as writers. The final assessment melds their work on this assignment with a one-on-one conference with each student. 

Here's how that works:

Two weeks before the end of class, students were given a handout that explains the process leading up to and during the final conference. They had to:

1. Look back at the baseline assignment they created in September and annotate it to illustrate how they would improve it if they were to re-write it. I don't require that they actually make the changes, as they already have enough writing to do. However, by showing me their revision process, I can gain insight into what they have learned, especially as they do it with a piece of writing that was written at the beginning of the course.

2. Reflect on their growth as readers, writers and speakers. Students went through their "stuff" to take an honest look at how they had grown. They had quite a collection of evidence to review: goals sheets, notebooks, assignments, drafts, revisions, and lots of feedback. Plus, because of the way the class evolved, most had a pretty good sense of where they were as English students.

3. Submit evidence of their growth on Google Classroom: I created an assignment called "Final Conference," and they had to upload any assignments that they wanted to use as evidence during our final conference. They could take in paper copies as well.

4. Prepare for a ten minute conference. During their ten minutes, they do most of the talking, explaining to me how they grew - or not - in each of the three areas.

Ok, I know what you're wondering: isn't this a lot more work for the teacher than just grading a two hour exam?

After just completing this process, I can honestly say no. And - I can't stress this enough - the conferences were SO enjoyable and they gave me way more insight into my students than those finals ever did.

Let me explain why it didn't seem like more work:

1. It was a month long process that had time built-in for me to get the work done. Remember I said this began just before Christmas break? The reading component of the MGP was passed in January 7th and the writing component was passed in two days before the conferences. This gave me time to assess their work.

2. The final three pieces of writing were marked holistically. Each one was designed to explore their MGP topic, and the three pieces were preceded by an introduction that explained how each one did so. They also had to annotate a few things (best example of idea development and deliberate use of language).  Finally, they had to submit the pieces in order of favourite to least favourite. I was reading some highly engaging writing, looking for only a few things - their ability to focus on and communicate their learning about the topic, their ability to develop an idea, and their ability to use language deliberately and effectively. I also had a corresponding checklist that made it easy to grade quickly. 

3. The kids are doing most of the work. They need to come to the conference with evidence of their growth and they need to spend the ten minutes illustrating that to me. The process puts the onus on them to be reflective on what they learned during their time with me, rather than me trying to decide that while reading a final exam (and there are so many reasons why those don't tell the whole story).

4. The final conferences are deeply satisfying. I have spent years where exam periods were times of utter drudgery as I read paper after paper on the same topics. It's not the most exciting way to spend your time. Then, we moved to a final project or presentation. That was much better, but still a little repetitive. Today, I sit here feeling so good about what happened over the last two days with my conferences. The kids were brutally honest and gave me so much insight into themselves and our course. They spoke about their favourite books, their struggles to balance reading with other work, and the excitement they felt when they discovered that they actually liked reading. They used terms like diction and fluency when describing their writing, and almost all referred to strategies they used to conquer their fears as speakers.

Most came very prepared and spoke of their struggles and victories -- very accurately. There were some who did not come with much evidence, but they'd be the same kids who wouldn't do much on a pen and paper exam either. Even with these kids, I had great conversations. That was the best part; as with any conference, when you get kids one-on-one, you get to talk to the real them, not the ones that feel the need to be different in front of their peers. What's great about this final conference is that we know each other pretty well by this point, so the conversations were easy. And, it was the perfect way to say a final good-bye to students who were "your kids" for the last five months.

In the end, it probably took the same amount of time it would take me to grade an exam. Most of that work happened before finals week, and it was SO much more enjoyable than reading exams ever was.

Have I convinced you? Would you like to give this a try? Click here and I'll send you some organizers and other things to help you get started on this highly effective and satisfying way to assess your students.

By the way, you don't need to be doing a multi-genre project to use this process. You can do a final conference independently of anything else you have planned for the end of semester.

What kind of assessments do you use at the end of semester? I'd love to hear all about it in the comments.

THEME: is it one word or a statement?

Is theme a word or a statement? Room 213 tries to answer that question.

I've been sitting here, fingers above the keys, wondering if I should call this theme discussion a "debate." The reason for my hesitation? It's not a debate for me; in fact, it's a bit of a pet peeve when my students want to use one word to describe a theme. That's because for me the answer is clear: it's a statement.

So does that mean the blog post is over? 

No, because there are teachers out there who firmly believe - and teach - that theme can be expressed in a word like love, family, courage, etc. So, I decided to dig into this and explore it a little my mind to the possibility that maybe I'm wrong.

I started with a poll on Instagram that posed the question. Seventy-eight percent said that theme was a statement, and I had an unusual number of direct messages from teachers who wanted to weigh in with an explanation. The vast majority of them were in the statement camp too - but one quarter of the poll respondents believe that theme can be expressed in a word.

Why is that? 

After a quick search on the web, I discovered that no one agrees on there either. Of course we all search until we find the definition that matches what we believe - but that's not going to help the fact that kids are getting conflicting messages from us.

Is theme a word or a statement? Room 213 tries to answer that question.
What I've discovered has not changed my mind, but I think I'm beginning to understand why there's a discrepancy: it depends on the age and level of the kids. Look at it this way: elementary teachers tell their students not to start sentences with and, but or because, so they don't write sentence fragments; then, in high school we teach them that those three words are effective transitions to use at the beginning of a sentence.  We do this because, by high school, students can discern the difference. 

The same goes with theme. An eight year old may not be able to pick out the universal message of a story but can tell the teacher that it's about love or courage. We all know that scaffolding skills is a key component of teaching kids, so once they get good at identifying a topic or subject, we need to move them forward to discerning what it is that the author is saying about that topic - and how can it be applied to you and me?

For example, my students can usually pick out that Shakespeare is exploring the idea of ambition in Macbeth. But what is he saying about ambition? Is he suggesting that it's a good thing because you can use it to gain power? Or, is he showing his audience that ambition without morals will lead to dire consequences? How do we know? And, how can you craft a statement that expresses this theme?

The real problem arises when we skip that all important next step and don't challenge the kiddos to look for that underlying message. I know from experience that they find it difficult to craft that theme statement - but that doesn't mean we shouldn't show them how. 

There is another problem, though, and I'm just going to put this out there. Kids have a hard time forgetting what they learned first. It's so hard to break them of the theme-as-word belief in high school. Would it be better, then, if teachers of the younger grades made sure they were explicit with their language and just used the terms topic and subject  and only used theme when speaking of the writer's message?  I have not taught that level, so obviously I don't know what's best. I'm just asking the question.

I don't know if I've solved anything here, but I felt compelled to share my two cents, for what they're worth. I'd love to hear your comments on the matter too! I'd especially love to know this: what is the best age to move kids from finding the topic to finding the message?

If you're looking for more help with teaching your older kids about theme, you can check out these blog posts: 

Understanding Theme: Putting the Puzzle Pieces Together

Teaching Theme When Everyone's Reading Something Different

A follower suggested this video as well. You may want to use it to teach your kids about theme:

Teaching Reading, Writing AND Awareness

Exploring issues and informational texts with middle and high school English students.

Despite the fact that are kids are very connected to the online world, they are not always aware of what's happening outside of their own circle of snaps and texts. Last year, for example, I was shocked when many of my seniors had not heard of Colin Kaepernick and his protest. Granted, they are Canadian...but were they living under a rock? 

Since then, I've been working to find ways to build more awareness of current events into my lessons. There are topics that I know my kids are already interested in - and I'm using some of them to grab their attention - but I'm also creating lessons on topics that I think are important for them to consider (like our overuse of plastics and what it's doing to our planet).

Also, each time I create something new, I work to include a variety of activities that cover all of the strands of our curriculum, so students will get opportunities to read, view, write, speak and listen. Using topics that are relevant to teens turns up the engagement factor with all of these things.

First, we begin with a writing prompt to get the students to collect their initial thoughts on the issue.

Exploring issues and informational texts with middle and high school English students.
Exploring issues and informational texts with middle and high school English students.As I always do after they've had time to reflect, students will share their ideas with a partner. Then, I give them a series of activities and readings that will require them to delve deeper into the topic.

With this new series of products, the first reading is a magazine-style article that is directed toward teens. It gives them information in a light, conver-sational tone. On the digital version, there are also links to related videos that students can watch to get even more information on the topic. As I don't always have access to Chrome Books in my classroom, I've created paper versions as well, with links to the videos on the slideshow that I use to direct the conversation.

Exploring issues and informational texts with middle and high school English students.

After the kids have explored the topic through the reading and videos, I'll ask them to return to their initial response, and add any new ideas that have resulted from their reading and viewing.

Exploring issues and informational texts with middle and high school English students.Then, to dig even deeper into the issue - and teach them some writing skills as well - I use several mentor passages that explore the topic. Students will look for the moves of the writer and record any responses they have to the ideas presented. After they've finished, we discuss their findings and responses as a class. This allows me to review concepts we've discussed, like idea development and word choice. My kids are well versed with mentor texts already, so my hope is always that they can readily identify the techniques used by the writers I've selected. If not, it's time for a quick review.

Exploring issues and informational texts with middle and high school English students.

For example, in the passage above, my hope is that the kids will point our that the phrase "purposeful about media consumption" is a far more effective phrase than "using your phone." I would want them to understand that this phrase is specific and clearly explains the writer's point: that users need to be more mindful of how they consume what's on their screens.

My new lessons are pretty versatile. I can use them for reflection and discussion only, or to lead into a writing assignment for the students. If I'm going for the quick version, after we look at the mentor texts, I'll ask the kids to revisit their initial response, add new ideas and try some of the techniques they observed in the mentor passages. Or, I may use the prompt, discussion and passages as a jumping off point for a writing assignment.

My plan, after I return from the break, is to give my students several topics to explore, and then they will choose one of them as a basis for a writing assignment. 

Right now I have two products in this series with plans to add quite a few more. I have one based around the idea of Screen Time and another on Plastics in the Ocean. Both are together in a growing bundle (grab it now and save; new products will be yours at no extra cost).

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