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Managing the Multi-Genre Project

Multi-genre projects for middle and high school English.

The multi-genre project, as I wrote in my last post, is an amazing vehicle for critical thinking (Click here to read why). However, it can seem like a daunting task when you haven't done one before. I've tried it enough times that I have some suggestions to help you take on this project without overwhelming yourself - or your students.

1. Break the project into steps 
This is the one thing you must do. If students are completing both the reading and writing component and you try to grade it all at once, you will go nuts. It's too much. It's also too much to expect of your kids. Here's what I do:

My semester is over the end of January, and my students will be completing a multi-genre project before then. In the last week before the Christmas break, we will begin the process of them choosing a question or idea to explore. Before they leave for the holiday, they will have done all of the pre-writing and planning for the reading portion of the project. 

The final reading component will be passed in at the end of the first week after the break. The students will begin the writing portion as soon as we get back and I'll break class into time for starting the writing process and for finishing the reading reflections. The multi-genre writing component will be passed in two weeks after the reading one. This gives me time to grade the first part before I look at the second.

2. Don't Read Everything
I do assess all of the reading component, but with the writing one, I ask students to select the one text they want to be graded and tell them that I will randomly select the other (that way they need to do a good job of all of four of them). 

This might seem like a lazy teacher move, but I think it's a very wise one, especially for something that comes in at the end of the semester. I've already spent months giving them feedback and now it's their time to show me what they can do -- and I can see that in two of the four texts they create.

3. Don't Do It All
Your students can get the benefit of doing a multi-genre project even if they only do parts of it. You could just have them do the reading component, reflecting on what they learned through reading multiple texts. Or, let them explore their ideas through their writing with just that component. Another way to do less is to assign fewer genres: instead of asking them to read and write four, do three, or even two. There is no magic number, and if you are just getting started with the MGP, I'd strongly suggest that you start small.

I hope that helps! If you have further questions, please leave them in the comments. And, if you'd like to get my free MGP organizer, click here.

Teaching Ideas: Three Reasons Why You Should Use Multi-Genre Projects

Lesson plans for middle and high school English: Three reasons why you should use a multi-genre project in your classroom.

Multi-genre projects were introduced to me several years ago and, to be honest, I wasn't hooked on the idea at first. That was until I was finally convinced to try it out. Now, I'll never teach another semester without assigning one.

Why is that? Well, before I tell you, I should probably explain what these projects are:

A multi-genre project has two components: reading and writing. Some teachers focus on one or the other, while some require students to do both. With the reading MGP, students must choose (or be assigned) a topic like "identity"; then, they will read from a variety of texts (non-fiction, fiction, poetry, etc.) that explore the topic. They will reflect on what they learn about the topic in each text, come to an overall conclusion (a theme statement) and explain how they came to that conclusion in a "dear reader" letter. With a writing MGP, students create texts in a variety of genres that illustrate their exploration of a topic/theme.

Let me help you see it with an example: My students have been doing reading workshop as well as a full class study of Macbeth and Animal Farm. Imagine that a student in my class was interested in the way the concept of masculinity is explored in Macbeth. He makes connections to how Squealer plays on the other animals insecurities in Animal Farm, just as Lady Macbeth did with her husbandand he remembers that Simon, in Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens’ Agenda, reflects on his masculinity and concludes that “being secure in your masculinity isn’t the same as being straight”(65). After some brainstorming and thinking, this student decides to use his multi-genre reading assignment to explore how the meaning of masculinity has changed - or not - in our society. His initial theory is that it's tied into image and the insecurities that go hand-in-hand with maintaining one. Since he has already collected some ideas from a play and fiction, he needs to read about the topic in other genres like on-line articles and videos. He finds an article on Psychology Today about negative body image for boys and a TedTalk called The Man Box. After reading and reflecting on what these texts (and others) say about his topic, he writes a "Dear Reader" letter that explains his conclusions. This is followed by a reflection on each of the texts he read/viewed to help him inform his conclusions. Finally, he will continue to explore the topic and his ideas through his own writing or representing. He might write a series of poems, a diary entry, a news story and a fake Instagram account.

Lesson plans for middle and high school English: Three reasons why you should use a multi-genre project in your classroom.

So why do I like these projects so much? There are three very compelling reasons: 

1. Multi-genre projects require students to think deeply about a topic.

Three reasons why you should use a multi-genre project in your classroom.The very nature of a multi-genre project requires students to think about and synthesize information. There is no regurgitation of facts or parroting back what they did in class. Instead, they need to take what they have learned with you and extend and connect it to new texts and ideas. The beauty of it is that no two projects are alike because students are exploring something they are interested in, using not only class texts but also ones they find themselves. Therefore, not only will you be reading a lot of original and interesting writing, but your students will have had to do a great deal of independent work and critical thinking to put it all together. And if you're wondering where literary analysis comes in, it is most definitely still there, as the kids need to explain how each text develops the theme they explore.

2. They provide freedom and choice for students while allowing them to explore their own voice.
Apart from the criteria and guidance you give your students, they have the freedom to choose a topic that interests them. Even if you assign the topic, each kid can take it in a direction that interests them. For example, I ask my tenth graders to consider where intolerance comes from as we read throughout the semester. They also need to uncover, through their reading, ways that humankind can become more tolerant. Even though I've provided the direction, I get so many varied - and insightful - responses from students. The writing aspect of the MGP further allows students to use their voices to understand and explore their ideas. (If literary analysis is a requirement where you teach, you could require that one of the writing components is analytical).

3. They are really hard to copy.
Think about the example I used above with Macbeth and Animal FarmTraditionally, I might ask a student to write about the concept of masculinity in the play, or about Squealer's ability to play on the animals' insecurities. Students can find a lot of help with those assignments on the Internet. However, if I ask them to explore the topic across multiple texts and then synthesize what they's a little more difficult to find that on Sparksnotes. When I assess their final work in the multi-genre project, I'm much more confident that it's theirs.

So have I convinced you? If you're curious and would like to explore the possibilities, I can send you a handout I'm using with my own students to help them start the process. Click here if you'd like to get it in your inbox and leave any questions or concerns you have in the comments. 

Lesson plans for middle and high school English: Three reasons why you should use a multi-genre project in your classroom.

Click here if you'd like some tips for managing all off this!.

Active Learning Strategy: Take it to the wall

An active learning strategy for middle and high school English classes.

One of my favourite strategies for student engagement involves paper, stickies and a wall. Usually, I give students a question or a task that requires critical thinking and have them brainstorm ideas that they write on chart paper or sticky notes. I love this strategy because not only does it get kids up and out of their seats but it also requires that they collaborate and talk about their ideas as they do.

Recently, though, I've started using this strategy with independent work as well. For example, my international baccalaureate students needed more work on quotation analysis and I didn't want to give them a worksheet that would require that they sit in their seats all class. So, instead, I chose ten different passages from Pride and Prejudice that I wanted them to analyze. I enlarged them on ledger paper and put them up on the walls of my classroom.

An active learning strategy for middle and high school English classes.

The students were given a corresponding task sheet instructing them to record the purpose of each passage, as well as the techniques Austen uses to achieve that purpose. I numbered the kids off and sent two of them to each poster. Whenever they finished one passage, they moved clockwise to the next one.

An active learning strategy for middle and high school English classes.

After they had a chance to finish, I put students in groups of four and assigned each group two of the passages. We moved the posters around so they could have room to work on the ones they were assigned. Each group was given highlighters and markers and were instructed to come to a consensus about Austen's purpose in the passage. They wrote it across the top of the page and highlighted the most significant words and phrases in the passage. Finally, they presented their conclusions to the rest of the class (I could have added a gallery walk component to this, with each group revisiting the other posters, but I wanted them to practice their presenting skills as well).

Active learning strategies for middle and high school English.
I really liked how this activity worked out. The students had a chance to reflect on each passage on their own before they discussed it as a group. They were able to stand back and look at the passage enlarged and isolated on the page; this seemed to really work for a lot of them, as it removed the distractions and allowed them to focus on the passage. Science backs up my theory too, as several studies have shown that standing up while learning improves cognitive function. Moving around breaks up the class, gets the blood flowing and keeps students more engaged than when they are slouching at their desks. Also, because they need to move along when they finish, it's more likely that students will stay on task. Concluding the activity with group consensus added another layer, as the kids were able to share their ideas and work together to analyze Austen's words.

As many of you know, I've been using chart paper and stickies for years when my classes do group work. Now that I've tried it with individual work as well, my students will be "going to the wall" a lot.

If you'd like to read about a shorter activity I did with my regular twelfth grade class, you can check it out here.

Teaching research skills: active learning

I know you've been there. You've taught the kids how to research. You've shown them how to embed quotations. You have given them piles of information on how to create a works cited page.

And then you see their assignments. 

They are riddled with errors. Quotations are randomly inserted with no introduction, and there isn't an in-text citation to be found. Let's not even talk about the works cited pages.  

What went wrong?

I've been there. Many times. And I've come to realize that the problem is not that I haven't thoroughly taught the information and skills, it's that I haven't taught it in a way that helps many of my students really learn. 

In the last few years I've been tweaking slideshows and handouts, but it wasn't until I designed some activities that got the kids actively engaged in the process that I started to see real improvement.

Embedding quotations: using active learning strategies

The stand and deliver approach is not one I use very often in my classroom because I like to keep my students active. Yet sometimes, you just have to deliver a bunch of information, like you do with research skills. However, the process takes a lot of time, and time is such a precious commodity.

Teach students to embed quotations using active learning strategies
I avoided the lecture by creating student handouts with the information. But unless I read them over with the students, most of them would just shove them into a binder, unread. Reading the handouts to the students was certainly not going to engage them, and many would just tune out anyway. 

Handouts were not the solution.

Lecturing and note-taking may be "old school" and time-consuming, but I know that it is a method that engages the brain. Writing notes focuses the students and activates learning in a way that just reading a handout does not. I knew I had to go back to it, but I also knew that it needed to be more than a passive experience for the kids.

My solution was to create a hybrid of the two. 

Let me show you how I use this approach when I teach my kids to embed quotations:

I begin with a short, introductory lesson that uses a slideshow to present information on why and how they should use quotations in their writing. In order to keep them actively engaged, I give them a handout - like the one to the left - that has some of the information and several blanks. They need to record the missing information.

Another way to keep kids engaged as you lecture, is to build in lots of opportunities to question them on the information that you are providing. In the example below, I would have just explained to them the importance of providing context for their quotations. Then I give them examples of writing that has not provided any context and ask them what is missing.

Embedding quotations: using active learning strategies
After this introductory lecture, I give them some exercises to practice the information that they have learned. I like to get them out of their seats, so I put some samples on ledger paper and put them up on the walls in different areas of the classroom. Students circle around, recording and fixing the errors on the samples, or practicing the skill of embedding and citing, like in the example below:
Embedding quotations: using active learning strategies
After they get the broad strokes of embedding quotations, I want them to get more details on types of in-text citations. This is where we can go into information overload and student brains disengage. With my new method, I begin with an activity that gets them actively involved in the note-taking process, but that doesn't take up too much time.

Embedding quotations: using active learning strategies

I created posters that had all of the information on them, as well as corresponding student note pages. The student pages had some of the information on them already, but the key points were left off (see above). I put the posters on the walls of my classroom to create stations and gave the students the handouts. They circulated around the room, filling in the blanks. This activity gets them up and moving while they learn the many ins and outs of citing quotations. They will have to focus their attention to find the information the need, and they will get to write out the key points -- hopefully, embedding it in their brains while they go.

Embedding quotations: using active learning strategiesAfter they have finished, I use the slideshow to quickly go over their work. They need to pay attention to make sure they got the correct information in their notes.

Finally, on another day, we repeat the process with the how-to's of punctuat-ing and formatting quotations.
Embedding quotations: using active learning strategies
Since adding opportunities for active learning, grading is not nearly as frustrating as it once was. Yes, there are still errors. There will always be students who don't take their time to carefully edit their work. However, now I feel like my kids have a much better understanding of how and why to use quotations in their work.

If you'd like to grab these materials, you can check out my Embedding Quotations Lessons.

You can find more active learning opportunities with the Research Skills Learning Stations.

Teaching theme when everyone's reading something different

discussing universal themes with independent novels

Independent reading is just plain awesome. It allows students to choose books that they love and, as a result, creates more life-long readers. However, teachers can find it difficult to teach the skills of literary analysis when all of their kids are reading something different.

Take theme, for example. If the whole class is reading Lord of the Flies  or To Kill a Mockingbird, teachers can guide students toward discovering the theme together. The way is clear -- but it's not so obvious with independent reading.

The trick is that you have to go at it from a different angle, and in the end, I believe that students will do more independent thinking and analysis than they do with the full class novel.

Here's what happens in Room 213:

Dscussing universal themes with independent novels -- start with questions the characters and authors are asking
We start by talking about questions that the characters and/or the writers are exploring in their books. I ask them to look for passages in their novel where characters are trying to understand something about themselves, others, and/or life in general. They will also look for questions that they believe the author is asking about life or human nature. They mark these passages with a sticky note so they can use them for the activities we do later in the week. 

After the students have had time to find their passages, I plan a group activity where they share the questions their characters and authors are asking. I model what I want each student to do during the discussion and give them the question cards pictured above to guide their talk. We follow the group discussion with a written reflection where the students explain the questions from their novel.

This activity is a building block for further discussions we will have about theme. I want students to understand that themes are messages the authors want to give readers -- conclusions they have made after exploring big questions about life.

I you'd like this activity, you can find it in my Literary Elements Mini-Lessons as well as my Reader's Workshop Bundle.

Exploring Universal Themes:

Next, we will look at some universal themes, using my discussion placemats. I create stations and put a different placemat at each one. Students will begin with a reflection and brainstorm about how their novel illustrates the theme they have been assigned. Then, they will share their ideas with the group and try to find connections between them. This is followed by either an informal presentation to the rest of the class and/or individual reflections in their notebooks. Sometimes we do one theme/group, or I'll have them move around the stations and try to find multiple themes in their novels.

Sometimes, students will say right off that the theme doesn't relate to their novel. I will push them to dig a little deeper to see if there is any way they can make it fit. If they can't, I ask them to explain to the group why it doesn't. This situation doesn't happen very often, as I've chosen topics that are found in many works of lit. The end result is a lot of deep discussion where students have to think critically about not only the themes of their own books, but also the connections between one book and another. They get to see why these themes are called universal.

Finally, I will ask students to pick a theme that is explored in one of the novels they have read and to write either a literary paragraph or essay explaining it -- I choose the format based on how much time I have.

Earlier in the post, I stated that these activities lead to deeper and more independent thinking from the students. That's because it's pretty easy to google the themes of Lord of the Flies or To Kill a Mockingbird. It's not so easy to do so with all of the novels that the students are reading. Yes, there is information out there on the web, but it's not presented in the format that I descried above. By starting with the questions and requiring them to share and make connections before they write, students will need to take responsibility for their own thinking, rather than just parroting back what they've heard others say about a full class novel. My method is far from perfect, but I've been very pleased with the results.

If you have any questions or further ideas, please drop them in the comments. I love to hear from you!

If you want to access any of these activities, click here:

Literary Elements Mini-Lessons

Collaboration Placemats: Universal Themes

If you are teaching theme with a full class text, you might like to try this:

Discovering Theme Learning Stations

Fall Writing Activities

Can you believe that tomorrow is October first? The school year, as it always does, is flying fast, and we're now smack dab in one of my favourite seasons: autumn. The air is crisp, my classroom expectations are established, and there are so many opportunities to inspire my writers.

Here are some of the fun fall activities that we'll be doing this month:


Fall and Halloween writing activities for secondary students
This is such a fun activity, one I use every fall semester. I start by taking my students for a walk to a nearby park where they can be inspired by the beauty of the season. They do a poetry scavenger hunt (check it out here) and then, once we're back in the classroom, I give them a variety of autumn-based activities that allow them to write in a variety of genres. For example, they will use descriptive writing to capture their experience in the park and their feelings about fall. Writing in a magazine format is something far different than what they usually do for me on Google Docs, so the novelty factor gets them engaged right away.

Fall and Halloween writing activities for secondary students

Then, after they've gotten some feedback on their descriptive writing, I'll give them options to do some expository and persuasive writing as well. There are several options that focus on fall events like pumpkin carving, football, Halloween, Thanksgiving, and even the voting age (for my American friends). 

Fall and Halloween writing activities for secondary students

The students use links I provide them to do their writing on the templates you see in the pictures. The end result are pages that look very professional. Students feel a lot of pride in what they produce and are actually excited about putting it all together! You can check it out here.


Fall and Halloween writing activities for secondary students

Halloween provides even more opportunities to engage your writers. When I'm short on time, I pull quick writing activities from my Halloween Activities pack and get my students to practice their skills for idea development, description and narration. The activities can be used for skill building and/or pre-writing for longer assignments. They are also perfect for some collaboration and group work.

Fall and Halloween writing activities for secondary students

If you have more time to devote to a narrative writing activity, Halloween is the perfect time for that. Students just love creating a scary tale, and the process gives them multiple opportunities to practice descriptive and narrative writing.

Fall and Halloween writing activities for secondary students

These scary stations take students through the process of inspiration, pre-writing, drafting and revision. The end result is a polished story with lots of focused, well-developed ideas and carefully chosen and effective language. Your students will love the process and you'll enjoy reading them too (if you aren't too terrified!).

Fall and Halloween writing activities for secondary students
I'm so excited to dive into these activities during the marvellous month of October. I'm going to check the weather forecast to pick the best day to take my kids on our poetry scavenger hunt in the park, and then I'll plan accordingly. There's nothing like some outdoor inspiration and some movement to spark the students' creativity. And, by providing them with some interesting ways to illustrate their descriptive, narrative, expository and persuasive skills, all of us will be pleased with the end result.

Have an amazing autumn!

Here are all of the activities I referred to above:

Fall Magazine
Halloween Writing Activities
Scary Story Writing Stations

A Quick & Easy Skill-Building Activity for Analyzing Character

A quick activity for learning to analyze character

It's time to take a closer look at character in my classroom. We spent the first few weeks of workshop analyzing and experimenting with setting and point of view, and now I want my students to explore the ways that character is being developed in the novels they are reading.

They will be creating their own characters during writing workshop, but I want them to do some analytical writing as well. I know from past experience that literary analysis is something students struggle with, so I'm giving them multiple opportunities to scaffold the skills they will need. 

Here's what we did this week:
On Monday, students were given sticky notes to help them track the various ways that their authors create character. I told them to pick one character trait and, as they read during the week, to take note of the methods used to develop that trait. Each student will be discussing what they noted with me during a conference next week and also writing a literary paragraph that examines the trait.

Teach students to analyze and write about character with this quick and engaging activity.

Before that conference, I wanted to give them more practice with analyzing author technique. I enlarged a variety of passages from some of their favourite books and put them on the walls of the classroom. Students were given a sheet of instructions and told to take notes on what the passage suggested about the character. Then they had to write an assertion about the character and back it up with a quotation from the passage - one or two sentences per passage. They chose three of the six passages as they rotated around the room.

Teach students to analyze and write about character with this quick and engaging activity.
At the end of the class, students passed in their work, and I used a checklist I created to give them fast feedback. I had anticipated all of the usual errors, so if their sentences weren't "perfect," I had an error to check off. It took me little more than half an hour to assess twenty-six students. They will get their feedback tomorrow and choose one of the passages to redo; then, during the conference that we have next week, students will show me their revisions. That way, we can discuss their progress face-to-face, and I can clear up any further questions they have.

Later in the semester, my students will write a longer literary analysis essay, and I know that these skill building activities will help them when they do. 

If you'd like more help with teaching analysis, you might like to check out Teaching the Process of Literary Analysis. You will also find the above activity in my Literary Elements Mini-Lessons and in my Reading Workshop Bundle. If you already own it, it's waiting there for you. Just download the file again and look for Character Analysis Activity in the literary elements file.

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