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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 them 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 they 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 multiple ways that their authors create character. I told them to pick one character trait and, as they read during the week, they had to take note of the methods used to develop that trait. We will be discussing this 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.

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 less than twenty-minutes to assess twenty-six students. They will get their feedback tomorrow and choose one of the passages to redo. They will show me their revisions during the conference that we have next week. 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.

Collaborative Poetry with "Where I'm From" Poems

collaborative poetry with "Where I'm From" Poems

My twelfth grade class has been exploring the effect of word choice during our reading and writing workshop. They have written a number of journal entries that required them to experiment with diction, imagery and figurative language, and during my wanders and conferences, I've discovered a number of reluctant writers.

I planned to use George Ella Lyon's Where I'm From as a mentor text for my lesson on setting, and decided to try some collaborative writing to support the writers who were struggling. I was quite pleased with the results, and so I want to share the lesson with you.

collaborative poetry with "Where I'm From" Poems

First, we read Lyon's poem, as well as Penny Kittle's version. I asked kids, as I always do, to note the writers' moves. After a week of chat about word choice, students were quick to note all of the techniques I was hoping they would find. Then, I projected some photos of our city and province, and asked them to brainstorm words or phrases that they associated with where we are from. Next, I instructed them to choose a couple of those words and to expand on them by adding in some sensory imagery to further explain the word(s). 

Each student wrote two phrases that described where we're from and then shared them with the other members of their group. As they did so, I handed out colored strips of paper and markers. 

collaborative poetry with "Where I'm From" Poems
The groups were told to pick the three best phrases (or a combination of) and to write them clearly on the strips - one phrase per strip.  While they completed this step, I passed out chart paper and glue sticks.

Once they had their strips filled in, I combined the groups so that we had three instead of six. The new groups were told that they were going to create a poem using all of the strips and that they had to decide on the best order to present them. When they were finished, they adhered them to the chart paper and I put them up in different parts of the room.

We weren't done yet! I asked students to get some sticky notes and a marker and to go on a gallery walk to read each poem. While they were there, I told them to choose one phrase that they thought they could develop further.

collaborative poetry with "Where I'm From" Poems

They wrote another word or image on the sticky note and adhered it next to the strip on the poster. I wanted each student to have the chance to push an idea, without the help of their group mates. 

collaborative poetry with "Where I'm From" Poems
One of my reluctant writers was standing off to the side. He gave me his usual, "I can't do this. I don't know what to write." I asked him to choose the phrase that he related to the most, and he indicated one about playing in the woods. I asked him what came to mind when he read that, and he said, "the woods are fragrant." I told him fragrant was an excellent word to expand on the other students' phrase, and he scribbled it on his sticky, trying to suppress his smile as he did. It was a small victory, but one that I hope he remembers next week!

We concluded the class with time to write their own Where I'm From poems in their notebooks. After the time spend collaborating, they seemed to dive into the process much more quickly than they would have had they started on their own.

The posters are sill hanging in our classroom, and I'll refer to them several times next week as we look at how setting affects the individual novels they are reading. We will explore the idea that where we are from can affect how we see the world and then use that as a springboard for exploring time and place in the books they are reading.

Lesson Plans for Reading and Writing Workshop

Lesson plans and activities for reading workshop and writing workshop. Perfect for middle and high school English classrooms.

I'm excited to share this news with you. I've spent a lot of time this summer doing some detailed lesson planning to blend reading and writing workshop, complete with links to how all of the items in my bundles work together. 

Lesson plans and activities for reading workshop and writing workshop. Perfect for middle and high school English classrooms.

My planning focused on how I would divide up my semester, weeks and days, with a clear focus for each week and class.  I've used a lot of images in the new guide to make it clear which product from each bundle will be used for the unit. 

Lesson plans and activities for reading workshop and writing workshop. Perfect for middle and high school English classrooms.
For example, one week we will be focusing on setting, atmosphere and figurative language. The pages for that week are included in the visuals, and the lesson plans explain how I will use them. There is also a bonus file of links to mentor texts that you can use with your students.

Lesson plans and activities for reading workshop and writing workshop. Perfect for middle and high school English classrooms.

I've also included some more direction for assessment with some editable forms that you can use to meet the needs of your classroom. 

Finally, I added a Speaking & Listening workshop component that will happen at the end of every week. You can read more about that HERE

Lesson plans and activities for reading workshop and writing workshop. Perfect for middle and high school English classrooms.
Currently, I have six weeks planned for my Description and Narration unit; more units will be posted as I finish them! If you have either my Reading Workshop Bundle or Writing Workshop one, it's already there waiting for you to download it. (Check the Teacher Planning File). It's also available in my Reader's Workshop Planner.  While the lessons are designed to link the lessons in each bundle, it should still be very useful to you if you only have one of them. My hope is that it can give teachers a better feel for how to organize workshop in their classroom.

NOTE: This document is meant to give teachers a guide that they can use as they ease into the world of workshop. It’s the “plan” that I intend to use with my own students, but I’ve used quotation marks because it’s a framework only, one that I know will end up being loosely followed. That’s not because I’m a disorganized hot mess, but because if I’m really following the workshop model, many of my lessons will get tweaked as I go, based on the needs of my kids. They may grasp some concepts quickly and I can double up some lessons; they may struggle with other concepts, and I’ll have to slow down and do more. However, I’ve written these plans so I can have a map as I go, knowing full well that I will take detours or more interesting routes. For example, I will quite likely discover new mentor texts as we are reading, and use them to model author moves instead of the ones I had  planned.

What's your biggest obstacle to a successful workshop? Let me know in the comments. Or, join my Facebook group and get feedback from other workshopping teachers.

Speaking and listening in your reading and writing workshop

If you follow this blog, you know that I'm a huge proponent of the workshop approach in my high school English class. For the past few years, I've used a combined reading and writing workshop with my tenth and twelfth graders, and it's been a constantly evolving process. Every semester I've tweaked things that weren't working and implemented new ideas to strengthen ones that were. 

This year, I'm planning to build more speaking and listening into our weekly schedule because I believe that the development of these skills should be more than just an add-on.  It's not easy to cover everything, as you know, but I'm hoping that this plan will effectively blend all of the skills I want my students to work on.

Speaking and listening activities for middle and high school English classes. Perfect for teaching public speaking skills.
There are two types of speaking skills that I want my kiddos to hone -- the ones they need to give a speech or presentation and those they need to effectively participate in a group discussion. My plan is to give them the oppor-tunity to practice both by using incorporating it all into our reading and writing workshop.

How it will work:
Monday-Thursday will be dedicated to reading and writing workshop. On Fridays, kids will still have some time to read and write, but the bulk of the class will be dedicated to speaking and listening skills, primarily group discussion. 

Speaking and listening activities for middle and high school English classes. Perfect for teaching public speaking skills.On Mondays, I will assign an article for them to read or a video to watch. They will need to annotate each article that they read, or take notes while they view the video. Then, on Friday, after ten minutes of silent reading, my mini-lessons will be dedicated to speaking and listening skills. For example, I will give a short over-view of the do's and don'ts of eye contact; then students will pair up to take turns delivering a very short speech (less than a minute). I will either assign a topic or let them choose and give them a few minutes to decide what they will speak about. The content doesn't matter, so it could be something simple like what I had for breakfast or what we did last class. When they deliver their short speech to their partners, they will focus on the skill covered in the mini-lesson, in this case, eye contact. 

Devoting time to the various elements of effective public speaking will allow my students to concentrate on one skill at a time and give them time practice it, without getting overwhelmed with the other aspects of public speaking. Plus, it's a safer way for them to do it, as they only have to present to one student.

My Speaking and Listening Task Cards will come in very handy for this part of my workshop. I plan to hand them out randomly if students can't come up with their own topics for their short speeches.

Part two of the speaking/listening workshop:
Speaking and listening activities for middle and high school English classes. Perfect for teaching public speaking skills.
After each student has given his/her short speech, they will form groups to discuss the week's assigned text/video. Each group will be given a procedure task card to guide their discussion. 

As they are working, I'll circulate to do any necessary pushing and prodding and will take note of students that may need to get some specific feedback later (Sarah, I noticed that you didn't have any evidence from the article to support your points; Logan, you seem to be reluctant to participate in the discussion. What can we do to help you?).

After the first discussion, the kids will give each other some assessment regarding their participation and they will pass these, as well as their notes into me for recording. As I am using this as part of reading/writing workshop, we will end the class with some writing that is based on the topic for the week.

I'm excited about rolling this out. Speaking and listening skills have been taking a bit of a back seat with my new blended workshop, and I'm hoping that this is the perfect way to combine all three. If you'd like to use my lessons and activities, you can purchase them here. And, you can read about my new and improved lesson plans for workshop on this post.

Blending Reading & Writing Workshop: Inquiry Questions

Reading and writing workshop in middle and high school English: use an inquiry approach.

What do you wonder? What are you passionate about? What would you like to learn?

These questions are not ones found on tests. They are, however, the basis for inquiry-based learning where students are invited to be active, rather than passive learners. Inquiry allows students to explore and learn about a topic that can possibly ignite their wonder and desire to learn. They are also questions that can help you blend reading and writing workshop in your secondary classroom.

At the end of the year, my students will complete a multi-genre project that will illustrate their exploration of an inquiry question. This will require that they read non-fiction, poetry and other texts, as well as their novels, looking for answers to the question they pose. It will also require that they experiment with various types of writing as they explore the idea. 

However, we won't start working on that until later in the semester. At this point, I just want them to find something that captures their attention or imagination.

Reading and writing workshop in middle and high school English: use an inquiry approach.
Before you ask your students to develop inquiry questions, you should model your own process. Here's how I do it: when were are reading our novels at the beginning of a semester, I record the things I wonder about as I read my book. I'll share this with my class and then model how I could use these "wonders" to create an inquiry question. I want them to focus on an area that they would like to explore, something they would like to learn more about. For example right now I'm reading The Alice Network, by Kate Quinn. It's set in France and spans the time between the first World War and immediately following the second. I could  share the following questions with my students based on the things I've wondered: How true are the facts of this story? How many women worked as spies/for the resistance? Did they make a difference? What are the towns in the story really like? Did they recover from the German occupation? After I share my questions with them, I ask them to brainstorm a list of their own.

Discuss Universal Themes

The students will often need guidance to see links between texts, so we spend a lot of time discussing the concept of universal themes. Students will meet in small groups to come up with common ground between the individual texts that they are reading. After group discussions, students will reflect in their notebooks about the ways that these themes are present in their own reading. It's a great critical thinking exercise because sometimes, the link is not obvious -- but is often there.

Reading and writing workshop in middle and high school English: use an inquiry approach.

This is an effective strategy for helping them find ideas to explore, especially if they are having trouble finding inspiration on their own.

Finding a Topic for Inquiry:
I let my students read and question for several weeks, but then I want them to choose a topic to explore. They spend time some time reflecting in their journals and discussing with their classmates as they explore ideas for their inquiry project. 

After they've had time for individual reflection and discussion with partners, they will share their ideas with the class, so those who are having trouble coming up with an idea might be inspired by the ideas of others.

Link to Full Class Texts
Because I want my students to complete a multi-genre project, I need to expose them to a variety of works. I choose engaging non-fiction texts and poems that work for my mini-lessons and connect to some of the themes my students have been discussing. I allow them to use any of these works for their final project and encourage them to find their own.

For example, imagine if your students had read any of the following, either on their own or as a class: The Merchant of Venice, Animal Farm , Night, 1984, The Poisonwood Bible, The Hate U Give, or All American BoysThey may be able to use a combination of any of them to do a project that explores why it seems to be part of human nature to want to wield power and/or control over another -- and what we can do to change that.

I hope that gives you some ideas for how you can use inquiry in conjunction with reading and writing workshop. If you'd like more ideas, and some freebies, please sign up for 5 Days of Workshop Freebies.

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