2015 - Room 213

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TpT Sellers Are Giving Back

Once again, thanks to Nitty Gritty Science, a group of TpT sellers are donating all proceeds from their sales on December 13th to various charities.

My classes are collecting money to give to a local organization that is sponsoring one of the Syrian refugee families that will be joining us in the new year, and I will add 100% of today's sales to their collection. As an added bonus for you, everything in my store is on sale today!

If you'd like to do some shopping and help out some other charities, check out the other sellers who are participating today:

The Literary League's 12 Days of Christmas includes 12+ seasonal and year round freebies for secondary English Language Arts teachers and a giveaway for a TPT gift certificate.

Thanks so much for the overwhelming response to the 12 Days of Giving hosted by the Literary League!  

To celebrate the season and our favorite fellow teachers (that’s you!), we’re all having a sale in our TpT shops today, Saturday, December 12th and tomorrow, Sunday, December 13th.  That’s right!  Pop over to each of our shops and you’ll find all of our resources at 20% off!

The Literary League's 12 Days of Christmas includes 12+ seasonal and year round freebies for secondary English Language Arts teachers and a giveaway for a TPT gift certificate.

Oh, and if you haven't entered for a chance to win the Teachers Pay Teacher gift card, you can do so below. Today is the last day to enter!

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Just in case you missed one of the featured freebies, click the links below.

The Creative Classroom - Two Column Notes Organizer
Perfetto Writing Room - SteadfastTin Soldier
Literary Sherri - Winter Poems - Poetry Analysis
Mrs. Spangler in the Middle - Christmas Zap Game
The Classroom Sparrow - Holiday Essay Outline
2 Peas and a Dog - Christmas Writing Prompts
Brain Waves Instruction - Endof Year Reflection and Infographic
The Daring English Teacher - WinterThemed Grammar Worksheets

From all of us Literary Leaguers, wishing you and yours the happiest of holidays!


Surviving the Christmas Countdown!

Lessons and Activities for the Christmas Season
Oh, December. You're the darkest month of the year, but also the most sparkly. Our halls are decked, our lists are made, and our students are banging off the walls with excitement. 

High school students may not believe in the magic anymore, but they are just as unfocused and frenzied as the younger ones.  They don't want to be in class anymore, and they certainly don't want to do anymore work.  And guess what?  Neither do the teachers!

The problem with all this holiday hooplah is that immediately after we return, another countdown is happening: the one to final exams.  Because of this, we can't just pack it in during those last days before the holidays; in fact, many of us are frantically trying to get through the curriculum, knowing that there are only a few weeks left to get it all done.

So how do you get yourself and your students focused enough to finish the material? And, more importantly, how do you do so without becoming The Grinch who stole the holiday spirit?

1. Lighten up and negotiate:
It's ok to build some fun activities into your lessons, and it's doable, even when you're trying to get some work done.  You just need to take a careful look at how much you need to do before the end of term, and make a plan to get there.  Then, think about ways that you can build in some fun around the important stuff. Share that plan with your students and tell them that, like them, you want to have some holiday fun but the reality of exams is there and has to be faced.  Tell them that if they work hard and focus on what needs to be done, then you can build in some holiday activities as well.  Let them help you make a schedule, so they feel like they've had a say in the process.  My class has agreed that if we get through my teacher "wish list" we will have a class party and exchange gifts on the last day before the holidays.  We also play holiday music when students are doing their group activities.

2. Find ways to sneak holiday fun into the work:
My students are studying Animal Farm right now, and we focus a lot on the pigs' use of language and propaganda.  I want students to be able to recognize when they are being manipulated by leaders or advertisers, and I want them to learn rhetorical techniques that they can use in their own writing and speaking. The political climate is providing us lots of material these days, but the holiday season does as well.  We will look at holiday ads for propaganda, and students will give informal speeches around holiday themes, using their own rhetoric and propaganda .  I will also have them write Christmas wish lists or New Year's resolutions for the characters in the novella.  This activity requires that they illustrate their understanding of character and theme, but still allows them to have a little fun at the same time.

I also have a lesson that has students compare O. Henry's "The Gift of the Magi" with Guy de Maupassant's "The Necklace". It's a lesson plan full of rigorous activities that are perfect for the season of giving. You can check it out here.

So, go ahead. Celebrate the season and prepare your students for their final assessments. Most importantly, enjoy the ride and the last few weeks of the semester with your students.

Note: it's important to be aware of your class composition. Not everyone celebrates Christmas, of course. I use this as an opportunity to have a class discussion about the fact that our society inundates everyone with Christmas and that we need to be more aware of the other holidays celebrated by our students. It's the perfect time for a debate and/or a research project. 

If you'd like more activities that allow you to focus on ELA skills and have some holiday fun, check out my Christmas and Winter Holiday Activities Pack , Short Writing Activities for the Christmas & Winter Season and my Christmas Coffee House freebie.

Do you have any great ideas for surviving the countdown to the holiday? Let us know about them in the comments!


The Literary League's 12 Days of Giving: Day 2

Welcome to day two of the Literary League's 12 Days of Christmas Blog Hop! We know that the holiday season is busy for both teachers and students. You want to make learning fun, yet still meaningful while attempting to channel some of your students' energy and excitement about the upcoming holidays and days off from school. Today you'll find two seasonal resources that will help you do just that.

From Room 213: Christmas Coffee House
The last few days before the holidays are difficult for everyone. The students don’t want to focus, but you need to keep teaching. You could resort to showing Elf again, or you could get their creative juices flowing while they practice important ELA skills like writing, speaking and listening. This freebie shows you how to turn your classroom into a coffee house and provides ideas for students to use when they write their poetry.

I love incorporating themed grammar exercises in my classroom. It is a fun way to get students to practice and master basic grammatical skills. There are four different worksheets in this download: pronoun identification, subject & predicate identification, subject verb agreement, and homophones. These Winter Themed Grammar Worksheets are great because they can be used throughout a few months in the year, they make a great last-minute sub plan, and they also can be used individually when you have about ten minutes left of class.

And if you haven't already, enter to win the Teachers Pay Teachers gift certificate below. The winner will be notified on December 13th.

Visit Brain Waves Instruction and Secondary Sara tomorrow for Day 3 of the Literary League's 12 Days of Christmas Blog Hop. Look for a special surprise coming on Day 12!


The Literary League Kicks off Twelve Days of Christmas for Secondary Teachers

The Literary League's 12 Days of Christmas includes 12+ seasonal and year round freebies for secondary English Language Arts teachers and a giveaway for a TPT gift certificate. Enter December 1st - December 12th.
Literary Leaguers are in the holiday spirit and we’re hosting 
12 Days of Giving!
We’re super excited to share some of our favorite freebies (both seasonal and all-year-round resources) with you and give you the chance to win a Teachers Pay Teachers gift certificate!  The 12 Days of Giving runs Tuesday, December 1st – Saturday, December 12th.
The Literary League's 12 Days of Christmas includes 12+ seasonal and year round freebies for secondary English Language Arts teachers and a giveaway for a TPT gift certificate. Enter December 1st - December 12th.
Here’s how it works…
Day 1 of Giving:  Enter to win the Teachers Pay Teachers gift certificate at any of the participating Literary Leaguers’ blogs.
The Literary League's 12 Days of Christmas includes 12+ seasonal and year round freebies for secondary English Language Arts teachers and a giveaway for a TPT gift certificate. Enter December 1st - December 12th.
Days 2-11 of Giving:  Stop by each of these blogs for links to favorite English Language Arts freebies.  Hint:  Follow each of the blogs via email or Bloglovin' so that you don't miss out on the updates. You can even get the Bloglovin' app for your phone and read all your favorite bloggers in one feed!
Day 9 - Novelle

We have a feeling that you’ll love the seasonal and all-year-round resources! 

Day 12 of Giving:  We have something fun in the works for you on the 12th Day of Giving! Stop back at any of the participating blogs on December 12th to find out what we have in store for you!

Get started...

Enter to win the Teachers Pay Teachers gift certificate below.   The winner will be notified on December 13th.

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'Tis the Season in Room 213

Thanks to Julie and Lauralee for gathering us together again for a holiday blog hop.

I seriously cannot believe that the calendar page is turning to December on Tuesday.  The fall flew by with the usual flurry of any school year.  It's been a good semester for me, and one thing I love most about December is that by now, my classes are all gelling; we've gotten to know each other and we feel comfortable. So, for me, it's like having multiple "families" that I can enjoy the excitement of the season with.

However, my school families are made up of a wonderful mosaic of cultures.  Our province takes in a lot of immigrants and refugees, and 20% of out school's population is made up of students who have come here from another country.  In my classes, I have students from China, Korea, Nepal, Syria, Iran and the Philippines. Obviously, not all of my students are Christian, so I try to be very aware of the fact that not everyone celebrates Christmas. Christmas isn't "banned" from our schools, though, so I don't ignore the fact that many of my students do celebrate it.  

One thing we all have in common is our humanity, so I try to focus on the caring part of the season.  I set up a collection can in the classroom and the kids will put in their spare change -- or some large bills, if they so desire.  I tell them I will match whatever goes in there, and before we leave for the holidays, we will select something from the world vision catalogue to use our money on.  In the past we've bought a rooster, some fruit trees and classroom supplies, but this year I'm going to suggest that it go to help Syrian refugees. We have a lot of Syrians in our community already and are expecting more refugees after Christmas, so I'm hoping my students will agree to reach out in this way, whether we send the money to World Vision again, or give it to one of the various local organizations that are sponsoring a refugee family. 

It's an activity I look forward to every year, because it puts the focus on the real meaning of the season, rather than the materialistic part we get so caught up in.  It's also an activity that is not connected to any one religion or culture, but one that focuses on the fact that we all need to reach out and help each other.

As I write this, I'm thinking about the fact that we get so excited about helping at Christmas, but that after the decorations are put away, we kind of forget about it until the next year.  Maybe I'll leave the can out for all of 2016 this time!

If you'd like to get your students even more involved in service to others, check out my Christmas Research Project.

Happy Holidays!


Socratic Seminars -- the mini version

Build student confidence with mini-Socratic seminars
Last fall, I shared my frustration with Socratic seminars. Regardless of how strong my class has been in the past, I found the discussion stilted. Too many big pauses. Lots of  uncomfortable people. I gave the students more guidance and modelling, but I still wasn't happy.

Other teachers raved about their seminars, so I went to visit one on a prep period.  The seminars were fine, but I still didn't see a natural discussion happening.  Students followed the rules, took turns posing questions and waited awkwardly while others answered their questions.  Yes, they were guiding the discussion and thinking for themselves, but I was watching the clock.  And I wasn't alone.

This year, since I'm always tweaking, I tried something new.  I'm actually still in the middle of it, but I thought I'd share anyway.

Graphic organizers for Socratic seminars
My students are reading independently and using reader's notebooks to record ideas, observations and questions they have as they read.  The last time I looked at the notebooks, I saw that a lot of students were posing some really interesting questions.  So I asked them to choose one of them and to write down a little detail about how it came out of the text they were reading. Then, I asked them to pose the question so it could apply to everyone's novel.  They were given the organizer to the right, to record their ideas.

I modelled this process for them first, of course. I grabbed three students that I knew could go with the flow and demonstrated how I wanted the discussion to go.  First, I told them I'm reading Pride & Prejudice with my IB class. and that my question was How does one find the strength to stand up against a strongly entrenched societal belief? I told them a little about Lizzy Bennet and how she views marriage, just giving them enough detail to show where the question came from.  Then, I asked, "Do any of the characters in your novel have to stand up for their beliefs?  How do they find the strength to do so?"  My guinea pigs answered, using details from their books.  We got a bit side-tracked and talked about real life too.

That was the prep work. I told each person to prepare their questions and then for the next five days we did "mini"-seminars. I am lucky to have a small seminar room off my classroom, so while the rest of the class read, I took groups of five into the group room for their seminar.  I grouped them with those they were most comfortable with, and off we went.

The result was just what I had hoped for.  Not all groups were amazing, but all were good.  The conversation flowed, the answers were detailed, and it felt like a real book club discussion. Minus the wine.

The best -- and most surprising part -- came today.  There's a guy named Zach, who sits at the back of my class and doesn't participate much at all.  When called upon, he gives me a sweet smile and an almost imperceptible shrug.   He's passed in next to no work and, as a result, he's failing.   It was his turn in the seminar room today, and to be honest, I didn't expect much.  Thankfully, he blew me away. He came prepared, he was animated in discussing his book, and he gave great, detailed answers to his group mates. I sat there, amazed. When I looked at him, eyebrows raised, afterward, he knew what I was asking. "I don't like speaking in front of the whole class, " he said.

Now, you most likely don't have a seminar room attached to your classroom, but I bet you have a Zach.  It may not be easy to find a quiet space to have these discussions, but if you do, the results will be worth it. There are creative solutions that will allow your students to do the speaking activities we require of them in a way that doesn't make them too uncomfortable.  For example, many of our teachers conference with their students, and they just take them into the hallway while their students read.  Mine were reading while the group was in the seminar room, and every now and then I had to open the door and give them the stink eye; but for the most part, they read quietly.  A seminar in the hall might be unconventional, but it just might work.

This was the happiest I have ever been with Socratic seminars.  Never once did I look at the clock, and not one student indicated that s/he was nervous about the assignment. Now, there will be times when my students have to address the whole class --there's a speech and a debate on the horizon--but hopefully the success they experience in the mini-seminars will give them more confidence when that time comes.

Engaging the disengaged through creative writing

Engaging the disengaged through creative writingOne of my favourite classes to teach is my twelfth grade general English class. These are the kids who made choices that pushed them off the academic track, choices that often have very little to do with their intellectual ability and a lot more to do with what has gone on in their lives.  Currently I have a teen dad who is putting a lot of time and energy into being there for his three month old son. I have another guy who has spent most of his life in a group home.  He loves to rap and write poetry but he sees no sense in most of what we do in school.  Beside him sits another young man who is off drugs for the first time in two years, and he is working so hard to stay clean and to do well in school .  Two girls have come here from refugee camps and are grateful to be in the class, but their English skills are so poor that the work is often too difficult for them. You get the picture, because it's one you've seen many times before.

These classes can be difficult to manage, but the rewards are great, especially when you can find a way in through the hard crusty exterior some of these kids have put up to protect themselves from school.  The general classes in my district are designed to be a watered down version of the college prep classes.  The students see much of the material as irrelevant and boring.  And they're right. 

I've done a lot of things over the years to make their lessons more relevant to their lives, but this semester I'm trying to do more creative writing with them as well.  

The fist thing I did was to buy everyone of them a writing notebook.  We use them to experiment and explore without worrying about mechanics.  They like that.  The pressure's off.  There will be many other opportunities for us to work on their spelling and grammar.

One of their favourite activities for notebook writing is to contribute to the Encyclopedia of An Ordinary Life. If you've never checked out Amy Krouse Rosenthal's very original spin on memoir writing, do so. Following her format, the students record encyclopedia type entries about whatever strikes their fancy.  Under "A" they might write about what makes them awesome or anxious.  Or, they may expound on their love of apples or, as Kevin did, why he believes he is above average.  When we work on their encyclopedias, I provide coloured pens and stickers, so they can pretty it up a bit. They love it.

Engaging the disengaged through creative writingTwo weeks ago, because it was Halloween week, they worked through learning stations that had them plan, write, revise and edit a spooky story. They loved the direction that the stations provided and they worked well at creating their stories. 

The end result was a pile of spooky tales that are not going to put Stephen King out of business.  Some of them were hard to get through because of broken English, misspellings and mechanical errors.  But I loved reading them, because I could tell they cared about their stories.  They tried their hand at foreshadowing.  There were many similes and metaphors, and there was a lot of scary detail.  I have to push and prod to get much detail out of them in more traditional assignments, so it was wonderful to see so much of it, even if I had to wade through blood and gore and zombies to get it.

In years past, I shied away from creative writing with this group of students.  This year, I stretched outside my comfort zone and I'm so glad I did so. Now, almost every class starts with one of them asking, "Are we going to write today?"  Music to my ears.


Chart Paper, Post-its and Formative Assessment

Those of you who follow me know I have a thing for chart paper and post-it notes. Nothing has changed.  Last week I did an exercise that allowed me to give my students fast feedback in a way that was much more enjoyable than them writing another essay that I would have to mark.  They will be writing an essay soon, but this activity will hopefully make it a less painful process for the writers and for me, the reader.

The students came to class having read a chunk of Pride & Prejudice.  I had told them to take good notes on the character development of Collins and Wickham.  When they came in the door, I gave each student a handful of post-it notes (two different colours). I told them to take a few minutes to transfer points from their notes to the stickies.  Read on to see what happened next:

Formative assessment activities get students thinking and learning, with less marking for you
Formative assessment activities get students thinking and learning, with less marking for you
Formative assessment activities get students thinking and learning, with less marking for you
Formative assessment activities get students thinking and learning, with less marking for youFormative assessment activities get students thinking and learning, with less marking for you

An effective formative tool:
When they had finished the activity, every student had more practice in collecting evidence, organizing ideas and staying focused. It took seventy-five minutes, and I truly believe they got more out of it than if I had taken in an assignment and given them the feedback a week later. Now don't get me wrong: those finished assignments are very important. I'm just saying there are multiple ways to get them to learn how to write about literature that allows us to have a life too!

Check out Active Reading with Post-it Notes for more ideas for using this tool. You can also find more formative assessment ideas in my Formative Assessment Power Pack, as well as on my Pinterest board:

Follow Room 213's board Formative Assessment Ideas on Pinterest.


Understanding Theme: Putting the Puzzle Pieces Together

Understanding the theme of a story can be challenging. Like all human beings, students want to take the easy way out. They read a difficult text and they want "the answer" to magically pop into their heads, without doing any mental stretching to get there.  They think that we English teachers will look at any piece of writing, no matter how complex, and automatically understand everything the author did. Not so.

Teach students how to understand theme in a story

The difference between us and them, along with lots and lots of experience, is that we know there are steps one needs to take to uncover an author's message.  There's no moral at the end of the story, so we need to look for clues within the lines to discover what the writer is trying to tell us.

For years, I've used the metaphor of puzzle building to teach my students these steps. I tell them that as they read they need to scatter the pieces so they can put them all together and see the big picture--without the aid of the one on the puzzle box.  Some things will be obvious, like the corners and edges, but others are much more difficult to place.  However, as with puzzles, readers just need to put in the work it takes to patiently discover where that piece of sky actually fits.

Teach students how to understand theme in a story
Since I've been falling in love with learning stations, I decided to create one that would take my students through my puzzle metaphor.  We are doing short stories right now, and I wanted them to be able to write about the ways the author develops the theme of the story.  They need to move beyond just identifying the writer's message and be able to articulate the methods s/he uses to do so.

I gave each group a piece of chart paper that had each page of the story pasted in the middle (they had read and annotated the story individually for homework). Then, each group began at one of the following stations: title, plot, setting, point of view, conflict, character, recurring elements and quotations. Each station contained task cards that asked them to record information about that particular element.   They were encouraged to write all over the story and chart paper as they answered the questions.

After about ten minutes, groups moved clockwise to the next station, taking their chart paper/stories with them. Once every group had been at each station, they were given a new task card that said: The final task card said: Look at the information you have collected and record a summary statement on each of the puzzle pieces. Your statement should capture the most important info for each category. Put the pieces together and try to see the big picture: what is the author’s message?  
Learning stations for discovering theme
The final step was to fill in the pieces and then put them together (I had cut the pieces out, but it was time consuming. Next time the kids are getting the scissors!).  Once they completed that step, they had a discussion about author purpose, while I circulated, nudging where necessary.  Every group came to an excellent conclusion, even if they took a different angle than the rest.  

After that, we worked together to create a piece of writing that explained the author's message.  They will go through this process again (see my previous post) and write about theme as a group and then create their own for a third story.  Whew.  It's a lot of work to get them there, but I believe that by showing them the process, by breaking down the steps, they will have a far better understanding.

Since using these stations in my class, I've tweaked them a bit, and they are now available HERE in my TpT store. I hope this activity can help your students better understand the process of discovering theme.

Follow Room 213's board Formative Assessment Ideas on Pinterest.


Feedback and Formative Assessment

I've been using a lot of formative assessment lately and I'm totally loving it. Most of the students are engaged, and glad of the stress-relief that the feedback-only approach supplies.  I thought I'd share some highlights:

Using feedback and formative assessment to increase student learning
1.  My IB students passed in an essay that I assessed using a checklist that provided them with plenty of feedback.  Then, I   indicated the paragraph that needed the most work and instructed them to use my feedback to redo it. I also had them summarize my feedback and rewrite any awkward sentences.  I'm doing this to ensure they reflect on -- and use --the feedback right away, rather than on another essay a few weeks from now, when the feedback will lay forgotten, in the bottom of their lockers.

2.  This idea comes from Sandra Herbst: whenever you assess student writing (especially shorter pieces) use two different colour markers.  Use one colour to mark a dot beside sentences/areas that are well done and the other marker to to indicate areas that need work.  Then, conference with the student.  It will be their responsibility to tell you why you coded it as you did.  This way, they do the thinking and you do a lot less writing on student work. In my experience, they are usually bang on.

Group feedback is one way to save you some time.3.  We're working on short stories this week in my grade twelve class, and I want students to be able to write about the techniques an author uses to develop theme.  They will pass that in next week for summative assessment.  I've been using gradual release to get them the confidence they need to do it.  I modelled how I would do a close read of a story, then we co-constructed the assessment criteria for writing about theme.  Then, I shared something I wrote about the story, and we assessed it together, using the criteria.  After they read the next story, they worked on a group paragraph together.  Monday, they will trade with another group and assess that group's writing, using the criteria again.  When everyone's finished, we will discuss what they discovered about the strengths and weaknesses in the writing. In the past, this activity has always lead to great discussion, both during the writing process and during their assessment of each other's work.  Finally, I'll give them another story and they will complete the assignment for a mark. Because they have already worked with the criteria, they are more likely to adhere to it in their own writing.

That's what I've been up to in the formative world.  My mission is to give them "just-in-time" feedback and to put more responsibility in their hands; my hope is that they begin to take in the suggestions and use them to improve, rather than just focusing on the number.  Do you have any tips and ideas you'd like to share?


Fall Fun with Creative Writing

Halloween is not a holiday that gets much attention in high school. Yes, some of us dress up.  Some of us give out treats. But, by and large, the day passes without a lot of class time being lost to any spooky fun.

I decided to change that this year, and I decided to be sneaky about it. I'm going to let my twelfth graders have their fun AND do some learning too.

Right now, we are deep into reader's workshop. The students are reading individual novels, using reader's notebooks to explore ideas, and participating in small group discussions about their books. They have written and chatted about things like point of view and character. They have explored how setting and atmosphere affects the tales they are reading.  So what better way to assess their true understanding of how authors use these elements in their fiction than to get them to write some themselves?
For the next week or so, my students are going to work through a series of learning stations that will guide them through the process of creating and revising a short, spooky story. In my last blog post, I wrote about how I set the scene, getting them to evaluate some short youtube videos. Today, they moved through the first series of learning stations.  There were four of them: point of view, setting, atmosphere & character.  Each station had eight cards to choose from, and each card presented them with a short writing exercise that required that they experiment with that element of fiction.

Tomorrow, they will be given this graphic organizerso they can begin the initial planning stages of their stories. Thursday will be learning station day again, but this time, the tasks will be more specifically related to their drafts and will ask them to carefully consider how they will use the different elements of fiction in their story.  For example, they will experiment with different ways to open their tale, and will brainstorm ways they can add foreshadowing to the story.

Over the weekend they will complete their drafts, using the ideas they explored during the learning stations.  Then, on Monday, the stations will focus on revision, so they can fine-tune their spooky creation.

Ironically, I've designed this unit so my students will write amazing scary stories...yet I am easily spooked. I hope they do a good job, but not too good!

Would you like to win the package I use for my Halloween stations? Join this blog hop and giveaway, and you might win it, along with other amazing prizes from other bloggers!
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Secondary Smorgasbord: Writing a Scary Story

It's the middle of October already and the signs are everywhere: pumpkin-lined door steps, candy displays at the grocery store, and students who are starting to slip into the doldrums.  The honeymoon is over and any back to school energy has been used up.

I've decided to wake up my students with a creative writing assignment that will allow them to work on the skills I want them to learn AND have a little spooky fun.  We are going to explore the elements of good fiction, make connections to the novels they are reading for reader's workshop, and then they will write their own scary short story.

The first step is, of course, to set the scene.  I've searched youtube for short clips that are appropriate for high school and not too scary for those students who are wimps like me.  I'm going to show each of them and ask students to respond to the following questions: Which elements of the story create suspense?  Is the video scary?  Why or why not?  What improvements would you suggest?

After I get their heads in my scary little game, I will give them this graphic organizer to help them start planning their own story.  You can grab it for free in my store by clicking the link.

Once the plans are in place we will be using learning stations to guide them through the creative process.  I'll keep you posted on all of the scary details!


Developing a Thesis Statement

This week my grade eleven IB class started their first major writing assignment for The Merchant of Venice.  With my IB class, the focus is always the same: what is the author's purpose?  What techniques does s/he use to achieve that purpose?  And how do cultural and contextual considerations affect our understanding of the work? Merchant provides lots of food for thought for all of these questions. However, they need to narrow down all of their ideas into a solid thesis statement for an essay.

I never give my IB's a topic for their writing assignments.  I need to build independent thinkers, so we spend a lot of time, especially in the beginning, working on developing a strong thesis.  This week we did an activity that worked really well, and I thought I'd pass it on.
Developing a good thesis is a thinking process

1. I started by posting chart paper throughout my room.  Each piece had a heading that corresponding with some of the major elements in the play. (The bond plot, the casket plot, etc.)  I divided students into groups and each group had to brainstorm everything they knew about how that element was a factor in Shakespeare's overall purpose, and record it on the chart paper.  After an appropriate amount of time, I had each group rotate clockwise to the next chart. There they had to add more info to what the previous group had recorded.

2. Once they were finished, I asked volunteers to explain their theories.  What is Shakespeare's overall message in the play? Each one went to one corner of the room and stated an argument. I repeated this until we had four students in each corner, each with a different theory (it was only coincidental that we had one for each corner).  Next, I asked students to join the student they agreed with and form a group.

3. The next step was for each group to look at the pieces of chart paper I had arranged across one wall.  I put smaller pieces of paper on the bottom, connecting each larger sheet.  The groups were instructed to record ways that the intertwining plots and elements supported their individual arguments.
Developing a good thesis is a thinking process

4. Finally, each group had to take turns explaining the connections they discovered to the rest of the class.

I explained afterwards that I was trying to replicate the process that you need to go through to try to understand a complex text.  As we read any text and record theories and ideas, I tell them that we are scattering the puzzle pieces.  The corners and edges are obvious, but there are always pieces that are a mystery; you don't know where they fit until you do some work first.  This exercise was my attempt to show them how to start putting all of the pieces together so they could finally see the big picture.

Their outlines are due tomorrow; I sure hope that this exercise made it easier for them to dig deep and  develop a strong thesis and argument.


Managing Independent Reading

Most English teachers would agree that they love the idea of independent reading.  Who wouldn't want students that are highly engaged and interested in reading great books?

However, the idea can also be more than a little daunting, because when we give our students control over their choices, we lose control. I get a lot of questions about how to manage independent reading and have written a number of blog posts about how I do so.  I've collected them all here for easy reference:

How can you manage independent reading in middle and high school?
Three Reasons You Should Do Reader's Workshop in High School: There's a whole lot of fake reading going on in our classrooms, yet students need to read more.  This post discusses why.

Reader's Workshop Assessment: How do I assess my students when they aren't reading the same novel? That's a good question. I share what I do in this post.

Stocking Your Classroom Library: It doesn't have to cost you an arm and a leg.

Reader's Workshop: Planning and Skill Building: When students are reading different novels at different times, you need to do some upfront planning to make sure they still work on the skills they need to work on.

Feeling the Love with Reader's Notebooks: I wrote this post about the first time I had my students put together their reader's notebooks.  They love to cut and paste, even in high school, and they especially love to personalize their books.

Learning Stations for Reader's Notebooks: Learning stations are a great way to get students to think about their novels and to focus on the skills you want them to work on.

Balancing Reader's Workshop with the Whole Class Novel: I love independent reading, but I still teach full class texts.  Here's how.

Getting Ready for My Reader's Workshop: In this post, I share how my first week of workshop went this fall.

How do you manage independent reading? If you have any awesome tips or ideas, please share in the comments!


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