March 2015 - Room 213

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Getting Ready to Research

When I assign a research paper—or any research assignment, we never start in the library or computer lab.  That’s because I want the students to spend time thinking about what they want to say in their papers. I don’t want to read essays that are just a stitch job, a weaving together of ideas, facts and quotes that relate to their topics.  When students start with the research, the papers rarely reflect their own thoughts and just end up being a paraphrasing exercise.

So how do I attempt to prevent that?

1.    Students will do a free-write to explore their thoughts on the topic I have assigned.

2.    After the free-write they will read through what they have written to try to find an idea that they would like to write about.

3.    Once they have narrowed their topics, they write down what they know already, as well as any questions they feel they need answered.  Then, they will make notes about what they will need to find out: what do they need more information on?  What facts do they need to support their own ideas?  Would a quote from an expert strengthen one of their points?

4.    Students then write a draft thesis/outline that includes the things they will need to research—not the research itself.  This way, they are starting with their thoughts and ideas on the topic and planning to find support, rather than using other people’s ideas as their starting point.


5.    Finally, before the research begins, students will spend time thinking about how they can narrow their search, rather than just “Googling” the topic.  For example, instead of searching “smoking”, they should search “the effects of smoking on those with asthma”.

Since I've started using this approach, I am much happier with the 
end result.  The essays I read represent what each student 
believes about his/her topic and the research is there to support 
their ideas, not as a replacement for them.  If you'd like to give 
this a try, you can find the graphic organizers I use at my TpT
store.  They're free!

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Tweaking My Socratic Seminar Approach


I'm going to admit, although I love the idea of the Socratic seminar, I have not felt really successful with teaching my students how to do them.  In the past, most have been boring and stilted, as students mechanically did what they were asked to do, with little engagement in the discussion.  

So, this time, I'm giving them a little more guidance in the hopes that I get more lively discussion about the novel.  We are studying A Separate Peace, by John Knowles, and I want the students to take control of their learning without me telling them what they need to think with teacher directed questions.  I will be dividing my class into five groups, and each group will be responsible for two chapters from the novel. They will be expected to do a close reading of their chapters and then prepare questions for their group mates that will test their understanding of the novel.  My hope is that lively discussion will ensue rather than: question... pause... reluctant answer... pause...next question. YAWN.

I've learned the hard way that unless I model what I expect (lively discussion in this case), I won't get what I want.  So tomorrow I will lead the discussion of the first chapter, assisted by several of my most keen students.  I will show them what good questions look like, as well as what to do to get someone to elaborate on a less than stellar answer, and how to encourage everyone to talk.

In the past, I instructed students to come with a list of questions only.  This time, I'm giving them the graphic organizer below.  With it, they have to think about why their question is a good one and have an answer to it as well.The biggest change I have made, however, is the section at the bottom.They will need to be ready to prompt their group mates if they don't provide a full answer.  Ultimately, I want them to see that it's not just enough to ask the question and then just move on if they don't get a good response.  I want them to take on the responsibility of guiding their classmates to find the answer.  

I'm also providing them with the following:

Sample questions to move the discussion along:
Who has a different perspective?
Can anyone add anything to that?
Does anyone disagree?
Where do you find evidence for that in the text? 
Do you have an example of that?
Can you explain what you mean by that?
How does that connect to what (someone else) said?
Has anyone changed his/her mind after what (someone) said?
Would anyone else like a chance to speak?

My plan is to model some of these questions tomorrow when the discussion inevitably wanes.  I'm excited to see if my tweaks bring about some changes.  I'll keep you posted!


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Planning to be sick?

It seems like an odd thing to do: plan to be sick.  In fact, those of us who work in germ factories hope to avoid it at all costs.  But it happens, precisely because we do work in germ factories.  Twenty-thirty bodies jammed in one hot room, using the same door knob, pencil sharpener and desks often means that we are sharing more than our knowledge.  So we need to go on hoping, but we also have to plan for that inevitable day when we wake up sick, with no lesson plan.

What can you do to plan ahead, when you really don't know what you will be doing in class at that point?  Well, the first thing you can do is create a binder that has your class list, seating plans, class procedures, etc. Keep it easily accessible near your desk, so on those days when you have no energy (or coherent thoughts), you don't have to spend anytime relaying that information.  I have all of mine in a binder right at my desk (it wasn't there yet when I took this picture!) You can grab the cover and spine I made for my binder: HERE

Ok, so your sub knows everyone's name and where they sit, but roll call will only fill a few minutes. What then?  Well, you can have a few one period lessons copied in the binder, ones that you don't need to do, but would keep the kids occupied and learning while you are gone.   You could include:

1. Grammar exercises

2. Writing activities

3. Interesting magazine or newspaper articles that they could read and discuss. (Here are some links you might want to check out:  New York Times, Time Magazine,  Kelly Gallagher's article of the week)

4. If technology allows, there are many amazing TED talks that students could watch and discuss.

For both the articles and the videos, include a sheet of instructions that the sub could use.  Students might be asked to summarize important points, write a detailed response or rebuttal, or they could do some creative writing based on the topic you have chosen.  It would take you a bit of time to create these, but it would be time well spent.  On the days when you need to stay in bed, they will be in your sub binder, ready to be copied, and you can rest, knowing your class will have something meaningful to do.

But what if you are at a place in your semester when you just can't give the kids a "filler" exercise?  What if you need to keep moving and keep them working on the text they have been studying?  What do you do to keep the ball rolling while you get your must needed rest?  Leave one of your great ideas in the comments --or a tip for staying healthy--and you will get a chance to win my Emergency Sub Plans, a product that has adaptable lesson ideas that focus on the texts that students are actually studying.

You can also find lots of other ideas over at Teachers Pay Teacher's blog.

Stay healthy!
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Critical Analysis with Disney

My tenth graders are completing the final step of their writing process today for their persuasive essays. I've been taking them through a two week workshop designed to install the importance of process, and they have been working hard.  As a reward, I'm going to spend the last few days before March Break on one of my favourite lessons.  If you followed me at my old blog, you may remember this post that explains the lesson:
I'm starting my favorite unit with one of my classes tomorrow. I call it, very tongue-in-cheek, my "Disney is the Devil" unit, just to get them hooked. I tell my students that I am going to present some ideas that will challenge some of their happy childhood memories; I tell them that I will make some of them mad. And I do. But I also tell them that my kids were raised on Disney and that I love all of their musicals. How could both be true, I ask? They have to pay attention in order to get the answer to that question.
disney-princess-kida-disney-princess-30168400-2560-1117We start with a quick look at the older Disney classics. I put a chart on the overhead and we fill it in using Snow White, Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty. We quickly see a pattern: rich, white teenage beauties are in competition with another woman for the attention of the very static--but rich and hot-- Prince Charming. The teenage beauty needs rescuing but, of course, emerges victorious and is rewarded for her sweetness and beauty with happily ever after. My students see the pattern, but are quick to point out that these movies are old, created during a time when our beliefs about gender roles were different. Yes, I concede. And then I show them some clips from more modern movies.
Ariel, the beautiful mermaid is a much more modern woman. She wants to be independent, to break free from her world. In fact, she rescues the prince in a wonderful role reversal. And then she gives up her voice and another very essential part of herself--the whole lower half of her body--to be with him. And what of Belle, the beautiful book-loving heroine who rejects Gaston, perfect male specimen, because he is actually a jerk, and falls in love with the beast for who he is on the inside? What an improvement: she's smart and she loves people for who they are! Yes, and the reward for her awesomeness is a rich, handsome prince with a castle. Happily ever after for her too!
By this time, I have a few of my students nodding their heads in agreement with me; some are even anticipating where I am going before I get there (I love to see the wheels start turning!). Many, however, like some of you reading, are protesting loudly (I love that too.) I tell them to be patient; I'm not done. I want them to keep an open mind, to listen, and to make their own judgments as they go. Critical thinking at its best.
jll7-poca_portrait_1Another element I ask them to analyze is the way the Disney heroine looks compared to the other women in the movie.  While the other women might be attractive, none are ever as drop-dead gorgeous as the leading lady. Unless of course, she is the aging cougar who can't quite take the competition anymore, especially when her mirror points out that she's no longer the fairest in the land. An excellent example of this can be found in Pocahontas. First of all, the real imagesPocahontas looked like the this. Her story was captivating enough to be told several times on the big screen, but obviously her face was not. Also, compare Disney's version to her best friend. Her friend is very cute, but she is not a ravishing beauty--because she isn't the hero.
So, what? My students exclaim. Who wants to see a movie where the main characters are "ugly"?   So, what, indeed. What does that tell us the viewers? Do you have to be gorgeous to be the hero of the story? Most of us are not incredibly beautiful--does that mean that we can't be the hero of our story? Are we all relegated to the role of cute and/or helpful sidekick?
And what about racism? Not Disney, surely? I show my students this clip from Peter Pan (What Makes the Red Man Red?) and ask them to consider what might be wrong:
Really? Is that an accurate portrayal of the Native American/Canadian? Or is every stereotype jammed into that number? And why is it that all of the natives are bright red caricatures while Tiger Lily is a more accurate, and much more attractive version? Could it be because Peter Pan, the hero, has a crush on her?
Ok. Ok. It was the 1950's. We know better now. Pocahontas, for example, is a much more accurate portrayal, one that illustrates that the white man was actually the bad guy. But what about Aladdin? Watch it closely. Aladdin and Jasmine, despite being the same race as all of the other characters, look far more "white" than the rest. And speaks without an accent. But they are the heroes--little kids are watching and they may not understand the accents, my students protest. They understand Jaffar, don't they? I counter.  Jaffar, the bad guy, who is actually the "ugliest" and darkest of the main characters. In fact, the more villainous the character, the darker and more caricatured they are. Hmmmm.....
By this time I have some students who are very agitated.  They think I'm digging too deep, throwing a bunch of feminist and liberal missiles at their favorite childhood movies.  At that point I start pulling in some other childhood favorites, like good old Barbie.  The woman who couldn't stand up if she were real, as she would not be anatomically able to do so.  I have a magazine with the headline Stars Caught Without Their Makeup! , the cover graced with pictures of celebrities looking, actually, normal.  However they had the audacity to go out of their house bare-faced and pony-tailed.  I ask them to think of examples--including newer Disney movies--that support or counter my points.  Great discussion ensues.
What do all of these things, Disney and other cartoons, fashion magazines, most TV and movies, teach us?  That happily ever after is reserved for the most beautiful, most heroic, most "white" looking of us?  Where do our ideas that we must look a certain way come from?  Does the media, and even Disney, contribute to our sometimes messed up values and self-esteem?  I think it does.
Finally, after all of this, I remind my students that I love Disney, that my daughter (who is pursuing a career in musical theater) spent her childhood watching the cartoons and pretending she was the characters.  How can all that be when I truly believe that kids are given bad messages mixed in with all of the great stories and tunes?   The answer is simple.  We don't live in a bubble and our kids certainly should not.  We are all bombarded with messages constantly that present ideas and values that aren't so great.  But we are also bombarded with great ideas too, and it is so important to be able to discern the difference.  When my daughter was watching these movies, I would talk to her about these things, in age-appropriate ways.
We need to critically evaluate the media, not just the texts that we study in school.  So, using the media as text can be a wonderful jumping off point to not only get your students engaged and thinking critically, but also as one to get them to challenge the messages they get every day.


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Now That's a Good Question!

What's the best way to get our students to engage in deep and meaningful learning?  I don't have the answer, but I do have a lot of questions.  And it's my curiosity and desire to learn that drives my search for that answer.

When you have students with that innate curiosity, it's a beautiful thing.  And it's also very rare to have a class full of them. So what do you do when you are faced with apathy, laziness and disconnection? How do you get your kids to engage in the learning process?

Well, one thing I do know for sure is that just giving them the answer will never get those kids to engage.  When we "stand and deliver", we deliver a very passive learning experience for our students.  If they sit passively taking in information that they will later regurgitate in a test, they are not engaged in real and lasting learning. Memorization does not equal understanding.

Which brings me back to my original question: how do we get our students to engage in their learning? I still don't have "the" answer.  And I still have disengaged students in front of me everyday.  However, I'm still questioning and trying to find that elusive and magical cattle prod that will have all of them on the edge of their seats, ready to learn. In the meantime, here are some techniques that I've found to be successful:

1. Teach your students that good questions are as important as good answers.  In fact, most great ideas are the result of someone asking a question. Imagine if someone had not asked, what if a computer could fit in your pocket?  No doubt, many of your best lessons were the result of you asking yourself questions too.  We learn when we question and probe and think.  When you give them something new to read, tell them to generate a list of questions for the piece.  These could be questions about things they don't understand, questions the author is asking the reader to consider, or questions that they have as a result of their reading.  By taking the focus off "the answer" and on to good questions, students may feel less intimidated.

2.  Model good questioning.  When you facilitate a class discussion, use questions to get your students to think more deeply.  Why do you think that?  Yes, but what if...? So what do you think the author means when... ? Yes, that's right, but why do you think the author chose that word/example/phrase? When you help them to flesh out their answers with more detail, they learn a process that they can use themselves when they are trying to fully develop their ideas.

3.  Resist the urge to give students "the" answer.  After you have given them a task, have them work together to come up with possible solutions or conclusions.   Encourage them to come up with multiple possibilities. Students can share their good questions in pairs or small groups and then work together to come up with some answers--and hopefully more good questions.  Afterward, you can discuss their findings as a class.  When you do, continue to model good questioning.  When a student makes a statement, ask the class if they agree or disagree.  If they do, why? Ask if anyone can add to the answer with more detail. You can also play devil's advocate and throw out a question that gets them to consider an alternative view.

4.  Wait. Most humans hate dead air.  We rush to fill it.  But when teachers ask questions and rush to fill in the answer when no one else does, we rob our students of the chance to think.  It can be uncomfortable when the crickets arrive, but students will feel that discomfort too.  Wait just a little longer and someone will give you an answer eventually.   Or, if they have really been paying attention, perhaps one of them will throw out a good question to get the discussion moving!

Do you have any strategies for getting students to engage?  Share them, please!

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Make your parent conferences more meaningful

self evaluations letter
Even though we have had very few days together this snowy semester, it will not be long before I meet with my students' parents.  When I do, I will be using something that worked really well in the past.

Last semester, in preparation for our parent-teacher conferences, I had students do a self-evaluation of their work in my course.    I asked them to reflect on the feedback I have given them, and to explain what they feel they do well, as well as what areas they need to improve. Then, I had them rate their work ethic and make suggestions for improvements for the remainder of the course.   We had also been working on building their reading stamina and some had not been doing too well in that department. They had to reflect on that as well.
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I was very impressed with how honest they were. especially as they knew I would be showing the evaluations to their parents. Most were bang on.  It was a great exercise because the kids had to reflect on their progress, and it gave me a powerful tool to have when I met with their folks.  I was able to discuss my observations of their children and then I gave them the forms their children had filled in.  

It worked really well, so I thought I would share it.  You can get an editable version in my store.  

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