May 2015 - Room 213

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Writing is a Thinking Process

When students write, they want to get 'er done.  The grab their pens or laptops, sit down and begin, often without spending a whole lot of time thinking about what it is they want to say. They just want to complete the assignment and pass it in.  As a result, their writing process looks like the graph above.   The biggest (and sometimes only) chunk of the pie is spent on the physical act of writing the essay.


I've been on a mission in my classes to get my students to approach writing in a very different way. Instead of spending the bulk of their time on writing, I want them to devote the most time to thinking, whether that is in the pre-writing or revising stage.  I always maintain that the more time you spend planning your argument, the faster and easier it will be to write a good essay.  I harp on it. I model it. And often, they ignore me.

This became very obvious just this week when my grade eleven IB students were working on their Works in Translation essays.  These essays will be worth twenty-five percent of their final IB mark, and they are assessed by outside markers, not by me.  So there's a lot of stress.  I can give them feedback on only their outlines and drafts, so that's what we are focusing on until the end of the semester.  Last week they passed in mediocre outlines and this week they have been staring at the computer screens in the lab, hoping against hope that something brilliant will appear on the screen.  I kept telling them: think it through, talk it out, use post-it notes and do a visual of your essay. Blah. Blah. Blah.
Well aware that they were so stressed over the assignment that they were ignoring what has worked for them in the past, I decided to have them take a step back.  I modeled the thinking process I would go through when writing a literary analysis.  I took care to write "rough" sentences and to model my thoughts and mistakes, not just a perfected copy. Then, I had them fill in the organizer with their argument and their supporting points--without their notes.  I told them that if they couldn't write an outline without their notes, they had no business starting an essay.  We also spent some time thinking about good ways to lead into the thesis, so the intro doesn't start with something broad, but completely irrelevant.  Finally, I wanted them to think about their "so what"?  Why is the argument important?

After they filled in their organizers, the real thinking began.  I put them in groups of four and told each person to explain his/her outline to the group. Then, group members were to give feedback, particularly on whether or not they could follow the argument.  I was amazed at the conversations I heard--it made my little English teacher heart sing :) Light bulbs were coming on all over the room, as several students figured out why their essay wasn't going anywhere. Theses were changed. Points were clarified.

Afterward I had them fill out exit tickets to tell me what they thought of the process. All but one said it helped a great deal. Many commented on the fact that speaking their ideas out loud helped them clarify their thoughts.

Tomorrow, we go back to the computer lab.  I sure hope I hear nothing but flying fingers across the keyboards!

If you'd like to grab the graphic organizers , you can get them here.


21st Century Methods of Assessment

It's the twenty-first century. Actually, it has been for some time now.  So many things have changed at lightening speed that it's hard (and expensive) to keep up.  However, one thing has been slow to keep up with all of the changes in our world: education.  Rows of desks, pen and paper tests, reams of essays, tons of regurgitation--they are all carry overs from not just last century, but the one before it.  Many teachers, of course, have adapted, and are finding new ways to engage students and to assess their learning.  But many of us--myself included--still rely heavily on tests and essays for summative assessment.  "Fun" projects are add-ons and supplements--if there is time.

It can be hard as an English teacher to break away from that literary essay, even though we dread marking them.  It's ingrained in us to think that written analysis is the best way to gauge how much our students have learned about a text. Those who espouse the importance of 21st century learning, however, suggest that there are many ways to skin that literary cat.  In fact, they believe that we should be finding other ways for our students to express their learning, ones that focus on creativity, innovation and digital literacy.

So, I'm trying new ways to engage the digital natives in front of me, and while it's a fun process, it's a difficult one as well.  For two decades I've been hammering away at the literary essay as my primary assessment tool.  Now, I'm adding new things to the tool box, by allowing my students to use social media as a way to show me their understanding of character, theme and other literary elements.

For example, they can adopt the persona of one of their characters and create an Instagram or Facebook account that would be one the character would create. The images chosen and their accompanying text can demonstrate the student's understanding of character development, just as much as an essay can.  So can a blog that is written by the character.  And it's much more fun to mark.

Now don't get me wrong. My students will still write essays.  They will just write fewer of them.  And I think, by engaging them in an activity that they will find interesting, more of them will actually learn, rather than just going through the motions.  It's an experiment, and one I'm going to have fun conducting!

If you'd like to try out some of my ideas, you can check out my latest product, 21st Century Activities for Any Text.  The activities are designed such that the kids don't actually have to be using the social media platforms online.  Instead, they use powerpoint templates that replicate them.


Sailing Into Summer Blog Hop

I'm excited to be linking up with Julie from Faulkner's Fast Five, and Lauralee from The Language Arts Classroom, as well as many other awesome educators.  I'm mostly excited about the topic: sailing into summer.  I thought it would never come this year, but I should have had more faith.  The sun is shining and the trees and flowers are blooming. And my students are driving me crazy, because they've been stricken with spring fever and senioritis.   But that's ok, because I have spring fever too, and I'm dreaming about spending the summer reading books on the beach.

Sigh...I still have six weeks to go.  

While I drag my kids (and myself) across the finish line, it will be a good time to reflect on what worked and what I need to change for next year: 

An exam tip/idea: I always teach my students that exam prep is a process, not a cramming session.  I don't just talk about it, either.  I model it by setting up a review session in the days leading up to finals.  You can get more details on how I did this during our January exams here.

One thing I want to do again next year: I want to continue to explore the use of formative assessment to drive the instruction and learning in my classroom.  I used to think that high school students would not do assignments that didn't count for marks, but I have been pleasantly surprised to find that not only will they do them, but they will also ask for them.  They love the risk-free nature of formative assessment, and I love to see their willingness to try new things when the fear of losing marks is removed.

One thing you want to change next year: I want to use a less traditional approach and use writing and reading workshops to deliver the curriculum.  I’ve dabbled the last few years, but I’m ready to take the plunge and drive right in. I’ll be spending some time over the summer planning and organizing just how I will do this.  Watch for blog posts of my journey in the fall.

One classroom organization tip: It’s so easy at the end of the school year to look at the piles of papers and files and say, “I’ll deal with that at the end of the summer.”  That’s my usual response, anyway!  However, when the new year begins you will get caught up in the crazy busyness of it and quite likely, last year's papers and ideas will not get organized. Before I leave for summer, I'm going to put everything back in the correct binder and also make some notes in each one about what worked and what didn't, so I can remember when I open it at the appropriate time next semester.  I know from experience that once the school year begins, it's easy to just fall back on what I used to do.  If I take the time to reflect, plan and organize before summer, it's more likely that new ideas will see fruition in the fall.

A gift for you: My End of the Year Teacher Reflection Journal is a great place for reflection and planning.  I’m making it free for the time that this blog hop is open.  Enjoy! 


Managing Formative Assessment

Managing formative assessment in secondary English

Assessment for learning, not just of learning.  It's a catch phrase educators are well aware of--but it's much more than just a bunch of buzz words.  Assessment for learning is something we should be using on a regular basis for real growth in our classrooms.

Unfortunately, for too much of my career, too much time was spent on assessment of learning only: essays, projects, tests and exams. Don't get me wrong, this type of assessment is an essential component of our teaching, but it should not be the be all and end all.  If it is, marking becomes an activity of "reward and catch": students who do well get rewarded with a high mark; those who don't work hard or get their work done on time get "caught" and get a bad one.  Likewise, those  who did work hard but didn't get it, or get it on time, would get a bad mark.  And then we would move on.

Those who got "caught" moved on too, without learning a whole lot.

I wrote in a previous post about how a new district policy forced me to change some of my practices when it comes to late and missing assignments.  As I adjusted to that change, I found myself changing other things as well, things that lead to more learning and engagement in my classroom.

The biggest shift has been the reduction of summative assignments and the addition of more formative ones.  This hasn't removed the pile of papers on my desk and in my school bag, it's just made different piles.  Better ones.  I'm using the "evidence" I collect to inform my teaching, not to reward and catch.

But you've heard all the reasons why formative assessment works. What you really want are tips to manage it all.  I am by no means an expert.  I'm just learning about it all myself.  However, here are some ideas that I have found to be successful:

Managing formative assessment in secondary English

Start with backward design and plan formative assessments that allow students to work on the skills they need.  For example, if you know that a research essay is one of the summative assessments you want students to complete, give them some smaller assignments that they will use to build the skills they need to write one.  Ask them to write a paragraph that illustrates their ability to paraphrase, OR to embed a quotation and to cite it properly.  Don't expect it to be a "good" copy so they can focus on the skill you want them to develop, without worrying about word choice and mechanics.  Then, you can give them some feedback on how to improve this skill.

Managing formative assessment in secondary English
These are so fast and so easy to use for both feedback and differentiation.  If you have taught your students how to do a work cited page, give them an exit ticket like the one to the left. You will get a quick look at where your students are.  You will know who needs further instruction and who can move on.

I love my checklists.  They have transformed my marking and restored my sanity. Whenever I give an assignment, I spend some time making up a checklist of all of the things I want the students to be able to do. If I want them to master the structure of a paragraph, the checklist will look something like this:

Managing formative assessment in secondary English

The checklist is simple.  It focuses on only the skills I want them to work on, in this case structure.  I don't overwhelm them with things like word choice and sentence structure, as this is just a formative assessment used to help them scaffold skills on their journey toward the final, summative assessment.  What I love about my checklists is that they are so fast to use because I have to very little writing.  

Managing formative assessment in secondary English

You know all the jokes about English teachers and red pens.  We love to write all over those assignments, don't we?  The problem with "correcting" an assignment is that we do all the thinking for the student.  If we underline an error and write "fragment" beside it, or point out that the topic sentence isn't clear, we've done half the work.  However, if we just underline errors and then give the assignment back to be revised or edited, then the student has to figure out why it was underlined.  I help them, of course, if they can't figure out why, but not before they have tried it themselves.  Once I started doing this, my students' writing improved dramatically.

Managing formative assessment in secondary English

We don't have to do all of the formative assessment.  Peers can use both of the above methods too.  Before students pass in a summative assessment, do some peer revision or editing.  Give students the checklists and have them go at it. Students can use checklists themselves before they pass in an assignment.  Or, you can skip your part in it all together by providing them with an exemplar to compare their work to.  

I know what you're thinking: All of these ideas are great, but I don't have the time.  I get it.  That's what I used to say.  And you're right, you won't have the time if all of your assessments are summative. In order to switch my practice, I had to cut some things.  In my grade book, there are fewer marks for essays, tests etc. and more for smaller, formative assessments that I use to teach students how to do well on the summative ones.  It wasn't an easy switch, but it's been a transformative one for me.

You might be interested in checking out my Formative Assessment Checklists and my Formative Assessment Power Pack.

Questions or comments?  Leave them in the comments!


Secondary Smorgasbord--Beach or Bust!

It's time to link up again with the gang at Secondary Smorgasbord. This time we're looking at how secondary teachers relax and recharge.

What about me?  Well, my summer is pretty relaxing.  We rarely go on a summer vacation because we live in one of the most beautiful places on earth. Once the snows melt, Prince Edward Island turns into a summer paradise, and we are blessed to have a cottage on the south eastern shore of this little piece of heaven.

We rent it out for half of the summer and use it for four weeks ourselves. Days are simple.  I'm up very early, long before my husband and teenagers, and I drink coffee in the screen porch and work on my TpT business for a few hours.  Then, I go down to the beach with whomever is up for a walk and an hour or two of reading.  When the ferry goes by, we know it's lunch time so we go back to the cottage and eat.  Then it's back to the beach til we get hungry again.

The days we spend in Charlottetown are just as fun.  I love to walk on the many boardwalks we have around the city, meet friends for drinks on Victoria Row or catch one of my daughter's performances with the Confederation Players.

One of the best parts of summer is pleasure reading.  I spend so much time during the school year reading student work and articles about teaching, that I'm often too tired at the end of the day to read. Once summer hits, I devour books, usually on this chair or on the deck of the cottage.  I have to confess, too, that most of the reading is pretty light!  My favourite author for summer is Elin Hilderbrand.  Her latest book is going to be first on my reading list.

I'm also starting my summer in Las Vegas at the TpT conference.  I can't begin to explain how excited I am about this!  There will be tons of learning and lots of socializing with people I am dying to meet.  It will be a sweet way to start the summer.

Thanks to Darlene from Meatballs in the Middle and Pamela from Desktop Learning Adventures for organizing this blog hop!


I'm a teacher, not a police officer

Well, obviously. 

However, looking back over my evolution in the classroom, I know that I've spent too many years wearing the wrong hat.  I was policing.  I was giving out "tickets" for late assignments, for homework not completed, for work that was not up to par.  The tickets, of course, took the form of mark deductions, late penalties that were meant to keep my students in line. They were punishments, not the teaching tools I believed them to be.

Then, we were told by our district that we could no longer deduct marks for late assignments.  We could no longer assign a zero for mark not handed in. Uproar ensued.

"If there's no penalty for late work, students will pass assignments in whenever they please!"

"We will get a stack of work at the end of the semester and be overwhelmed with marking!"

"Aren't we supposed to teach them work habits??"

My voice was there, loudly protesting with the rest.  But then, a funny thing happened. When I stopped policing "bad student behaviour",  I started to do a better job of teaching them.   And, yes, some students do slack off and not get assignments in on time--or done--but they are the same students who didn't do it when we took marks off for lates. I've also come to realize that a good number of them really aren't motivated by marks, which is actually a pretty poor motivation anyway.

My job is to teach my students how to think and learn and improve. I can't do that by crossing my arms, wagging my finger and saying, "Sorry.  You're too late.  Sucks to be you."  That was my approach for far too long, and since I changed it, I am so much happier as a teacher.  I still set due dates and make a big deal of them.  But I also teach and model the fine art of time management and organization.  I do a lot more formative assessment, and allow students to redo assignments if they want to.  I used to avoid this practice for fear of being overwhelmed with marking, but I've come up with a good system for managing it.  Plus, when you see students improve after taking your feedback,  it feels pretty good. And isn't that our ultimate goal?  That students get better at what we want them to do?

Watch for a further post on how I manage my new system and feel free to leave comments below.  I know this is a very controversial topic, but I sure love a good debate!


Super Secondary Appreciates Teachers!


Happy Teacher Appreciation Week!

This week is Teacher Appreciation Week in the US (we Canadian teachers were appreciated back in February), and to celebrate, Teachers Pay Teachers is having a site wide sale.  Most sellers, including me, are offering their products at 28% off--be sure to use the promo code: thankyou when you check out!

I would also like to thank my followers for their support over the last year.  If any of you post a picture of one of my products in use in your classroom, you will be able to select any product under five dollars from my store as a gift.  Just leave the photo and a contact email on my Facebook page, or email me directly by Friday, May 15th. Also, watch for some flash freebies on Facebook!

Enjoy the week.  I hope you get all of the appreciation and thanks that you deserve!


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