September 2015 - Room 213

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Five Ways to Encourage Participation in Class Discussion

My twelfth grade class is full of lovely young people.  I'm quite enjoying every one of them.  However, when it comes time for class discussion, most of them clam up, look at their desks, and silently hope that John will answer my questions. John usually complies, eager to expound on his thoughts. Sometimes, Sophie hops in, followed by Kendra for a final push.  These three lovely students have a lot to offer, but it can't be the John/Sophie/Kendra show every day.

Five ways to encourage participation in class discussion

The problem is that class discussion is my fave.  I love to hear what they all think.  I love to guide them into a great debate.  Over the last few years, though, I'm finding that harder to do.  There have always been kids who don't want to speak out in class; I know that.  It's just that there seems to be more and more of them.  I like to blame it on their obsession with their phones, on the fact that they'd rather text than talk.  Regardless of the cause, though, I feel it's one of my jobs as an English teacher to get them thinking and communicating with each other.

The first month of school hasn't been an energy-filled one for me - a cold caught me and it was a nasty, tenacious one that sucked all of my energy.  So I didn't fight my usual fight to get my students yacking it up in class.  Now that my energy is sort of back, I'm ready to dig into my usual prodding tools. Here's five of my favourite strategies:

When you pose a question, whether it's a text-based one or one based on opinion, ask students to do a quick-write that requires them to reflect on the answer. This doesn't have to be long -- just a minute or two. Then ask each student to turn to a neighbour and discuss the answer.  After each student has had time to speak, have the class discussion.  This way, each student needs to think and speak, even if they aren't interested in addressing the whole class. This avoids the scenario where a handful of students are engaged while the others tune out.

When I sit back and wait for volunteers to answer my questions, I get the usual hands in the air.  However, if you use some "no hands techniques" you can avoid the situation where a few students dominate the discussion.  Because they don't know who you are going to call on, everyone needs to prepare to answer. There will be those, of course, who try the "I dunno" response, but you should resist the urge to move on to a more willing participant. Ask them some easier questions to nudge them along. For example, if you ask them about a character's motivations in a novel and you get a shrug, ask say like this: "Well, let's think about it. Remember when he...?What did that tell us? So now that he...."  Use leading questions that will help the student figure it out and in a way that sounds like you're discussing the topic, working it out together, rather than putting him/her on the spot. This can show them some thinking strategies as well as let them know that you're not going to let them off the hook so easily!

It can take a few classes to break them of the deeply ingrained hands-up habit, so you need to be patient. It's also hard to break it yourself because we're so trained to pose a question and then respond to the hands. I wrote a post about how I manage it HERE

Yes, they'd rather text than talk.  Because of this, I've found ways to use technology, especially at the beginning of the semester, to help them feel comfortable with each other.   Here's an excerpt from a post I wrote, at the beginning of second semester last year, called Technology Love: Because the students are just getting to know each other, I start with blogging, as they are generally less shy when armoured with a computer screen. I divide the students into groups and assign articles to read and videos to watch. The first theme is failure. After reading and viewing, students will post a response on their group's blog. Later, they will have to find a point made by classmate that they agree with --and extend it with a different idea or example.  They will also have to find an idea they would like to refute, again with evidence.

The hope is that by encouraging them to extend each others ideas-or to refute them- online, they will learn some "discussion" skills and will be more likely to engage with each other during face-to-face discussions in class.

Students are more likely to speak up in a small group. It's lower risk if they are shy, and because there are fewer people, there is more pressure to contribute and do their parts.  Early in the semester, when we are starting to use these small groups, I always choose a few keen volunteers to help me model what a good discussion looks like. I also give my students these book marks to help guide their chats. Then, when they have their first discussions, I circulate and prod them a bit when necessary. I try to draw them out if they aren't giving full answers, or ask if anyone disagrees with a point. They usually need some guidance in the early stages, and with practice, they get to the point where they don't need me anymore. 

When we come back together as a class, I ask for a rep from the group to report (and I make sure I don't always ask the same person to do this). When students report a group response, they feel less vulnerable, because they are explaining everyone's ideas, not just their own.

There's no rule that says we have to plan and lead all discussions. In fact, it's good practice to let the students do that.  If you have several aspects of a text you want to discuss in class, divide them up and assign one topic per group of students. Let them discuss it for a while, give them chart paper to record their conclusions, and then have each present their ideas to the whole class.  Socratic seminars are another way you can put the responsibility in the hands of the students. Give each group a topic they need to flesh out, using the Socratic method.

So what am I doing to get my students engaged? The no-hands policy is starting today. We're also starting a new project that will be done mostly in small groups.  And, I'm going to start using the task cards from my Task Cards for Talking About Books product.  I plan to give each group a number of cards on the same topic and let them discuss using examples from their independent novels.  We'll practice this a few times in small groups, and then each one will have to lead a Socratic Debate.

John, Sophie and Kendra: I love ya, but your days of being alone on the stage are over!


Open the walls of your classroom

I'm juggling a couple of balls these days: we're doing reader's workshop for part of the week and non-fiction for the other. I'm introducing the elements of fiction to my students and also trying to show them how you can use poetic devices like metaphor in persuasive writing. And it's hot. Not my teaching. The temperature. We don't usually get much heat during the school year, so our schools aren't equipped with air conditioning of any sort; only the meagre attempts by my fan keep us from melting.

I love to take my kids outside, but as we all know, releasing teenagers from the confines of the classroom does not always lead to much work.  To make outdoor time meaningful and not just a sun-basking exercise, we have to be smart about what we ask them to do. I decided to make up a series of writing tasks that I can use for reference next week, ones that check off all of the boxes for the things that we are working on in class.

So, instead of sweltering in my classroom sauna, my students were sent off to complete five different writing tasks.  I copied the sheets in groups; each group of sheets presented the tasks in a different order, so the kids weren't all arriving at the same place at the same time.  After they finished, they met me under a tree to read their novels.

Next week, during reader's workshop, I am doing mini-lessons on point of view and setting.  We will refer back to the writing tasks that focused on point of view and discuss how a change in setting - going outside for class - affected "our story".  Later in the week, we are starting my "Ideal School" project and they will use the metaphors and similes they wrote in a piece of persuasive writing.

The next day was just as hot, so I sent them outside to do the initial group work I do for the ideal school project.  I sent them with chart paper and markers to discuss what's working and not working in our current school system.  Next week, they will present their work when we begin the project.

So, long story short, we went outside.  We did meaningful work.  We didn't melt.  Most importantly, the kids were engaged and working during days when they would normally be sitting in class in a hot mess.

My Ideal School Project is available for free at my TpT store.  You can also purchase more Outdoor Activities for Secondary English Classes.


Ten Simple Ways to Get Your Students Moving & Learning

Movement in the classroom: easy ways to get students moving to learn

When I went back to school this year, I spent two full days in meetings.  After a summer of relaxation and moving to the beat of my own wishes, I was required to sit for hours in a hard plastic chair while my well-intentioned principal droned on about the same information that he had written on the text-heavy slide show he was projecting.  Every now and then we got a chance to question and discuss, but for the most part, we sat and listened. And squirmed, and doodled, and tuned out, and wished we were back on the beach.  The next day we went to a PD session.  The screen was bigger and the presenters were far more engaging, but the chair was just as hard.  By mid-morning, I was day dreaming. After each session, many of us wondered about the wisdom of having people who have been off for two months sit still all day.  Ironically, however, many of us repeated the same scenario with our students the next week.
The human body is not designed to sit for long periods of time; yet, that is exactly what it does in school.  In  Brain Rules (2008) brain researcher John Medina states that “physical activity is cognitive candy” and that “exercise boosts brain power.”  In fact, study after study points to the same conclusion: learners need to move.  But is this research just about kinaesthetic learners?  Definitely not, for we all benefit from moving and stretching.  It gets the blood flowing, it boosts creativity, and it breaks up the monotony of sitting in those hard old seats!


I’m lucky to teach with some creative and inspiring teachers who use lots of active learning in their classes.  One physics and math teacher has a trunk full of toys and games that get students moving as they learn about the principles of physics. If you walk by his class on the right day, you might even witness students in egg throwing contests.  His most popular game, though, is in his math class, where enthusiastic students play “Sig Fig Says” to learn about significant figures.  Another math teacher has a chin up bar hanging from the ceiling so students can take action breaks, and a biology teacher has exercise  balls for students to sit on so as to better engage their core.  Others have taken students paint-balling to re-enact battles in WWII or the feud between the Montagues and Capulets.   The students in these classes clearly have lots of opportunity to move to learn. But do you have to go to great lengths to get your students’ bodies and brains moving?  Do you have to spend hours thinking up crazy lesson plans and field trips?  No, because there are some very simple ideas that you can use every day.  Here are some of my favourites:
1. At any point: one of the simplest ways to wake them up is to just have a break in the middle of class. Tell them to stand up and move around for a few minutes. We’ve all been in long meetings and know full well how welcome a little break to move around would be.
2. When students do group work, tape a piece of chart paper on the wall, so they have to do their work standing up.  They don't need the chart paper either; they can stand around their desks and work at any time.

3. If you’re comfortable letting them leave the room, send them for a walk ‘n talk as they discuss their ideas.  Send them in pairs or small groups for a walk around the school, or outside on the school grounds.  

4. If students need to answer questions on a text: post them on pieces of chart paper that you will tape up in various locations in your room—use the hallway too, if you can. Students can move around from question to question with their notebooks to answer the questions.  They can do this individually or in groups.

5. If you want to review homework or reading of a text: group students and send them to different parts of the classroom.  Ask them to stay standing as they discuss the homework or the questions you have posed. Then, you can either have a full class discussion while they are sill standing or after they have returned to their seats.

6. If you want students to work on vocabulary building: on the top of several pieces of chart paper, write single words or full sentences that contain basic vocabulary.  Tape up a number of them throughout your classroom and have students circulate around the room, adding synonyms to the page. If the page has a full sentence, they could suggest a change for any word in the sentence. They can’t repeat a word, so as they move around the room, it will get more difficult for them to come up with a synonyms.  When they finish, the can debate the “best” words on the sheets.

7. If you need your students to learn or practice skills: set up learning stations.  Instead of giving them a long handout on how to write an essay or how to include research in their writing, break the process into small steps and have them do an activity at each station.  For example, station one might have an exercise that teaches them how to write a thesis statement, station two might be about transitions, etc.

8. If you’re working on debating skills:  write debatable questions on several pieces of chart paper.  You will need one for each side of the topic. (For example: School uniforms should be mandatory and School uniforms should not be mandatory).  Ask students to choose a topic and stand by the sheet that represents their views.  They can write their reasons on the paper, and then they can take turns having an informal debate.
9. Use discussion stations: either at a group of desks, or using chart paper on the walls, have students discuss issues that could come from the novel they are reading or from current events Give them ten minutes or so at each station and then have them move to the next one. (Along with movement, it's a great way to have them work on speaking skills in a safer environment). Once they've visited each station, you can have a full class discussion.
10. Any time you have students do group work on chart paper, have them do a gallery walk after.  You can find out more about that in this post.

Would you like to try some of these ideas but are worried about classroom management? You can get some advice hereYou can also find many of these ideas for moving to learn in my free product at my TpT store. Just click HERE.


Getting Ready for My Reader's Workshop

Getting ready to launch Reader's Workshop in my high school classroom
It's time to start Reader's Workshop in my classroom. We spent our first few days of school getting to know each other, and one thing I wanted to know about my students is how they feel about reading.  I gave them a quick survey on their "reading life", and I will keep it in my workshop binder for quick reference. I also made notes of those who said they didn't like to read at all, with titles I can recommend to them.

Getting ready to launch Reader's Workshop in my high school classroom
I spent a lot of time getting my teacher binder organized.  This weekend I'm going to put together a binder the students will access that contains assignment options for them. Because they are all reading different books, they won't always complete assignments at the same time.  This one is going to test my meagre organizational skills, but I'm determined to come up with something that works well.  I'll keep you posted on that!

Getting ready to launch Reader's Workshop in my high school classroom
I did my first book talks yesterday and used two of my favourite books for reluctant readers: The Absolutely True Story of a Part Time Indian, by Sherman Alexie, and Looking for Alaska, by John Green.  I've had several students, who claimed they will never, ever enjoy a book, devour both of these titles, so I tried to do a really good selling job of both. Hopefully I can hook the three boys who wrote that they have never finished a book before.

Posters for reader's workshopOur first mini-lesson was on active reading strategies, so I put up my poster as an anchor chart.  It looks a little dorky with the magnets, but I was too tired and lazy, after actually working for four days, to deal with the sticky tack!  

So, I'm hoping my charges are primed and ready to go next week when we will dive into more reader's workshop.  One of my favourite parts of my job is turning kids on to reading - hopefully I'll hook a few more this year!

You can read more of my blog posts about reader's workshop HERE.

Follow Room 213's board Secondary Reader's and Writer's Workshop on Pinterest.

Dear Students, I Want You to Fail: A Message for the first day of class

This weekend, as I prepare both my classroom and my first day "spiel", I'm thinking a lot about what I want most out of my students.  Perhaps I'm a bad girl, because I'm not thinking about outcomes and curriculum, but I'd much rather think about ways to foster a love of learning in my class. While the curriculum is important, rambling on about it is certainly not going to inspire my students.

So, when I stand before them on Tuesday, I want to begin to create an environment that will focus much more on the learning process than on the marks that students and parents see as the most important thing. I know it will never come out the same, but here is what I would like to say:

"Dear Students, I want you to fail. 

Now before you go running to the office to get out of my class, I don't want you to actually fail the class.  Far from it.  I want you to do better than you've ever done in a class before.  And to do that, you have to fail sometimes.

Unfortunately this system of ours puts a lot of focus on numbers and those numbers can be paralyzing.  They can make you feel stupid.  They can make you feel proud.  And regardless of which of those feelings the numbers inspire, they can cause you to get stuck.  Stuck believing that you can't do it, or stuck believing that you are great at it and, therefore, don't need to get better. Both situations make you very afraid of failure, and fear of failure keeps you from learning. It keeps you from taking the risks that you need to take in order to grow as a student and a person.

It's scary to be given a problem or assignment that stumps you.  Regardless of your average, difficult tasks can make you feel frustrated or inadequate because the school system is so quick to put one of those numbers on your work.  So instead of approaching difficult work as an interesting challenge, you feel stress.  Some of you will rise to the occasion and meet a challenge head on, but others will shut down, afraid to fail.  Am I right?

So, this year, I'd like you to embrace failure.  I'd like you to stretch outside your comfort zone.  If a runner wants to go faster or farther, she has to push herself when she practices. Some days, she will fly. Some days she will suck wind. If an artist wants to try a new technique, he may create a lot of mess before a masterpiece emerges.  In each case, someone wants to improve and knows that s/he needs to have some bad days on the way to great ones. Likewise, as students, you need to look at a difficult reading or writing assignment as an opportunity to build your skills in this class, as a puzzle you need to solve. Stretch, question, theorize, wonder. Work with each other--and me--to put the pieces together.

But how do you do that without affecting your average?  I know the reality.  I know the schools you want to go to are quite interested in those numbers.  Well, during the semester, we will be doing a lot of practice.  We will run faster and farther and make a lot of messes.  I will give you lots of feedback that does not have a mark attached.  That doesn't mean that there won't be marks.  There will be.  But before the marks "count" you will be given lot of instruction and chances to practice. All I ask of you is that you come in here every day, ready to do a little failing on your road to success."


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