2016 - Room 213

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Getting Your Students Ready to Learn After the Break

Back to school
How do we get those tired teens ready to learn?
Yes, I'm well aware that the person under the covers could be you. But it's likely most of your students too. After a long break, it's hard for all of us to get back in the game. Yet, when you teach in a semestered system, the transition from vacation to work has to be fast: exams are looming in the near future, so we can't spend too much time easing those teenagers back into the daily grind.

A little thought and planning can make the transition much easier. We do need to get them re-focused, but if we can do it in a way that includes a little fun and/or gets them up an moving for a bit, then we are much more likely to get engagement.

1. If you're still in the middle of a text or unit: 

You might choose to dive right back into a text or an activity, especially if you weren't able to finish a unit before the break (like me). Last year, I created this activity to get my students thinking about Animal Farm again. They filled in the first sheet and then I got them moving, using the post-it note activity. You can grab it for free at my TpT store. This time, I'll be using it to do a quick review of Macbeth before we move on to Act IV.

I'm also going to begin class with this quick grammar/writing review. I always attempt to make these a little less dry by creating a story that might grab their attention. You can grab this one too -- it's editable so you can change it up if you like.

2. If you're ready to start something new:
Whether it's time to start your next unit - or even to begin review-
ing for finals - the first day back is not the best day to do that, because the kids are still half asleep. Why not try some learning stations designed to get their heads back in the game? You can create your own review stations by posing different questions at each one, or you can save yourself some time and check out my latest product. It helps kids get organized and focused, requires them to review the feedback you've given them, and allows them the opportunity to creatively represent what they know. Most importantly, stations will get them moving around on a day when they are in zombie mode! You might also like to check out my End of the Year Stations-these include time to review and to reflect on their time in your class.

Regardless of what you do on your first day back, I hope you had a restful and rejuvenating holiday. All the best in the new year!


The Christmas Countdown is on!

The year 2016 is drawing to a close, and I'd like to take this time to thank all of my loyal followers.

Every morning this week (December 12th - 16th), you will receive a gift in your inbox, a short exercise you can use with your secondary students to keep them focused AND have a little holiday fun. There will also be some surprise discounts, sales and giveaways that you'll want to know about.

Just be sure that you are signed up for my newsletter (and you have me in your contact list) so you don't miss out on any of this holiday fun. If you haven't done that already, just look under the three images at the top of my blog--you can drop your email in there and then just wait for your freebie each morning this week.

If you haven't downloaded them already, I also have some gift tags that you can use to give your students a sweet little treat. You can find them for free at my TpT store.

Enjoy the last few days before the holiday, and have a very merry Christmas!


A conference is a short conversation between teacher and student, one that allows you to provide direct instruction and/or to gather information for assessment. Whether you use a workshop approach or a more traditional one, you can easily incorporate this strategy into your classroom, and if you do, you'll increase the learning AND cut down on your pile of grading. What could be better than that? 

If you don't conference with your secondary students, you need to start now. It's been a serious game changer in my classroom. Here's why:
Conferences are the quickest, most efficient way to find out what your students know and to help them learn. When you take in an assignment, it can be days before you find out what they have learned and even more days before the student gets the feedback needed to fix or improve something. But, when you are conferring one-on-one with a student, you have access to their thinking in a way that no exit ticket or written assessment will ever give you.  You find out right away what they know and where they might be deficient, and you can get to work right away helping them build the skills they need. That's the beauty of the conference: the teaching and learning is instant. Conferences also put more pressure on the students to actually do the work. They can often fudge their way through an assessment on reading by using Sparksnotes, or by listening to what other students say during class discussion; however, it's hard for them to fake it during a face-to-face discussion.

Conferences can quickly zero in on an idea or skill, and they do not have to be long to be very effective at doing so. Think about a skill that many of your students need to develop. In my class this semester, there have been two things that keep popping up as areas that need work: idea development and embedding quotations, and I've done conferences for each of these. While my students are writing, I walk around with my clipboard and ask students to show me where they have embedded a quotation, for example. Each student points to a place where they've attempted to do so (I tell them before I start, so they are ready when I get to them), and I can quickly assess whether they've done it correctly or not. If they haven't, we have a quick conversation about how they can fix it.  Some of these conversations are very fast -- I just have to look to see that the student is on the right track. Or, I might just have to ask, "what's missing at the end?" The student replies, "Oh! The page number!" and I move on. If they are struggling, I sit beside them and give them more direct instruction. With the conferences on idea development, I call students up to my desk and ask them to show me a paragraph that they think needs more work in that area. I ask them questions, give them suggestions and they go away with a better idea of how to improve that paragraph; the hope is that they will apply this knowledge to the rest of their writing.
We all know that students can "hide" during class activities and discussions. Because of this, we can often go a whole semester without really getting to know some of the kids in our room. Conferences change this.  During one-on-one time, the students  speak to you directly, without concern about what others will think. I've been amazed how some of them open up when they get the chance. It's a wonderful way to not only build rapport with all of your students, but also to really get to know where they are in their learning. You can talk to them about their interests and direct them to books they might like, or help them to find topics to write about. Most importantly, you get that chance to meet them where they are so you can help them learn.
Conferences are effective for a lot of reasons, but one of the biggest is that it will cut down on the time you spend grading. Traditionally, the only way we had to assess our students was through tests and written assignments. Yes, we assess oral work like presentations, but the bulk of our assessment tends to come through pen-to-paper work. This results in a lot of evening and weekend work for us, and delayed feedback for students. It doesn't have to be this way. One of our outcomes in my district is that students need to be able to evaluate the effectiveness of literary devices in the texts they read. In the past, the only way I assessed this was the literary essay, and they wrote several throughout the semester, so I could give them feedback on one before they wrote another. Now, I conference with them, asking them to evaluate the use of literary devices in their independent novels, or in mentor texts that we use. I can instantly see their thinking and direct them if they need direction. They still write a literary essay, but only after conferences that allow me to assess and instruct each student directly. The result? The essays are much better -- and I'm marking fewer of them.  
While less grading might be enough to convince you, the most important reason to start conferencing is because your students will learn more. Conferences happen during the learning process, while the students are attempting to achieve a goal, not after. Instead of getting back an essay with a grade, covered with your scratchings about vague statements, underdeveloped ideas and mechanical errors, they have had those conversations with you before the summative assessment -- and have a chance to improve their work before passing it in. The reality is that when they get the feedback a week or more after they have completed the writing assessment, it's ancient history for them. That paper that you poured over, giving lots of instructive comments, goes into their backpacks or lockers (or waste basket) never to be looked at again. Conferences allow you to give your students the feedback when they need it -- while they are working on the assignment and when they are more likely to retain the learning.

I just did a PD session with the teachers in my department on conferencing, so I know what the burning question is. Most teachers cannot deny the lure of a strategy that will cause more learning and create less grading. However, it can mean a big switch in the way we do things. Many of us are used to a "stand and deliver" approach: we develop our lessons, the students sit there and listen, and then they do their work. It's all in our control. In order to conference, we need to let go of that control. If we are conferring with one student, the others are on their own, possibly not doing what they are supposed to be doing. How do we set things up so we can confidently conference while our students work?

First of all, are we every truly confident that our students are actually working? Just because we have a beautifully planned lesson, and they are sitting at their desks quietly, doesn't meant they are working -- or more importantly, learning. You may have delivered the most amazing lesson on embedding and citing quotations. Your slide show may have been beautifully engaging. Your class may have sat there quietly as you taught. But, some of them, many of them, even, may not have really learned the skill. When you conference, each student is held accountable to the learning. And, if Joey and Johnny are chatting about the basketball game while you conference with Sally, they are still going to get that one-on-one time with you later, time that will hopefully result in them learning. Let's face it, Joey and Johnny were still thinking about basketball during your beautiful lesson too!

So, I invite you to try some conferencing in your classroom. It takes some time to get the hang of it, but once you do, it will become a very important tool in your teacher toolbox.  Grab this form to use as you conference. Fill in your students' names and, across the top, write in the topics that you are covering during the conferences. You can assign them a number grade, if you wish, to help you remember where they were at the time of your discussion. You can download it here.

Have you tried conferencing with your students? If you have, I'd love to hear about your successes and failures. Leave a comment!

Holiday Gifts for Big Kids!

It's December first. I must admit, I'm a little shocked to realize that. The semester has flown by, and before we know it, it will be Christmas break.  While you're spreading Christmas cheer, don't forget your students. High school kids (and teachers) like to get gifts too and there are many easy and quick ways you can give them a little something without breaking the bank.  You can find a bunch of super cute gift ideas, including my own, on TpT. Search under #LastMinuteGiftsforBigKids to see what other secondary sellers have created -- there are so many great ideas, I think you'll have trouble chosing!

I know it can be hard to find time to celebrate the upcoming holidays with secondary students, especially for those of us who come back to end of semester exams in January. However, there are ways that you can acknowledge the festivities and still keep your students on the all important task of learning. 

Last year, I wrote a post about how to survive the Christmas countdown -- check out that post to get another freebie you can use. For this Christmas season, I've created a new product that  has students compare the themes in O. Henry's "The Gift of the Magi" with Guy de Maupassant's "The Necklace", so they can come to understand what real giving means. It's something you could use at any time of the year, but it's especially good for the lead up to the holidays.

Whatever you do to celebrate the season, I hope you have lots of fun with your students!

Animal Farm is Always Relevant

Animal Farm is the perfect text to teach students to analyze what they see, hear and read -- and the importance of standing up for what they believe in.

Unfortunately, George Orwell knew what he was talking about. His novella is not just a condemnation of what happened during the Russian Revolution; it's a cautionary tale that can be applied to many events that happened since it was written, from political revolutions to student council elections. Unfortunately, it's always relevant.

So when I walked into my classroom on Wednesday, November 9th, I knew I had to send my students to the library for the book. I had planned to do it later in the semester, but my Canadian kids were so fired up over the results of the American election, that I realized the iron was hot and it was time to strike. Things don't always turn out the way you expect. Politicians and advertisers can be manipulative and deceptive, no matter what side they're on (or what country they're in). However, the most important lesson that comes from this text, in my opinion, is that we are all responsible. We all have to listen critically to what we hear. We all need to think and speak and act.

We started with learning stations so students could work independently to get the background information they need to understand what's happening in Orwell's allegory. Then, I always begin by reading the first chapter to them. We spend time looking at Old Major's speech and talk about what makes it inspirational for the animals: he spoke to their very real fears and concerns with language rich in imagery and emotion. Before we delve into the rest of the book, I spend a few days looking at other inspirational speeches, like MLK's dream speech. We learn how to use rhetoric and I assign them their own "dream speech", where they have to write about an injustice in their lives and use rhetoric to present it persuasively. (Side note: there were moments of frustration for me here. So many of my kids could not think of an injustice. "Can we google it?" several asked...so sad. It shows not only their privilege, but their apathy. Hopefully they'll learn a bit from Orwell's message-- apathy is not an option!).

For the rest of the novella, we focus on answering the inquiry question: what can we learn about human nature from the study of the text?  I ask students to read - not to answer chapter questions - but to take notes on the following: the corruption of the dream, the use of language for power and control, and the responsibility of the other animals.  After they've read several chapters, they meet in groups to discuss the notes they've taken. I circulate as they do so, directing them toward passages that they may have missed. We do this until the book is finished and then have a big discussion, followed by some assignments that they will do to illustrate what they've learned from their reading.

During and after reading, we're making connections to real life. We look at advertisers and how adept they are at playing to our fears and other emotions. We look at other dictatorships since Orwell wrote the book, and at how even in democracies, politicians manipulate us. And, underlying all of that, is the fact that we let them. We are either not smart enough to see through their tactics or are too apathetic to care about it. It's a cynical view, one represented by Benjamin in the novella, but it's pretty darn accurate.

I like to get the kids to find these connections themselves, but I always help them along with this, by providing some links myself. This year, I assigned them Charles M. Blow's opinion piece from The New York Times.  It was timely and perfect to use to assess whether or not they were understanding how to use rhetoric, as well as Orwell's message. I copied the story onto a Google Doc  and had them highlight, in different colours, examples of rhetorical devices used by the writer. Then, I told them to write a short paragraph at the bottom of the doc, explaining why Orwell would be impressed with Blow. They had to reference not only his article, but examples from the novella.

Because we did it on Google Docs, I had them highlight each rhetorical device in a different colour -- took me no time to grade!

We're still finishing up. The book has been read. Notes have been taken. Speeches are being written. Tomorrow I will assign their project, one that will ask them to use language to inspire positive change, not to manipulate. I'll keep you posted on how my apathetic, privileged teens do...I'm hoping they rise to the occasion!

All of these are available in my Inquiry Unit on TpT.

Better Feedback Strategies: A Follow-Up

Last week, I wrote about the assessment strategies I was using to get students to take more responsibility for their learning, thanks to ideas shared by assessment guru, Sandra Herbst. My students and I worked to develop success criteria for a paragraph on theme. I gave them a model paragraph and then they worked together to do a group one. Using the criteria we had developed, they gave feedback to their peers.

That was the formative stage. After this group activity, they had to pass in a paragraph about a theme from their independent novels. First, a peer had to use the assess-ment form, pictured here on the left, to give them feedback on their drafts. They used this feedback to create their good copies.

I was thrilled with what I saw (for most of them). Across the board, it was the best done assignment this year.  Even students who normally get below average marks, were getting high ones. There were, of course, students who put minimal effort into the process, and their work and grade reflected that. However, the overall results illustrated that the activities were successful: the kids knew exactly what was expected of them, and their peers helped me with good feedback before the final copy came in.

Another experiment was successful too.  After I assessed my students' persuasive essays, I had them choose two areas that they would revise again, based on my feedback. They had to choose something significant and not just add a comma or fix a run-on (I told them to find the area of the rubric that they had scored the lowest on). They submitted their changes on Google Classroom, and had to highlight where they made their changes (they also passed back the original copy that I marked, as well as the rubric). Finally, they had to comment on their document to explain why they made the changes.

I have been reluctant to offer chances to redo  in the past, as I was always afraid of the extra marking. However, this was very quick to assess. I found the highlighted sections, compared them to the original, read the student's comment and decided if they deserved a higher mark for that section of the rubric. 

This is not the strongest group of writer's I've ever taught, and many of them are lazy thinkers. However, by requiring them to use the feedback they got on their essay, they were able to not only improve their mark, but they were also able to continue the learning, something that would not have happened had I just passed back the rubrics and continued on to the next thing.

My experiments continue, as I search for that Holy Grail of English teachers: freer evenings and weekends. The best part of all of these things I'm trying is that, once I get my stride, it will take less time. More importantly, my students will have to do more work, more thinking and more learning.

My assessment checklists are available HERE, if you'd like to check them out.


Use Better Feedback Strategies -- Students will learn more & you'll work less!

It's the plight of every English teacher: bulging bags, full of papers. Once that bag gets emptied, more papers appear to fill it back up again. We give lots of feedback, intent on showing our students what they did well, what needs work, and what needs to be improved for next time.

There are several problems with all of this, though. For the most part, the students give those comments a cursory look, if at all. Once they see the grade at the top of the paper, that's it. The learning stops and we move on to the next assignment. The other problem is that we are taking all of the responsibility for deciding what is successful and what is not, when it's our students who should be thinking about what makes quality work. This needs to flip if we want real learning in our classrooms. Teachers in our district have gotten some tips on how to do this from assessment guru, Sandra Herbst, and I thought I'd share some of the experiments I've been conducting in my room.

Using feedback checklists to make students more responsible for their learning
Herbst suggests that if we put more responsibility for the thinking about feedback and assessment in the hands of our students, not only will they learn more, but we will work less. Now, this isn't about summative assessment -- that's our job. But we can find ways to give our students time to practice and get feedback so they can improve, without spending all of our time at the kitchen table, buried in paper.

So how do we do this?

First of all, we don't have to be the ones giving all of the feedback. Students can take on some of this work. But before we can give them that responsibility, we need to be very clear in our expectations of what makes good work.  We do this by always giving students models of what a successful assignment looks like. Even better, show them multiple examples that represent different levels of achievement. Have students discuss what makes a quality assignment. What is important when you write a good essay? A critical response? What matters when you give a good speech? These discussions give our students the language of success: they know the words and phrases they need to use when giving feedback to each other.

Once students are aware of your expectations, give them time to practice. Above, you can see a group paragraph, written by some of my twelfth graders last week. I've written about this activity before, but this time I added another layer: after we discussed what made an effective paragraph on theme, I gave them a rubric and four different colored post-its. Each color corresponded with one of the criteria on the rubric. They had to place the post-it where the other group achieved or attempted to achieve the task required. For example, they had to place the yellow post-it where the group wrote a clear theme statement. Then, they wrote a grade from 1 - 4 on the post it.  Finally, they had to write an explanation of their grade choice on the rubric. While they worked on this, I over-heard conversations that were focused on good feedback. One guy pointed out that the quotations were not embedded properly; another said that the group had provided no context so the paragraph was hard to follow. They were giving the very feedback that I would have given.

Once they finished with all of the criteria, they passed the paper back to the group that had written the paragraph.  By the end of that class, they had a much better idea of how to write the paragraph -- as well as the process of assessing and giving good feedback. Now, I could have taken in those paragraphs and spent two nights getting all thirty of them marked. By the time the students would get them back, they would have forgotten what they had written. This way the feedback is more immediate.

Using feedback checklists to make students more responsible for their learning
Tomorrow, they will be passing in a paragraph that they are writing on a theme in their independent novels. They have the rubric and these checklists shown above. They need to write down the criteria and highlight the place on their paragraph where they feel they have met -- or attempted to meet-- the criteria. They will also give themselves a grade. These checklists can be used for peer feedback as well. Because the students have to highlight where the criteria has been met, they can't just go through the motions of checking off the criteria, like they often do when we give them revision checklists.

These students also got their persuasive essays back last week. They now have to use the feedback they've gotten from me to make two significant changes in the essay. They will resubmit on Google Classroom, and will highlight the changes they made. They will also use the comment option to explain why/how they made the changes. When I assess their improvements, I will just have to find the highlighted parts of their essays, rather than reading it all again, looking for improvements. (Read here for the follow-up post).

You've heard it before: we shouldn't be the hardest working people in the room. The kids need to take on more responsibility for the assessment process -- especially for doing something with the feedback they receive. Hopefully, as I said above, this will lead to more learning for them, and more relaxing weekends for us!

But wait! There's another very effective way to jumpstart the learning and cut back on your paperwork: check out my post on using conferences and verbal feedback here.


Best of the Best Secondary ELA Blog Hop & Giveaway!

Welcome to my stop on the "best of the best" blog hop. I'm so pleased to be joining host Secondary Sara, and other amazing ELA teachers, as we share our favourite lessons and products. 

One of my favourite things to teach is the writing process. I love seeing kids discover that they can write something they feel proud of.  Most often, they just need to slow things down and think. My Revision Learning Stations are designed to do guide them to do just that.

Whenever I have my students write their first essay with me, we take our time, focusing on the steps writers should take as they plan and revise their essays. We devote several days to the pre-writing stage.  I wrote last week about the strategies I use to get my twelfth graders to plan and focus their arguments, so they can be ready to write a solid first draft. Once they have that draft, I spend a few days presenting mini-lessons on skills like using transitions, varying sentence lengths, selecting the best word, etc. The students complete a second draft, and then we have our final day of revision and feedback.


Learning stations slow students down and make for far more effective revisionOn that day, students will come to class with a hard copy of their latest drafts and will spend the period rotating around various revision stations. I put the students into groups and send them to their first station (order doesn't matter). At each station, they will find various task cards that instruct them to focus on a different area of their essays. I also provide post-it notes that they can use if they need more room to write. In these photos, you can see students working on embedding quotations, creating varied sentences, and using strong verbs.  I like to give them ten minutes at each station, and then have each group move clockwise to the next station. However, if a student needs more time, or if one finishes a station early, s/he can stay or move on. 

I love using stations for the final revision stage, because the students get very focused. Most take their tasks seriously, making notes to themselves about revisions they will make at home later. They love that the stations slow the process down, allowing them to focus on one element of their writing at a time. Stations also provide a wonderful opportunity for differentiated learning, as I can sit with individual kids and instruct them in the areas they need to work on.


Learning stations are perfect for peer revision
Once every student spends time at each station (it usually takes about 40 minutes), I ask them to decide which station represents an area where they feel they need to do more work -- Were they unsure if their topic sentences were focused enough? Did their writing flow? Were they using the best words? Once they decide, I ask them to go back to that station, and to get a partner to read their essay, focusing on that particular element for feedback. The discussions that follow are always amazing: focused, detailed and very constructive. You can repeat this process with another element, or even use each station for peer feedback, if you like.

After revision and feedback day, my students will do a final copy to be passed in. However, I don't want the process to stop there, either. I think it's so important that they have a chance to do something with the feedback with me, rather than just look at the mark. I want them to learn to self-assess and to carry their learning forward. So, when they pass in an essay they also pass in a self-evaluation, one that explains what they did well and what they struggled with. Then, after they get their essays back from me, I have them record what was successful and what still needs work. You can grab the form I use here.

So that's my favourite product, which you can buy today and tomorrow for 20% off! Carry on with the hop to find out what my friends love to use in their classrooms.

a Rafflecopter giveaway


Essay Writing: 5 Ways to Focus on Pre-Writing

Good writing requires a focus on the writing process

My students are working on a persuasive research essay and we did a lot of prep work last week with activities that had them focus squarely on the pre-writing process.

I'm very aware that many of our students skip over the steps of the process and are more apt to whip something off the night before. Because of that, the first time we do a formal essay in my class, I devote a lot of class time to showing them that good essay writing is a thinking process, one that takes some time. Here's what we did:

1. We started with the question: what makes a good essay? The students, twelfth graders, had all the right answers as they've been down this road before. However, I know from experience that a student can parrot back what they've heard from other teachers and still not write a good essay. That's because knowing what an essay is doesn't mean they know how to execute it (or will take the time to do it right).

2. Next I showed them some mentor texts, including two sample drafts I had written. I use the drafts to illustrate that even writing teachers need to improve their first attempts, and if I want them to work through the process, I have to show them mine as well. So, next week, I'll illustrate how I will improve these drafts.

3. The next activity took a whole class, but I think it was well worth the time. I started by showing them a topic: the problems with smoking. We then created a working thesis: smoking is a terrible habit. I made it clear that a working thesis may not be the final one, and that in the early stages of the process, a writer should stress too much over the perfect wording; instead s/he should focus on getting ideas down. Then we brainstormed possible points to develop this thesis: smoking is expensive, smoking can age a smoker prematurely, smoking can cause serious health problems, smoking can kill you, smoking affects one's appearance, second hand smoke is dangerous.  

Each of these ideas was assigned to a group, and the group members had to write details on post-it notes that would develop the idea they were assigned. The group was given a piece of chart paper, and the kids had to write a topic sentence on the top of the page, then organize the details they had on the post-it notes in an order that made logical sense.

An activity to teach students how to write an effective outline

After each group was finished, one member from each group stood at the front of the class holding their group's chart paper. I read off the details under each topic sentence and it became clear there was some overlap between groups, so we moved post-its/ideas to the appropriate piece of chart paper. This illustrated the process a writer has to go through to decide which details belong where in an outline. 

After going through each group's ideas, we had a discussion about the order that they would be presented if these pieces of chart paper were body paragraphs. I had the class move the students/paper around until they were in an order that made sense to them:  cost, appearance, aging, second hand smoke, health problems, death. This is when the great discussion began. We considered the idea that a writer could choose to drop the paragraph on cost, as all other ideas focused more on the physical effects of smoking. Then we played around with other possibilities for order by moving the students around, and they decided that maybe second hand smoke was the most serious issue, so it should go at the end.

I pointed out to the students that our class activity modelled the process they should go through in their head, and on paper, when preparing to write an essay. At that point, I gave them an outline and asked them to have a rough one completed for the next class.

Learning stations that get kids focused on the pre-writing stage

5. When they arrived the next day, I had my class all set up with my Essay Planning Stations. There were six stations that asked them to take a close and careful look at their outlines. They looked at focus, played around with order, made notes about ways to develop their ideas, and worked on possible ways to introduce and conclude their essays. They also had a chance to experiment with their language and to get some peer feedback.

In the end, I spent about three classes just getting them to the point where they are ready to start a draft. It's more time than I would normally take, but I believe so much in the thinking process that should precede good writing, that I do not think it was time wasted. By the time these kids sit down in the computer lab on Monday to start their drafts, they will have a very solid understanding of where they are going with their essays. 

And, once those drafts are done, we will be doing a lot more work on the revision process. Lots of great writing to come, I hope!

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Reader's Workshop Victories

I had a great week with Reader's Workshop. Last week I focused my mini-lessons on the ways that authors develop character, so during our conferences, students had to illustrate their understanding of how this could be applied to their own novels. We had some great chats. And the whole time, I was thinking how much better conferencing is than grading a character analysis essay. The kids were illustrating their knowledge, backing up their points with evidence, and it was so much less painful for me! It's also a great way to have some one on one time with the students.

I found out from several of them that they had finally found a book they liked to read. Two of them gushed that they couldn't put the down the book they were reading  -- and that had never happened to them before.  One girl, Delaney, had been reading Maze Runner and couldn't follow the plot because she had trouble concentrating on all of the detail, she said. So I suggested Between Shades of Gray, by Ruta Sepetys, because not only is it a captivating story, but it has very short chapters.  Delaney loves it and is so excited about the fact that she now looks forward to reading.

So does Alex. Alex loves trucks and hunting and a good day's work -- but he's never like to read. Someone recommended The Art of Racing in the Rain to him, and he started it reluctantly, only because he had to read something in class. During our conference, when I asked him whether he was reaching his reading goals, he told me that he was. He said that he couldn't believe that he was reading this much each week, and that he hated when I said it was time to stop reading. "That's not me," he said in disbelief.

I finished the conferences that day feeling pretty satisfied.  We switched over to writing, and the kids were doing some group work. Alex, usually loves group work and is always in the middle of the discussion. However, that day, he had his book on his lap, trying to read it undetected. When I noticed, I told him that, while I loved the fact that he wanted to read, it was time to put it away. "But there's only a few pages left!" he cried. "You have to let me keep reading!"

What could I say? Here's a photo of Alex, finishing the book while his group mates carry on without him. He finished, and now he's on to Twisted, by Laurie Halse Anderson. He's liking it too!

Not everyone has found their book or a good pace yet, but we're getting there, one page at a time. The more I do reader's workshop with my high school students, the more convinced I become that it's the way to go.

Have you had any workshop victories that you'd like to share? Would you like to get some support as you plan a workshop approach in your secondary classroom? Join my Facebook group, Secondary Reader's & Writer's Workshop Support. Send me your email to room213custom@gmail.com, or search this link. 


Take it Outside: Embracing Autumn

It's one of my favourite activities. I wait for a beautiful fall day, and I take my class to a nearby park, one that's surrounded by sparkling water and a wood full of colourful, crunchy leaves. I give them a handout with a number of tasks that ask them to capture what they see, hear and feel as they meander through the park. I call it my poetry "scavenger hunt" because they go in search of inspiration.

I send the kids off in groups, each with a sheet that directs them to different locations in the park where they can find inspiration. The tasks are in a different order on each sheet so they don't end up at the same place at the same time. You can grab my scavenger hunt here.

A few days later, I booked the Chromebooks so the students could begin to capture their experience in a  magazine style format, something that may make them feel a little more pride than lines scribbled on a piece of loose leaf. They have only completed their rough copies, and the final editing is yet to come, but I'm quite pleased with the  results so far. We have been working on idea development and descriptive writing. It's been a bit of a struggle with this crew, but the trip outside seemed to light a new spark in many of them.

I also asked the students to take a picture that captured the essence of the fall season for them. They could do it at the park if they wanted, but I encouraged them to think about it so they could come up with something that really said "fall" to them. Most, as you can imagine, took photos of trees or water, but one guy took a picture of his truck (newly purchased) loaded with wood for their fireplace. I love what he's written so far!

The students also had to create a quote that demonstrated their feelings about autumn. This one is my favourite:

We still have work to do, but I'm excited to see the final copies of their Fall Magazines.  I strongly encourage you to take your kids outside to do some descriptive writing. Not only will it inspire them, but it they will also get to spend some time enjoying our beautiful world!


Teaching Students to Develop Their Ideas

I'm engaged in a battle with my twelfth grade class. They have been giving me less than stellar work. Their written responses have been pretty superficial, with little to no idea development. So this week I've been really focusing on how to develop this skill.

I know my old way of doing so wasn't very effective: writing "needs more detail" or "tell me more" did not provide much direction to the kids who weren't sure how to do that. It would be like a golf pro telling me that I need to work on my swing and leaving it there. Beyond picking up the club and hacking away at the ball, hoping it would fly straight and far, I really have not idea how to improve my swing. It's no different for our students when we point out an error, without showing them how to improve it.

Mentor texts help secondary students learn better writing techniques

I've been using mentor texts as exemplars to show my students what they can do to fill in the details in their writing. My first mini-lesson was about the different ways that authors develop their points. I showed them examples of writers who used facts and statistics, examples, expert opinion, anecdotes, analogies and figurative language. Then, I gave them some mentor texts and asked them to identify which method(s) were used. Finally, I gave them an article on Helicopter Parents, not because I wanted to cause interesting discussions over the dinner table, but because it contained many of the methods of development that I wanted them to recognize. They read and annotated for homework.

Show students different ways that writers can develop their ideas by using exemplars
When they arrived this morning, I had pieces of chart paper with the different techniques high-lighted on the page. I asked them to gather in groups to a) decide on the writer's thesis, and b) to record examples of each technique.  

We had great discussions as they worked. There was debate about the thesis. There were questions about analogies. There was a lot of misunderstanding about facts, and many were putting opinions in this section.  For example, several groups wrote this statement: "Millennial parents evolved after 1982". I pointed out that some might argue that parents have not "evolved" and are indeed getting worse, so it probably isn't a fact. 

By the time they were finished, they had a much better understanding of what I mean when I tell them they need to develop their ideas further. Now I just have to wait and see if it worked!

Show students different ways that writers can develop their ideas by using exemplars
If you'd like to use my chart paper headings, you an grab them HERE. You can also find the mentor texts I used in the non-fiction section of this product.

Organization and Planning: Getting My Act Together

I've had a hard time getting into my groove this fall. I've had a really hard time getting my head to a place where assessing my students' work is part of my day. Instead, I'd get to work an hour early, as is my practice, and spin my wheels. I was spending far too much of my prep time searching through my files and photocopying and not nearly enough time on good planning and assessment. 

Yesterday afternoon, Sunday, I spend two hours at school and another two at home finishing up. I was feeling bitter and resentful about having to do so, but I was also keenly aware that it was my own fault. And it wasn't just that I was working on the weekend -- that's part of the job sometimes. The problem was I was working hard, not smart.  I decided to get focused and end my wheel spinning.

During my two hour session at school, I made a plan for what I wanted the week to look like in my classes. Then, I printed and copied all of the things I would need to enact that plan. I grabbed an empty binder and divided it into sections: one has the mentor texts I will use for reader's workshop mini-lessons on Monday, another has grammar handouts that will be used for Tuesday's lesson. The kids will also need some longer mentor texts that they will use Tuesday as exemplars for an expository writing assignment they will start on Wednesday. Those handouts are in another section, and aren't quite ready for students yet, so I need to go through them later today and print the ones I will use.

The last section of the binder has the task cards they will use to talk to each other about their independent novels on Thursday, as well as a handout for a short group assignment they will complete on Friday. 

I know that this is nothing new or revolutionary, but it's big for me. My binder is mostly complete and ready to go for the week, so I can use my prep time on things that matter, not on searching through my digital files and copying reams of paper. I'm making a pledge to myself that I will spend focused time every Friday to get my binder ready for the next week. I'll still have things to do some weekends, but again, they will be the things that count, like giving feedback to my students.

Do you have any tried and true tricks for staying organized? Please share in the comments!


Using Mentor Sentences

Some teachers are afraid of using a workshop approach in high school, because it seems like too much of a free-for-all, without enough emphasis on targeting the specific skills that students need for literary analysis or writing.  We're preparing them for post-secondary education, they say, so shouldn't we be steering them down the right path with focused lessons?

Using short mentor texts in the secondary classroom

The reality is that when teachers use a workshop approach, they are much more likely to get their students interested in actually getting on that path, and learning something as they travel it. I've already written about how reader's workshop is more likely to ensure that our students do the reading we ask of them; it's no different with writer's workshop. When we give them voice and choice, they will pick up the pen or the book and get to it.  But what do we do once we get them engaged? How do we teach the skills they need when they are all reading and writing different things?

Mentor sentences and short texts are a perfect tool for this, and the great thing is that they pack a double punch: they can be used to demonstrate what good writers do for both reader's and writer's workshop.  Here's how I'm using them for mini-lessons this week:

My students will get a copy of this handout on the left. It instructs them to notice what each writer has done, and to find the similarities. As it's the first of the year, I've done little instruction on sentence types or author use of language, but I'm hoping that since these are twelfth graders, they will soon identify the following: each is a simple sentence (the third has a compound one as well), and each writer has used metaphor and specific diction to illustrate how the subject feels.

After I give the students a chance to hopefully discover this on their own, I will have them turn and talk with a neighbour about their discoveries. As they do so, I'll circulate and listen in to see how accurate they are.  Once the conversation wanes, I'll bring it back to a full class discussion and have them offer their ideas on the writers' choices. If I need to, I'll give a quick lesson on the difference between a simple and compound sentence. We will discuss how word choice affects meaning in each sentence. Finally, I'll ask students to write, in their writer's notebooks, at least one simple sentence that illustrates a feeling in a character.

When we are finished, I will have accomplished several things with four sentences:

1. The students will have had a short lesson on simple and compound sentences (and I will have identified who needs more instruction).

2. We will have discussed how writer's use metaphor and diction to create character.

3. I may have tweaked their interest in three books: Wintergirls, Speak and The Book Thief.

4. Students will get a chance to imitate these writer's techniques in their notebooks.

Because these are very short texts, this whole process will only take about fifteen minutes.  I'll give them the handout on the right for homework. This time, they will hopefully recognize that these are also simple sentences, but this time, they are used to illustrate an abstract concept.  Wednesday, we'll add phrases to the simple sentences before moving on to compound and complex sentences later in the week.  I have mentor sentences that illustrate author's use of repetition, parallelism and multiple types of figurative language.  We will experiment with all of these during short mini-lessons during our reader's and writer's workshop. 

After my initial lessons, the ones where I cover the elements of good writing, character development, tone, theme, etc., I will use longer passages and have the students recognize and imitate the multiple things that good writers do. We will have had lots of great discussions about books, they will have filled pages in their own notebooks, and hopefully they will have been inspired to read and write. However, they will also have been given the opportunity to analyze author choice and to develop the skills they need to be good readers and writers.  I will still do some full class texts and writing assignments later in the semester, and I know from experience, that they will be much more ready to work on these things because of the approach I'm taking now.

If you'd like to use my short mentor texts in your classroom, you can grab them HERE. Would you like to get some support as you plan a workshop approach in your secondary classroom? Join my Facebook group, Secondary Reader's & Writer's Workshop Support. Send me your email to room213custom@gmail.com, or search this link. 

Do you have any favourite mentor texts? Please share in the comments! 


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