February 2016 - Room 213

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Looking for new ways to engage your students in literature, especially with classics that might seem old and outdated? In this secondary English Language Arts blog hop, the Literary League showcases resources that can be used with any literary text, time after time, year after year.Here at the Literary League, we’re a group of English teachers who truly love literature (we bet you already figured that part out). Given free time, we can all agree that there’s nothing better than leaping into a good book. But, even as avid readers, we have to admit that those spare minutes tend to be few and far between, especially during the school year, and there are times that we just have to …
  • leap into a book recommended by a friend, a colleague, or especially a student, who is anxiously awaiting our review
  • leap into a new novel we’re teaching, whether or not we’ve had time to fully prepare a complete unit
  • leap into a classic, maybe not one of our favorites, but something we know students need to sit with in order to grow as a reader

For those instances, the Literary League is teaming up to share some of our favorite resources to help you Leap into Literature. These are resources that are not tied to a particular book, but ones that can be used over and over again, both with your favorite novels, as well as with new texts or classic pieces you’re trying to breathe new life into.

A favorite resource I use to engage my students in literature is my learning stations activity for independent reading.  The tasks at each station require that students look for, and write about, different elements of fiction. I love it because it gets them thinking, writing and moving.
You can read about other engaging literature resources from the other Literary Leaguers linked up below and also enter in the rafflecopter below for a chance to win them all.


PERSUASIVE & ARGUMENTATIVE WRITING: focusing on the pre-writing process

Writing is a thinking process.  I've said it many times.  I preach it to my kids. I make it a priority in my classroom by devoting time to the steps that they often rush through or ignore (it's hard to do every one when you start the essay the night before). This week I'm focusing on the pre-writing stage of the writing process before they begin their essays. 

An activity that gets your students to focus on the pre-writing stage before your students begin persuasive and/or argumentative writing.

Students did some quick-writes to explore topics they are passionate about, so they can choose a topic for a persuasive essay. The next step is to create an outline to guide their rough draft. But before they work on their own outlines we completed the following exercise:

An activity that gets your students to focus on the pre-writing stage before your students begin persuasive and/or argumentative writing.
1. I gave my students a thesis: Smoking is a terrible habit. Then, I asked them to brainstorm all of the reasons why that statement is true.

2. They called out their reasons and I wrote them on the overhead.  Then we grouped similar topics and chose the best four. They chose:  it's bad for your health, it affects your appearance, it's harmful to others and  it's expensive.

An activity that gets your students to focus on the pre-writing stage before your students begin persuasive and/or argumentative writing.3. I counted off the students -- 1, 2, 3 and 4.  I told the 1's that they would deal with health, the 2's had appearance, the 3's had second-hand smoke, and the 4's would deal with expense.

4. I told each student to brainstorm details that would back up the topic they had been assigned.  Then I gave them some post-it notes and told them to write one idea per sticky.

5. Each group was then given a piece of chart paper and told to group similar points/post-its together. Then, they had to place them on the sheet in the order that they would present the ideas in a paragraph.

6. The next step was for them to write a topic sentence at the top of the chart paper and a concluding one at the bottom.

An activity that gets your students to focus on the pre-writing stage before your students begin persuasive and/or argumentative writing.
7. Once the groups had finished, I asked them to tape their paper on my board. Then, I asked them, if each piece of chart paper represents a paragraph in the essay, which order should they be on the board? They worked together to decide on the best order and then rearranged the pieces of paper.

When the exercise was done, I pointed out that what they had done was written a good, detailed outline for an essay.  At that point I handed out their outlines and told them to start filling them in for their own topics.

The pre-writing stage is complete. Their chart paper is still on the board; we'll be using it later in the week to talk about how to write intros and conclusions, as well as how to tie the "paragraphs" together with transitions.  Stay tuned!


THIS WEEK IN ROOM 213 - Developing Ideas

This post should be titled "Last Week in Room 213", but you know how time can slip away from us.

I'm getting my tenth grade students ready to write persuasive essays next week, and so I've been priming the pump.  They have been reading a variety of non-fiction articles that deal with controversial issues, ones that are easily debatable.  They've been responding and discussing and, most importantly, thinking.  On Monday, I'll ask them to choose a topic that gets them fired up, and some of the topics we've dealt with this week may have inspired them. 

I also chose articles that demonstrated the various ways that writers can support their points. Stats, quotes and facts are all well and good, but even persuasive and expository writing can benefit from the spice of figurative language.  We looked at several articles that contained metaphors, similes and analogies that authors used to make their points. In Praise of the Humble Comma, by Pico Iyer is a great text for this, as Iyer makes liberal use of figurate language to extol the virtues of the comma. We also read Running and Reading by Amby Burfoot, and discussed how the writer used an effective analogy to explain why choice in reading is so important. (Running and Reading comes from Penny Kittle's wonderful site--she has tonnes of mentor texts you can use).

My other mission last week was to get them to work on fully developing their ideas.  After we discussed the use of analogy and extended similes and metaphors in a persuasive text, I wrote six different topics on the top of pieces of chart paper and set up a carousel activity. Students had to rotate around the room, creating similes, metaphors or analogies for things like middle school, cafeteria food, the hallways at break, etc. When they moved to a new piece of chart paper, they could either create a new comparison, or add details that would develop ones already on the sheet.
Finally, on Friday, we did one of my favourite collaborative activities for idea development. I'm experimenting with making videos and created one to explain my "candy exercise". It's supposed to have sound, but I haven't figured that out yet! Just click play to find out how the exercise works.

Next week we start a process-based approach to writing a persuasive essay.  I'll keep you posted!

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The internet changed my life as a teacher in many ways, most of them good.  But it also caused me a bit of angst for a while. For years I moaned and complained in the staffroom about what the Internet had done to my ability to get students to think critically about their texts.  Assignment after assignment was full of information that I was sure did not come from their own heads.  I wasted hours trying to catch them cheating too.  Some I caught with their hands in the Sparksnotes cookie jar, but others were more elusive.  I knew they didn't write or think of something on their own, but damn it, I couldn't find it. Unfortunately, I spent way too much time and mental energy worrying about it.
Strategies to keep students off the internet and to do the analysis themselves.

The big problem for me, still, is the frequency with which they use online sources to do their thinking for them when they are reading a text.  If they are asked to think about character or theme, they dive for the keyboard rather than doing the mental work needed to do the analysis. I always implore them to stay away from these sites, using the analogy that you can't build your muscles by watching someone else lift weights, often to no avail.

I've done a lot of thinking about how to deal with it, but before I tell you some of my solutions and ideas, I want you to think about a few things.  Stay with me.

I'm pretty sure that most of you, like me, find the marking load the one of most onerous parts of our job.  Those piles of paper can seem pretty overwhelming sometimes, but we plow through them, because we know that assessment and feedback are important parts of the teaching and learning process.  But...imagine if you had a machine that could help you with your marking...
Would you ever use it?  Would it not be tempting sometimes to do so on those nights when you're exhausted and overwhelmed? It's right there, sitting on your desk, and it will accurately assess your students' progress. Tempting, right?

Now don't get me wrong, I'm not suggesting that we just say, "go ahead.  Find the answers online." I'm just saying that we are fighting a losing battle if we think they won't try to get some digital help when they are busy and tired too (or extremely stressed over the mark they want to get).

So what do we do?

Strategies to keep students off the internet and to do the analysis themselves.
I decided that I had to stop doing what I was doing -- especially the complaining part -- because it wasn't working.

Here's what I do now:

I begin every semester with Reader's Workshop, and use it as a way for students to build their analytical skills for the full class novel(s) we will do later. You can check out my earlier posts to see how I do this. There are several reasons why I start with independent reading, but one is that it gives me a better chance to get students analyzing on their own. This is because when kids choose their own books, they are much more likely to actually read them, and are therefore less likely to head to the computer to get the info they need to cover up.  And, if they do, they will find a lot less help for more contemporary books than the typical ones we do in English class.

I do a lot of short assignments with Reader's Workshop -- responses about how setting affects the novel, how the author develops character, lessons learned from reading, favourite quotes, etc.  They also have several small group discussions or seminars.  All of these things give the students chances to develop their analytical muscles, so they can feel more confident to use these muscles later in the semester.

Students turn to online sites for a lot of reasons, but one is because they lack the confidence to do it themselves. Another is the stress they feel over their marks. Formative assessment takes that pressure off and allows them the chance to try without affecting their marks. This works especially well when you pair it with in class assignments.  Ask them to respond to a prompt about the text that requires a short analytical response. They have to write on the spot, without any digital aid, and so must use their own brains.  Collect the responses and point out one or two areas in the writing that were well done and one or two that need improvement.  Then, give them a chance to try again -- still for feedback only.  When I started using formative assessment, despite my doubts, I found a huge shift in my students' desire to try.  They knew that their attempts would not affect their average and so most were more willing to take risks.

If my old assignments inspired visits to Shmoop and Sparksnotes, then clearly I needed to change them. If I ask them to an assignment that includes ideas that are easily accessible online, then I'm just asking for it. However, I still believe in teaching them to write literary essays, especially those students who plan to go on to college.  After going around in circles with this dilemma, I've found a solution that seems to work: essays that ask students to make connections between texts and/or to real life. For example, when I do A Separate Peace, we do some research into the psychology of insecurity, and students need to use this info (paraphrased properly, of course) in an essay that illustrates their understanding of Gene and/or Finny's character.  My grade twelve class reads Animal Farm and Macbeth.  They decide what the two texts teach them about human nature and then they have to find real life examples that teach the same lesson. I know they can still turn to the internet to get help, but these questions require them to at least use the information in a way that requires their own thinking.

This point leads me to a place where I'm not yet comfortable. I'm still mulling this one over: if we know that they are going to use these online sources, should we just cry uncle, tell them it's ok, then teach them how to incorporate it properly into their work? If we know they are using this info, should we continue to delude ourselves or insist that they cite it?  For example, with my Macbeth/Animal Farm  assignment, even if they get some inspiration about how and why Macbeth did something, but they have to stitch it together with other ideas, all properly paraphrased and cited, is it not still a thinking exercise? I believe so, and yet I can't bring myself to go there.  There's part of me who still foolishly believes that some of them don't know about all of these online helpers. Right. I'd love to hear what you think.

Any time I come up with a new idea, I simply do what they do: I Google it.  If there are plenty of "answers" out there, I know I need to change my direction. It makes zero sense to assign something that can easily be completed with a few mouse clicks and some paraphrasing.

So there's my two cents.  I certainly do not think I have "the" answer, and I continue to play around with ways to get my students to think.  Please feel free to share any solutions you have come up with!



Awesome Pinterest boards for middle and high school English teachers
Six years ago, we built a cottage.  It was the result of ten years of dreaming and saving, and ten years of me cutting pictures out of magazines. I had a scrapbook and glue sticks and countless pictures of ideas for our cottage.  If only there had been Pinterest then, I could have invested all the money I spent on magazines into a piece of furniture for the cottage!

And, if only Pinterest (or the internet) been around when I started teaching, it would have saved me countless hours of planning for my classes.  There are so many ideas out there to inspire our lesson plans and classroom decor, even to give us advice on how to deal with the stresses of teaching.

I decided that I would share my favourite boards for English teachers.  I hope you can find some inspiration!

My Boards:
I've become a little addicted to Pinterest, so I've got quite a few boards for secondary English, but my favourites are my Secondary Reader's and Writer's Workshop, and my Writing Prompts boards.

From The Classroom Sparrow:
Ms. Sparrow has a number of awesome boards, including her Totally Free Resources and Sincerely Shakespeare , but my favourite is English Exposure:

Danielle has an amazing variety of boards, like All Things British Literature and High School Classroom Management & Inspiration. Danielle has recently become a guru of all things digital, so check out her Go Interactive Board:

Addie is a librarian who teaches ELA and Geography, so you'll find a broad range of ideas on her boards.  I especially like Quotes, Posters & Sayings,  and ELA activities for Teens & Tweens:

From Darlene Anne:
If you're looking for middle school ELA inspiration, you'll find lots on Darlene Anne's boards.  Check out: Literary Elements,  Clever Classroom Ideas.

From Angie Kratzer:
Angie has a lot of ideas for high school and AP English.  Her High School English board is chock full of inspiration:

From Juggling ELA:
Looking for help teaching Shakespeareand poetry?  Check out Tammy's Teaching Shakespeare,  and Poetry Resources.

From Sophist Thoughts:
I love all of the videos that James has collected. His Animated Shorts to Teach is an amazing collection of short films you can use to teach literary elements.  Check out his  Short Story board for more videos.

From Secondary Sara:
Sara has an amazing collection of blog posts by secondary ELA teachers.  If you're looking for inspiration and ideas, you'll find both here:

Follow Secondary Sara's board ELA Blog Posts on Pinterest.

From Stacey Lloyd:
Stacey's boards include two that I especially like, her Teaching Grammar and Teaching Reading boards are sure to inspire you.

From 2 Peas & a Dog:
If you're a middle school teacher looking for ideas, Krity's boards will provide them.  Check out her Classroom Management and Google Apps for Education boards. She has a great series of blog posts too.

Sherri has boards that are a great inspiration for organization and decor.  Check out:

From Brain Waves Instruction: 
Mary Beth has one of my favourite middle school blogs.  You can find links to her posts here.

That's a lot of inspiration!  Do you have any favourite boards?  Let me know!


Why I'm switching from a class website to Google Classroom

I've never shied away from technology in the classroom.  I've had a class website for years, one that I used as a place to update and remind students about homework and assignments.  Several years ago, I started using it as a place for students to interact with each other.  It worked well.

However, this year our school received cart loads of Chrome Books and life changed. We've started to use Google Classroom, and I quickly discovered that it was not only going to be a much more accessible platform for our class, but also one that is far more powerful. Here's what I've discovered so far:

1.  It's a very slick way to post an assignment.  My blog was by no means cumbersome, but Classroom is just easier. I post my instructions and then choose whether or not to upload a file from my computer, Google Drive, Youtube, or another link.  Below is an example, of what my twelfth grade students saw for their Macbeth social media assignment last semester:

2.  It's PERFECT for snow days.  Sometimes snow days are for relaxation; other days, there's work to be done.  Today is one of those days.  Here is what my tenth grade class will see today, as well as the steps I followed to create the assignment:

3. It allows for easy collaboration among students. When you share a document on Google Drive,  you can decide whether or not others can just view the document, or if you want them to be able to edit. Editable documents allow students to work together on an assignment. Had we been in school today, my IB class would be in groups, discussing Act I scenes iv and v of Macbeth. Using Drive and Classroom, they can still do it at home.  Below is the document I shared with their groups:

4. It can be an effective tool for formative assessment. The comment section of Drive allows me to highlight sections of student work and give them feedback.  I can also just highlight sections, and get them to figure out why it's highlighted, putting more responsibility on them.  Use two different highlight colours -- one for good work, and another for areas that need improvement. Google Forms are an easy tool to use for exit tickets, as is the "question" option on Classroom.

Now, if your school does not allow you access to Google Classroom, don't despair.  You can still use all of the Google apps, like  Drive  and Forms.  You'll just need to make sure all of your students have a g-mail account, and then set up an email list for that class.

How do you use the Google apps in your classroom?


This Week in Room 213: Idea Development & Discourse

Monday we will begin our first full week of the second semester. My grade ten class will still be in "warm up mode"; I'm setting the tone and pace of what I want our class to be like. I love a class full of discussion and critical thinking, but grade tens are not always ready to do that.  Often, they'd rather just put in their earbuds and work independently, but I'm having none of that.

In order to get them into discussion mode, I start the semester with non-fiction.  By choosing topics that are likely to engage teens, topics that they can easily agree and disagree with, I am more likely to get them engaged. I've also designed an activity that will require them to dig deeply into the topics:

Using Google Forms in high school English1. Start with a question that asks them to make a value judgement. Tomorrow's question is: Failure can be a good thing. I plan to use a Google Form where they will choose from "strongly agree", "somewhat agree", etc. The second question on the form asks them do a three minute quick write that elaborates on their choice. (If you don't have access to the technology to use Google Forms, you can do this just as easily with a writing prompt.)

2. Gather students in groups of four-five to discuss their responses. The discussion will focus on the students' initial feelings about the topic, before they read and view the information I have for them.

This is just the beginning of the exercise, however. I want them to work on several skills over the next few days: idea development, choosing and embedding quotations for support, building on others' ideas, and disagreeing with others' ideas. That last one is hard for teens.  They don't like to disagree with each other, but it's an important skill to learn how to do so constructively. Dealing with dissenting opinions is also important for fully thinking an idea through.

3. Give students something to read and/or view that explores the topic. To get this process rolling, I will give them several articles to read and videos to view that deal with the topic of failure.  I instruct them to read with a highlighter in hand so they can highlight good quotes -- points they agree with or disagree with. With the videos, they will need to take notes. (Click HERE to access one of the articles I use).

4. Group students into "Response Groups." I will put them in groups of four-five and send each student a blank Google Doc labeled "Failure, group one",  "Failure, group two" etc. They will be instructed to post a response on their respective doc to the articles and videos, using at least two quotes to support their own points. Once each student has added his/her response to the doc, each student will have to comment on each group mate's ideas.  I ask that they agree with one point -- and add to it with another detail or example-- and disagree with something and give a reason why.  If they can't find something to disagree (or agree) with, they agree or disagree twice. If you don't use Google Apps, they can do this on paper: have each student put a his/her response on a blank page and then pass it around the group for comments.

The purpose of the group exercise is that they start a conversation with each other, and then extend it with more ideas. Students will add further examples to those responses they agree with and they will throw out dissenting ideas that they will back up with evidence.  The disagreement element is key: it's something they aren't comfortable with, but when the teacher requires it, they feel safer and learn that it will actually lead to a good discussion.

5. After the group work, discuss the issue as a class.  Before we begin, I will ask the students to come up with good questions that they could pose to each other, so as to further delve into the topic, and then we will have a full class discussion/debate. They will have explored the ideas already, but now they have a chance to hear from the other groups.

Formative assessment forms
6. Assess the process.  This is an activity I will do several times, but I don't give a summative mark; it's a skill building activity that I use to get them ready for their persuasive research essays and debates.  Instead, I'll give them some formative feedback on the process, letting them know if they've fully developed their ideas, used the quotes properly or if they've done a good job of extending the conversation with their group mates.

I'm looking forward to the activity. It's a topic that they find engaging, and so it's a good one to use for the skill building process I want to embark on.  Plus, I want to introduce the idea that it is ok to fail, because I want them to take risks over our semester together and I don't want fear of failure to keep them from doing so.

If you're looking for more ways to engage your students in critical thinking and discussion, check out my line of Learning Stations.

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Second Semester Getting to Know You

It's the first day of second semester.  Luckily my IB class stays with me all year, so I don't have a full slate of new classes to meet.  As you know, it takes a lot more energy to put on your "show" for a group of kids you don't know, so it's nice to have one class of familiar faces to greet today.

My other classes are new, however, so we have to do some "getting to know you".  Last fall I made an exercise that got them out of the seats, as it can be a long day of listening to teachers drone on about classroom rules.  The activity worked really well--the kids enjoyed it and it helped me get to know them a little better too.  You can grab it for free at my TpT store.  I also have a short unit that I created that helps you do a grammar review and teach them other skills they need to be successful.

After the first day, I have some tried and true activities that I like to use during the first few days to help set the tone of the class and to further get to know the students.  I've blogged about them before, and because I love the activities so much, I thought I'd share them again.

Have a great second semester!


Get Ready for the New Semester: 3 Easy Tips

The new semester is about to start, but not before the craziness of getting our students ready for exams, and the hours spent marking final assessments.  The beginning of the new semester is just like it is in the fall, but this time we aren't going into it well rested as we are in September.

There are a few things you can do to make the transition a little easier:

Tips for getting organized for your new semester.1. Start cleaning up and organizing now.  I used to just keep making piles, telling myself I'd organize all that paper during exam week. But then that's one more job you have to do as you prepare for your new students.  This time, I'm dedicating five minutes every day until exams to cleaning up.  I'm firing lots of paper into the recycling bin and into the appropriate folder or binder...and like every year, promising myself I'll do a better job of filing on a daily basis.  (Good luck with that!)

Tips for getting organized for your new semester.2. Spend some time reflecting on what worked and what didn't during the fall semester.  I wrote about this at the end of June, and the same applies to the end of first semester.  Do some backward design: identify the gaps, holes, and things you wish you'd spent more time on, and make a plan to get there. This does take time, but...

3. Follow your own advice.  There are two things I tell my students as they get ready for exams: steal a few minutes here and there to work on things, rather than cram at the last minute, and "this too shall pass".   My first piece of advice ---file papers or start organizing your book shelf if you have a few minutes while students are working on something. Even if you only get five minutes work done a class, by the end of the week, you'll have made some progress. My "this too shall pass" advice is a little harder to take.  I tell my students that they only have a few weeks until exams.  During that time they need to do more work at home; they need to be more focused and diligent.  They need to just suck it up, realize that there won't be much "me time" for a bit, and focus on your goals. It'll be worth it, I tell them.


Second semester starts for me on Wednesday.  Out with the old, in with the new. Students will come to us, fresh from writing exams for their first semester classes, hopefully ready to dive into their new classes.

Even though it's a time to begin again, it's also important to look back.  Education should be about learning, not just collecting marks and credits, and so it's part of our job to help students reflect.  I like to take some time at the beginning of a new course to have students think about their previous successes and failures as an English student.  I like to make a big deal about their failures too.  Not to make them feel bad, but to help them realize that those failures are an integral part of the learning process. (You can click HERE to check out a post I wrote in September that explains my approach to this, as well as a letter I give to students).

After I try to convince them that failure is a good thing, they will spend some time thinking about themselves as English students. I want them to think about the feedback they have gotten in previous classes. I want them to acknowledge and celebrate what they do well and to remember what they need to improve--then set some goals for doing so.

If you'd like to use this slide show with your students, you can grab it HERE.

Have an amazing start to your new semester!

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