September 2016 - Room 213

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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, or search this link. 

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


Cultivating Critical Thinking in Your Classroom

Our ultimate purpose as high school teachers should be to make ourselves unnecessary. We want to show our students how to learn, even when we aren't there to help them. In order to do this we need to cultivate an environment where critical thinking is the norm.

Teaching students to think critically

Don't spend too long in the basement of Bloom's Taxonomy.  Knowledge and comprehension are very important, and provide the foundation for higher level learning, but it's also imperative that we teach our kids what to do with the facts they gather. The skills they need to analyze, evaluate and create will stretch their brains in a way that will help them to become logical thinkers, creative problem solvers and life long learners. Don't equate rigour with volume and give students pages of chapter questions that focus too much on fact finding and not enough on analysis and interpretation.  For example, it's a fact that Romeo was pining over a girl named Rosaline at the beginning of the play.  However, that fact is just a useless piece of information unless the students use it to do some critical thinking. By using their knowledge and comprehension for higher level questions, students will need to think critically about questions like: Why does Shakespeare include this section about Rosaline? What does it show about Romeo's character? What does it illustrate about his family and friends? If you were Romeo's therapist, what advice would you give him on the subject of love?


Critical thinkers question.  They question the things they read, the ideas they are presented and the values that others may impose on them. Therefore, if you want to create a culture of critical thinking, you should model good questioning in your classroom. You can check out a previous blog post for suggestions on how to do that. I'd also like to share what I'm doing this week with my general English class as a specific example. At the end of the week we will do an informal debate on legalizing marijuana.  Yesterday I asked them a question: do you believe it should be legalized? They wrote about their own thoughts first, and then I paired them up and had them interview some teachers, counsellors and youth workers who were free that period, to see what they thought about the issue.  Today, we will focus on fact finding, and I will supply them with articles to read that present arguments on both sides of the issue. They will record these facts, then work in groups to prepare arguments for the debate. They will look at their opinions and find facts to back them up. I could have just given them the articles to read, and questions to guide their search for information; however, by following this process, they have thought about their own feelings on the subject, sought others' opinions, found factual information to back up arguments, and then, finally, expressed informed opinions.

There are many ways for students to hide in a classroom. I'm not referring to them climbing under a desk or into a closet; I'm referring to the students who sit there quietly, trying hard not to be noticed, not participating in any discussion.  It's easy to do if you have a couple of keeners in the room who want to participate in every discussion and answer every question you pose.  Even when we encourage other students to participate, it's easy for a student to tune out, not think, and hope that you don't call on them to respond.  Last year, I had such a class, and I wrote a post about how I turned it around and got more students to take part in class discussions. You can check it out here.

Wether you call it "flow" or "the zone of proximal development", the plan is the same: give your students tasks that aren't too easy or too hard.  Give them something "just right." If the tasks don't challenge them and make them think, they won't have to do any mental stretching and will soon get bored. If the task is too challenging, many will get frustrated and give up. The art of teaching requires you to experiment to find that sweet spot for your students. Start by using good questioning techniques and modelling your own thinking process during class discussions. Next, put them in groups and give them a task that's a little bit challenging and will require them to work together to accomplish it.  Circulate and guide them, but resist the urge to show them what to do. Ask good questions, the kind that direct them without giving them any answers: have you thought about this? Check out this quote on page __: what is the author suggesting here? If you can tell that students are struggling (and not just looking for an easy answer), you can give them a little more guidance.

Once you create an environment where critical thinking is the norm, great things can happen.  Students will see the reward in stretching themselves to grapple with difficult questions and you will be able to sit back and enjoy the discussions. You might even find yourself a little unnecessary.

If you'd like some activities that are great for critical thinking, I have several that focus on the inquiry process.  My learning stations also provide students with lots of opportunity to collaborate and think critically.


Decorating My Secondary Classroom: After

Well, I did my best, and I tried to spend as little money as possible.  My classroom is ready to welcome my new students on Tuesday.  I could't change the chipped dusty rose paint, the broken blinds or the mismatched chairs, but I did try to make it a more pleasant place to be.

Just inside my door is a table that has a "handout" box where students who missed a day can grab anything they may have missed. I also added a container of tea, so students can make a cup if they'd like to as well.  I was going to buy some cheap mugs, but I  figured that if they want to partake, they can bring their own.  One big rule for using the tea station is that they will have to make sure they clean up after themselves!

Classroom decor for high school
Classroom decor for high school

The board at the front of my room houses my Smart Board, so the chalkboard sections are rarely written on. Instead, I use them as a place to hang some motivational posters and reminders.  The one above the book case reminds students of the strategies they can use when actively reading. (I just realized, looking at the picture, that the reading strategies poster is out of order and I'm missing a boggle tile!) 

The chalkboard paint on my podium was easy to apply and will be a place for students to write a quote they find.  Because we will start with reader's workshop, I'm going to ask students to use it to display great mentor sentence from their novels. The sentence could be chosen because it says something worth thinking about, or because it illustrates great writing.  I don't know if we will do it once a day or once a week - I'm going to let the students decide. I also have the paint on my filing cabinet at the back of the room. Even though I'm not sure how this is going to go, I'm excited about the possibilities.  

Classroom decor for high school
On top of my cupboard at the back of my room are my new group work kits. I am totally loving these, not just because they look cute, but because I know they will save me time during class. Inside each kit is a pile of post-it notes, six markers of different colours, four highlighters, a glue stick and some paper clips. They won't use all of these each time, but the supplies are there when they need them. And, instead of spending the first five or ten minutes passing out supplies, I can get started circulating and talking to the kids -- or conferencing -- faster.

Classroom decor for high school
And, finally, here is my desk. It's mostly tidy and will soon be covered with student work that I need to assess (sigh...I am NOT ready for that yet).  One thing I would love to figure out is how to hide all of the cords that connect my laptop to the Smart Board and the amp I use for sound.

I began by saying that I did this as cheaply as possible, so here's the approximate breakdown:

Color photocopying: $4.00
Chalkboard paint & roller: $30.00 
Tea and container: $10.00
Group work kits & supplies: $12.00 

The boggle board, the poster board beside it, and the READ letters were additions to my classroom last year. I try to add a little each year, so it doesn't cost too much. You can grab my new posters and group work kit labels for free HERE.

I'm almost ready to greet my students on Tuesday. However, I'm going to share something I learned this weekend. I left on Friday with the intention of spending a lot of time in my classroom over the holiday weekend, tidying and organizing a bit more, as well as working on my lessons for the week.  And then, my father-in-law passed away suddenly that afternoon.  Now, I'm spending the weekend surrounded by my husband's family, and my daughter who came home from Toronto.  I'm not saying this because I'm looking for sympathy, but to point out that sometimes we spend far too much time on things that really don't matter. I will be there on Tuesday to meet my new students, but I will miss the next day for the funeral.  I won't spend anymore time between now and then working on anything but a sub plan. After an initial panic about that, I let it go and have been devoting my time to helping my in-laws with preparations and enjoying all of the remembering.  In a few weeks it's not going to matter that my first few days were not what they could have been; but the time that I've spent with my family sure will.  

Take care!


Decorating my Secondary Classroom: Before

The day has finally (and rapidly) arrived, the day that seemed so far away on June 30th, when the summer was sparkling ahead of me.  It's back to school I go today, and I'm really not ready.  Luckily, I have two days of meetings and a long weekend before I meet my new crop of students.  When they walk in my door on Tuesday, I want them to cross into a warm and inviting place.

It's not an easy task. Our school was renovated in 1991 and she's pretty tired looking right now. Back then, someone decided that trendy was best, and chose to paint the doors and trim dusty rose and green -- those were hot colours then, but they certainly aren't now, especially when a lot of the paint is chipped and everything looks old.  It's the same with my desks and curtains.  Old and droopy and very uninviting.  Note the lovely mix of chair colours.

I don't teach in a "poor" district; in fact, I teach in the richest neighbourhood in our city.  It's just that there seems to be little money for capital expenditures and paint.  They spend the money on the students and on technology and on... well, the things that matter. Long story short: we have to work some magic to make our rooms look good!

The first thing I did earlier this week was to put some chalk board paint on the side of my filing cabinet and my podium.  Currently, they are awaiting a second coat and a decision for what I will write on them -- Quote of the day? Things to do? I will probably let the students decide (and control), but I'd still like to have something there for the first day.  I'm still thinking about that.

Next, I had to tackle the mess.  I am not the most organized and tend to just shove things on a shelf or in a cupboard with the intent of dealing with it later.  Often, in June, I tell myself I'll deal with it in August, when I have more energy.  The top right photo above shows what's behind one of my cupboard doors (cleaned up a little before I took the photo!).  The binders are full of disorganized chaos. The pic beside it shows a stack of posters that I use throughout the year, again shoved in a folder to deal with later. I still have a lot of organizing to do, and as usual, I'm vowing to do a better job all year.  I've already gotten my learning stations organized in a binder, rather than in the pile they inhabited for most of last year. It's a start. And it will continue to be a struggle...

I've also started creating some group work kits. We do a lot of collaborative work, and I usually spend the first five minutes passing out markers, post-its, highlighters, etc.  In my effort to be more organized and efficient, I bought these containers at the dollar store, and loaded them with items that I think students will use when they work together.  It's a work in progress, but I'm looking forward to seeing how it evolves. 

So, that's as far as I've gotten.  I have lots to do before Tuesday.  I will share my after photos when it's all done!


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