November 2016 - Room 213

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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 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.

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