2017 - Room 213

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5 Ways to Keep Secondary Students on Task During Group Work

Most kids love to do group work. Not only does it break up the routine of a typical class, but it also allows them to be more social, to chat with their friends. That last fact is why some teachers shy away from collaborative work: the classroom gets noisy and students get off task. 

Noise is not always a negative thing, however. In fact, noise can be an indication that a lot of learning and engagement is happening in your classroom. Imagine if all of your students were involved in an activity that required critical thinking, discussion and debate. There would have to be a certain level of noise, right? In fact, a steady din can be a sure sign of learning.

I know, I'm talking about teenagers, most of whom love to socialize. I'm no fool - a lot of the time spent in groups is not focused and on task. It can be a struggle to make sure they do the work you want them to do. However, I believe so much in the power of collaboration that a little effort to make it work is very much worth it.  Below you will find five strategies that work (most of the time) in my classroom:

As a rookie teacher I made a lot of mistakes, and one of them was just sending my students off to do group work and expecting them to do it. It wasn't long before I learned that they needed more guidance. Now, before they ever work together in groups, I make it very clear what I expect. The first thing I tell them is that it's ok to chat and socialize -- as long as the task is complete. I point out that if they focus and get the job done, then they can relax for the remaining time. I also take the time to set the routine I'd like them to follow: pick up the desks when you move them so you don't disturb the class under us, appoint a group recorder to take down your answers, be sure to refer to your discussion starter bookmarks, etc.

One strategy I've adopted that makes a huge difference is modelling what an effective discussion looks like. I carefully choose some volunteers to help me with this -- a few keeners and a few quieter students. I put them in a circle in front of the room, and I lead them in a discussion. If students aren't contributing, I'll ask them what they think. When someone gives an incomplete answer, I'll ask for elaboration. And, if I disagree with one of them, I will do so 
Free discussion starters for group work
politely and tell them why. After a few rounds of this, I'll ask the class what they noticed: how did I act as an effective group member? They are always able to point out everything I tried to model. 

What is easy to see in others can be difficult to do on your own, however, so I give them each a copy of these "discussion starters" they can use it as a bookmark and refer to it when they get stuck. If you'd like to use these with your students, you can grab them for free here. They're editable, so you can tweak them to work with your students.

We do a lot of small group discussion in my class when students are trying to figure out a complex text or issue. When we do so, I want them to follow a process that not only gets them thinking, but also requires all students to participate -- I don't want one or two dominating while the others sit back and let them do so. Also, if I'm not clear about what I want them to do, they won't be very focused.

I've learned that I can prevent that by being very explicit in my instructions. I usually ask them to start with individual reflections, so everyone is engaged, and to share those ideas with a partner. After that, they engage as a whole group to complete whatever task I've given them.  I've just recently formalized some of these instructions on "collaboration placemats." I loved putting them together and I know the kids will get a kick out of using them too. You can grab them out here.

Collaborative placemats to guide student small group discussions

It's hard to argue with this one: if students find the topic engaging, they are far more likely to focus. If you give them a hot topic to discuss like legalizing marijuana or gun control, they will probably have a heated discussion. But, let's be honest, analyzing lit together is not always high on their fun-things-to-do list. However, if you give them the skills they need to do the work and provide them with a task that's challenging - but not too difficult - they will usually engage. I've written about ways I scaffold the skills my kids need to be successful before - you can read about it here.

I think this is THE most important thing you can do to ensure successful collaboration among students: it's crucial that you circulate among the groups, quietly listening and participating. Do so in a way that seems like you want to be part of the discussion, rather than evaluating it. If you hear something interesting, wait your turn and add in your two cents. If you want to steer them in a different direction, throw something out there that will shift their course: That's an interesting theory, but what about this? Have you thought about why character X did this? It's actually one of my favourite things to do, because not only can you help your students do better work, you can also get to know them better.

So, that's what I do in Room 213 to get quality work out of my students when they work together. What about you? I'd love to hear your tips and tricks.


Building Writing Stamina and Skills

Our curriculum demands that our students  write for a range of tasks, purposes and audiences. We also want them to write so they can think things through, find their voice, and express themselves. The more they write, the better they will become at all of these things; therefore, we need to work on their writing stamina, giving them lots of opportunity to flex their writing muscle. 

Bell ringers and writing prompts

One of the challenges as an English teacher is to find time to do all of the things that we know work best for our students. We're constantly juggling reading and writing, skill building and enjoyment, research and critical thinking. We do this with one eye on the clock and the the other on the calendar, knowing too well that there's never enough time to do it all.

I knew that I was not giving my kids enough time to write -- other than the assignments I gave them -- so I created a series of writing prompts to change that. Now, writing prompts are nothing new for me; it's what I added to them that made them a more effective tool for increasing skill AND stamina.

Bell ringers and writing prompts

Kids start with some pre-writing and then they do a quick-write. After they collect their initial ideas, they look back at what they wrote and reflect on ways to improve it.  They are asked to look at ways to push their ideas further and to play with their diction and sentence structure. Some prompts have them experiment with different ways for leading into a piece of writing or using dialogue. I mix up  the instructions so it's not repetitive, but each one challenges them to find ways to reflect and revise.

Bell ringers and writing prompts

The prompts are pretty versatile. You can use them as bell ringers: on Monday have them do the initial response. Then, on following days, have them do one revision at a time. Or, use them all at once for skill building activities, or as inspiration for your writing workshop. 

Regardless of how you make use of them in your classroom, your kids will have the opportunity to write more and improve their writing. Seems like a winning combination!

Happy teaching.

Lesson Ideas for High School English: Engaging Your Students in Literary Analysis

and using scissors and crayons to do it

Literary analysis is hard, and writing about it is even harder. I teach IB and Pre-IB and even these (mostly) keen and able students struggle to write effective analysis that flows from one idea to the next. I've written before about how I scaffold the steps they need to analyze . In that post, I wrote of the need to let kids learn a process and that it's ok for them to struggle.  This semester, we've spent a lot of time focused on the both the process and the struggle and now it's time to get more serious about writing about lit.

Today, I'd like to share with you the things I've been doing with my classes to teach them how to write good literary paragraphs and essays.

I've learned over the years that good instruction is not enough. If I want my kids to learn to write a certain way, I need to give them a model shows them what I expect. This works even better when I find ways for them to interact with the model, beyond just reading it.

This week, we were finishing up A Separate Peace. They had done some group presentations on the themes of the novel, and I wanted to wrap things up with a paragraph that analyzes character. They were instructed to choose one character-istic of Gene or Finny, and to illustrate multiple ways Knowles developed this characteristic. 

I wrote a sample literary paragraph; then, I blew each sentence of the paragraph up, and cut them into strips. Next, I clipped the strips together in random order. The students went into their usual groups and had to put the strips back into their proper order.

It was the first time I'd ever done this, and I loved how it worked. The kids were having great conversations:  this strip must come after that one because the transition refers back to that idea. I think this goes here because it develops the point made in that strip. I was so proud to hear them using the language and skills that I had taught them. 

For homework, I gave them another paragraph that modelled what I wanted them to do for their assignment on character and had them label the following: 
my assertion, plot used for context, plot used for evidence, analysis and transitions. Had I thought of it, I would have given them crayons to colour each of these things, but unfortunately I didn't have that brainwave until later. However, I did colour-code my answer key, which I projected on the screen for them when we went over their work.

This approach is quite a departure from what I used to do in the early years of my teaching. I always used mentor texts, but they would be on a handout with the student instructions and we would just read through them together. Now, I make sure they have several opportunities to work with the model before they write.


Last year, about this time, I wrote about using my To Kill a Mockingbird discussion stationsand I think it's time to write about them again -- and not just because that's what my class is doing! No, I want to tell you about them because I know that they are a really effective way to get the students engaged with the text. More importantly, the cards allow them to discuss many different issues associated with the text in a way that a few pre-reading writing prompts never could.

Yesterday, as I floated around between groups, I heard students who were highly engaged in their discussions; I even had to tell a few to turn the volume down a bit, because they were so excited about their debate.  The sweet thing is that they didn't even know they were discussing the novel. But, when they do have their first novel discussion today, they will be able to draw on the ideas they explored during these pre-reading stations.

So, that's what's working in Room 213. Have you tried anything this week that you were excited about? Please share in the comments :)

Happy teaching!


Not Ready to Go Paperless? Start with Less Paper!

Even if you'd love to go paperless, your school might not be there yet. Unless each student has access to technology all the time, you just can't make that environmental jump. However, while you're waiting and hoping for the day when your school does go paperless, there are several things you can do to use less of it in your classroom.

1. REDUCE the amount you use:
This is pretty obvious, but how do you reduce when we need to give our students information, and they need to pass in their work?

We do it by changing the way we give and receive information.

Google Classroom is an amazing platform for both of these things, as it allows both teacher and student to post online, and you don't need to have devices for each student to make this work. Our school is far from paperless. We have some Chromebooks, but not enough for students to use them all of the time. Still, every day I post notes, instructions and/or homework on Classroom, and students can access the information on their computers at home. Before we had access to Google Classroom, I posted these things on my class website and it worked just as well. Blogger and Wordpress have lots of free, easy-to-use templates that will allow you to create a site for your students.  

Classroom and teacher websites have another added bonus: because students can access the information they need online, they will not be able to lose it. You'll save paper, and extra trips to the photocopier for those students that can never seem to find their handouts.  (If you know that some of your students can't access technology at home, have some pages printed off and give them to these students as they go out the door, so as not to call attention to them).  

I also make ample use of Google Docs for assignments. Students submit their work to me and I give them feedback right on the document. I rarely take home a stack of paper assignments anymore. This is a good thing for the environment, but also for assessment. Google Docs allows me to give students a lot more feedback because I can type much faster than I can write.  I can also have very direct "conversations" with them about their work with the comments.

These conversations can happen via electronic exit tickets as well. Google Forms provides a slick and easy way to get feedback from your kids. 

There are also many digital lessons available now for students, including my favourite, 21st Activities for Any Text, a product that allows you to assess student knowledge of a text using social media templates -- all electronic with no paper needed.

There are other ways to reduce paper use, even when you do need to print something for your students. Ask yourself: does each student need a copy?  If you are just giving students instructions, project them on your screen or write them on the board. If you're doing group work, for example, one copy of instructions per group will do. Likewise, it may be possible, depending on the situation, that students sitting near each other could share a sheet of instruct-ions.  

You could also consider ways to condense the information. Set your handout up so you can cut it in half or create task cards (four/page) and cut your paper needs by a quarter! 

2. REUSE paper as often as you can:
One way to do this is to take handouts back in after the class has used them or at the end of a unit. This option requires a little organization, but if you get yourself some file folders or binders, you can have a collection of handouts that you can reuse every year. As an added bonus, this will save you the time you spend photocopying (and fixing the copier).

Another way to reuse paper will result in a cleaner copying room: if you need to make a copy of a handout for your students, do it on the back of paper that's already been used. If your photocopy room is like mine, there's no shortage of wasted paper lying around. Just create a stack and copy your information on the back of the unused side. When you pass your handout to the students, tell them to make a big X over the backside, so they don't get confused.  Those leftover sheets in the copy room are also perfect for cutting up and using as bookmarks.

3. RECYCLE paper and buy it back:
Ok. It's probably hard to buy back the paper that you have actually recycled, but you can be part of the process. Make sure you have a recycling bin front and centre for you and your students, and make it a priority that everyone uses it. When you buy your own paper, buy packs that are recycled, and point it out to your students. They watch what we do and any time we can set a positive example for them, they notice. Watching us take care to use as little paper as possible will teach them an important lesson that goes way beyond the class-room.

While I wholeheartedly believe that we need to reduce our use of paper (and other things), I also think that there are times when kids should write by hand. In fact, I believe it's necessary for their learning. If you'd like to find out more, you can read this blog post.

Do you have any creative ways to reduce, reuse or recycle paper in your classroom? Please share with us in the comments!


Celebrating Shakespeare

If you ask me, it's always a good time to celebrate The Bard, but on April 23rd, we recognize both his birth and the incredible contribution he made to the English language. Now I know that not everyone thinks we should still be studying his work in 21st century classrooms, but I'm not one of those people. You can read about why I think Shakespeare is still relevant in this post, or if you'd like to find ways to get your teens excited about studying his work, read on!

Introducing Shakespeare Learning StationsThe single best thing you can do to ensure success with Shakespeare is to think carefully about how to reel your students in. How can you hook them? Make them interested? What can you do to prevent the groans and eye-rolls when you start?  Spend some time thinking about what you can do to make them interested in the play you are about to study. And here's a hint: a long lecture about Shakespeare's bio and the Elizabethan theatre will probably not do the trick. Instead, find a way to actively engage them in finding out the information that they need to study the play. I'm a big fan of learning stations for this. First of all, they put the responsibility in the students' hands, but more importantly, they make them active participants in the learning process, rather than passive ones.

The reason I love Shakespeare so much is that had his finger right on the pulse of human nature. And because he understood what made human beings tick, it's so easy to make connections between the characters and themes in his plays to the lives of our students.

Get more tips and strategies for getting your kids excited about Shakespeare on the latest blog post by Room 213.
One of the most effective uses of your time when planning activities and lessons for a Shakespearean play is to spend some time up front thinking about ways to link it to real life. The more relevant you can make it, the more likely it is you will get buy in.

When you start Romeo and Juliet, for example, you could begin with some writing prompts: have you ever defied your parents? Had a friend or boyfriend that they didn't like? Have you ever done something stupid to help a friend? If it's Macbeth: have you ever done something wrong, even when you knew it was a very bad idea? Have you ever gone against your conscience because of peer pressure? Get the kids to write about these things even before you start talking about Shakespeare. Have a good class discussion about things that they find interesting, then tell them that they've just spent some time digging into some of the major themes of the play.  Trick them a little ;)

Once you're further into the play, ask students to work in groups to brainstorm ways that the plot or characters are similar to people or situations in their own lives -- you don't always have to do all of the thinking, and it's far more effective if they do it anyway.

You can also use more modern assessments to gauge your students' understanding of the play. Get them to use tweets, blog posts or other forms of social media to illustrate what they have learned.

Free Understanding Shakespeare Bookmarks!Language is usually the biggest barrier into Shakespeare. Students find it difficult and so they give up before they even give it a chance. We have to remember the important step of teaching them strategies for reading Elizabethan English and of using anchor charts while we study a play that they can reference for reminders.

I created some bookmarks that you can download for free to give your students. They can slip them in their books and use them when they need some help. If you'd like create a colourful language word wall, for your students, check this out.

I hope some of these tips can help you get your students a little more excited about Shakespeare. If you'd like to hear some more ideas about how I connect my kids to the classics, check out this post on the TpT blog.

Happy Teaching!


Introducing Poetry

Do your students scream with glee when you dive into poetry? I didn't think so. If your kids are like mine, they see poetry as a labyrinth they have to muddle their way through. At the very least, they think of it as pure drudgery.

It doesn't have to be that way, especially if you begin your study with poetry that is more accessible to students, and use activities that are more engaging than scansion. Don't get me wrong, I'm not saying that analyzing Victorian and Romantic poetry isn't worthwhile; I'm just suggesting that you might want to lure them in with something else first.

I like to start with Billy Collins' Introduction to Poetry. It's relatively easy for students to understand, yet it has a variety of poetic devices they can identify and discuss. Most importantly, the poem deals with the different ways that students and teachers approach poetry. Here's how I roll out the lesson:

Ask students how do you feel about poetry? Discuss and record some of the words and phrases that they use on the board or a piece of chart paper.

Ask students to write metaphors or similes that illustrate their feelings about the genre:            

Studying poetry is like...
Poetry is...

Give the students the poem and read it to them. After, ask them to read it again and identify the poetic devices used by Collins. Have them do a turn-and-talk to someone beside them to discuss what they've found.

During the full class discussion that follows, direct the discussion to ensure they've identified the devices that Collins uses to create meaning. Essentially, in the first five stanzas he suggests that studying a poem should be an experience of exploration and discovery. He suggests that a reader may have to look at it in a different light and to listen to its sound. Or, like a mouse in a maze, the reader must figure out how to move through the structure of the puzzle in order to come out the other side. He also invites the reader into a poem, to feel his way until light can be shone on its darkness. Refreshingly, he says he wants his students to just skim "across the surface of the poem" and just enjoy it. Finally, the tone shifts in the last two stanzas, when the speaker reflects on his students' approach to poetry. For them, it's an experience of torture, for they want the poem to confess its secrets, without them actually getting inside it, to figure out what it means.

After you're sure they understand the meaning and have discussed the effect of Collins' techniques, ask them if the ideas in the poem match their experience with studying poetry. If so, why? Is it how it should be?


Have students write their own free verse poem that captures their feelings about studying poetry. Ask them to use some similes and metaphors to capture the ideas they want to get across to the reader. If they need a nudge, tell them to start with The teacher takes out a poem and...

If you'd like some more engaging activities for poetry, you might like to check out my Poetry Games and Activities. And, when it's time to start analyzing, my Poetry Learning Stations break the process into manageable chunks and help students focus on the process of interpretation. It gets them moving too!

Happy Teaching!


Getting Your Teens to Actually Read

This is a serious issue in secondary classrooms when the required reading is longer and can't be completed in class. There are not enough hours in the semester to get it all done as it is, and besides, kids read at such vastly different rates that some are finished long before others. It means that students just have to do some reading at home. But, we all know that creates another issue, because many will come unprepared to do the next day's work. It is a true conundrum.

Strategies to motivate kids to readI wish I could tell you that I had the secret. I don't. I struggle with the same issues every day. I do, however, have a few strategies that can help.

First of all, I start every semester with reading workshop. The best way to hook reluctant readers is to let them find a book that makes them want to read. And that's not necessarily To Kill a Mockingbird or Lord of the Flies. I still do a full class novel, but not until later in the semester, after the kids have had a chance to read books that they have chosen for themselves. My hope is that by then, they are more willing to read something that I've assigned, because they've learned to enjoy reading.

Another thing I need to do to ensure that my students actually read is spend some time on their favourite Internet sites. You know the ones I mean:  Sparknotes, Schmoop, E-notes. I've written about this before in my post about keeping kids off Sparksnotes, so you can read more detail there. Essentially, if I keep asking questions or using assessments that they can answer without reading, then I'm part of the problem. Text-Self and Text-Text questions are good for this. Find a poem or an article that relates to something in the text and have them show their knowledge of character or theme by making connections between the two. Or have them illustrate how a character is like them or someone they know. These things are a lot harder to "Google."

In reality, though, I ask my students very few questions about the texts they read. Instead, I teach them how to take notes and require them to come to class with notes made on the night's assigned reading. I tell them ahead of time what they should be looking for and have them "start a page" for each element. For example, if we're reading Mockingbird, they will write Atticus, Scout, Jem, etc. at the top of a page. On the page entitled "Atticus", they will take notes to track his character. They do the same with themes or motifs that I tell them to track as they read.

Strategies for critical thinking about textBut wait...how do I make sure they actually do this? During each class, the students will meet to
discuss what they believe to be significant about each section. At the beginning of each class, I do a quick check to see who has their notes done. Those who didn't do the homework can't participate in the group discussions. I either send them to the library or cafeteria to finish, or leave them at their desks to do so. Basically, they can't just sit in the group and benefit from everyone else's work; they need to do it themselves.  The first few times I do this, there will be a huge group of students who have to sit out. However, after they catch on that I mean business, the group quickly dwindles. It really works.

Aside from this note-taking strategy, I have a lot of critical thinking exercises I do with the students that require them to actually read and understand the text. In the picture to the right, students are doing a write-around exercise that requires them to discuss the purpose of a chapter and to build on each other's ideas. I also like them to choose a title for a chapter or section and give a rationale for why they chose it. Each of these requires a deeper understanding of the reading, one that is hard to fake. And, when students come to class knowing that you're going to give them work that requires that kind of understanding, they are much more likely to do the work.

Now, I'm no fool. I know that there are still kids who don't read and rely on the Internet or movies to do their thinking for them. But, you know what? There will always be those kids. Unfortunately, we won't get them all. I do find, though, that these strategies hook more of them into reading.

Do you have any tried and true tips for ensuring that your kids read? Please share in the comments!


Scaffolding Literary Analysis

Teaching students to analyze text

Literary analysis is not easy, not for our students and not even for us. It's a process that requires the reader to dive deeply into the text. It's one that requires a great deal of thought. And it's also one that took us  (the so-called experts) years to master -- if we ever really did.

So, how do we take a room full of teenagers who would rather do anything else, and teach them to peel the layers off a text? How do we show them that this is a worthwhile -- and possibly even enjoyable -- exercise?
Teaching students to analyze text
The answer is to start at the end. Spend time thinking about where you want your students to be at the end of your time together. What outcomes do they need to achieve? What skills do they need to demonstrate? Just as a builder begins with a plan to construct a building, we need our own blueprint. The builder will start with the foundation, then build in the frame that will hold the structure up. We need to devise a plan that will provide our students with a solid foundation for their learning and the scaffolding -- or supports -- that will help them get where they need to go.

My end goal for literary analysis is that students will be able to identify author purpose and the techniques used to achieve that purpose. I want students to be able to select and embed effective textual evidence to support their points, and I want them to be able to confidently present their analysis in both oral and written form.  All of my activities and lessons will focus on leading them up the steps toward these end goals.

Teaching students to analyze textI never begin with the hard stuff. I've taught with teachers who wear rigour like a badge of honour, believing that starting with difficult, complex texts will set expectations right from the beginning. This isn't a strategy that works for me; in fact, I think it frustrates, rather than motivates students, and it usually doesn't provide much scaffolding.

Instead, I like to begin my classes - or any new unit - with easily accessible and highly engaging material.  If students enjoy what they are reading, it's much easier to get them to dig a little deeper into it.  Since I want them to identify author purpose and technique,  I look for short, interesting pieces of non-fiction where the writer has used a variety of ways to develop a thesis, ones where they have moved beyond just examples and statistics to the use of analogy or figurative language to push an idea. Always, we look at word choice and its effect.

I do the same with independent reading. Each day we do a short mini-lesson on how authors create meaning, perhaps how they use metaphor. I show them a mentor text; then, they will look for similar techniques in the books they are reading.  They will either write a short reflection or discuss what they've found with a partner. It's all really low stakes -- rarely for a mark -- so students  can learn without the stress of a poor result.

Teaching students to analyze text
When we focus on covering a certain number of texts, rather than on skill attainment, we tend to rush so we can get it all in by semester's end. I've done this too many times, sacrificing good teaching to the ticking clock and turning calendar page.

Teaching students to analyze textNow, regardless of the genre I use, the focus is on the skills the students need to build, not on the text itself. If students can identify how a metaphor affects meaning in a news story or a song, they should be able to do so in a piece of classic literature too. So, I focus on the skill, find accessible texts to teach them that skill, and then use a gradual release of responsibility to transition them into analyzing more difficult texts. You can read more about this process on a post I wrote called, Teaching Students to Analyze Text.

Before I ask students to become more independent, I do a short lesson on note-taking and  using post-it notes effectively. I've written about this before (check it out here), and can't stress enough how important this is. We can't just expect kids to know how to take notes, how to discern what's good to remember and what isn't. Taking part of a class to teach them good note-taking skills is time very well spent.
Teaching students to analyze text
One of the most important steps in teaching my kids to analyze lit, is setting an environment that allows them to do so. As I said earlier, this stuff is hard, and kids hate to be "wrong" in front of their peers. Therefore, we need to create a climate where they feel safe to make an educated guess, to put forward theories and to be "wrong." In order to do this I work hard to show them that there usually is not one "right answer." In fact, complex texts should be open to multiple interpretations. In order to do this, you need to consider how you respond to student comments. It's so natural to say "that's right" or "great answer",  but comments like "that's an interesting observation. Can you (or anyone else) add to that?"  or, "that's a great point. Does anyone see it differently?" will encourage students and promote the idea that multiple interpretations are desirable.

I start this process by modelling my own thinking when I see a difficult text for the first time. I'll put a poem or a passage on the smart board, and highlight and underline, question and comment. I do all of this in front of the students. I'll put forth a theory:  I think the author is suggesting... however, I'm not quite sure how this image/idea/point fits in. What do you guys think?  This last question is so important. I --the teacher-- am asking their advice. I'm not certain and I need to collaborate to get closer to an answer. I will also encourage them to disagree with me -- and to provide proof for why they do.

We also spend a lot of time fostering effective group discussions. I put one group in a circle in the middle of the room and give them a topic to discuss, something from the literature we are studying. We start the discussion and I model what good group work looks like. Then we switch it up and try it with another group. I encourage debate and say things like: I agree with Andrew's point and I'd like to add... Or, I might say I can see why you'd think that, but consider this... Mostly, I encourage kids to use more textual evidence to back up their points.
Teaching students to analyze text
I do a lot of group work when kids are learning to analyze text. They are expected to come to class with notes they take while reading. Then, I put them together and let them hash it out. The question is always the same: what's the purpose of this chapter/scene/section  and how doe the author achieve it?  The group meeting allows them to have exploratory discussion, so they can "think it out." They discover what they know and what they need to figure out. They ask lots of questions. They pull ideas together while building on each one. They refute each other's ideas in order to fine-tune  their thinking on the ideas in the text.

While students have these discussions, I wander from group to group. Mostly I just listen, but if theyWhy do you think that? What evidence is there in the text? Or, have you considered this? I never answer these questions; I just keep prodding. I aim to be part of the conversation, not the director of it.  It can be really hard not to jump in and give them an answer when they are struggling, but they will learn so much more if you just push and prod, without giving them one -- and they will be so excited when they get it on their own.
aren't jumping into an idea that needs more discussion, I'll ask some prodding questions:

If however, they just can't get it, or I notice that they have veered too far off the path, I 'll give them something to consider, a clue. I'll tell them to think about it and come back to them later. If they still haven't figured it out, I'll give them another clue. If they still can't get it, I will direct them more specifically.

After the group work, we always reconvene and have a full class discussion. At that point, I already know which group has come up with some insightful observations and so I can direct the discussion by asking them to contribute their ideas. However, I don't usually start with that group. I'll first ask a group that's kinda there and then ask the other group what they can add. It's a little manipulative, but the class feels like they're working together rather than me just filling in the blanks for them.  And this goes back to the first question--they know I'm never going to stand at the front of the class and give them the answers. They know they have to work to find them. Because of this, I think it's more likely that they might actually do some of the work.

After we've done enough of these activities, students will have to show me what they've learned in an assessment. I always start with something short -- maybe a paragraph that analyzes a quote or a character -- and give them some formative feedback. Then, when I think they're ready, we will write a literary essay.

There's nothing more satisfying than helping a kid find success in an area that they find difficult. They may never come to love the process of analyzing lit, but they sure will find pride in knowing that they can.  I've got a ton of exercises and activities that I use to get my kids to think about texts. You'll find a lot of them here on my blog and also in this bundle of Critical Thinking Activities for Any Text.

How do you help your kids build the skills they need for literary analysis? I'd love to hear all about it in the comments!


Writing Pokes: The Perfect Tool for Review & Differentiation

We all know that kids need a lot of practice and reinforcement with writing skills. We also know that they all don't need to practice the same ones.  The trick is finding a way to help our students attain the skills that they need as individuals. But how can we keep them all working ahead without boring some students and frustrating others?

I decided to create some Writing Pokes, task cards that I can pull out while students are working on their writing. These pokes focus the students on one task at a time, so they can target a skill and not get overwhelmed with the revision process. The back of each card has a brief reminder of the term/skill in the poke. For example, a card from my free Essay Structure Pokes might ask the student to look over his/her introduction. The back of the card lists ways that they can lead into a thesis. These reminders are brief, and students may have to refer to their notes for further instruction, but it's a great starting point, one that allows the students to work more independently.

These pokes are a great tool for differentiation: you know that Jonathan has trouble writing thesis statements, Carly never has a topic sentence in a paragraph, and Thomas has mastered the basics, so it's time for him to experiment with his diction. When these students are writing, you can quickly instruct them all by giving each one a poke that focuses him/her on the skill they need to improve. Jonathan gets one that reminds him to check his thesis statement, Carly will work on creating topic sentences, and Thomas will get out the thesaurus and make more effective word choices.

In order to use these effectively, I have a series of tracking forms, with columns that match the skills I want students to master. For example, one of my Sentence Fluency forms lists different types of phrases that I'd like my students to experiment with. When one of my students illustrates that s/he knows how to use an appositive, I check that off. When I want them to revise, I'll look at the forms and see where there are areas of weakness, pull out a corresponding poke, and give it to the student. Your brain might work differently than mine, and you might prefer to check the column in an area where the student needs work. Regardless, it's an important step for tracking the skills of each student.

You can also use these pokes after you've taught a lesson on certain concepts that you want students to work on in their writing. Let's say you've just taught a lesson on word choice. You want kids to review what they've learned, so you pass out pokes for practice. You could give part of the class a poke that instructs them to use a metaphor in their writing, while other students are given one that asks them to use tactile imagery. Yet another group could be working on choosing the best word for the job. After they've had time to do as the poke instructed, they could trade cards with other students.

There are many ways that you can use these pokes --there are even editable cards so you can create your own. Check out my free Essay Structure Pokes and see what you think.

Happy teaching!


Teaching Speaking & Listening Skills

We English teachers spend a lot of time teaching our kids to read and write, but I'm not sure that most of us (myself included) spend as much time explicitly teaching speaking and listening skills. Most times, we just assign a speech, presentation or debate and just kind of expect that our students will know what to do at the time. Or, we might just give a short review of the things they should do: maintain eye contact, speak slowly and clearly, use your voice and body for emphasis. 

I know, that that's pretty much all I ever did until the last couple of years, and I was often disappointed with my students' presentations. More recently, I've come to accept that I was a big part of the problem.

I've always used lots of informal presentations in class, so kids could practice. I would give them an issue or topic to discuss, hand out chart paper and markers, and instruct them to record their ideas on the paper. Later, each group would take turns presenting their ideas. They would have a poster that was not well organized or easy to read -- completely useless for the audience. However, they used the poster for themselves as a giant notepad: each speaker would turn from the audience toward the chart paper, and read off their portion of the presentation.

It was not engaging. And it was all my fault.

These skills would carry over to their formal presentations: poorly constructed slideshows and lots of reading from the screen. I decided it was time for me to start explicitly teaching speaking & listening skills and now I build time into my instruction to do just that.  Read on to see what I did this week with my kiddos:

So, on Monday, after my kids had passed in their latest writing assignment, I launched into my Disney unit, one of my favourite lessons to get them thinking about the world around them. This lesson points out the gender and racial stereotypes that occur in many of the older Disney movies, and then gets the kids to evaluate whether or not they've improved with newer ones. I told them that I was going to present some ideas that they may whole-heartedly agree or disagree with. Because it was also a listening exercise, I instructed them to write these points down in their notes, and to record examples that would support my points -- or refute them.  I explain that they will need these notes for the discussions and activities that we will do as a class later.

Now because these are tenth graders who have not had a lot of experience with note-taking, I pause after the first few major points that I make, and ask them: what kinds of things did you write down?  If I think they're taking notes on unnecessary info, I'll tell them, and we'll discuss why. I will also pause every now and then and remind them to write down examples that support or refute my points.

Depending on the class, I may ask them to pass these notes in.  When they know that I'm looking at them, then they are much more likely to do so. This group is pretty keen, though, so knowing they'd need the notes for later was enough.

After my lesson, I told the kids that I wanted them to discuss their responses in groups -- reassuring that it was very ok to disagree with me. However, I wanted them to make sure that during their discussions the were adding to my points with more examples, or refuting them with different ones. I also wanted them to bring the discussion into other areas of the media, not just Disney.

Once they'd had a chance to debate, I asked each group to pick an element of the media or pop culture, other than Disney, that promotes positive or negative messages to teens. I made sure each group was covering a different topic; then, instructed them to plan a short presentation for the rest of the class to share their ideas and observations. When I passed out the paper and the markers, I pointed out that the purpose of the paper is for the audience: it should have a title with their topic followed by bullet points that highlight what they want to tell the group. Heads nodded in agreement.

And then they all started writing their notes on the paper.

I stopped them mid-tracks and asked  them to repeat what I'd told them about the posters. They responded perfectly. But their chart paper told a different story.

"OK," I said. "flip that paper over. Titles and bullets only."

They complied, but it was a struggle, because they were fighting against old habits. Hard.

At that point I passed out the index cards that I had for them, and told them that each person should write their own notes on the cards. They took a few minutes to sort that out and complete the task. Then, I asked each person to summarize the point that was written on the card in a short phrase or "title".

"That's your bullet point," I said. "It's just a guide for the audience to follow, not something for you to refer to. You should look only at your index card -- and the audience, of course."

Once we got that figured out, the posters took shape and became useful tools for the audience.

It was time to present.

But there was one more bit of instruction: I told the audience members to take note of things they agree/disagree with, so we could have a full class discussion after each group shared their ideas. This keeps them engaged and, of course, listening.

We only got through half of the groups today, but I was very pleased with the results. It took more work to get there, but the posters were good, the students faced the audience, and we had great debates after each one.  Next we have to work on the "OK ums..."

(Note: these are informal discussions, for skill building only. When it's time, we'll move onto more formal presentations, and at that time, I will include a section in the rubric for listening skills. I also have students evaluate each other during group discussions, so they know that their ability to listen and contribute is being assessed.)

I've also changed my lessons to include a lot more speaking opportunities for my students. You can read about how I use group discussions to introduce To Kill a Mockingbird here.

Happy teaching!